Winning people's hearts and minds the subject of book and conference on public diplomacy

Winning Hearts And Minds: Public Diplomacy In Asean brings together essays by diplomats, researchers and those specialising in public relations in Asean. PHOTOS: SINGAPORE INTERNATIONAL FOUNDATION, ST FILE

SINGAPORE - The desire to win hearts and minds has seen Indonesia's Foreign Ministry calling on newspaper editors at home to repost its social media messages.

It has also led Cambodia to allow cruise ship MS Westerdam - with more than 2,000 passengers and crew - to dock after it was turned away by four other countries amid fears of coronavirus cases on board.

In a fast-moving digital age, countries can no longer ignore engaging their citizens in dialogue or the people-to-people ties that transcend national borders.

The global pandemic has further shown that many crises cannot be tackled alone and that international goodwill matters.

This subject, public diplomacy, is at the centre of a book launched by the Singapore International Foundation (SIF), a not-for-profit organisation that has spent the last 30 years forging non-state ties between countries.

Winning Hearts And Minds: Public Diplomacy In Asean brings together essays by diplomats, researchers and those specialising in public relations in Asean. They discuss how each of the 10 South-east Asian countries has adapted its way of managing its soft power while building a cohesive national identity that ethnically diverse citizens can subscribe to amid fierce international currents.

A discussion of the book by the contributors on Monday (July 26) opened a wider conference, held by the SIF.

The Public Diplomacy in Asia conference will run until Friday, and feature 40 public diplomacy experts from 15 countries. This is the first time it is being held.

Although the nuances of public diplomacy have been more comprehensively studied in the West, the topic has historical roots here, said Associate Professor Alan Chong of the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, who is one of the book's contributors.

The need for public diplomacy can be seen, for instance, in the agitation by the Chinese, Malay and Indian populations for political rights during the colonial era, he said.

They did so often with an eye on developments in their home countries, showing how foreign ideas can be woven into Singapore's discourse, he added.

These links have since been both a challenge and an advantage for Singapore, as social and emotional ties held by its citizens with other countries can be used to shape its soft image, Prof Chong said.

"When you start to unpack the notion of public diplomacy, you really are digging into the history, the social composition, the social evolution of societies," he said.

"Most of our states were colonial creations, so in order to become the kinds of post-colonial national states that we are today, we have had to create discursive fences - stories, words, concepts and slogans to ensure that people understand that we are who we are."

He added that the Singapore Government's job is to "police" the diverse narratives put forward by non-state actors. "It is to remind the population of Singapore, multi-ethnic as it is, that we are Singapore, full stop.

"You may have Indian ancestry. You may have Chinese ancestry. You may have Malay ancestry, but at the end of the day, we all speak like Singaporeans."

Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan, who opened the conference, said what comes across in the book is that there is a greater need to have a clear and consistent message so that people can sieve the truths from the untruths in the digital age.

This can be achieved only if broad coalitions and networks are built between state and non-state actors, he added.

"Covid-19 has underlined the importance of public diplomacy to combat disinformation. We need networks to convey timely and accurate information to people to build public support," he said.

"We need new and meaningful ways to engage, we need partners across a wide spectrum... all of us need the humility and willingness to engage directly at a people-to-people level and a personal heart-to-heart level.

"Then we can put out what is accurate, factual, scientific and promote harmony and human welfare instead of sowing the seeds of division and doubt."

The public can download the PDF file of the book at the conference website after registration.

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