The presence of the 19-year-old rapper Milli at the Coachella Music Festival in the United States has reinvigorated Thailand’s soft power ambitions — an area the Thai government has not fully explored nor exploited.
Milli, whose real name is Danupha Khanatheerakul, is the first solo Thai artist to perform at Coachella, a music festival that draws tens of thousands of fans annually. While on stage, she brought out a bowl of mango sticky rice and took a few bites while performing her new song, which included lyrics about corruption and the government.
Her performance may be linked to an increase in sales of the dessert in the country last week, showing the economic potential of an artist promoting Thai culture. Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-o-cha does not seem to be grappling with the impact of Milli’s performance. Last week, the government announced it would aim to register mango sticky rice as a Unesco cultural heritage. But the phenomenon is more than just mango sticky rice. It’s about how a young artist was able to advance Thailand’s soft power.
It is not that the government is clueless about “soft power”. For decades, governments have focused on presenting Thailand’s soft power to the world. However, that iteration of “soft power” mainly consisted of Thai customs and traditions such as food, costume, classical dance, Buddhism rituals and the wai.
These aspects of our cultural heritage, despite being charming to foreign tourists, are not sufficient to catapult Thailand’s into a stronger position in the global market. Thai cultural heritage has failed to catch up in the digital age, making it irrelevant to global citizens.
In the global market, people seek shared values across races, nationalities and geological borders. To present and market soft power, countries need to rely on those dynamics. Let’s take a look at some success stories here. The rising popularity of South Korean culture, called the “Korean Wave” or Hallyu, has motivated people worldwide to learn more about its culture, including its food and language. Consequently, the wave has attracted millions of tourists to the country.
Korean culture is mainly expressed through pop culture — the modern entertainment industry comprising music, movies, and dramas — which makes significant revenue for the nation through intellectual property and commodity sales. The economic effect has also spilt over into other industries, from tourism, IT, fashion to cosmetics.
The global success of the Korean Wave is epitomised by the rise of BTS, a K-pop group that has taken on iconic status. According to a Hyundai Research Institute study, the group makes an estimated 5.56 trillion won (169 billion baht) per year for South Korea’s economy.
The nation’s increased influence brought about by BTS’ popularity does not rely on marketing local customs and traditions.
Similar messages are heard in Coldplay’s music and rap stars like Drake and Jay-Z, who address racism and expose their weaknesses in songs that touch the hearts of fans worldwide — and eventually lead fans to explore more about the artists’ culture and places of origin.
Milli’s song also includes ideas relevant to international audiences. One of her songs openly discusses sexual consent.
Being relevant is one of the keys to increasing the nation’s presence among diverse populations. Once they feel relevant, they will find their way to dig deeper into the national culture, including costumes and historical places.
The cultural impact made by a young girl like Milli should make the government rethink its cultural promotion strategy. More support is needed for progressive Thai artists and innovators.
However, the entertainment industry is not the only sector that can increase the nation’s presence and influence.
Thailand must identify which sector it wants to be the best in and embrace expertise and good practices to attract and influence global citizens.
Being excellent in hospitality seems to be a realistic option, as tourism is already a backbone of the economy.
Can we invent the best service culture in which visitors are treated respectfully while travelling with safety?
Or can we create the most effective bureaucratic system that fosters innovation and creativity, and be a role model that the world wants to learn more about?
Finding values Thailand can share with the world is intrinsic to harnessing soft power.
The government must first kill its assumption that old traditions and customs are our only selling points. They aren’t, and they won’t be in the coming decades.