On The Bird Wire

Music as Soft Power

Students of political science and international relations are accustomed to the term ‘soft power’ as coined by Prof Joseph Nye of Harvard University. Soft power refers to factors such as values and cultures which are primary currencies in influencing world politics. This is opposed to notions of hard power, where the use of military force and coercion are paramount.

In this article for the Sunday Plus in Pakistan’s The Nation, Sofiah Jamil shares her views of how Junoon (commonly dubbed as the U2 of Pakistan) is by far one of the best examples of soft power. As the American poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, once said, “Music is the universal language of mankind.” Junoon’s songs have crossed linguistic and territorial boundaries far beyond the Indian sub-continent. Although the group disbanded in 2004, its music continues to be a shining beacon of peace and love.

The article was written in conjunction with Junoon’s 20th anniversary in 2011.

On The Bird Wire

Public Affairs: The “Software” of Emerging Middle Powers

A recent article on MH 370 by Richard Cronin from the Stimson Center noted how emerging markets have the ‘trappings’ of a developed country but remain deficient in other critical elements of a modern industrial state”. The article refers to this deficiency as a lack of the ‘software’ needed to help these emerging markets to “smoothly escape the “middle income trap”. The article lists a slew of governance related “software” that these emerging middle powers lack.

In addition to good governance and good economic policies, it is also important that these countries have good communication strategies and policies to help them move from (what some might perceive as) propaganda to public diplomacy. This does not mean simply having a ‘media arm’ or a “corporate communications” department that purchases advertisement space in magazines, organise product and policy launches, and pitch lifestyle stories to the press. It might be worthwhile considering the ‘radical’ possibility of having and allowing the public affairs/ public relations head to be part of the senior management decision making process and in the boardroom—at the heart of the decision making modes.

These days of putting out a well written press release (dotting your ‘i’s and crossing your ‘t’s at the right places) are over. The Public Affairs/Public Relations department of any organisation needs to go beyond this superficiality. It has to incorporate the following three elements in its communications strategies:

  1. knowing the political, social and economic environment of that you are working in;
  2. a strong awareness of the weight of your words; and
  3. being aware of the importance of good visual and non-visual communication.

Emerging markets and emerging economies need to realise that good work will go unnoticed if it is not talked about—modestly (commonly seen as an Asian way of doing things). More importantly, getting the right people to hear about the good work is crucial.

On The Bird Wire

Beyond Food for Fuel: The Little Red Dot in ASEAN-GCC Relations

“You have what we don’t have, and we have plenty of what you don’t have, so we need each other.”
– Dr Surin Pitsuwan, ASEAN Secretary-General, 2009

Speaking after the first meeting between foreign ministers from the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC),  Dr Pitsuwan was referring to the abundance of energy sources in the Arabian Gulf and the agricultural potential of Southeast Asia. Indeed, growing concerns over energy and food security have been a prominent topic in the discussions, which took place about a year after the global food crisis of 2007-2008. Given the fact that Gulf Arab countries imported 80% of their staple foods at a cost of $20 billion in 2008, they have shown an increasing interest in Southeast Asia’s fertile farmland. Conversely, Southeast Asian countries continue to demand more energy resources such as oil and liquefied natural gas (LNG) to facilitate their economic development plans.

Singapore, however, doesn’t fit neatly into this arrangement. While it does import a substantial amount of its energy resources from the Gulf, Singapore unlike its neighbours, does not have any natural resources to export. There are  3 main ways in which Singapore plays a significant role for the Gulf, and through that have the potential to enhance GCC- ASEAN relations.

 1) Despite the dearth of natural resources, Singapore provides commendable developmental policies and strategies based on cultivating human development.

This includes sound policies on comprehensive social infrastructure to ensure not just primary but advanced health care, and high education and living standards – and these are all key indicators for Human development. Other notable achivements have been Singapore’s ability to overcome water scarcity, and avoiding the formation of slums in the process of urbanisation. Hence its not natural resources that Singapore has to share with the Gulf but rather its human resources and technical expertise that is has built up since independence. There have been notable developments in recent years between GCC countries and Singapore. These include:-

 2) Singapore as a gateway for promoting further understanding engagement with the wider East Asian region.

This is due to several factors. Firstly, Singapore is one of the Asian tigers and maintains cordial links with China.Secondly, through Singapore’s Role in ASEAN, GCC countries would be able to have a better understanding of regional East Asian dynamics and architecture – such as the growing importance of ASEAN +3 (ASEAN member states and their Northeast Asian counterparts China, Japan and South korea) in addressing a series of challenges – such as pandemic outbreaks, disaster management and transnational crime. Thirdly, Singapore initiated the Asia Middle East Dialogue (AMED) in 2004 to promote inter-regional exchange and collaboration. While initial AMED meetings focussed on conventional areas of cooperation such as trade and traditional security concerns, Singapore has raised in subsequent meetings the importance of addressing transboundary challenges such as climate change, religious, ethnic conflict and pandemic outbreaks – all of which Singapore and other Southeast Asian countries would be able to share their experiences and concerns.

 3) Singapore’s on-going challenges – both at the regional and national level – also provide useful lessons

At the regional level, the different levels of economic development and governance capabilities of ASEAN states would make it difficult to address transnational issues, which can have adverse effects on Singapore.  Non– traditional security challenges such as the transboundary haze issue– stemming from forest fires in Indonesia– have adversely affected Singapore’s economy. Similarly, food and energy security issues demonstrate that Singapore’s security is intricately tied to regional security. This would be something for the GCC to think about if they really wish to extend their membership to countries which are less well off.

The issue of migrant workers is also an important area that is often swept under the carpet. Beyond economics, if there is to be any genuine GCC –ASEAN relations, it has to at some point address the inequalities related to migrant workers – who are an integral part of development in the Arabian Gulf as well as remittance for some Southeast Asian countries. Given the fact that ASEAN is made up of countries that are either supply or demand foreign labour, engaging countries in the region would be vital to understand various perspectives on the matter, including experiences that may have resonance in the Arabian Gulf.

In terms of challenges at the national level, while there is a high level of growth and development in Singapore, there is also a high level of income inequalities. In terms of cultural diversity, Singapore is a unique case study of a Muslim minority in the East for two main reasons. Firstly, there are nuanced differences compared to Muslim minorities in the West as Singapore Muslims operate in an Asian context. Secondly, Singapore Muslims, to some degree, are wired slightly differently because of the context that they are in vis-a-vis their Muslim-majority neighbours, Indonesia and Malaysia.

It is clear that while the “little red dot” is generally a glowing example of national development and political stability, and an advocate for cordial international ties, Singapore’s domestic limitations and regional vulnerabilities need to be recognised. The Gulf Arab region has the opportunity to learn both from Singapore’s achievements and its challenges. This constitutes not only a means to enhance development levels in the Gulf Arab states, but also a medium through which they can better understand the political and socio-economic dynamics of the East Asian region. In addition, , the importance of increasing inter-regional people-to-people contact should not be understated, as it serves to fill in gaps which conventional notions of development have failed to cover. Enhancing such ties would not only provide a means of approaching sensitive issues, but may also serve to “dispel negative stereotypes of each other. Such elements are therefore necessary in ensuring deep relations between the GCC and Singapore (and in extension GCC-ASEAN) beyond diplomatic missions and economic interactions.

This post is based on a book chapter in Asia-Gulf Economic Relations in the 21st Century: The Local to Global Transformation.

On The Bird Wire

From Propaganda to Public Diplomacy

In 2008, Joseph Nye wrote a piece entitled “Public Diplomacy and Soft power” published in the American Academy of Political and Social Science. Nye wrote about influence and power vis a vis the act of persuading—winning people over without the use of force. His article was written in the context of 9-11 and the war of terror. His article provides us with an in-depth look at government to public communications and looks at how culture and cultural institutions play an important role in establishing influence. This article is important for several reasons in a discussion about Public Diplomacy in today’s context—or more importantly, in today’s Asian context.

To engage, not propagate.

Unlike propaganda, public diplomacy, to Nye, has a genuine interest to engage its audience and to build a lasting relationship with its audiences. This relationship is to translate into an environment that is favourable for the publics to support whatever policies that the government is trying to promote. Many Asian countries are new to this idea of Public Diplomacy and especially how to engage the media in a meaningful way. Many “local” publications are state-owned. Yes, you can say that they are tools of propaganda. And therefore it also affects the way journalist and news makers interact.

The Journalist – News Maker Relationship has changed.

The journalist – news maker culture here is one that one where news makers are used to (and expect) be treated in a certain way. So now, as Asia rises and take centre stage in global politics, they have to learn to engage with the media in a more meaningful way. Asian governments and news makers will now need to “win over” or “influence” the publics (especially if it was dealing with the publics of a foreign country) rather than to assume that they are in a position of power once they are behind a podium addressing the masses.

[Side bar: indirectly, China’s heavy censorship laws on movies and the media has indirectly created an environment conducive its cultural industries to flourish and establish a certain influence over the rest of the world. Think about how nowadays, we see more Asian faces in Hollywood movies. And more importantly, the Asian actor is given iconic roles rather than the “Foo Man Choo” bad guy roles.] Even a country like Singapore, is also catching on to this idea and funds are being consciously channeled to the media industry to develop its soft power through the movies.

But having said that, Asia, Asian news-makers and policy makers have a long way to go to build its soft power influence in the world. We are currently behaving like a nouveau riche, still a bit rough on the edges.

[Photo credits: Roman Harak @ Flickr]

On The Bird Wire

Absurdity fuelling creativity

Amidst the tensions of the ardous search for MH 370, Bomoh Ibrahim Mat Zin has provided much amusement to the world. Unfortunately, despite his magnanimous offer to assist in searching for plane via supernatural means, his efforts have, by and large, been an embarrasment for Malaysia in more ways than one. Aside from misinforming updates on the crisis, it has also created mis-representations of Islam and Muslims in Malaysia.

Despite the absurdity, a positive spin on the developments would be the immense level of creativity amongst social media users, who have made light of the situation with various memes, edited/remix videos of the coconut rituals, parody Facebook pages and even the creation of at least 40 Raja Bomoh smartphone apps!

As the saying goes, “If life throws you lemons, make lemonade!”