Thai Soft Power: Does it really exist?
An elephant-printed pants (Kang-Keng Chang), an inhaler (Ya-Dom), Thai Boxing (Muay Thai) or Thai fried noodle (Pad-Thai), play an important role as Thailand’s image and become popular things among tourists from all over the world for very long time. However, they have been recognized as a souvenirs or food that can be easily found in the tourist attraction. Until the appearance of Mango with sticky rice (Khaw Niew Ma-muang) in Coachella by Thai rapper Milli, Grilled meatballs from street vendors (Look-chin Yuen Kin, or Thai Barbecue (Moo Kratha) by Thai K-Pop idol Lisa BLACKPINK, or Thai student uniforms by Chinese Idols have revived the popularity of Thai images again, together with the word “Soft Power” and an attempt to show that those mentioned above are tools to make Thai culture spread and be accepted by foreigners. But do we really understand the definition of soft power, and can those Thai stuffs become weapon to strengthen Thai culture and income?
Understanding “Soft Power”
The concept of “Soft Power and “Hard Power” was developed by Professor Joseph S. Nye, an American political scientist from John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University. It has been defined as the use of cultural influence and social value from a group of people to make others want to do what they have seen, while “Hard Power” refers to the use of political or economic power to force people to do what the leaders want. Soft Power is “the second aspect of power-which occurs when one country gets other countries to want what it wants-might be called co-optive or soft power in contrast with the hard or command power of ordering others to do what it wants.” It can be simplified as “an ability to make other want and accept what you want”. The most important point of soft power is the attraction and appreciation that causes the satisfying acceptance without any compulsion or pressure, because people tend to reduce the refusion when they don’t consider those things as an enemy. Some people still understand Soft Power as the cultural promoting. Soft Power, on the other hand, is the power of persuasion consisting of some parts of culture using for driving the strategies to encourage the economic growth in that country.
One of the most powerful Soft Power
Which can be obviously seen is K-Pop culture. We cannot deny that every time we watch Korean series, the dinning scene and all foods on the table make our mouthwatering, even we have never known its taste before. The clothes worn by characters make us want to dress like that. Or even the places where they appeared on scene make us want to go there, too. These are things that films, or series want to express us directly. They just intervene them in the media and entertainment businesses, and export to many destination countries, including Thailand. Since the 2005 appearance of Korean historical drama Dae Jang Geum,
the story of young apprentice cook who strived to learn the secret of Korean cooking and become the first royal female physician during the Chosun Dynasty, the variety of Korean dishes had been introduced to Thai audiences, and several Korean restaurants had been launched in Bangkok. It may be recognized as the early success of Korean Soft Power. And If we still remember Korean television series Itaewon Class (2020),
one of Park Sae Royi (leading charactot) ‘s favorite dish called “Sundubu-jjigae” became famous for a while at that time. A lot of websites share the recipe and ingredients, a lot of Youtubers show how to cook it on their videos, some Thai series’ fans cook it at home, as we can see some photos posted in social media platforms. Recently, the notorious Neflix Original Korean series “Squid Game” (2021) became phenomenon all over the world, and from this series, we perceived several things as a Soft Power unexpectedly. A lot of gamed shown in series became real events in many countries. The sales of white Vans Slip-on worn by most characters had been increased more than 7,800% in two weeks, right after the streaming, without any Tie-In.
The Dalgona candy (hard-boiled sugar candy) had been shared its recipe via several online platforms. Not only those mentioned above, a lot of Korean dish from many series such as barbecue, noodle, Hotpot, Bingsu, and other kinds of dishes become a part of our meal, with different range of price, from dining in restaurants to take-away convenient stores. The information from The Straits Time has been shown that in 2021, an export rate in Korean media contents was 10.08 billion dollars, which was increased from 2019 at 610 million dollars or 6%. We cannot dispute that Soft Power is one of an important factor to increase the economic GDP growth in Korea.
Thai-To-Be Soft Power
Alike in Thailand, we always present our country to tourist as” rich of culture and long history”. But when the interview from Lisa BLACKPINK that her favorite snack when she was young was Street food meatballs (Look-chin Yuen Kin) at Burirum Train Station had launched to the media, everyone wanted to try it, and finally became the tourist campaign for Burirum. Then, on April 17, 2022, young female Thai rapper Milli performed in Coachella in California, with her rhymes “Thai people don’t ride an elephant.” and ate mango with sticky rice on stage. The sales of this Thai dessert in Thai market has been increased. In the same year, Lisa got back to Thailand and visit a Thai Barbucue (Moo Kra-ta) restaurant in Chok Chai 4 with her family.
On the next day, this restaurant was crowded with people waiting in the long line just as eating in like their favorite artist. From these incidents, many Thai people (especially those who were from the government sector) tried to call this phenomenon as “Thai Soft Power” by expressing their idea that those events moved the awareness of Thai people toward Thai culture via food. Recently, there has been a viral that many Chinese celebrities wear Thai student uniform taking photos in many places. They led to the attentiveness of the government sector, hoping and trying that these would drive the economic sector. Several cultural departments had developed their policy by aiming to show “Local identities” or “5F” to food industry, films industry, fighting industry (which should correctly be “Martial arts), festival industry, and fashion industry.
However, the idea that the government tried to propose makes us question like “Do the government sector clearly understand the concept of Soft Power?”, because many policies about Soft Power from several sectors, or the opinion of those who are involved reflect the limitation of the concept and operation of Soft Power. Like it was mentioned above, Soft Power will be powerful by the “attraction”, “appreciation”, and “acceptance”. Everything expressed as Soft Power must not be forced to get, or do. It connotes with the social value and liberalism, which emphasize on freedom, willing, and individual) The perception of Thai government to Soft Power is just the “cultural tools” to promote tourism and trading. Soft Power, in this term, aims to attract the tourist money, but not the sustainable appreciation and acceptance. Moreover, compared with Korea, the entertainment sectors don’t have any strong policies to promote things called Thai Soft Power. We hardly see the authentic Thai foods on scenes in Thai series. Everything shown in the set must be only sponsors’ products and look over reality. Also, there is another question that everyone may wonder, “Will Thailand create Soft Power and when will it succeed?”. Of Course, It might not have exact “Yes” or “No” for this question since every sectors concerned don’t understand the concept clearly. In addition, the limitation from the old-fashion policy is the obstacle for promoting things FREELY. For example, Ministry of Culture disallows some horror computer games to add the Thai dance postures on the scene, just because the non-sense reason that the players will fear Thai dance postures.
Another example is when many Chinese wear Thai-student uniforms, some lawyers said that it is illegal to do that, without considering on their intention. Or while the Korean fashion seem to be acceptable in many cultures, some Thais still concern that the young generation will lose their identities because they receive “too much foreign cultures”. The government only scope the export of Thai culture as Thai dance, Thai food, or even Thai rural lifestyle. These outdated mindsets may not lead our Thai culture to be one of World’s Soft Power. Certainly, Thai culture can be only represented as Thai products, which may be viral in some times, and cannot be enabled to build and economic advance if the authorities lacks the effort to understand the concept and context of Soft Power without bias. So, the next question we have should not focus on how to promote Soft Power, but we should focus on how to make the people who are responsible for it have a broad mind.