[This story first appeared in Koktail Magazine Issue 3.]
Illustration by Paola Dávila Zermeño
There are two words that inspire in me an odd mix of confusion and nausea, two words spouted by political bigwigs, state PR reps, Clubhouse quasi-celebs, and boomers striving to sound up-to-date, including none other than the prime minister himself, the duo of words that have completed that predictable trajectory from being underrated to extremely overused buzzwords in the space of a few months.
I cringe as I utter: “Soft power”. In quotation marks, please. Confusion and nausea, I said. Will you pass me the spittoon?
Try this: “We have many good software. I always stress the importance of software... No, sorry, I mean soft power, soft powerrr!” said PM Prayuth Chan-o-cha in April, riding on the coattails of the historic Coachella mango-sticky-rice stunt by rapper Danupha “Milli” Khanatheerakul, known at one time as a critic of the PM. Or this from government spokesman Thanakorn Wangboonkongchana: “The government has a policy to support Thai soft power and creative industry to become well-known worldwide. We congratulate Thai entertainers, filmmakers, and musicians who are building a bridge between Thai culture and the world.”
Then this from the Ministry of Culture: “We support Thai soft power through the 5 F’s: food, film, fashion, fighting, festival.” I won’t toy with any F-word joke, but using a lot of F’s is walking the tightrope, sir. And where is music, anyway? I thought this was said after the Milli phenom?
Of these empty declarations, at least the government managed, through a slip of the tongue, to use a better term: creativity; or in this regard, “the creative industry”; or in the jargon of most PowerPoint presentations, “the creative economy”. How each of us (and of the strait-laced bureaucrats) understands this vast and abstract term is an entirely different matter. Along with the frightening frequency of the term “soft power” being uttered in public comes a gaggle of self-appointed gurus on “soft power”, so I will try not to torment you too much with my own jabber, save for the fact that every time I hear people in the position of power drone on about creativity, they baffle and fill me with—rightly—confusion and nausea.
For one thing, what the state defines as creativity often means propaganda, a ploy to reinforce myths and conservative agendas, bedevilling “creativity” and turning it into an excuse for more patriotic songs or movies. For at least two decades, I have written about state censorship and blithe ignorance against some of the most creative minds of this nation: filmmakers, poets, rappers, visual artists, or any imaginative thinkers with a critical faculty. It thus smacks of hypocrisy now that all of a sudden everyone wants to support creative workers, and we should be talking about real creative workers who explore ideas and possibilities of making culture more open, more uninhibited, more critical, more accessible, and more in sync with global contemporaneity.
“Soft power” is not a policy. It’s an attitude. It’s a belief. And “creativity” is not a prescribed, top-down agenda typewritten on Saraban-14 font by bureaucrats who last watched a film in 1977. Creativity is a collective forest grown on organic soil, perhaps stinking of manure and bird shit, but totally free of poison. Can we at least agree on this first?
To foster creativity, easy: let the artists speak. Allow them freedom. Let them say whatever they want even though it’s something you don’t want to hear. Tough, but it’s the only way.
Okay, perhaps there’s a positive sign, thanks to Milli who has whipped up this current storm and prodded the policymakers to take things seriously and admit their past hypocrisy. On stage, live-streamed worldwide from Coachella, the teenage rapper, deliberately or not, unnerved those who once derided her. She played their own card: by plugging a very Thai dish, the creamy mango over sticky rice, with a mix of irony, subversion, and patriotism. That’s creativity. That’s also proof that creativity doesn’t only have to “uplift” or “promote”. Creativity can also upset, baffle, and question. When you promise to nurture creative people, you can’t have it halfway, meaning only when the artists are on the side of your ideology.
What Milli did and what other Thai artists have done in the past many years in the field of music, film, theatre, visual art, fashion, and literature is show that flowers can grow in the wilderness. Thai creative people have long pushed “soft power” to the world—Thai filmmakers at Cannes, Thai theatre troupes in Europe, Thai novels translated into English, and so on—without having to label themselves with that corny tag. These individual struggles point to another fundamental and yet often overlooked factor in the current campaign to promote Thai creativity: labour.
The idea of making Thailand a creative powerhouse will fall flat on its face if the issue of artists as workers entitled to labour rights and fair treatment is not part of the agenda. When Covid hit, filmmakers and visual artists wondered why their professions were not recognised by the government relief programmes. Are they not “workers” who contribute to society? Musicians struggled to stay afloat when bars were shut. Freelance writers and translators—unless you’re one of those few celebrity writers moonlighting on life-coach seminars and coining vacuous, meme-ready one-liners—cannot live a worry-free life of financial stability. Film crews complain about long hours on set, a jeopardising condition of their health and well-being.
Unless this is addressed in all seriousness, the dream of “soft power” is just empty talk. Without workers, there’s no creative work. Likewise, there’s a trap in the term “creative economy” when policymakers tend to value only creative endeavours that yield commercial return and forget about small people who work behind the scenes, who struggle to grow, who are still trying to make it, or who will never make it but still keep doing creative work. Our obsession with fireworks and success cases— Lisa Manoban of Blackpink, for instance—means we define “creative economy” only as when something sells, and sells fast and sells a lot, and not as an infrastructure designed to make sure that every element thrives. A system that promotes artists’ growth is necessary for the industry to sustain itself in the long term—think (finally this comes up) South Korea.
The culture of KPI and “return of investment”, another term that provokes nausea, is shaping state policy towards championing cash cows. And true, we need cash cows to oil the wheels and to maximise impact. We need art that sells in order to justify all this fancy talk— again, South Korea is an example. But when it comes to creativity, not everything that is not popular (or not popular now) is not worth championing.
Without grit and grind, the stars will never shine. All power, soft or otherwise, is built upon the hard ground made up of sweat, hurt, and failure. Only when this is understood, and only when freedom of creativity is guaranteed, can “soft power” be liberated from the quotation marks and begin to inspire something like pride and joy—rather than, you know, confusion and whatever.