In a world plagued with a deficit of dependency, Singapore reaffirmed the relevance and usefulness of its nation-brand by proving how it can be counted upon as a friend to all.
It was a historic summit between strongmen. For the first time in recent history, hope emerged for an end to saber-rattling, insults and threats of “fire and fury”. Most significantly, the summit promised to stave off a potential catastrophe of nuclear proportions for an entire region.
The Singapore Summit had committed America and North Korea to jointly "build a lasting and stable peace regime” and "to work toward the complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula."
At this year’s National Day Rally, Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong explained: “Why did the US and the DPRK choose Singapore to host the Summit? I think they considered us a serious and reliable partner.” He added: “We are friendly and straight with all parties. And both trusted us to have the infrastructure and capability to provide a safe and secure environment. It was a daunting task, but we rose to the challenge.”
The summit has been likened to the historic Oslo accords which were inked by Israel Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) leader Yasir Arafat in the early 1990s.
Amongst its achievements, the accords was the first formal mutual recognition between Israel and the PLO, specified a five-year roadmap for conflict between the Palestinians and the Israelis to be resolved, and affirmed that peaceful, bilateral negotiations would be the modus vivendi between the two territories.
Well recognised as the cornerstone of a hard-fought “peace process” between Israel and the PLO, the accords marked a leap of faith and Norway’s capital city of Oslo had served as its springboard.
Building a nation brand
Home to the Nobel peace prize, Norway has stridently rebuffed any polarisation from the extremist factions of its society in the face of repeated tragedies and attacks to the very heart of its national character, embodied by openness, tolerance and inclusiveness. As a nation-brand, Norway has always promised peace and the Oslo accords were one way for the country to deliver on this brand promise.
What has hosting this summit done for Singapore’s nation-brand?
Some analysts were quick to claim that Singapore had earned close to $800 million worth of media exposure. Others even went so far as to justify a 38-fold return on investment for the brand. Yet this paints an incomplete picture. In fact, through Singapore’s apex body for communication practitioners, the Institute of Public Relations of Singapore (IPRS), we became a signatory to the Barcelona Principles, an international accord which states unequivocally that such measurements do not reflect the true value of communication efforts.
Singapore’s Ambassador-at-large Professor Tommy Koh explained that beyond such transactional, financial indicators, the summit has been a boon for Singapore’s brand in global diplomacy. He said: “What has kept us on the international map is our ambition to be relevant and useful to the world. By hosting the summit, we are being useful to the world and helping the cause of peace.”
Brand Finance, an international brand valuation firm, ranked Singapore as the world’s strongest brand for three successive years. According to its Nation Brands 2016 report, this result was significant because of “the benefits that a strong nation brand can confer, but also the economic damage that can be wrought by global events and poor nation brand management.”
To that end, I would propose that Singapore’s nation-brand has been strengthened on at least three counts.
Brand strength 1: Trustworthiness
Firstly, the summit had offered Singapore a global stage to brand itself as a nation that can get things done; that as demonstrated in many previous occasions, Singapore will do what it takes to deliver on its commitments.
In his book titled “Can Singapore Fall?” former head of the country’s civil service Lim Siong Guan described Singapore as a nation brand that stands for trustworthiness: “a country and a people who honor our word.”
This is important because in a world plagued with a deficit of dependency even among allies, Singapore mustered the courage to do just the opposite. Chua Mui Hoong explained that in spite of the potential domestic and geopolitical backlash, Singapore had made a compelling presentation as a nation-brand that can be counted on as a “friend to all”. To which, Ambassador-at-large Ong Keng Yong called out the importance of demonstrating Singapore’s principled stance of neutrality, echoing what the country’s political leaders had previously affirmed.
In the face of harsh criticisms for Singapore’s warm welcome to the North Korean leader, Mr Ong stood firm: “We do have diplomatic relations with North Korea and we host many leaders from around the world whose policies people may find objectionable, but we have to show them all our hospitality".
Brand strength 2: Discretion
Secondly, the world had also seen how Singapore exuded a pair of impeccable qualities that are highly prized in the arena of diplomacy – discretion and humility.
In an earlier opinion piece, I cited several examples of how it has been in Singapore’s nature to exercise discretion in its conduct of foreign policy.
For instance, whilst ideas such as the ASEAN Free Trade Area and the Asia-Europe Meeting were conceived in Singapore, then-Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong had allowed other members of the regional grouping to take credit for these initiatives. Professor Koh was himself a strong proponent of ESM Goh’s “prosper thy neighbor” philosophy and who has on many occasions nudged Singaporeans “to be humble and modest”.
And in a clear indication of these qualities pertaining to Singapore’s hosting of this summit, one needs to look no further than PM Lee’s answer to CNN when he was asked point-blank about its importance to Singapore: “We are the host, we are the tea and coffee pourers.”
Brand strength 3: Candor
Finally, in spite of the summit’s success, it has never escaped Singapore’s perspective that everything could come to naught. And it is this rare quality of candor – which one should expect from a friend – that roots the country’s bold promises of dependability and humility to a prevailing sense of reality.
In his congratulatory note to President Trump and Chairman Kim, PM Lee described their joint statement as “a crucial first move in the long journey towards lasting peace and stability on the Korean peninsula."
After all, as noble as intentions have been for the Oslo accords, peace in the Middle East has been at best, elusive.
Yet despite these odds, at least the world now knows that it can count on Singapore as a nation-brand that can be trusted for its friendship and rectitude to deliver on its commitments.
The views expressed in this column are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect this publication's view, and this article is not edited by Singapore Business Review. The author was not remunerated for this article.
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Marcus Loh is Director, Asia Pacific Communication for global visual analytics firm Tableau Software. He was named a Linkedin Power Profile and was listed in Singapore Business Review’s top 10 “Notable Chief Marketing Officers under 40”. Marcus holds an M.S from Michael Smurfit Graduate Business School and won a scholarship for his second master’s degree from the Singapore Management University and Università della Svizzera italiana. He serves on various advisory capacities for academia and industry including, the Institute of Public Relations of Singapore, CMO Council, UOB-SMU Asian Enterprise Institute, Asia Enterprise Brand Awards, to name a few.