In a world plagued with a deficit of trust, 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, US President Donald Trump and North Korea’s Kim Jong Un. For the first time, 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 Oslo Accords were inked by Israel Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) leader Yasser Arafat in 1993 and 1995. The accords were the first formal mutual recognition between Israel and the PLO, specified a five-year roadmap for the conflict between the Palestinians and the Israelis to be resolved, and affirmed that peaceful, bilateral negotiations would be the modus vivendi between the two parties.
Widely recognized 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.
Home to the Nobel peace prize, Norway has stridently resisted polarization in the face of repeated tragedies and attacks from extremist factions of its society on the very heart of its national character, which is 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.
In the same spirit as the Oslo Accords, 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.”
During this year’s National Day Rally, Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said: “Why did the US and [North Korea] choose Singapore to host the Summit? I think they considered us a serious and reliable partner.”
How was Singapore’s nation-brand impacted by its hosting of the Trump-Kim meeting?
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 (having spent around $16 million on organizing the summit).
Yet these calculations paint an incomplete picture of what the nation-brand had gained. 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.
The true value of hosting this summit is in its boost to Singapore’s strength in global diplomacy.
Ambassador-at-large Professor Tommy Koh explained: “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 argue that Singapore’s nation-brand has been strengthened on at least three counts.
Firstly, the summit had offered Singapore a global stage to reaffirm its resolve to get things done; that as demonstrated on many previous occasions, Singapore will do what it takes to deliver on its commitments.
In his book, Can Singapore Fall?, Lim Siong Guan, the former head of the country’s civil service, said Singapore’s nation-brand stands for trustworthiness: “a country and a people who honor our word.”
In a world plagued with a deficit of trust even among allies, Singapore mustered the courage to do just the opposite.
Straits Times opinion editor 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 criticism of Singapore’s warm welcome of the North Korean leader, 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”.
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 for the Straits Times last year titled “In defense of Singapore’s chief naysayer,” I cited several examples of how it has been in Singapore’s nature to exercise discretion in its conduct of foreign policy.
Professor Koh was himself a strong proponent of Goh’s “prosper thy neighbor” philosophy and has on many occasions nudged Singaporeans “to be humble and modest”
For instance, while 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.
And in a clear indication of these qualities pertaining to Singapore’s hosting of this summit, one needs to look no further than Prime Minister 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.”
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 Trump and Kim, 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 the Oslo Accords may have been, peace in the Middle East has been, at best, elusive. Yet despite these odds, Singapore has proven to be a nation-brand that the world can trust for its friendship.