Brand Singapore: How Nation Branding Built Asia’s Leading Global City

Koh Buck Song
Apr 20, 2011

For its relatively short history and small land area, Singapore’s range of nation branding efforts is ambitious, concerted and seemingly ceaseless. Its desire to establish and seal its reputation as a leading global city has translated into strategic public diplomacy initiatives that span and encompass practically every sector of its economy and society. This intensive repertoire of public diplomacy is captured in Koh Buck Song’s latest book, Brand Singapore: How Nation Branding Built Asia’s Leading Global City.

Before delving into Singapore’s nation branding, Koh gives an overview to the subject which the uninitiated will find useful. He defines branding as the aggregation of conscious and deliberate actions undertaken to influence perceptions and generate awareness, with nation brands typically incorporating public diplomacy into branding strategies. Aptly, he calls nation branding “the lifeblood of any nation”, because it has the capacity to boost the economy, attract talent and improve the quality of life. Nations that can brand themselves well, he concludes, gain an added comparative advantage which can make up for shortcomings, which in Singapore’s case is its small size.

State-led efforts make up the bulk of Singapore’s nation branding, so Koh devotes the first section of the book to an examination of this key aspect. Singapore’s nation branding mainly began when it achieved self-governance in 1959, when it faced primary challenges that included a lack of natural resources, political instability, and unskilled workforce. The Economic Development Board was thus established to attract foreign investment and Koh carefully chronicles the evolution of Singapore’s nation brand through the plethora of public diplomacy responses to these limitations.

By charting Singapore’s numerous reinventions over the years, he shows how the attention to branding lavished by the state was geared towards boosting its gross domestic product, as is nearly every public policy decision in the island nation. This is where he offers up a mindboggling array of initiatives that range from tourism campaigns, to the hosting of major international events like the Formula One Grand Prix, to the export of expertise to countries like China, and the recent opening of two integrated resorts. He analyzes successful brand positionings like the “Garden City” identity, where the clean and beautiful urban landscape was a metaphor for its spotless reputation and highly regulated economic environment, to entice potential investors. Furthermore, in his exploration of Singapore’s various paradigm shifts, he shows how the transition to the “City in a Garden” concept redefines the idea of an urban landscape in a natural setting while aligning with the global trend of growing environmental consciousness. 

For a country that depends on citizens as a key resource, Singapore surprisingly comes up short in promoting its homegrown enterprises. This is typically overlooked in favor of positioning Singapore as an attractive location for multinational companies and foreign investors. Using Singapore Airlines as a successful model, Koh shows how its cohesive brand identity contributed to its continued success, evidenced by its multiple accolades that have consistently placed it among the world’s best airlines. This is in contrast to other thriving local brands that Koh opines have not highlighted their Singaporean roots as compellingly. The onslaught of globalization may even dilute the Singaporean element in homegrown businesses, especially with foreign ownership or migration of labor. More attention to internal, rather than external branding is thus one major area that Koh suggests needs more work.

Another important issue the book addresses is Singapore’s efforts to boost its soft power. Known more for its hard power, the republic is now trying to change perceptions with the “Renaissance City Plan”, a national initiative dedicated to creating a world-class cultural and entertainment district. No longer a “cultural desert”, arts and cultural events are now in abundance, matched by the requisite infrastructure development to support this industry. Likewise, Koh also examines Singapore’s cultural capital and its lack of global influence and audience. He argues that local cultural products like films and literature have the capacity to deliver insight into a country’s way of life, clarify misconceptions, and ultimately propel its soft power in the international arena. With little often heard about Singapore-made cultural output, Koh’s enlightening account in this area truly expands our notions of Singapore beyond the strict regulations, stable environment and economic prowess that it is most known for. 
Finally, Koh studies the power and persistence of old stereotypes, or “brand keloids” as he terms them. For Singapore, it is that unpleasant “nanny state” image that has been circulated countless times in the international media, an expression that embodies the pervasive reach and involvement of the state in daily life, its stringent laws and lack of openness. While there has been some loosening up over the years, there hasn’t been a corresponding mindset shift globally, which underscores the deeply entrenched nature of branding’s negative effects with which Singapore must grapple.

In considering the future of Singapore’s nation brand and the multiple reinventions it has undergone, Koh articulates a critical nation branding challenge for the state – that is, the people themselves and how they perceive their role as internal brand ambassadors. As the country re-envisions its nation branding with its latest slogan, “The Spirit of Singapore,” he emphasizes the truism that, in order for global perceptions of a country’s image to change, reality first has to change. Therefore, the words and actions of the government have to correspond, to form the basis of a successful nation branding campaign.

Brand Singapore is a comprehensive and well-researched compilation of Singapore’s nation branding efforts – covering both prominent case studies and shedding light on lesser known ones, while giving readers insight into the mechanisms and multifaceted nature of Singapore’s nation branding. While the book goes more for breadth than depth in its sheer number of examples, it is nonetheless a valuable and accessible introduction to the Singapore brand. 

Brand Singapore: How Nation Branding Built Asia’s Leading Global City

Marshall Cavendish Editions
ISBN: 978 981 4328 15 9
256 pages