Ger­man pre­ci­sion, Ja­pa­nese in­no­va­tion, French savoir-faire, Thai cre­ativ­ity. We of­ten rec­og­nize coun­tries as brands that stand for some­thing – a USP – and we of­ten pull IT out of the case when we need help un­der­stand­ing a for­eign cul­ture or a cul­tural out­put. They are a quick-sketch di­rec­tion for nav­i­gat­ing an un­fa­mil­iar ter­ri­tory, giv­ing cre­dence to our ex­pec­ta­tions even be­fore we have ac­tu­ally made con­tact. If you plan to buy a watch, you would prob­a­bly go through the Swiss mod­els first, or if you’re driv­ing a car, you might feel safer or more con­fi­dent in one that is Ger­man en­gi­neered.

The con­nec­tion be­tween a coun­try or a cul­ture and what it rep­re­sents is a very com­plex, of­ten ten­u­ous, as­so­ci­a­tion. There is for cer­tain that ker­nel of truth, that hard fact ba­sis for things be­ing thought of as such and such, but there is also a whole load of bi­ases, in­ter­pre­ta­tions, ex­pec­ta­tions, and be­liefs. How do you squeeze ‘Amer­i­can­ness’ into a few words? And more in­ter­est­ingly, why do we un­der­stand it when we see it?

It’s the 53rd birthday of Sin­ga­pore, and we have a lot to cel­e­brate as well as to pon­der. Sin­ga­pore has evolved as one of those coun­try brands with very strong as­so­ci­a­tions with pos­i­tive ideas – clean­li­ness, dis­ci­pline, moder­nity, ad­her­ence to the rule of law.

As we now know, a brand is like a sharp knife that can harm or pro­tect de­pend­ing on the way it is used. In his in­sight­ful es­say about brand Sin­ga­pore, brand­ing ex­pert and au­thor Koh Buck Song ob­serves that, “the down­side of a coun­try brand be­ing a port­fo­lio is that any­thing and every­thing can be­come per­ti­nent…. Pol­i­cy­mak­ers may make the mis­take of think­ing that mar­ket­ing a coun­try is some kind of self-con­tained ac­tiv­ity – which is what es­sen­tially hap­pens when a na­tion brand is of­ten seen as the purview of the coun­try’s tourism body or in­vest­ment pro­mo­tion agency”.

I’ve not been to Bora Bora but if the chance ever comes up, I would know ex­actly how to pack for the trip, and pic­ture with some ac­cu­racy what I would be do­ing at three in the af­ter­noon, where I would be sit­ting, and what I would ask to drink.

Have fun read­ing this is­sue!

ED­I­TOR-IN-CHIEF marc@me­

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