Taylor Swift Shows Why Asia Must 'Shake It Off' As 'Sparks Fly' – Forbes

ASEAN summits tend to be disappointingly unproductive, even when officials aren’t squabbling about Taylor Swift.
Taylor Swift performs at Singapore’s National Stadium on March 02, 2024.
China’s deflation is intensifying. Japan is back in recession. North Korea seems to be girding for some kind of war. The current and former leaders of the Philippines are brawling. Thailand’s economy is contracting. Indonesia’s new president worries some global investors. And yet all anyone in Asia can seem to talk about is Taylor Swift.
As the pop music sensation works through her six-concert residency in Singapore, Southeast Asian leaders are acting like a bunch of MCs engaged in the geopolitical equivalent of a rap battle. And in ways that tell a bigger—and out-of-tune—story of what’s wrong in one globe’s most promising economic regions.
The source of this bad blood, of course, is Singapore scoring an exclusive arrangement with Swift to confine the Southeast Asia leg of her wildly lucrative Eras Tour to the city-state. That deprives rabid fans in Jakarta, Kuala Lumpur, Manila and elsewhere of seeing Swift perform locally. “Swifties” are forced to travel to Singapore, which benefits from the transport, hotel bookings, spending at restaurants, bars, shopping arcades, you name it.
Philippines lawmaker Joey Salceda led the charge to question the propriety of Singapore’s deal, saying it “isn’t what good neighbors do.” Thailand’s newish prime minister, Srettha Thavisin, had also looked into the arrangement, and pledged to offer tax incentives and other sweeteners to ensure his nation becomes a regional hub for mega-concerts.
Fair enough, until the rancor spills over into a gathering of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations leaders.
Granted, the March 4-6 ASEAN-Australia “special summit” held in Melbourne wasn’t your typical assemblage of 10 countries. Especially since Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong found himself facing Swift-related questions.
“A deal was reached and so it has turned out to be a very successful arrangement,” Lee said. “If we had not made such an arrangement, would she have come to someplace else in Southeast Asia or more places in Southeast Asia? Maybe, maybe not.”
Or would Swift have bothered to play Southeast Asia at all? Hong Kong is still smarting over her failure to perform there last month before or after her shows in Tokyo.
It was a rough January and February for Hong Kong, which began the process of enacting a controversial national security law that many worry goes further to remake the city in Beijing’s image.
Lionel Messi was just another spectator at Inter Miami’s preseason friendly in Hong Kong.
All most Hongkongers seemed able to talk about, though, was fury over soccer great Lionel Messi remaining on the bench as his team Inter Miami played an exhibition match there. And, of course, Swift taking a pass on Hong Kong while she and Messi played in neighboring Japan.
Before we go on, can Singapore really be blamed here for a savvy business decision? The rest of ASEAN simply failed to get off the sidelines.
And yet, ASEAN’s inability to, well, “Shake it Off” as “Sparks Fly,” as Taylor sings in two of her most popular tunes, over Singapore’s financial duet with a pop superstar tells a bigger story.
It’s a reminder that for all the ooh-rah-rah chatter about ASEAN brotherhood (and sisterhood), Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam all too often compete more than they cooperate.
And that’s a downer given the magnitude of the challenges making the region’s 2024 a wildcard on all too many levels.
Start with China’s dud of a National People’s Congress taking place in Beijing this week. Xi’s team is already having to defend its 5% growth target for 2024 as plausible, especially since it offered all too few policies to achieve it. All the while, China’s property sector is cratering, deflation becoming more ingrained and youth unemployment is at record highs.
Over in Japan, the Bank of Japan is contemplating an end to 24-plus years of zero interest rates while the economy is contracting. Germany is stumbling along, reminding Asia that Europe isn’t much help as a destination for manufactured goods. In the U.S., the multiple Federal Reserve rate cuts everyone was so sure of are on hold.
Never mind the ways in which lead up to the Nov. 5 U.S. election may stress-test ASEAN economies. President Joe Biden’s efforts to limit Chinese access to semiconductors and other vital technology are one thing. Donald Trump’s threats of a 60% tax on all Chinese goods are something entirely more dangerous for Asia’s exporters.
Former President Trump, who’s gunning for the Republican nomination, also proposes a 10% across-the-board tariff on all goods entering the U.S. Add in the ways China might retaliate, and it’s not hard to see how Southeast Asia might soon find itself trampled by brawling economic giants.
ASEAN leaders pose for another family photo in Melbourne on March 6, 2024.
Thing is, ASEAN has always been a strange beast. It combines democrats, communists, military governments and a sultanate purporting to speak with a common voice. In reality, it’s as dysfunctional as families get. ASEAN summits tend to be disappointingly unproductive, even when officials aren’t squabbling about Taylor Swift.
Leaders get together, agree narrowly on the precious few things they can, make nice for the cameras, craft vaguely worded communiques, promise to pursue a shared future for 660 million people and then fly home to do their own thing.
To make ASEAN more than background music, the bloc could create a genuine free-trade zone. It could go further to harmonize customs, regulatory and tax systems, curb limits on migration, clamp down on money laundering and, where appropriate, share security intelligence. Why not devise ways to link bond, stock and currency markets? Pooling some foreign-exchange reserves could act as an economic shock absorber.
The Swift/Singapore dustup is hardly responsible for the ASEAN rancor in Melbourne. But it does highlight the “Blank Space,” to riff on another favorite Swift song, that too often seems to signify the grouping’s lack of accomplishments in a chaotic global climate.
ASEAN can do better. But, again riffing off Swift, the mindset must be more “You Belong to Me” than “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together.”

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