This may be a ‘grey’ period in Malta’s recent history, especially as it suffers yet another blow to its reputation in the eyes of the world.
However, as history has often shown us, Malta’s resilience, drive and creativity will help us through this patch, hopefully within the shortest possible time.
Despite the island’s remarkable economic growth over the last decade and the government’s adoption of liberal policies, especially where gay rights are concerned, there still appear to be gaping holes when it comes to how the world sees us on issues such as public governance, the country’s handling of the environment, education and respect for the free press.
Malta’s ranking in the World Press Freedom Index (2020) dropped another four places after it plunged 30 places in the previous two years. Something is not right here.
While Malta oozes potential and regularly boasts of being ‘the best in Europe’, it has remained conspicuously absent from Soft Power indexes such as those published by Monocle or Portland.
Yes, Malta can succeed! Contrary to popular belief, making it to the Soft Power rankings has less to do with the nation’s size and more to do with how countries govern and promote themselves. Some of the best performers are states not much bigger than Malta, such as Singapore (which at 728.3 km² is twice the surface of Malta), Norway or Switzerland.
To help create a debate on this subject, this article proposes eight strategic tips – or areas for improvement – which Malta should consider in order to address its Soft Power shortcomings.
1. Promote and reward good governance
Soft power is not just about creating a face abroad; the Maltese people must be happy with the Maltese ‘brand’ at home. Unfortunately, successive EU studies, such as the European Quality of Government Index (EQI), keep showing that Malta has still a lot to catch up with its North European partners where good governance is concerned. Governments in Malta are quick to legislate but poor performers when it comes to enforcement and leading by example.
2. Revitalise Malta’s diplomacy
Malta needs diplomats who stand out for all the right reasons; the best people it can muster to help the island stand its ground. A great diplomat is a person of many talents, a mix of historian, salesperson, host, politician and business brain, someone who can communicate well and help reduce tensions where necessary. Malta’s greylisting was also the result of possible shortcomings at the diplomatic level.
3. Promote Malta as a humanitarian haven
With an economy that generates tax-related revenues from so many foreign companies, Malta cannot afford to appear insensitive when it comes to offering a helping hand to countries in need. We must be open to help at any possible opportunity.
We need to look less ‘greedy’ as a nation. With so many refugees and people escaping war reaching our shores each year, isn’t it time to think of how to turn the migration challenge into a win-win opportunity? This noble endeavour, if handled well, can go a long way to help improve Malta’s international reputation. Why not reclaim our age-old image as the ‘Nurse of the Mediterranean’?
4. Rethink Malta’s education system
Encourage the teaching of ethics, fiscal integrity and the arts from a very young age. A better-educated population is likely to make better choices and is more likely to enjoy a higher standard of living.
Many foreign companies in Malta often complain that the English language used by the workforce, including many graduates, leaves much to be desired. The English language is our bridge to the world on so many levels; we can’t afford to lose this cultural asset.
Malta is a fantastic product but we need to work together to succeed
Furthermore, Malta’s education system should promote the teaching of other European languages. Having a multilingual population in an increasingly competitive world can only help accentuate our economic potential.
5. Invest more in cultural capital
The much-needed improvement in the country’s education should also yield improved cultural and historical awareness. Malta needs better and more accessible museums, art galleries, better theatres, and the rebuilding of lost ones (like the Royal Opera House in Valletta).
Above all, Malta needs a free press, which is the lifeblood of a cultural nation. The news media should be boisterous, argumentative and fun to read – above all, it needs to be left free to write whatever it wants.
6. Rediscover, appreciate and celebrate national icons
Every nation has figures that sum up what’s best about its character. An icon need not be the most famous. This person must represent something more profound about a nation’s spirit. One doesn’t have to be heralded by everyone to be an icon. Some are controversial and have run-ins with the state, others can be academics, artists or civil servants.
Think of the philosopher and author Oliver Friggieri; Daphne Caruana Galizia, a journalist and blogger so much feared by the establishment; Edward de Bono, the world-renowned inventor of Lateral Thinking, or Arvid Pardo, the much-acclaimed Maltese diplomat, scholar and university professor. There are many others.
7. Preserve, protect and promote Malta’s environment
Planting saplings alongside newly built streets is not enough and only serves as cheap PR. Malta lost thousands of trees over the past five years, most in bush fires in Miżieb and L-Aħrax, but many were chopped down by the authorities.
Buskett, Miżieb and L-Aħrax were successful man-made woodlands. Why can’t we create more and larger examples of these projects? The quality of our life is not only determined by how much we earn but the quality of our environment, the purity of the air we breathe, and our access to open, green spaces – all areas where Malta ranks among the worst performers in the EU.
8. Work on the creation of a national ‘brand’ identity – and promote it both locally and overseas.
The Swiss have the ‘Helvetica’ font, the Germans their engineering prowess, the Italians their history and the arts while the French flaunt the fashion and culinary arts. What epitomises Malta’s identity overseas?
This exercise demands a concerted effort encompassing specialists from various fields, like the arts, academia, branding, architecture, history, finance and the business community. In moments of economic challenge and adversity, Malta’s soft power can offer immense opportunity to gradually help restore and promote our national image.
As a professional marketer, having worked in this sector for over 20 years, I believe that the ideas I have outlined here can help spark a healthy debate on Malta’s soft power potential.
We may not all see things in the same way, but I’m sure that our sense of national pride and desire to improve Malta’s standing in the world will help us forge a path forward from the current rut we’re in. Malta is a fantastic product – with many facets – but we need to work all together to succeed. And the time to start is now.
Ray de Bono, Branding professional based in Malta
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