Around 2016, while I was a professor in Singapore, a producer from Singapore’s Mediacorp posed a question to me during a Media Communication seminar. At the time, the Korean Wave was reaching its peak in Singapore.

In the summer of 2014, when I first became a professor at Singapore Management University, 2NE1 and Big Bang’s songs could be heard in every shopping mall and market across the city. Singaporeans were deeply interested in Korean dramas and movies, as well as K-pop idol music.

Many of my Singaporean colleagues, particularly middle-aged female professors, shared that they relieved stress by watching Korean dramas. In the school cafeteria, I was amazed to see middle-aged female employees greet me with an enthusiastic “Hello~,” seemingly delighted and surprised to encounter a Korean. The Korean Wave spurred interest in travel to Jeju Island and Busan, and popularized Korean restaurants, fried chicken, and So-Maek (Korean mixed alcohol) culture among young Singaporeans.

In Singapore, where Japan had previously exerted a strong cultural influence, Korea—once considered a second-tier nation—was now viewed as a culturally advanced country. Singaporeans marveled at Korea’s rise to prominence as a cultural powerhouse, despite having been regarded as inferior to them economically and culturally.

This context led to the producer from Singapore’s largest and only public broadcaster asking me, “Why are Koreans so creative?” They were particularly curious about why Korean dramas and entertainment programs were more engaging than their Singaporean counterparts, and why Korean singers exhibited such exceptional talent.

My answer was simple:

That’s because the Korean government is incompetent, unlike Singapore’s

The producer appeared taken aback by my unexpected response.

I then continued to elaborate on my reasoning for quite some time.

In simpler terms, Koreans excel at accepting and assimilating external influences.

Throughout history, Korea’s states, dynasties, and governments have often been incompetent and susceptible to foreign aggression. Consequently, Koreans have had to be self-reliant and adaptable in order to survive in a politically and economically vulnerable and unstable peninsula. With the advent of internet technology, Korea was able to rapidly catch up to global standards in many areas and transform from a culturally marginalized nation to one possessing communication skills and emotional resonance that allows it to connect with any country in the world. In essence, the private sector’s individual survival, spurred by government incompetence, eventually contributed to national competitiveness.

On the other hand, in Singapore, the nepotistic system led by the Lee Kuan Yew family, a group of Western-educated elites, has been both an advantage and a limitation. While other Southeast Asian countries struggled with cultural and economic impoverishment and corruption due to military dictatorships, Singapore emerged as a small yet efficiently run country. It adopted Western-style culture and manners, and its efficient and competent government had a more capitalist mindset than its neighbors. This laid the foundation for Singapore to grow rapidly and stably, like “Singapore, Inc.” However, the media and culture sectors have been stifled by a control system akin to a one-party dictatorship, suppressing the vitality of the private sector.

To use an analogy, Singaporeans are like children who can smoothly obtain a home and job if they obediently follow their parents’ guidance, thanks to their intelligent and prosperous father. In contrast, Koreans are like children who have become self-sustaining and independent, adopting a “trust nobody but myself” mentality as they weather desperate economic crises or political upheavals, during which their father may be absent or replaced. In the event that their home is compromised, these children must take to the streets and learn to fend for themselves.

On the other hand, what is Singapore like? The government remains at the center of culture and media. Nothing can be accomplished without the approval of government authorities, whose civil servants boast the world’s best intelligence and responsibility. While having an efficient and competent government is an economic boon, it has somewhat stifled creativity and innovation in the cultural industry, which thrives on embracing various cultures and achieving artistic success through trials and adversity.

The producer nodded as I explained this, drawing upon my background knowledge of Korean history. Singapore, with its abundant resources and efficient government, seemed to understand why it has not been able to compete with Korea in the realm of cultural influence.

While numerous aspiring idols from countries such as China, Thailand, Australia, the US, and Japan have entered the K-Pop scene, it is surprising that no idol trainees have emerged from Singapore. This is particularly ironic, given the significant market presence and the strong influence of the Korean Wave in Singapore. Becoming an idol after being a trainee is an incredibly difficult task, requiring innovation and a willingness to take risks. However, Singaporean students are typically intelligent and diligent, but also exhibit a strong preference for stability and risk-averse decision-making. This cultural tendency may contribute to the lack of Singaporean idol trainees.

Similarly, it is worth examining why the Korean cultural industry is led by private companies such as CJ and Lotte, as well as entertainment companies like Hive, SM, YG, and JYP, instead of public broadcasters like MBC and KBS. The active investment of private capital and entry into the global market has provided artists with not only freedom of expression, but also the opportunity to improve their craft through intense competition. Bong Joon-ho’s “Parasite” achieved Oscar success thanks to CJ’s bold investment and risk-taking spirit, while Hwang Dong-hyuk’s “Squid Game” gained worldwide attention due to its association with the global streaming platform Netflix.

The mandatory KBS license fees, which are levied on the public regardless of viewership, have become a contentious political and social issue. The general public is less concerned about political issues and more frustrated by the fact that KBS takes their money for content they do not even watch.

In the past, MBC was once considered the best platform for drama production, as it fostered a more creative and innovative environment compared to KBS, which had a strong public corporation culture. However, with the rise of internet platforms such as Netflix and YouTube, along with investments from large corporations, public TV dramas have experienced a decline in quality and market appeal. Traditional broadcasters, like dinosaurs, have grown complacent while Korean chaebols (conglomerates) have led significant investments in the film and entertainment industries.

MBC and KBS, once sustained by state support, are now struggling in the new platform era. Public broadcasting is increasingly perceived as an entrenched interest group that accumulates taxes while producing low-quality content. As they fall behind in competition with private platforms and remain mired in vested interests, their options for recovery are limited. Winning back the negatively-minded audience will be a difficult task, as Koreans are known for their ability to discard detrimental practices and adapt to new circumstances.

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