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  • Writer's pictureRay de Bono

Awakening Malta’s Soft Power - Part 1

Updated: Jul 18, 2021

In today’s globalised and digitalised world, soft power is seen increasingly as the prime benchmark of a nation's appeal. Whichever way you look at it, in a post-Trump world, soft power will matter increasingly more. Gone are the days when hard power, manifested through military and financial might, was the prerequisite for global political leadership and influence. Thankfully, humans have evolved from when the country with the largest army and most deadly hardware led it. - Ray de Bono explains.

This article was originally published on MONEY Magazine Issue 64, May 2021 - See

Left to Right: Franco Azzopardi. Konrad Buhagiar and Kenneth Farrugia

The measurement of a nation's power is nowadays more sophisticated than that. This explains why it's not the super 'hard' powers such as Russia or China that occupy the top place in the Soft Power rankings, but France (Portland and Monocle's surveys, 2020).

International news is key to forming countries' image and reputation. The prominence of the US and UK in global media, for example, has been linked to their Soft Power. However, President Trump and Prime Minister Johnson do not help their nations' rankings.

Apart from a country's 'brand identity’, its global diplomatic stance, ease of doing business, eco-friendliness and the quality of the public service, the criteria for determining a nation's Soft Power ranking focus on its citizens' trustworthiness, friendliness, education and digital readiness. In doing so, Soft Power projects a more 'human' image of a nation, highlighting its liveability and attractiveness in the world's eyes. More so in today's digital age, Soft Power reflects and effects the flow of ideas and human and financial capital, serving as the tipping point for decisions across the board.


Portland’s ‘The soft power 30

Report 2019’ Country Rankings


1. France ↑

2. United Kingdom ↓

3. Germany

4. Sweden ↑

5. United States ↓

6. Switzerland ↑

7. Canada ↓

8. Japan ↓

9. Australia ↑

10. Netherlands ↓

11. Italy ↑

12. Norway ↑

13. Spain ↑

14. Denmark ↓

15. Finland


Where is Malta in these rankings?

Malta oozes potential, yet it remains absent from Soft Power indexes. Despite its blessings, the island nation keeps missing the boat, where creating a sustained and coherent national brand identity is concerned. There seems to be a leadership vacuum when it comes to championing this field; there's no 'opera conductor' to lead the nation's brand harmonisation to a world-class level.

This effort is a multidimensional one and cannot be construed to a specific medium; there needs to be work done to adopt a cohesive, multimedia design and urban planning policy that does not remain on paper but translates into a more pleasant living space in both the physical and natural sphere, as well as in cyberspace.

For an English-speaking nation, the internet should be a fantastic platform to boost Malta's image. Yet people seeking online information or services from the island often complain of poor-quality website content, slow customer response and outright lousy design. This problem seems to be more confined to the private sector, as the government e-services have been running for many years and ranking amongst leaders in the EU. Most companies have a website, yet only see regular updates and do not offer any significant engagement opportunities. They're just brochure sites.

Enacting and sustaining Malta's Soft Power to compete in today's world requires a multi-disciplinary approach, where academics, artists, entrepreneurs, architects and dedicated politicians pool their talents towards a common goal.

It is disappointing to see that Malta still has no official typeface (like the Swiss have their Helvetica), no set criteria for representing its official national image across different media. "In a world where speed beats size, Malta stands to gain so much more by harnessing its soft power by even outperforming larger nations in this field" comments Eman Pulis, leading start-up entrepreneur in the Gaming and International Events behind the SIGMA fame.

Left to Right: Louie Olivieri, Anthony Guillaumier and Eman Pulis

The last few years were not easy for Malta from an international image perspective. The murder of journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia cast a long shadow which time and justice can and will heal. The air is slowly but surely clearing and there is a light at the end of the tunnel. Other countries too, have taken their brunt and lived through similar, dark moments. Take Amsterdam, with Theo van Gogh's slaying in September 2004: nobody will say that nowadays the Netherlands is not a liberal, western democracy. The same can be said of London soon after the July 2007 terrorist attacks, or Paris after the Charlie Hebdo massacre of January 2015. The cases made international news headlines, and for a good reason. These cities saw their prestige dented by terrorism, yet they have levered their Soft Power to help reinvent themselves and refresh their long-standing identities.

Some will argue that Malta is too young and small to compete with fellow EU states, even in terms of winning charm – or boosting its Soft Power. History, however, has proven otherwise.

When faced with this challenge, Malta can punch well above its weight. It's all a question of resilience, and Malta has a good track record in reinventing itself and faring well on the world scale.

"The Maltese people can make all the difference" stresses Eman Pulis, "About a century ago, for instance, Maltese maritime scholar Arvid Pardo became known as the ‘Father of the Law of the Sea’. More recently, Malta was noticeably proactive in establishing new legislative frameworks in gaming and blockchain and ethical Artificial Intelligence. The historic Bush and Gorchakov summit held in Malta in 1989, just a few weeks after the fall of the Berlin Wall, marked the end of the Cold War. Not a small milestone for the EU's smallest state, was it?"

There are many more examples. From the world of academia and business, Edward de Bono, the creator of lateral thinking and the expression 'thinking outside the box', is probably one of the most famous, living Maltese citizens. His studies have helped change generations of thinkers and entrepreneurs. His publications have sold millions.

Joseph Calleja, the world-renowned lyric tenor, is a perfect living testimony of Malta's potential and national brand. He is young, talented and energetic.

Culturally and historically, Malta is a haven. Boasting potentially over six UNESCO World Heritage sites within a 122 square mile space, and typically attracting millions of visitors annually, Malta has a lot to offer. The once conservative Catholic island, the impenetrable British fortress in the centre of the Mediterranean is now an independent nation, a leader in gay rights, and a frontrunner in promoting world peace.

When it comes to attracting foreign investment and personnel, the least Malta can do is to ensure that it can offer a quality level of life, good services and lifestyle and a pleasant environment; however, we are not there yet. A survey assessing countries' attention to the environment and sustainability conducted by the expat’s organisation InterNations ranked Malta 52nd out of 60 destinations in 2020. Successive governments have been way too politically expedient and always ready to compromise on environmental issues. Excessive building and the wanton destruction of the few remaining green areas are a growing concern.

Will we ever rank in the top 30 nations as far as Soft Power is concerned? The challenges facing whoever undertakes to champion Malta's Soft Power are quite daunting, but there are many signs of hope.

When interviewed by MONEY, Bank of Valletta Chief Officer and leading Finance expert Kenneth Farrugia spoke about the importance that, at the national level, Malta's brand image be enhanced through soft power initiatives, and that this effort is treated as one of strategic importance.

"The impact of soft power on a national brand remains unattended to by several countries, Malta included. It is my view that we have a strong proposition to put forward across many Soft Power angles, particularly in the ESG space, which will elevate the strength of the national brand. Taking this forward requires ownership and commitment at the highest political and industry level as the key stakeholders in this process."

When asked about how he sees the country's prospects, leading entrepreneur and philanthropist Anthony Guillaumier enthusiastically said that, "there has never been a better time to work on Malta's identity. Our country needs a global, recognisable image, a distinguishable style and above all, consistency in its promotions across the board".

Despite the recent pandemic, Malta's economy remains among the top performers regarding job creation and growth in the Eurozone. The Central Bank did revise its economic forecast downwards, expecting the economy to shrink during the COVID-19 saga; however, it expects GDP to exceed pre-pandemic growth levels in 2022, once a vaccine is rolled out.

Malta's reliance on real estate and construction as the traditionally preferred investment comes with mixed blessings. The impact of construction goes beyond the environment, poor aesthetics and mediocre design impact quality of life. Our country's resulting shabby image characterised by concrete towers mushrooming all over the place - a quasi-permanent state of construction wherever one looks - may not be a plus when it comes to auditing Malta's Soft Power credentials.

Asked to explain how Malta's can - if not restrain - at least curtail and eventually reverse the construction sector's adverse impacts on our towns and villages, leading architect and university lecturer Konrad Buhagiar stresses that Malta has not yet recovered from its 'post-colonial hangover”. He added that monetary affluence alone is not a catalyst for improved quality of life and “people with money do not necessarily make the best choices, and the prevailing greed (especially in construction) comes at a price Our education system, including university, can help a lot if it’s brought more in line with mainstream European models and designed to be congruent with our historical and cultural characteristics.”

Buhagiar maintains that education has a direct bearing on the long-term improvement of the people’s life, by determining the type of choices they make in life, mainly where building aesthetics and style-consciousness are concerned. “We're not there yet” – he concludes.

Echoing the architect's observations, the European Commission’s latest report on Malta, published in 2020, stresses that Malta needs to improve inclusive education and training. Persistently high student underachievement and early school-leaving make it challenging to meet the need for skilled labour. This also has long-term implications for social inclusion because children from socially-disadvantaged families are less likely to benefit from the best education opportunities and are more likely to lag behind their more advantaged peers.

'The average performance of Maltese pupils remains below the EU average, and an increasingly diverse student population poses challenges for the Maltese education system' - The European Commission Country Report on Malta, 2020.

Leading business director and former President of the Institute of Accountants Franco Azzopardi also sees education as part of the solution. “In many ways, Malta is a victim of its success: it attracted some €3.3 billion in Foreign Direct Investment in 2019 (NSO) and saw a surplus economy. On the other hand, it still lags behind fellow Schengen states where bureaucracy and ease-to-do-business are concerned. In an era of global turmoil, Malta must strengthen its human capital, while addressing problem areas such as improving its fiscal integrity and business ethics culture through better education. If it fails to do so, we risk denting not only our nation's reputation but also its future economic prospects.”

Last but not least, Malta's transition to greener and more sustainable growth requires a long-term, comprehensive strategy. The quality of a nation's environment is a core issue where Soft Power ranking is concerned.

The environment, people's friendliness, honesty, culture, cuisine and the arts, and the country's lack of bureaucracy, are all part of the many building blocks forming a nation's Soft Power picture. It's a collection of attributes, and the better a country scores in these attributes, the higher its score in the rankings.

A lot of good results have been achieved these past five years in the sphere of culture. Take the organisation of Valletta 2018 – when our capital enjoyed Euro-wide promotion as the EU's Culture Capital for the year; this was a resounding success which left a positive imprint on Malta's identity on an international scale.

There are more reasons to be positive. Malta keeps on enjoying success in the sphere of film production, thanks to the Malta Film Commission. Our island continues to attract outstanding international productions from Hollywood to Bollywood. Considering the size of the island, this is no small an achievement.

"In formulating a coherent brand identity, the island is a work-in-progress, but many of the necessary building blocks are already there," states leading marketing advisor Louis Olivieri, "It hurts me when international investors comment that Malta's glossy adverting material may not always reflect our product. The fact is that our international brand 'identity' remains fractured. Malta is not just history, gaming, tourism or financial services. It's much more that. My question here is - and I can understand that it is controversial - how we can leverage our talents to forge one national brand identity that encompasses these facets altogether and would this yield better results than having multiple sectoral identities?"

What is stopping Malta from taking its image (more) seriously? What can be done at governmental, academic, business and public levels to help create improved awareness about this country's Soft Power arsenal?

Here are some of recommendations to help to bring out the change that will up Malta's Soft Power a notch:

1. Education:

a) Revise Malta's education system; particularly by promoting Ethics, especially where fiscal integrity is concerned. Children need to be thought that paying taxes is a win-win solution.

b) Correct Malta's history textbooks replacing age old myths with facts backed by science, such as DNA-studies. The Maltese are not Phoenicians (that's a debunked myth), but Europeans, mostly of Italian and Sicilian origins. Knowing where one comes from helps in cherishing our nation's heritage and saving it for future generations.

c) Invest in more specialised education for media professionals. Malta needs journalists specialised in law, economics, the environment and international affairs. As the fourth pillar of our democracy, we need to see that Maltese journalists and media professionals are not only better qualified but also better paid.

2. Politics

a) Revise how political parties are funded and make it easier for smaller parties to be elected to parliament.

b) Give fellow EU citizens who are permanently based in Malta (for at least five years) the right to vote in national elections

3. Government

a) Create an interdepartmental committee to discuss a homogenous branding exercise for Malta, the creation of Malta's Brand Guidelines. The building blocks are all there. Let's use our success stories, such as FinanceMalta, Malta Enterprise and VisitMalta and the like, to forge a common front where Malta's identity is concerned. Enough with the ongoing cacophony of brands overlapping each other. Let us integrate and orchestrate our nation's image, once and for all.

b) Appoint an independent panel of experts that will select annual brand ambassadors for Malta; people from the arts, music, theatre, literature, academia, business, science etc.

c) The environment is in severe crisis. Deal with it as you would deal with any other a national crises: use professional advice, and be open to advice from other European experts in the field. We're already late; the time is now.

d) Permanently halt all construction outside the development zones (ODZs). Make changes in ODZ areas illegal.

e) The English language is ours too, just like the Maltese one. The authorities need to promote and improve the use of the English language at all levels – it is Malta's bridge to the world on many levels, but it’s a neglected asset.

f) Promote and provide incentives for eco-tourism: Malta can and has a lot to offer in areas such as agri-tourism and to travellers interested in the local flora and fauna.

4. Media:

a) For an English-speaking nation, Malta ought to have at least one dedicated, English language (only) TV and radio channel, where people can follow the news, debate and share ideas in English. With over 100,000 expats and well over 2 million annual visitors, we can't do without.

5. Lifestyle:

a) Malta's environment is a national crisis: The island’s outdoors are mostly filthy and mismanaged. Just look at Mizieb, Ahrax or Buskett. We need more vigorous enforcement and ongoing cleaning efforts in towns and villages and across the countryside.

b) Where is the greenery? Afforestation and efforts to make Malta green should be a priority… and not just during elections. We need more trees in our village cores and also in Valletta, which is most probably Europe’s poorest capital as far as the number of trees is concerned. Plant more trees in piazzas, next to schools, public building and churches. Malta can learn a lot from nearby Sicily and other Southern European states in this regard. PS. Perhaps the environment minister should visit Israel and see how this small nation managed to turn a desert into a lush green state. We need less PR-talk and more action. Where there is a will, there's a way.

c) Promote our national cuisine. It is rich and varied – and we should be proud of it! It will help give our visitors a more lasting taste of Malta!

6. Transport:

a) Malta is probably the EU Schengen area's ‘Wild West’ where driving is concerned. It's chaotic and dangerous to drive here. The authorities must create a more robust Traffic Police Squad that is active 24/7, 365 days a year. It must be a vigilant and strict team that helps create a safe driving experience for all. What are we waiting for?

b) It is not only expats who complain about Malta's poor level of public transportation systems. While the bus service has improved, Malta is dying for alternative modes of mass transport, such as trams, an underground rail or a metro linking key areas like the airport, Valletta, Sliema and Gozo. We can't afford to wait!

c) Promote and ease the use of electric vehicles, including scooters.

d) Increase and police bicycle lanes

7. Culture:

Public Gardens, Valletta, Malta (EU)

a) We are located within a mere 20-minute flight from Italy, the global hub for culture, fashion and the arts. Most people can already speak Italian and we can learn so much from our dear old neighbours. While respecting the island’s uniqueness, Malta’s closer affinity with Italy in the field of arts, culture and history can only up our chances for global visibility and success!

b) Revisit Malta's archaeology: the government needs a boost its team of archaeologists. Get digging! We need more talent at work in this field as we have so much wealth under our feet, quite literally. We're sitting on ancient remains, yet it appears that – if we're not careful - the construction industry will soon have swallowed most of what is left!

c) Put Malta on the international map where operatic music is concerned.

d) Rebuild the Royal Opera House in Valletta -within our lifetime, please!

e) Promote Malta and Gozo as a haven for international artists – the more we attract to live here, the better!

As a professional marketer, having worked in this sector for over 20 years, I believe that the ideas above 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 the desire to improve Malta’s standing in the world will help us forge a way forward from the current state we’re in. Malta is fantastic product – with many facets – but we need to work all together to succeed - and the time to start is now.


Ray de Bono


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