A sofa government might initially sound like a political organisation run by furniture. The phrase was used to describe former UK Prime Minister Tony Blair’s style of leadership. He often met with a small group of ministers in cosy, informal settings, away from the rigid structures of the traditional office, wrote the BBC.

With the Covid-19 pandemic and the restrictions on travel, open and intimate discussions between leaders have become near-impossible. This makes the task of public diplomacy even more challenging.

Speakers from the recent Public Diplomacy in Asia 2021 conference discussed how diplomacy could continue throughout the pandemic and into the future. In this era of international relations, the importance of digital and health diplomacy has never been so apparent.

Digital and diplomacy

The Covid-19 pandemic has revealed the importance of digital tools for diplomacy. In foreign policy, “maintaining a minimum level of functionality from early 2020 onwards has been nothing short of a generational challenge”, wrote Sanctuary Counsel and the Centre of Public Diplomacy.

In a new era where travel is restricted and communication has been moved to the virtual sphere, their report asks “are the traditional strategies and tactics for public diplomacy still viable now?”

The informal pathways of diplomacy need to be reforged, suggested Dr Janil Puthucheary, Senior Minister of State, Ministry of Communications and Information & Ministry of Health in Singapore.

While there is an aspect of government work that “needs to happen in public”, for example speaking in parliament, Puthucheary highlighted the importance of private discussion. Those are the “side conversations that you had on the corridors and the tea breaks”, he explained.

Government officials have “no doubt” about a need for these informal discussions to occur digitally, Puthucheary said. But many officials still believe the digital sphere is entirely public, meaning there is no suitable alternative yet, he added.

When it comes to digital diplomacy, there is a “very human need for a trust in the process”, Puthucheary said. Governments and citizens alike need trust and transparency when it comes to cross-border digital communication, he said.

One way that Singapore is generating trust is by publishing the code for government applications into an open source forum. Another method is a cyber labelling scheme that identifies IoT devices, Puthucheary added.

Singapore announced this initiative as part of its Safer Cyberspace Masterplan 2020, said the country’s Cyber Security Agency. The labelling scheme will help users be more confident about the security of their cyber tools.

Health diplomacy in action 

The Covid-19 pandemic has also held the spotlight on public health services. The importance of diplomacy in health was shown in West Java, when international friends helped one another in a time of need.

The province was facing an oxygen shortage, and supplies from the federal government were insufficient, explained Ridwan Kamil, Governor of West Java. He called upon friends in Singapore, China, Korea, Malaysia and Australia for assistance.

The international community helped West Java and the oxygen crisis was kept under control. Ridwan said. Whenever there is a need for assistance, having a good network of friends and cities is very helpful, he emphasised.

How can countries create connections of health diplomacy? Specialised health diplomats could be one option, said Paul Ananth Tambyah, Professor of Medicine and President-elect, International Society of Infectious Diseases.

He suggested a mindset change in higher learning. Public health courses should be treated like a Masters of Business Administration (MBA), where individuals of any occupation could take part. This would help train new health diplomats, he said.

Thailand’s Ministry of Health was training 30-40 people before international health conferences, said Dr Nima Asgari-Jirhandeh, Director, Asia Pacific Observatory on Health Systems and Policies, World Health Organisation.

These individuals acted as a means for the country “to push their own agenda”, Dr Asgari-Jirhandeh said. But in this process, the Thai government had in effect “actually trained the next generation” of health diplomats, he pointed out.

Building bridges year-round

Organisations around the world are looking “to build cross border understanding” between themselves and world communities, said Reuben Kwan, Director of Strategic Management at the Singapore International Foundation.

Countries have been showcasing their culture and nation’s strengths to improve understanding. South Korea set up a series of virtual dialogues with leading experts to share information about the country’s battle against Covid-19, said Dr Lee Geun, President of the Korea Foundation.

The country also promoted its cultural offerings by organising virtual lessons where K-pop stars BTS taught the Korean language. In order to boost cultural understanding, it is important to create “killer content” that is produced creatively, Dr Geun emphasised.

These organisations also organise support and skills sharing between countries, “helping to uplift lives” in other countries, said Kwan. The Singapore International Foundation recently sent experts to share best practices with special education schools in Ho Chi Minh city, its website said.

It remains to be seen whether the public sector can find a way to create sofa government over the internet. But what is clear is that Covid-19 has not stopped diplomatic relations, and Asia can expect new and innovative ways of cross-border outreach in the future.