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Singapore Has Taylor Swift to Itself This Week, and the Neighbors Are Complaining

Taylor Swift has descended on Southeast Asia, or one small part of it at least: All of her six sold-out shows are in Singapore, the region’s wealthiest nation.

Many of her fans in this part of the world, which is home to more than 600 million people, are disappointed. But the Singapore leg of Ms. Swift’s wildly popular Eras Tour, which began last weekend and ends on Saturday, is a soft power coup and a boost for the country’s post-pandemic economic recovery.

The shows — and the undisclosed price that Singapore paid to host them — have also generated diplomatic tension with two of its neighbors, Thailand and the Philippines.

Last month, Prime Minister Srettha Thavisin of Thailand said publicly that Singapore had paid Ms. Swift up to $3 million per show on the condition that she play nowhere else in Southeast Asia. A lawmaker in the Philippines later said that was not “what good neighbors do.”

Singapore pushed back. First its culture minister said the actual value of the exclusivity deal — which he declined to name — was “nowhere as high.” The country’s former ambassador at large later called the criticism “sour grapes.” And on Tuesday, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong told reporters that he did not see the deal as diplomatically “unfriendly.”

But that was no solace to dejected fans.

“I sometimes think ‘When will I get to experience this?’” said Sherin Nya Tamara, 26, a Swift fan in Jakarta, Indonesia, who has liked the singer since 2011 but never seen her perform live. “I was hoping there would be additional dates and that Jakarta would be included, but nope.”

At a time when Southeast Asian governments are dealing with tensions over the South China Sea and the fallout from a brutal war in Myanmar, among other serious issues, the controversy over Ms. Swift’s Singapore shows is “kind of refreshing,” said Susan Harris Rimmer, a law professor who has studied soft power in the region.

“It’s nice to see them arguing about something this fun, I guess, instead of really, deeply difficult things,” added Professor Harris Rimmer, who teaches at Griffith University in Australia. “But it does show there is tension and jealousy and rivalry.”

Ms. Swift’s concerts in Singapore, which follow her stops in Japan and Australia, would have been a big deal anyway. But they took on geopolitical overtones last month, when Mr. Srettha said at a business forum that Singapore had paid the artist as much as $3 million per show in order to guarantee that they would be her only tour stops in Southeast Asia.

Mr. Srettha said that he had learned the details of Singapore’s grant to the artist from the concert promoter, AEG Presents. Representatives for the promoter and for Ms. Swift did not immediately respond to requests for comment on Tuesday.

An exclusivity deal around a concert, a kind of noncompete agreement known as a “radius clause,” is standard practice in the music industry, said Susan Abramovitch, the head of the entertainment and sports law division at the international law firm Gowling WLG.

“That being said, this territorial exclusivity is more typically measured in hundreds of miles from a city rather than covering entire neighboring countries,” she said, adding that the scope of the Singapore deal was a kind of “Taylor-esque magnification” of the industry standard.

It hasn’t been received well outside Singapore.

Late last month, a lawmaker in the Philippines generated headlines by saying that he had asked the country’s Department of Foreign Affairs to discuss the exclusivity clause with the Singaporean government, saying that it had come at the expense of neighboring countries.

The lawmaker, Rep. Joey Salceda, said this week that he had raised the issue after realizing how difficult and expensive it would be for Filipinos, including members of his own staff, to attend the concerts.

“ASEAN’s core principles are solidarity and consensus,” he said in an interview, referring to the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. “What happened? They even used their tourism board to block other nations.”

Asked on Tuesday how much the grant was worth, the Singaporean government did not directly address the question. But the Tourism Board and the Culture Ministry said in a joint statement that Ms. Swift’s concerts, for which more than 300,000 tickets had been sold, would likely “generate significant benefits” for the domestic economy.

Prime Minister Lee was also asked about the grant on Tuesday at an ASEAN conference in Australia. He said it had been funded by a post-Covid tourism recovery effort and that he did not see the exclusivity clause as being “unfriendly” to other countries.

“If we had not made such an arrangement, would she have come to someplace else in Southeast Asia or more places in Southeast Asia?” he said, speaking in Melbourne. “Maybe, maybe not.”

News of the regional backlash to the grant was reported earlier by The Wall Street Journal, The Diplomat and other news outlets.

Professor Harris Rimmer said that, financial incentives aside, Singapore is a logical place for Swift to play in Southeast Asia, in part because it is safe for young female fans and has excellent transport links to the rest of the region. She said Ms. Swift’s glamorous mystique also fits nicely with Singapore’s efforts to promote itself as the “glamour kitten of Asia.”

“I don’t think she needs Singapore’s money, at this point,” she added.

Some Swifties have made their peace with the singer’s limited itinerary in their region. Mostly.

Jose Bunachita, 30, a writer in the Philippine city of Cebu, said that he saw Ms. Swift in Japan last month, and that his 11-day trip there had cost around $1,500. “I had the time of my life singing my heart out,” he said.

Still, he said, “I also feel like it would have been more of a fun experience if a majority of the concertgoers had been fellow Filipino Swifties.”

Sui-Lee Wee contributed reporting.

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