Why is Southeast Asia squabbling over Taylor Swift?

It's no secret that the world is crazy for Taylor Swift lately – and there's even been big drama in Asia over it.

Why is Southeast Asia squabbling over Taylor Swift?
Taylor Swift's fans, or Swifties, queue to purchase Swift merchandise at the National Stadium during Swift's Eras Tour concert in Singapore March 2, 2024. REUTERS/Caroline Chia

It's no secret that the world is crazy for Taylor Swift lately – and there's even been big drama in Asia over it. In fact, a lot of Southeast Asian countries got pretty mad recently at Singapore over something being called "Swiftonomics."

When Tay Tay comes to town, fans are elated to go see her perform. But local governments and businesses get pretty excited, too, and it's not just because they like to sing "Shake It Off" in the shower.

Swiftonomics refers to how Taylor Swift's tour has massive economic effects wherever it goes. Her Eras Tour kicked off in 2023, and it's become the first concert tour of all time to gross over US$1 billion. Her shows draw people from all over into host cities, where they spend money on accommodations, food, entertainment and more. In fact, many cities have seen hundreds of millions pumped into their economy when Swift comes to town. 

But when she came to Southeast Asia this year, her only stop was in Singapore. It later came out that the city-state had worked out an exclusive deal so that all six of her sold-out shows in the region would be in Singapore. Some neighboring countries like the Philippines seemed pretty upset about this, with one Filipino lawmaker saying, "This isn't what good neighbors do."

Swift was even a topic at this month's Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) summit, where other member countries confronted Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong about the exclusive arrangement.

After the tour in Singapore wrapped up, DBS economist Chua Han Teng told CNA that the concerts are estimated to add around S$300 million (US$225 million) to S$400 million, or 0.2 percentage points of GDP, to the nation's economy in the first quarter.

But it's not just Taylor Swift making big bucks. Major stars like Beyoncé, Bad Bunny, Coldplay, and Harry Styles are also coveted events that are expected to rake in tons of cash. So, event tourism is becoming a key moneymaker in the region.

For example, Hong Kong has been trying to revive its economy and restore its international reputation. And drawing in mega events is one part of that strategy. Aside from Taylor Swift, other big acts like Coldplay and Ed Sheeran have recently played in Singapore but skipped over Hong Kong.

"We know we'll be competing with different cities. And we'll ensure we're attractive enough and competitive enough," said the city's chief, John Lee.

Even though it looked like there was "bad blood" between Southeast Asian countries after Singapore's stealthy move, it could just set a new precedent. 

A Thai government spokesperson said that any country that "wishes to promote its tourism should study Singapore's strategy." Thailand has also said it doesn't hold it against Singapore. Thai Secretary-General of the Prime Minister Prommin Lertsuridej expressed admiration for Singapore's business savvy, saying, "We learn from each other."