Event Review: Do Asians believe in the rise of Asia? – Kishore Mahbubani

Posted on 03 August 2011

At the most recent [email protected]! event, Kishore gives a great flashback to the good ol’ 90s when the West was still Goliath, Asian diplomats were David and political rebellion was sexy.

By Fang Shihan

A younger Kishore at the 2008 World Economic Forum. Photo: WEF / Creative Commons

THE auditorium slowly turned sepia as Kishore Mahbubani, Dean and Professor in the Practice of Public Policy of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy at the National University of Singapore, reminisced about his past as a rebel. Both in school while he was a writer for the school paper, and then as a diplomat – slash – spokesperson for tiny downtrodden nations bullied by the West.

But take away the tint and all that’s left is a rather wizened old man stuck in a time warp.

This, is perhaps, unfair criticism for a man whose opinions are sought the world over, from Bloomberg, to the World Economic Forum-East Asia 2011, to BBC, CNN and the list goes on. But as they say, same shit different day – once you’ve heard Mahbubani once, the rest is pretty much predictable.

Do Asians believe in the rise of Asia? The man says no. Asians still suffer from a post-colonial hangup that they did since his first book was published in 1998.

Great thesis, but a tough sell in this current geopolitical situation. Like a trusty old Sony discman, the thesis is enduring – some Asians still have trouble grasping the dominance of Asia. But more Asians now not only own iPods instead of discmans, they’re worried about the unsteady, uncertain rise of various Asian superpowers. Times have changed, hot button topics have changed as well.

Consider for instance, that HSBC will slash 30,000 jobs in Europe and the U.S. to cut costs while expansion plans are still set in Asia and Latin America. On the fiscal end, the U.S. is set to reduce its spending by US$2.5 trillion while Moody’s has just reduced Portugal’s credit rating to junk status, together with Greece. On the other hand, new coverage of China’s manufacturing slowdown shows a rather positive global attitude towards the newly risen power; China, according to analysts, isn’t contracting, it’s merely stablising from breakneck growth.

If Asians do not believe in the rise of Asia, it may be because these particular Asians don’t read the news.

But to give him the benefit of the doubt, Mahbubani could be referring to a cultural inertia of Asians, long bullied by colonial powers and indoctrinated with an inferiority complex. You see it happening every now and then at country clubs, when white men wearing khakis are allowed to enter but not locals wearing roughly the same garb.

“And I actually believe, if we can encourage greater acts of rebellion, especially among the younger NUS students, that will actually be a good thing.” — Kishore Mahbubani

Yet for every one deferent ‘Asian’, there will be an Indian, extremely proud of his rich history or a Chinese expressing his nationalistic fervour over weibo.com. And these voices have gained increasing prominence as their respective economic giants grow. Mahbubani’s Asians, while they exist, are not representative of Asia as a whole.

Equally significant was perhaps a glimpse into Mahbubani’s past as a rebellious student. As an editor for the school newspaper, The Undergrad in 1969, he had published a scathing article of then-Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew’s behaviour during a forum:

“Mr Lee Kuan Yew’s answers at the forum often consisted only of personal slurs and pinpointing of trivial mistakes and other points degenerated to crude Machiavellian answers. He was asked in point, whether he would push through the abortion bill despite opposition on humanitarian grounds. his answer was crude and short – as long as he was in power, he would do so. If anybody objected to it, he or she could fight him in the polls: ‘Singapore is a democratic country'”

Mahbubani then went on to castigate the state of democracy, the media and the lack of transparency in Singapore, in a narrative not unfamiliar to local socio-political bloggers today.

He was later co-opted into the very establishment he criticised and had a distinguished career as a diplomat.

Times have changed. Dissent is no longer condoned and dissenters have ceased to emerge from mainstream educational institutions.

Lifting the sepia again, all that’s left is a wizened old man from the establishment reminiscing on the times when rebellion was in fact, a good thing, and not dismissed as gibberish spouted by a “lunatic fringe”.

Listening to Mahbubani speak on a Wednesday evening seemed less of an insight into the mind of an established diplomat, than a sit-down session with Uncle Kishore rehashing his glory stories. Entertaining, not completely relevant and a glimpse into what seemed like a country’s past when people actually had political balls.

And like all men with good stories to tell, he does leave a very memorable anecdote:

“It is so much fun when you’re fighting against a much more powerful force. And even though I was beaten up, I was attacked, I was criticised, I found that that was what really kept me going. And I actually believe, if we can encourage greater acts of rebellion, especially among the younger NUS students, that will actually be a good thing.”

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