Tag Archive | "asia"

How to think like Kishore Mahbubani

How to think like Kishore Mahbubani

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To be Singapore’s favourite public intellectual, you need to trumpet the rise of Asia for at least 10 years. And maybe another 20-odd more.

It's not that he is a party-pooper to the West, but Asia really is rising.

The past decade has seen Kishore Mahbubani hollering and banging on the same drum: The inevitable rise of Asia in the next 20 to 30 years.

The dean of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy at the National University of Singapore is never shy telling the West to shove it: Western domination of history is coming to an end.

It’s an optimistic message, because you and I happened to be situated here.

But one cannot help but wonder if it is a message that should be ingested with a pinch of salt.

If the trajectory of world histories could be so easily predicted, we wouldn’t be here now, would we? What you know today about tomorrow will be useless tomorrow if you could act on it today, yes?

Nonetheless, not wanting to rain on Kishore’s parade, New Nation has summarised his top ideas taken from The Straits Times interview yesterday coupled with the recent write-up in Foreign Policy magazine where he is voted as one of the top 100 public thinkers sitting rather comfortably at number 91 this year.

(Oops, seems like The Straits Times got one fact wrong in their write-up about Kishore: They claimed he is number 92 this year, which was where he was last year.)

On China:

China has been proactive. China has increased its trade in this region. China’s proposal of the 2001 Asean-China free trade agreement is a jolt to the world.

China alone has rescued 600 million people from absolute poverty. No other country has done that in history.

While the US was busy in Afghanistan and Iraq sorting out the dessert, China practised introspection and focused on its own development.

Kishore’s current big idea:

Kishore is expounding on the topic of global governance.

In this day and age, interconnectedness means that the big powers have to take on the role as leaders who will take care of other countries that will act as the crew. Everyone’s in the same boat, as the metaphor goes.

The interest of the world is the interest of the superpowers.

The problem is that Western countries, such as Italy and France, cannot think long-term because it is politically impossible.

There is also a great myth and illusion that American and European countries will bounce back naturally from their present woes. That is untrue.

Europe and North America’s success in the last 200 years is nothing but a historical aberration. For about 2,000 years prior to that, India and China were the largest economies.

Against the backdrop of this long history, Europe and North America are reverting back to the norm.

Multilateralism is the new buzz word:

In the future, it is in the interest of the US to strengthen multilateralism as there will be increased interdependence even with smaller states in the world.

A two-way flow of ideas:

For the first time in 500 years, there will be a two-way flow in the passage of ideas between East and West.

“I used to be regularly lectured by Westerners on the inability of Asians to slay their sacred cows”, Kishore wrote in August this year in The New York Times. “Today, the Western intelligentsia seems equally afraid to attack their own sacred cows”.

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

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

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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.”