The rise of Asian nations
Kishore Mahbubani (left) with Pacific Perspectives columnist Tom Plate. Photo by Ayla Dillard.

The rise of Asian nations

In a Q&A with AsiaMedia's Debory Li, former Singapore diplomat Kishore Mahbubani discusses his latest book and the future of the Asian hemisphere

By Debory Li
AsiaMedia Contributing Writer

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Kishore Mahbubani knows more than a thing or two about geopolitics and diplomacy. Before becoming dean of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy at the National University of Singapore, he was permanent secretary for Singapore's foreign ministry from 1993 to 1998, Singapore's ambassador to the United Nations, and from Jan. 2001 to May 2002 president of the United Nations Security Council. He is also the author of Can Asians Think?, Beyond the Age of Innocence: Rebuilding Trust Between America and the World, and the latest, The New Asian Hemisphere: The Irresistible Shift of Global Power to the East.

In his third book, Mahbubani focuses on the change that must be made in Western mindsets with regard to the rise of Asia and the sharing of global power. He illustrates how global status continuously shifts toward worldwide equality and how the rise of Asia, starting with Japan, stemmed from the "march to modernity." Modernization, he argues, does not mean Westernization, so if Western countries want to foster a global marketplace or a more modernized Islamic world, they need to understand the difference and the wisdom of pushing for the former rather than the latter.

Mahbubani also says Western powers should not fear the rise of Asia since Asian countries are not looking to supplant them. Rather, Western countries should realize they have a new opportunity to affect the global environment by connecting with the rest of the world on equal footing.

In an interview with AsiaMedia, Mahbubani talks about his new book and current issues affecting both sides of the Pacific. The following is an edited transcript:

AsiaMedia: Historically, Western countries have overpowered Asian ones, and you discuss "Western Triumphalism" in your new book. Could such an event occur again?

Kishore Mahbubani: I think the Western powers are sophisticated enough to know that any kind of old-fashioned colonization is over, but the forms of Western domination of the world have become more subtle. For example, one way in which they maintain their domination is in the field of ideas and culture.

AM: Regarding China, how do you think Beijing would react to Western powers pushing for Westernization?

KM: The Chinese, having watched what happened to Gorbachev and Russia, have seen that if you go suddenly from a communist party system to a democracy overnight, you create chaos and the people suffer enormously. So clearly, the Chinese will not readily accept any kind of Western push to democratize China.

At the same time, the Chinese will also be very suspicious of any Western attempts to democratize China because they don't think that the Westerners are trying to do good to China. Instead, they believe that the West is trying to undermine China by pushing for democracy. In fact, in the introduction of my book I quote Congressman Henry Hyde (R-Ill.) as saying that the West has often used democracy as a weapon to destabilize their enemies.

AM: How has the recent death of Benazir Bhutto affected the "march to modernity" in Pakistan?

KM: The death of Benazir Bhutto was obviously a tragedy. She represented a more secular dimension of Pakistani politics. But I, after visiting Pakistan in September last year, am reasonably confident that most Pakistanis want to actually see the country modernize and join the East Asian countries and become economic tigers. That was the focus of many of the policymakers that I met in Pakistan -- they have to deal with the Jihadi forces, which are still very strong, but I think on balance Pakistan will succeed.

AM: What is Asia's economic state, and how do you see Asian countries dealing with the foreseeable U.S. recession?

KM: The Asian countries will definitely be affected by a recession in the U.S. because they export a lot to the United States, but I don't think that this will mean necessarily that the Asian countries will suffer as badly as they did in the past because there is a great deal of regional integration taking place. In fact, the forecast for the year shows that most Asian countries will continue to do reasonably well in 2008. Not as good as the previous years, but they are not going to go into recession even if the U.S. does.

There's a higher degree of resilience in the region, and the countries in the region have learned a valuable lesson from the [1997] Asian Financial Crisis. One of the main reasons why the Asian countries have accumulated huge reserves is that they see these reserves as a kind of insurance against any serious downturn.

AM: Former Singapore Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew believes the media should be a responsible figure in the development of a country. However, Singapore is small in comparison to other Asian nations. What about bigger, more controversial nations like China?

KM: In all nations, the media is a very important player in the evolution of society. While I believe that we should have a free press, it is also important that there be a responsible press. The media cannot purely be an instrument of private owners to use for their own profit without any regard to the impact on society because media is also a public good. You cannot incite riots; you cannot call on people to kill other people. Freedom must come with responsibility.

The question is how do you provide regulation of the media without making sure it loses its freedom? That's the big challenge that no society has yet figured out how to do well.

AM: How would you ideally like to see the media mature in Asian countries?

KM: The first requirement is, of course, the training and education of journalists. [Secondly,] it is important that you get good people to join the newspaper world because the quality of the work produced in the media depends on the quality of the minds who work in the media world.

AM: With the rise of independent media forms, such as broadband Internet, blogs, etc., there is an increase in the dissemination of information. How do you perceive this affecting the political stability of Asian countries, especially in a country like China?

KM: The good news is that with economic development, most of the Asian societies are developing good middle classes. When you have good middle classes, you clearly get greater political stability coming to these societies.

At the same time, there is an enormous focus in these societies on training and educating everybody. There is an explosion of education in Asia. You see this, for example, at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, where only 30 percent of the students come from Singapore and 70 percent come from the rest of the region. These are people who after their education at the school go back to become policy makers in their countries. The better educated the policy makers are, the better off societies are.

AM: Can Asians Think? and The New Asian Hemisphere revolve around the theme of the rise of Asia and how Western powers should perceive this change. What are you bringing out in this book that you feel you didn't discuss in the first book?

KM: I think I am the first Asian voice to try to comprehensively explain how the world will change as a result of a return of Asia. There have been many voices that have been speaking out and describing how Asia is rising, but what my book tries to do is to suggest that you need a new "weltansicht" (world view). In order to provide a new weltansicht, you need to write a comprehensive book.

My first book, Can Asians Think?, was a collection of essays. Essays provide you particular insights, but essays do not give you a new weltansicht. What I hope this book will do is enable the Western minds to realize that they have to retune their mental maps, because all their mental maps were developed on the understanding that Western domination will carry on forever. So now it is time for them to engage Asia more seriously, and the best way they can do it is by reading my book.