A semi-irresistible argument

It is refreshing to read Kishore Mahbubani’s unabashed defence of aspirations in the East. But his attachment to the very Western culture of fear means that his book ends on a pessimistic note after all.

Bill Durodié

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‘If I were asked to name the date when my life entered the modern world, I would date it to the arrival of the flush toilet.’

This is the humble beginning of The New Asian Hemisphere: The Irresistible Shift of Global Power to the East, in which the author, Kishore Mahbubani, extols the trappings of modern life.

Mahbubani is currently dean of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy at the National University of Singapore. He served for 33 years as a diplomat for Singapore. His impressive CV includes a post as permanent secretary at the Singaporean foreign ministry, and as president of the United Nations Security Council. He was also Singapore’s ambassador to the UN.

Mahbubani continues: ‘After the flush toilet, our little home in Singapore began to acquire other conveniences: the refrigerator, the TV set, the gas cooker (which replaced the charcoal fires my mother used), and the telephone.’ It seems the television set was particularly significant for Mahbubani, as it opened his mind to visions of what the world could be like.

For Mahbuani, it is the ‘“heaven” of modernity that the vast majority of the world’s population is aspiring to enter’. In discussions around development in West, however, such aspirations seem to have been forgotten, abandoned or ignored. Yet there are plenty of people around who can still recall what the world was like before the advent of twentieth-century technologies and amenities, and who would hate to lose them. And, shamefully, there are millions who have yet to acquire them.

Few places on Earth have experienced as many dramatic changes in one generation as Singapore has. From a tourist’s point-of-view, life in a kampong (a traditional Singaporean village) may appear to have been idyllic, with human communities living ‘in harmony’ with nature. The reality – mosquitoes, dengue fever, floods, sewage and a complete absence of privacy – was quite different.

While in the West, the past is idealised as somehow more humane and natural, here in Singapore there is a distinct lack of nostalgia for the days of yesteryear. Just consider a photography contest recently launched in one of the daily papers here. ‘Remember those zinc-roofed huts we used to call home?’ the introduction reads, before asking prospective contestants to submit photographs from the past 50 years in order ‘to share with us how life here has become better’.

It is refreshing to see Mahbubani unashamedly defending the aspiration to modernity. As he points out: ‘The 88 per cent of the world’s population who live outside the West have stopped being objects of world history and have become subjects. They have decided to take control of their own destinies.’

The West has lost his optimism, the classically-educated Mahbubani complains, just at the time when the East is gaining its own sense of confidence. He notes how, in the past, the West’s own philosophers would have welcomed this vast increase of ‘goodness’ in the world. Instead, today’s Western leaders and policymakers view global development with trepidation. China in particular has consistently been singled out by Western observers as a source of great concern.

As Mahbubani notes, the West tends to miss or ignore the massive changes to the human spirit that lifting hundreds of millions out of abject poverty has instilled. Development, Mahbubani reminds us, lowers infant mortality and crime rates, whilst simultaneously improving people’s health and longevity. But more than that, ‘[w]hat all these statistics fail to capture is the transformation of the human spirit that takes place when people experience this kind of rapid economic growth’.

Between 1983 and 2003, more than half of all doctoral degrees in science and engineering awarded in the US have gone to students from China, Taiwan, India and South Korea. And by 2010, according to one of the sources Mahbubani cites, 90 per cent of all PhD-holding scientists and engineers in the world will be living in Asia.

If Europeans – who Mahbubani accuses of being smug and insecure – should find it difficult to conceive of China and other parts of Asia opening up in this way, there are also changes afoot in the Islamic world that they appear completely blind to. Apart from a few feudal regimes ‘kept in office at least in part through Western support’, it is not fundamentalism that is the ascendant force in the region, he argues. Instead, it is the drive towards modernisation – and recent events in Iran appear to confirm this.

Intriguingly, though Mahbubani is such a vocal critic of the West, the weaknesses in his own work are arguably very Western in character. He celebrates free markets at a time when they have never been so questioned. But, in reality, both Mahbubani and his detractors are out of date on this point. State monopolies (with which Mahbubani must be familiar as a Singaporean) and regulation curtailed the liberal fantasy of a ‘free’ market over a hundred years ago.

For a self-proclaimed optimist, Mahbubani also appears peculiarly prone to some of the more recent Western fears around things like terrorism, weapons of mass destruction, climate change and overpopulation. He ends up proposing that the European Union and the United Nations – those undemocratic and aloof institutions – should be emulated in Asia. No doubt, his views have been shaped through his background as a career diplomat and he probably has his heart set on a successful future for the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN).

The EU, Mahbubani suggests, has now achieved the position of having ‘zero prospect of war’. This may yet prove to be overly optimistic, but let’s accept the proposition for now and consider it along with von Clausewitz’s famous dictum that ‘war is the continuation of politics by other means’. It appears, then, that the reason behind this zero prospect of war may well be down to the fact that in the famously detached and elitist EU bureaucracy there is also zero prospect of politics.

Like many of his peers, Mahbubani proposes that there can be no freedom without security. That is why, ultimately, he has a rather dim view of democracy, citing an Asian-American academic who believes that for the developing world it is ‘an engine of ethnic conflagration’. As the elites, including Mahbubani himself, are busy projecting all manner of new security threats onto the world, the masses will no doubt have to wait a long time before gaining the right to express their own opinions freely.

Mahbubani’s prioritisation of security over freedom is both blinkered and contradicted by his own analysis. People do not just live their lives, they lead them. And everywhere, at all times, people have been prepared to risk it all to be free. This was also true of Mahbubani’s own parents who emigrated from Pakistan on the eve of partition. Mahbubani believes that the pillars of ‘Western wisdom’ are free markets, science and technology, the rule of law and education. Well, maybe he should also consider just how central freedom is to each of these.

Aside from a disdainful dismissal of democracy – the constant refrain in this part of the world is that the masses are not mature enough for it – The New Asian Hemisphere also suffers from too abstract a separation between politics and economics. These appear to be entirely distinct spheres for Mahbubani. Hence his recurring complaint that Western interests dominate over Western values. For Mahbubani, material, economic interests have trumped the promotion of wider societal values in the West.

There may be an element of truth to this but, more broadly, one could also point out that the West no longer truly knows its own interests, fearing both the unfettered free market and the sense of intellectual confrontation that knowing and representing an interest may involve in society. Hence the contemporary emphasis on ‘harmony’ and ‘inclusion’ that even Mahbubani buys into.

The more fundamental flaw of Mahbubani’s fascinating book is that in attempting to explain, primarily to a Western audience, what it is that the East thinks and does today, he makes sweeping statements about both the West and the East. These are caricatures, or at best vignettes, that serious analysts should steer well clear of, both in terms of regional and individual variations, as well as changes across time.

Mahbubani, for instance, benefited from a Western-style education at a time when this truly meant something. It is not so clear that his advocacy of Western education today would produce similar benefits for the next generation as, having lost its way in the world, the West has also lost sight of what education means, allowing this to be subsumed to contemporary fads, such as the need to bring economic benefit or develop policy prescriptions, as well as a reluctance to allow anyone to fail.

Despite its failings, and the transparent elitist prejudices of its author, born of his time and environment, The New Asian Hemisphere is nevertheless still worth reading for those who focus on such matters. Whether Asia really is ‘the New Modern’, as one reviewer asserts, remains to be determined. For this to be so, it will be the masses in Asia who will need to assert their vision of the future, not just their supposedly expert leaders. It is worth remembering that the American Dream was born of freedom, not security.

Dr Bill Durodié is the senior fellow co-ordinating the Homeland Defence research programme in the Centre of Excellence for National Security of the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies at the Nanyang Technological University, Singapore.

The New Asian Hemisphere: The Irresistible Shift of Global Power to the East, by Kishore Mahbubani, is published by Public Affairs. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK).)

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