Kishore Mahbubani, a former Singapore ambassador to the UN, is the protagonist of a great Singapore story who rose from modest origins to become one of the most influential minds in Singapore, and indeed, across the world. In his current avatar, he is the dean at the Lee Kuan Yew (LKY) School of Public Policy at the National University of Singapore, where scholars and public officials gather from all over Asia, including India and China, to study policies that lead to successful societies.
As the author of an upcoming book on this field, The Rise of a New Asian Hemisphere: The irresistible shift of global power to the East, he elaborates on how the rise of Asia, in particular India and China, will transform the world. Mahbubani is also the author of Can Asians Think and Beyond the Age of Innocence: Rebuilding Trust between America and the World.
As someone who has interacted extensively with both the East and the West, what are your thoughts on the current exuberance of Asia? Will this be a century of Asian renaissance?
There is a new spirit of optimism in Asia today and the optimism is not a passing fad. Indeed, it may well be the culmination of a century-long process of Asian nations’ finding their individual development paths. The region’s giants—China,
India—all seem to be moving ahead on a positive long-term trajectory. But the story of Asia is not just about individual countries doing well, even if they do account for nearly half the world’s population. It is about Asian nations and societies coming together in new ways. Borders in the region have traditionally been tough and impregnable. Now, the virtues of borderlessness are creeping into local imaginations. New trade, economic, political and cultural connections are being spun all around Asia.
What role has Asia played in its own success?
A critical one. Asians have orchestrated a new and successful regional order that is in alignment with what the world needs for progress and development.
Through institutions such as Apec, Asean, Asean+3, Asem, and the East Asia Summit, Asia is providing the world with a sophisticated model of networks between national governments that work together to raise the level of trust and confidence among various neighbouring Asian countries.
This has resulted in a growing sense of regionalism to solve Asia’s problems in its own backyard without much involvement or interference from the West. In this context, Asean has become a key regional player demonstrating great geopolitical competence. For example, there is a sense that the critical issue of Myanmar would be better resolved if the international community listens to India, China and the Asean countries. Unlike the West, Asians understand the long-term implications of the Myanmar situation.
What direction is India going to take in the 21st century?
A confident India will not follow anyone’s model.
My first prediction is that Indians, unlike the Japanese, are going to wear less rather than more Western clothing. Clothing helps define one’s identity. Try to imagine another Mahatma Gandhi or Jawaharlal Nehru without their trademark Indian garb.
Second, India will gradually drift away from the West. With the West losing its magical place in the human imagination, the desire to emulate it is also likely to diminish in India and the rest of the world. India will continue with some of the finest political traditions it has inherited from the West: democracy, a respect for human rights and respect for the rule of law. But increasingly, Indians will claim these traditions as their own, just as Western philosophers happily accepted the work of Islamic rationalists and claimed their ideas as their own.
Third, with the growing detachment between the West and the rest, India will once again resume its natural role as the meeting point for the great civilizations. At a time when many in the West are convinced that the West cannot coexist in peace with the Islamic world, they will increasingly marvel at how India has accommodated many civilizations —including the Hindu, Buddhist, Islamic and Christian civilizations—and how most live in peace most of the time.
A spirit of inclusiveness pervades Indian political and social culture. While the West tends to discuss the world in black and white, the Indian mind sees the nuances.
What can India offer to the Western world apart from market access to a rapidly growing economy?
The West believes that it alone championed “freedom” and “tolerance”. But Amartya Sen points to the Indian emperor Ashoka, “who during the 3rd century BC covered the country with inscriptions on stone tablets about...wise governance, including a demand for basic freedoms for all—indeed, he did not exclude women and slaves as Aristotle did”.
Sen’s point is that the great divide between the East and West may be artificial, that the values of freedom and tolerance, reason and logic, may not be uniquely Western. India could play a bigger role of convincing leading Western minds that they should stop seeing themselves as guardians of one leading civilization. A great crusade is needed to convince the West that it is essentially no different. India may well play a leading role in it.
Preeti Dawra is a freelance writer based in Singapore. Comment at email@example.com