Monday, April 13, 2009

The world according to Kishore Mahbubani

Source: Blowin' In The Wind

The New Asian Hemisphere by Kishore Mahbubani

Kishore-Mahbubani There is a difference between Western and Asian notions of the rule of law, according to Kishore Mahbubani, who served as Singapore’s ambassador to the United Nations and is now dean of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy at the National University of Singapore. He writes in The New Asian Hemisphere, published last year:

The Western notion of the rule of law, in which all human beings are to be treated equally under the law and all citizens subject to the same laws, goes against the grain in Asian minds. Most Asians throughout the ages have assumed that the ruling classes, especially members of royal families and the aristocracy, stand above the law. Indeed, in the minds of the ruling classes, the only function of the law was to enable them to discipline their subjects.

In traditional Chinese legal thought, the law was only a tool through which the government ruled the governed.

But China has started implementing Western-style rule of law since the 1982 Constitution, writes Mahbubani.

Book full of praise for China

Asia is becoming more like the West in its “March to Modernity”, he adds, but instead of welcoming this growing similarity, the West is trying to continue to dominate the world. But it can’t, says Mahbubani. The subtitle of his book is The Irresistible Shift Of Global Power To The East.

Ostensibly a book about the rise of Asia – there is quite a bit favourable to India – it is a long litany of complaints against America and a eulogy to China. While America is criticized on various issues from the Iraq war to the torture of prisoners, there is just one reference to Taiwan and none to Tibet; I checked the index.


One can understand Mahbubani’s admiration for China, which is growing in both wealth and power.

For he seems to equate money with merit.

The Singapore civil service is the most meritocratic in the world, he says. But he mentions none of its achievements, only that its head can earn much more than the American president. Mahbubani writes:

The most meritocratic civil service in the world today is not found in any Western country but Singapore. The elite civil service ranks are filled by Administrative Service Officers (AOs). To get the best to serve as AOs, the Singapore government tries to pay the most senior AOs as much as the private sector. Under the new pay scales announced by the government in April 2007, the head of the civil service can earn as much as US$1.5 million a year, more than the American president (US$400,000 a year) and the British prime minister (US$350,717 a year) combined. It’s a small price to pay if a country wants to progress and succeed in a far more competitive environment.

There is a lot of useful data in this book. Mahbubani writes knowledgeably about the United Nations and the Association of South East Asian Nations (Asean), of which Singapore is a member.

The power of Western media

But when he talks about the domination of the Western media, he should have asked himself who made it so. The fact is Asians read Western publications such as Time, Newsweek and the Economist and Asian newspapers use Western news agencies like Reuters and Bloomberg because Asian media coverage is either inadequate or not sufficiently informative.

Why, Mahbubani himself is more likely to contribute to Western publications such as Newsweek and the Economist – where he recently took part in an online debate and lost – than to the Straits Times in Singapore.

East and West

Mahbubani sees what he calls “the irresistible shift of global power to the East” as a reversion to the old order of things. Asia was far richer than the West until the early 19th century, he writes:

In the year 1000 CE, Western Europe’s share of global GDP was 8.5 percent. Asia’s, in contrast, was 70.3 percent. The balance began to shift with the Industrial Revolution. In 1820, Western Europe’s share had grown to 23.6 percent, while Asia’s had shrunk to 59.2 percent.

But what did Asia do with those riches? Where were the Asian Gutenbergs, Leonardo da Vincis, Shakespeares, Galileos?

Why did democracy develop in the West while despotism seemed to be the rule in the East?

Maybe those questions are for others to answer.

Mahbubani's focus is on power and prosperity.