By many measures, Kishore Mahbubani is one of the leading public figures in Asia. He is currently the Dean of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy in Singapore, a man with an enormous intellect and an illustrious career that few can compare with. From January 2001 to May 2002, he held the position of president of the United Nations Security Council, a considerable feat for anybody who comes from my country.
It puzzles me, therefore, why he wishes of late to become another Amy Chua.
Since his 2008 interview on BBC’s Hardtalk, and the release of his book, The New Asian Hemisphere, Kishore’s arguments have become increasingly polemicized, aggressive and vapid. Here’s an excerpt from his most recent article on the Financial Times, where he writes:
Most crises are known by their origin, from the Mexican peso crisis of 1994/5 to the Asian crisis of 1997/8. Given there is no doubt who caused our world’s latest troubles, it should adopt its logical name: the western financial crisis. This reluctance to call a spade a spade reflects an inability to reckon with changes the US and Europe have to make to avoid a repeat…There is a simple reason why the west has not noticed: Asians are too polite. Sometimes it takes a relatively rude Asian, like me, to express our continent’s true feelings.
Kishore then goes on to make two main criticisms. The first at the West, somehow, is living in a bubble of its own ignorance, unaware of its own relative decline in the changing world order. While I can see where he’s coming from, I’m wondering whether Kishore is the one really being ignorant here. Not all Westerners are parochial; for simple evidence, consider Obama’s State of the Union address on Tuesday.
The rules have changed. In a single generation, revolutions in technology have transformed the way we live, work and do business… Meanwhile, nations like China and India realized that with some changes of their own, they could compete in this new world. And so they started educating their children earlier and longer, with greater emphasis on math and science. They’re investing in research and new technologies. Just recently, China became the home to the world’s largest private solar research facility, and the world’s fastest computer.
So, yes, the world has changed. The competition for jobs is real. But this shouldn’t discourage us. It should challenge us.
Is this evidence of parochialism? I’ll let you be the judge.
The second criticism is that since the financial crisis originated in the West, the West should take full responsibility for it. He writes:
What must be done? Domestically, the US must cut spending and raise taxes, no matter how politically difficult. Europe must resolve its flawed monetary union – with the overhaul of its bailout fund and the rewriting of Germany’s post-Maastricht “grand bargain” with the periphery a necessary start.
By analogy, this is just about as helpful as a person who stands outside a burning house and shouts: “Hey, your house is on fire!” These facts are already painstakingly obvious to policymakers in the West. As always, the devil is always in the details, and details is something his piece is desperately short of.
So, how does one go from a learned diplomat to a not-so-learned polemicist? I propose two theories.
My first theory is that Mahbubani is simply attempting another “Amy Chua.” In a room where everyone is shouting, the only way to get yourself heard is to shout louder. Even if it means sacrificing the quality of your ideas, the most important thing is to be heard. His article was written to generate more heat than light, to provoke rather than to stimulate meaningful discussion.
Given the right context, this approach has its merits – in politics, for example – though given Mahbubani’s stature as a public intellectual, it would be unbecoming of him if it were true. If so, he may as well go on to write the sequel to Amy Chua’s piece, “Why Indian Fathers Are Superior.”
My second theory is that like the uncompromising football coach, perhaps Mahbubani is only outwardly condescending, where he secretly possesses benevolent motives. From his previous books, you get the sense that he commands a healthy respect for the West, so maybe there is a distance between what he writes here and what he really thinks. His real agenda is to provoke the West, so it might wake up to its own woes.
While this is certainly a tried-and-tested method in the sporting world, I’m not quite sure if it works in the realpolitik of nations. As the British will tell you, making an angry Frenchman more angry will – surprise – only make him angrier. While Kishore is right on target when he says that world’s institutions need to be overhauled, this is hardly the way to get there.