Renowned academic Professor Kishore Mahbubani speaks on challenging the wisdom of the West in unstable times such as these.
Contributed By Yeap Yi Xuan
Of the many words one could use to describe Professor Kishore Mahbubani, “rebel” is not one often picked. After all, he is a man with an illustrious portfolio: born in Singapore in 1948, he was a President’s Scholar, an ambassador to the United Nations, and from January 2001 to May 2004 held the position of UN Security Council president. Currently, he is a dean and professor of the Practice of Public Policy at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy at the National University of Singapore.
Speaking at the U@live forum on July 27 at the Shaw Alumni House, NUS, Mahbubani shared with the audience his journey from undergraduate to the academic he is today, well-known for his advocacy of Asia’s rise to global leadership.
A self-professed “rebel struggling against bigger forces out there,” the 63-year-old described the three phases of rebellion in his life that shaped his beliefs.
The first phase began when he was an NUS undergraduate and editor of a student newspaper, The Undergrad. Lee Kuan Yew gave a speech to the students of the NUS Bukit Timah Campus on June 4 in 1969. During the speech, Lee, then the prime minister of Singapore, physically pushed the chairman of the talk for failing to stop a professor from haranguing him during the question-and-answer session. In response, Mahbubani wrote a provocative article titled “A Question of Decorum” in The Undergrad. That article got him noticed, setting him up for the next phase of his career as the country’s Permanent Representative to the United Nations.
His next “rebellious phase” was when he attended the 1979 meeting in Havana, Cuba, and was stirred up to be a “rebel against the bullying of small states,” inspired by the then-Minister for Foreign Affairs, S. Rajaratnam, who stood up to 30 heads of states.
His third phase of rebellion happened in 1991, when he was a fellow at the Center for International Affairs at Harvard University. To him, this was when “Western arrogance” was at its peak, driving him to write his first book Can Asians Think? Understanding the Divide Between East and West. He cautioned the West to not “assume you have all the answers and the rest of the world cannot think.” His two books that followed are Beyond The Age Of Innocence: Rebuilding Trust Between America And The World and The New Asian Hemisphere: The Irresistible Shift Of Global Power To The East.
“It was a lonely struggle; anybody who stood against the West was fighting a solitary cause,” he admitted, before adding that he enjoyed it nevertheless.
He urged greater “acts of rebellion” in the younger generation, as “the world is moving into uncertain times … we are in times of enormous change and the most valuable thing to do is to question and challenge everything.” However, he clarified, “If you are a pure rabble-rouser, people get tired of you very easily. You will be ignored. But I have never been ignored, because people believe that I have something to say, a message that resonates with a large audience.”
In June, Mahbubani was at the World Economic Forum in Jakarta, where he explained that in East Asia, fast-growing economies have led the economic recovery, but “the number one concern is the incompetence of the West.” This is in stark contrast to a decade ago, when US and European policy-makers were advising countries in the throes of a financial crisis such as Indonesia how to reform. Now, “they cannot accept the same bitter medicine that they gave to Asia and they continue to drift. What happened to Western competence? That’s my number one worry,” he said.
Mahbubani concluded that his vision is for “a fusion of civilizations, bringing the best of the East and the West together, both working towards a new world order.”