Kishore Mahbubani: When we enter the "Asian century", we must get rid of our dependence on western ideas

  • I'm actually very surprised that I'm standing up here talking to all of you. When I got a phone call from Bert Hofman 3 days ago inviting me to make some remarks, I thought I was going to speak with five or ten people in a small room. I was not prepared to address such a large group. I think Bert probably wanted to invite me to speak at the Think Asia Conference because 24 years ago, I published a book called Can Asians Think? Surprisingly, the book is still in print after 24 years. In any case, even though I’m unprepared, surprised and bewildered to be here, I will try to be helpful by making a small contribution to all of you in the 15 minutes assigned to me.

    I want to begin by saying that it is very, very timely to hold a conference called “Think Asia” at this point in time. It is past time for us to start thinking seriously in Asia as we move into a very different new world. In many ways, we in Asia have relied on the West for many of our big ideas, and we have benefited from many big Western ideas. But I want to explain why we can no longer do that.

    There are three fundamental ways in which our world has changed. 

    Firstly, we are seeing the final stage of the era of Western domination of world history. A different era has begun as Asian countries are returning to their historical place in the global economy. This return of Asia has been a fundamental global shift. 

    The second fundamental shift is in geopolitics—which, as you all know, is going to be very, very different. For example, one reason why Southeast Asia has been so successful is that during the Cold War, both the United States and China cooperated very closely to strengthen ASEAN, to strengthen Southeast Asia, and we benefited from it. With two great powers supporting it, of course ASEAN was going to do well. There are very few confident predictions one can make about the future, but having written the book Has China Won?, I can confidently predict that relations between the US and China will get worse in the next 10 years. In fact, they will get very difficult. We need to be ready for this. As I was just in New York 10 days ago, I managed to get a sense of the current mood in the US. I was told that in the US today, there is a division of views on China between the hawkish voices and the irresponsibly hawkish voices. There are no doves on China. So it's going to be a rough ride for all of us.

    Thirdly—and this is a critical point—many key constituencies in the West are turning away from globalization. In a sense, the West led the way in creating globalization in its current form. Yet, now, many Western voices are saying it's time to close the doors. It is clear that the big ideas shaping thought in the West are changing. 

    Since the big ideas in the West are changing, should we continue to follow Western thought as we did in the past? Or should we now start to think for ourselves and see which Western ideas will help Asia, and which will no longer help Asia? After all, we are entering a different world, a different era. And for that reason, your conference is very timely.

    I hope to contribute to it by making three practical suggestions to all of us who are trying to think about Asia’s role in the 21st century. And, full disclosure, I might do some marketing of my latest book in the process. But I'm happy to inform you that the book I’m marketing is a free book. It's called The Asian 21st Century. I make no money from the book, and you can download it for free from the Internet. When it was published in January this year, my German publisher expected 20,000 downloads of the book. He said that would be very good. So far, in 10 months, there have been 2 million downloads of The Asian 21st Century in 160 countries.          

    I'm not bringing these numbers up to flatter myself. What the 2 million downloads show is that not just in Asia, but also in other parts of the world such as Africa and Latin America, there is an awareness that this will be the Asian century. But if it's going to be the Asian century, we Asians have to start providing intellectual leadership. That is something that we're not used to doing. We've gotten used to copying ideas, because we’ve benefited from copying ideas, especially from the West. We must thank the Japanese for this. It began with the Meiji Restoration in the 1860s and is the reason why Japan succeeded. Japan was the first Asian country to develop because it copied Western ideas very well, and the rest of us copied their approach and we all did very well. But the era of copying is over. The era of creating has now arrived for Asians. It won’t be easy. I can tell you that it's not going to be easy at all. But in an effort to try, and in a sense start the process of creating Asian ideas, I'm going to make three suggestions to you all—with the caveat that these are all very tentative suggestions, okay? After all, I only had 3 days to come up with them.    

    The first tentative suggestion, which is a critical one, is that we in Asia have to give up our psychological dependence on the West. I say this with some sadness, because as I said, we have benefited from the West. But there is a kind of slavish dependence by Asian scholars on Western publications. They love to cite Western publications, Western ideas, Western things. Many of these Western ideas, which were world-beating ideas, are no longer world-beating—and frankly, also not suitable for a world which is changing from a unipolar world into a multipolar world, from a uni-civilizational world into a multi-civilizational world. It's a different world. It's become a small, interdependent, global village with many people living together. And we have to deal with a level of diversity that we have never had to deal with before. 

    In particular - this is a very sensitive point I'm going to make; please don't misunderstand me - in the West, there's a tendency to see everything in black and white terms. Right or wrong. Democracy or autocracy. Everything is black and white. But the world is no longer black and white; it's multicolored. These black and white perspectives shape our psychology. I'm going to give you another very sensitive example of this. It is, very sadly, the major war that is happening in Ukraine. It's sad. And let's be very clear: speaking as a former ambassador to the UN, the Russian invasion of Ukraine is illegal. It violates international law. That's very clear. There's no doubt about that. But at the same time, when people say that the one and only cause of the war is the Russian invasion—we all know that in geopolitics, everything is complicated. For example, we know that Hitler started World War II; there’s no question of that whatsoever. But what were the forces that generated Hitler? We know that they stemmed from the painful reparations after World War I. We've got to understand that these things are incredibly complex. My first point to my fellow Asians is thus to start walking away from black and white perspectives. 

    My second suggestion to you is to learn from ASEAN. If you want to understand why, for example, Southeast Asia and East Asia have done well, there are many factors at play. I’ve given you one already: the stable geopolitical environment created by the collaboration between the US and China. But the other fact that was very important for our region—and this is the one of the most underappreciated contributions in Asian history—is the contribution of ASEAN, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. ASEAN is a prime example of why we need to get away from our psychological dependence on the West. If you read anything from the West on ASEAN, it's all negative. It's terrible. The West keeps saying that ASEAN is a weak organization. It's true. ASEAN is a weak organization, but the paradox of ASEAN is that its strength lies in its weakness. It’s why everybody trusts ASEAN. Why do you think all the world leaders are going to come to the East Asia Summit in 2 weeks’ time? Because nobody feels threatened by ASEAN, they all come, and that gives ASEAN a convening power that others don't have.   

    But—and I want to emphasize this—if you study ASEAN deeply, as I’ve tried to do in my book, The ASEAN Miracle, you’ll find that there are areas of tremendous strength hidden inside ASEAN. I can tell you this as someone who attended ASEAN meetings for 33 years. When I first joined an ASEAN meeting in 1971, the room was full of distrust. 20 years later, the distrust had evaporated, and the room was full of trust. We did something miraculous. There were several key people involved in this miracle. There was a friendship between Lee Kuan Yew and Suharto that made a big difference. We had exceptional foreign ministers, like Ali Alatas of Indonesia, Air Chief Marshal Siddhi Savetsila of Thailand, and so forth. As a longtime attendee of ASEAN meetings, I can also tell you that the Indonesians have a specific strength in their culture called musyawarah and mufakat. Musyawarah and mufakat are two Indonesian words that mean consultation and consensus. Magically, I don't know how, the Indonesians infused that culture into ASEAN. And that's why within ASEAN, you’ll notice that we never have votes. We have consensus. I believe that this ASEAN culture of musyawarah and mufakat is now being shared with the rest of Asia, and is also influencing peace. And it is actually quite surprising that even though we have many more bitter geopolitical and other rivalries in Asia, more so than in Europe, all the major wars since the end of the Cold War have taken place near the boundaries of Europe and not Asia. That cannot just be due to luck. It has to be due to something else that ASEAN has been doing right. 

    So, in its future iterations, I hope that Think Asia will think very hard about ASEAN and try to understand how we can make ASEAN the central pillar of a new, peaceful, Asian order. Fortunately, we don't have to start from scratch. ASEAN has its own institutional processes, culture, and dynamic that it can share with the rest of the world. And it will also be, by the way, an educational experience for some people in Northeast Asia. Let me just point out that the term “Northeast Asia” is quite paradoxical. The economies of Japan, South Korea and China are much bigger than the ASEAN economies, much more advanced. So, logically, you should have an Association of Northeast Asian Nations, ANEAN, to complement the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, ASEAN. But after 50 years, no ANEAN has been created. There is no trust between China, Japan and South Korea, even though they are much more advanced, while Southeast Asia, which is much less advanced, has this amazingly successful organization. So there is some hidden magic in ASEAN that we have to understand, extract and reveal to the world. 

    My final point is that if there's one other big contribution that Asia can make in the Asian 21st century, it's to take on the responsibility of becoming the champion of globalization. I say this because I feel very sad that so many of the leading minds of the West are walking away from globalization. At the end of the day, if you want to explain the extraordinary success of East Asian countries—if you want to explain the East Asian miracle—a large part of it is due to the decision by Asian countries to plunge into the ocean of globalization. There is one speech I remember very vividly, because I was there in the room when President Xi Jinping spoke in Davos in January 2017. In that speech, he said: When China made a decision to plunge into the ocean of globalization, we encountered choppy waters, we swallowed water, we struggled to swim, but then we became stronger. That's what Asia has done. Jumping into the ocean of globalization is difficult. But when you succeed, you do very, very well. Singapore is a prime example. No other country in the world has a total trade figure 3.5 times the size of its GNP. Why do we have trade 3.5 the size of our GNP? Because of globalization. Now that the West is retreating from globalization and denouncing it, globalization needs new champions. And its new champions have to come from Asia, because we, at the end of the day, are becoming its biggest beneficiaries. 

    So therefore, the key point that I want to leave with all of you is that as we march into the Asian 21st century, we have to give up on our dependence on ideas from elsewhere. We have to focus on generating our own ideas and sharing them with the rest of the world. Thank you very much.  

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