Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Can Asians Think?

By Kishore Mahbubani
Key Porter Books (2001), 208 pages, $14.95

Only a well-traveled South Asian Singaporean raised in a predominately English speaking Chinese city could have conjured up such an enigmatic title as Can Asians Think? In fact, only a self-confident, urbane Singaporean would have such courage and foresight! Perhaps in this millennium, the title should have been Can Asians Think Again?

For Kishore Mahbubani, a career diplomat, his premise is that Asians (except for the Japanese) could not or would not think the global visionary thought of abject colonialism, military conquest, transnational slavery and violent imperialism that were enacted upon non westerners by European nations and the United States. Asians could not or would not think of moving countless African slaves to North America or murdering six million people because of their Jewish ancestry. Indeed, if these Asians could have just thought beyond their feudal inertia, petty tribal quarrels, servile despotism and tiny tents of irrational secularism, then they could have been as big and powerful as westerners today.

Mahbubani argues that the west, especially the United States, believes that it has created the only true polity worthy of any civilized country. All non western nations, if they seek to be civilized, modern, progressive and wealthy must follow. They must, in fact, adopt liberal democracy and market economy as their cornerstones of human interaction. This was fully explicated by Colin Powell, only two weeks into office in January 2001, when he bluntly told China that it must be democratic and follow a capitalist economy.

Some Asian countries like Japan, South Korea and Taiwan have abided by the American way. Because their economies were in ruin as a result of the "European civil war," they had no choice. But there are others like China and Singapore which have moved far beyond these western parameters by establishing their own unique modus operandi of discourse and action. Conflict was inevitable as diverse interpretations of human existence differ. This was played out in the recent dust up between China and the United States over the Hainan spy plane incident. Here, an America based on eighteenth century Age of Enlightenment linear ideas and fortified by Cold War either/or rhetoric clashed with a China founded on new nonlinear futuristic thoughts.

According to Mahbubani, the Singapore representative to the United Nations, the key to understanding the current and evolving China-United States relationship is that both desire to preserve the status quo. A return to war as the tool of settling differences would plunge the pacific area and America in particular into chaos and ruination. "War drives out investment and kills talent."

With "soft-liners" in Beijing, the Chinese seek prosperity. Amassing wealth and power can only come out of a prolonged era of peace. This is exactly the reason Jiang Zemin and Li Peng cracked down on the student demonstrators at Tian'anmen in 1989. It was a mere decade after Deng Xiaoping had declared that "to get rich is glorious." To do so, China needed political stability and social harmony. This would ensure that the people had enough food, clothing and shelter.

Every student of the warlord era knows that disintegration and chaos are the "perennial Chinese nightmares." Indeed, another warlord period would have prevailed if the students had won. Peace was at stake despite the virulent western media which were quick to define Tian'anmen as a democratic "legend." In fact, some western journalists even dined with student dissidents, "egging them on before reporting on their hunger strike."

In addition to peace, Mahbubani argues that Asian countries must create a meritocracy where the best brains are rewarded regardless of class or race. Finally, he contends that honesty through the elimination of corruption so evident, for example, in the Marcos regime must prevail in all Asian governments. Thus, if Asian nations do not think about and create a solid foundation for peace, meritocracy and honesty, they will never become wealthy.

At the moment, there are no major military conflicts in Asia while Europe is aglow with "a ring of fire" in North Africa and the Balkan states. Here, Mahbubani suggests that the Asians are thinking about and making relatively sound strategic decisions. Their leaders recognize Asia as a unity fortified by a logic of continuity, dynamism and interconnectiveness. Conversely, he contends that Europe's political strategy is flawed with its belief that it can secure and sustain peace by stressing internal unity while "remaining detached from its periphery." But the denouement of Yugoslavia and the Soviet Union with its attendant fragmentation may not be the most severe threat that Europe is facing today.

For Europeans, that threat is the influx of immigrants, especially those who are neither European nor white. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, Europeans went overseas to Australia, Canada, New Zealand and the United States to escape their endemic civil wars. Now, African and Asian immigrants are seeking their own prosperity in Europe. Using United Nations' figures, Mahbubani presents the startling demographics that in 1990, Europe had a population of 498 million while Africa countered with 642. By 2050, Europe's people would have actually decreased to 486 million while Africa's population would have exploded to a staggering 2.265 billion.

Asia's population will have grown to 5.7 billion. The European and North American share of the world's population will drop from 20 percent in 1996 to 11 percent in 2050. If global political power remained in Bonn, London, Paris and Washington, D.C. in 2050, then a small fraction of the world's population would control 89 percent of the planet. How liberal or democratic is that?

Then there is India. It could be one of the major powers that will contend with China, Japan and the United States in 2050. Can Indians Think? might be Kishore Mahbubani's next book. The wealth behind generated in India is astonishing. With massive disposal income, there is a middle class of 200 million today and a projection of 400 million in 2010. The upper class of extreme wealth constitutes 40 million.

Despite their growing prosperity and ostentatious American trappings, Asians do not wish to become Americans or even Europeans. Especially in Singapore, many are defining and reinventing their own cultural heritage and unique ways of thinking and doing things. That does not mean Mahbubani is anti western. Far from it. He enthusiastically endorses the contribution of the west to human society. Not only does the author argue that western civilization will remain dynamic in the twentieth-first century, but he also praises Americans as people who are fundamentally "open and compassionate." Predicting a more level playing field where Asian make a difference in the intellectual and political life of the world, the author is simply railing against the arrogant Americans who think they always know best.

Can Asians Think? is full of wit, wisdom and veiled sarcasm. Indeed, there is a sidebar slap at westerns who castigate Singapore for banning chewing gum while Americans allow the sale of crack on their streets. Ever the Singaporean, Kishore Mahbubani ends his provocative and always thought-provoking series of essays with an exaltation of the virtues of Singapore. He says that if three million people can prosper and thrive while sandwiched into a small plot of land known as Singapore, then surely the six million on the planet today need only an area the size of South Africa. This is an idea worth considering.

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