Recently I heard well-known Singaporean diplomat and academic Kishore Mahbubani in a discussion on BBC Radio World Service. He was defending his book's thesis: that distinctively Asian values and culture, hitherto assumed to be doomed by Westernisation, are now enjoying a renaissance.
Mahbubani gave an example of what Westerners might have to get used to in this new world of Asian cultural ascendance: he knew of Western-educated Muslim women in Malaysia willingly choosing to do what no Western woman would: "to become a second, a third or a fourth wife", presumably to one husband with the other wives still in play. Here was a modern East turning a cardinal Western idea of modernity upside down: embracing polygamy as an expression of the free choice the West loves to exalt.
Mahbubani's remarks had the desired effect; his Western colleagues were duly unsettled. They could not think of an effective riposte. I wished I had been on the panel to ask: "Have you also heard of Western-educated Muslim men choosing to become a second, a third or a fourth husband, with one wife?"
Two warring impulses appear to be operating in this book. One, a fierce will to assert Asian pride after humiliating centuries during which Asians had no power over their fate. The other, an intelligent appreciation of the lessons from the West that Asians have learnt or must still learn to become modern. The two impulses are not reconciled, and some sections of the book read as if they were written by someone arguing the opposite of the author's case.
Mahbubani starts by describing eloquently how it was the West that brought the key notions of meritocracy and equality before the law to the Eastern world. It is a striking episode when, at the age of ten, his life is transformed by a Western invention, the flush toilet. In this Asian world in the rush and roar of modernisation American TV comes as an inspiring force: Mahbubani's Singaporean generation learns the dazzling lineaments of that paradise, American suburbia, from I Love Lucy.
Such vivid, exuberant celebration of all the good things owed to the West is not surprising from a Singaporean luminary. His country has been a foremost pioneer of free-market economic growth in Asia. Mahbubani is a veteran diplomat - he has been president of the UN Security Council. But make no mistake: this is a man with a very combative case. Right after extolling Asia's economic and social modernisation he announces that this will lead inexorably to de-Westernisation. He quotes approvingly a latter-day Chinese thinker who condemns the "myth of Western superiority". The reason de-Westernisation is happening is simple, according to Mahbubani. After all, the West totally outpaced the rest economically only in the past two centuries; before that the world's largest economies were China and India. Now Asian wealth and might is being restored, Asians' respect for their own cultural perspectives is growing; adopting Western culture abjectly is on the way out.
Relative economic decline is depriving the West of its control of global affairs, too, and not before time given its perfidy and folly, Mahbubani would have us know.
For the West betrays dreadful egotism. It demands free trade from the Third World but pursues unashamed protectionism of its own economies; it lectures developing countries on the need to curb carbon emissions but is by far the biggest emitter; it claims to promote human rights and democracy to undermine recalcitrant regimes, but winks when friends such as the Uzbek Government boil dissidents alive. Westerners sneer at the incompetence of Third World regimes, yet they stood by feebly as thousands perished in the Balkan wars. What amazing ineptitude their Iraqi and Afghan interventions show. The proud West should learn from level-headed Asian governments, such as the members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, the art of tackling international problems without counterproductive arrogance, says Mahbubani.
He is only too right that Western control of global institutions such as the UN Security Council, the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank is grotesquely outdated and has to be conceded gracefully if there is to be a fairer world.
Mahbubani is a great admirer of China's post-Mao arch-pragmatist leadership that has been overseeing that nation's astoundingly fast economic growth in recent decades. He cites the injunctions to his fellow leaders of Deng Xiaoping, the originator of China's reform policy: observe and analyse developments calmly; secure one's own position; conceal capabilities; keep a low profile; strive to make achievements. Such astuteness deserves salute; if it followed Deng's advice how much better off the US would be, not to mention a country such as India, loud in talk and laggard in action.
In connection with China, Mahbubani sets out one of his key ideas - that democracy, the pet Western prescription for the world, is badly misleading. China is not democratic by Western standards, he admits, but then the Western concept of freedom is simplistic. It is not just about freedom of expression and a free vote for the government. Freedom is also freedom from famine, from pillage and murder by bandits, freedom to choose what work you wish to do and for whom.
In all these vital respects China has made stupendous progress. Free speech and free choice of governments are only the "final layer" of freedom for Mahbubani. If they come too soon they might plunge China into deadly instability. The West, he says, would be wise not to distinguish sharply between freedom and despotism.
The problems in this argument are easy to see. The West will lose its own freedom if it allows its idea of what freedom is to become blurred. The West doesn't demand that China institute a democracy overnight; it has merely spoken up for human rights in the country. There is never a "right" time for democracy that will guarantee stability. Democracy is always risky. Dictatorship can provoke chaos, too. Mahbubani's stance reveals him to be not the voice of the new Asia at large but rather a voice from the elite groups in certain dictatorial and semi-authoritarian Asian nations that take for granted their right to tell the masses what to do. Egotism is evidently not only a Western sin.
His larger thesis is also flawed. There are many successful civilisations, he proclaims; they are going to blossom anew. The Western civilisation is not the universal one. Yet when Mahbubani scoffs at the "myth of Western superiority" one remembers his own pages on how the West gave the East the concepts of equality before the law, meritocracy and modern democracy. He praises modernisation but does not see that it is a new civilisation in itself. It came to fruition in the West, but modernity was never wholly Western - it took crucial scientific and technological ideas from other civilisations such as the Hindus, the Arabs and the Chinese. All cultures will be mere subsidiaries of this civilisation of modernity.
In the new world of Asian economic might, Asians may indeed show less tendency to ape the West in certain matters, for example dress and food, and greater respect for their own literary heritage. Yet for all the author's talk about Eastern cultural assertion he gives few examples of it, other than strident statements by some ideologues.
Asian values that diverge from those demanded by modern civilisation are unlikely to last. Recrudescence of polygamy may seem fine to Mahbubani as an expression of Asian cultural rebirth, but it is a fair bet that it will be temporary. Mahbubani may think, like much of the East Asian power elite, that democracy can wait until that elite decides, but Asia's peoples may beg to differ. Mere exaltation of the Asian heritage is not a renaissance of Eastern culture. It's old hat. Look at the books of leaders of Asian independence. A book such as Nehru's The Discovery of India (1945) asserts Asian cultural pride far more eloquently and movingly than anything written recently.
For Kishore Mahbubani, Singapore is the best place to observe world issues. "This region will be the centre of world history," he says. "And if you sit in Singapore or in South-East Asia, you will get a ringside view of the action. The theatre is coming here. So why move when history is coming towards us?"
Mahbubani, dean and professor in the practice of public policy at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy of the National University of Singapore and faculty associate for the Centre on Asia and Globalisation, has enjoyed a career in government and writing on public issues.
He was with the Singapore Foreign Service from 1971 to 2004: he had postings in Cambodia, where he served during the war in 1973-74, Malaysia, Washington DC and New York, where he had stints as Singapore's ambassador to the UN and as president of the UN Security Council.
In the world of ideas, Mahbubani, who has studied both philosophy and history, has spoken and published globally.
- Sarah Cunnnane
The New Asian Hemisphere: The Irresistible Shift of Global Power to the East
By Kishore Mahbubani
PublicAffairs, 336pp, £15.99
Published 6 March 2008