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 / Spring 2008 / Issue 50(originally published by Booz & Company)


Ambassador for the Asian Century

Singaporean diplomat Kishore Mahbubani says the West should lose its arrogance and the East should step up to global leadership.

Kishore Mahbubani understands the power of messages. Amid ringing phones and interruptions and with a bustling waiting room just outside his door, the dean of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy at the National University of Singapore is pondering a mockup of an advertisement intended to attract new students. Below a row of upright yellow pencils are the words “Stand up to lead.” Mahbubani frowns. It’s not just the bad pun — lead as in pencils, lead as in leadership — that bothers him.

Photographs by Kris LeBoutillier

“What doesn’t come through is the one big message I want to put across,” Mahbubani says. “This ad is rather abstract. You can put any institution’s name on this, apply it to the London School of Economics and apply it to the Kennedy School of Government, but I want to make it something unique for our school.”

A staff member tries to argue for the pencils, but Mahbubani is resolutely formulating his idea. “I prefer to have something that focuses on Asia. The theme will be, ‘The Asian century is here.’ The tagline will say, ‘To enter the Asian century, come to the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy,’” he says, instructing the staff member to create an image of a door. “That is unique, something that LSE cannot sell, that the Institut d’Etudes Politiques in Paris cannot sell, that Columbia University cannot sell. They’re not doors to Asia. That’s our unique competitive advantage, you see. That’s the message I want to convey.”

Kishore Mahbubani has spent years admonishing global leaders that we have entered an Asian cen­tury, when the economies of the East will surpass those of the West. That profound shift, he warns, requires equally profound attitude adjustments for leaders from both regions. How will China and India prepare to lead the rest of the world? And how will the United States and Europe deal with losing their dominance? “The world is going to change faster and faster, and if I can play a role in minimizing misunderstandings, I want to do that,” he says. “I’m trying to explain both sides to each other.”

Mahbubani has assumed the role of interpreter throughout his career as a diplomat, author, counselor to policymakers and multinational corporations, and now educator. In those various capacities, Mahbubani has become one of Singapore’s most recognizable figures on the global stage. And he has used his prominence to drive his point home to leaders across the globe, in turn raising his profile by asking uncomfortable questions and providing occasionally undiplomatic analysis that is intended to jolt each side — East and West — out of its complacency about its place in the rest of the world. According to Mahbubani, only when Asia is ready to step up to its inevitable leadership, and Europe and the U.S. concede Asia’s emerging primacy, can we benefit from this new epoch. “Hundreds of millions of people,” he writes, “will be rescued from the clutches of poverty [and] the world as a whole will become more peaceful and stable.” With the publication of his latest book, The New Asian Hemisphere: The Irresistible Shift of Global Power to the East (Public Affairs, 2008), Mahbubani is solidifying his position as the mediator who will help each side negotiate its place in the new world order. And leaders from government and industry alike, from the East and the West, are paying attention.

Speaking Uncomfortable Truths
Mahbubani’s 1998 collection of essays, Can Asians Think? (Times Books International), served as his first notice of a pending geopolitical displacement that would challenge both East and West. And although his message may have been galling to some, his gimlet-eyed view won him a legion of high-powered admirers. “If you are looking for insight into how others perceive us [Westerners] — and the events of September 11 underscore that need — then I know of no better guide than Kishore Mahbubani,” commented Paul Volcker, the former chairman of the United States’ Federal Reserve who is now a member of the Trilateral Commission and an advisor on international affairs, upon the publication of Can Asians Think? Says Joanne Myers, director of public affairs programs at the Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs, “He’s provocative, thoughtful, clever, intelligent, and shrewd. He makes you aware there are people in the world who come to issues in a way we wouldn’t think about. He stirs things up.” N.R. Narayana Murthy, the founder of Infosys Technologies in Bangalore, insists that Mahbubani’s book “raised the confidence of many Asians.”

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  1. Sven Behrendt, “The Statecraft of Business,” s+b, Autumn 2007: Demonstrates that corporate strategy can be based on international relations theory.
  2. Art Kleiner, “Carlotta Perez: The Thought Leader Interview,” s+b, Winter 2005: This influential long-wave theorist sets a context for the Asian century.
  3. Kishore Mahbubani, Beyond the Age of Innocence: Rebuilding Trust between America and the World (Public Affairs, 2005): Argues that U.S. imprudence toward two huge populations — the Chinese and Muslims — led to the United States’ diminished global authority.
  4. Kishore Mahbubani, Can Asians Think? (Times Books International, 1998): A wake-up call to Asians and Westerners alike.
  5. Kishore Mahbubani, The New Asian Hemisphere: The Irresistible Shift of Global Power to the East (Public Affairs, 2008): How a new type of partnership can help the West and East avoid conflict.
  6. Edward Tse, “China’s Five Surprises,” s+b, Winter 2005: Explains why in the world’s fastest-growing economy, the last 10 years are not the best guide to the next 10 years.
  7. For more business thought leadership, sign up for s+b’s RSS feed.
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