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


Ambassador for the Asian Century

Mahbubani’s current position at the National University of Singapore, which he has held since 2004, makes him, in many ways, an even more pivotal figure in the emergence of the Asian century. “I see him as one of the world’s leading public intellectuals,” says National University of Singapore President Shih Choon Fong. “He’s really building the future — the future of Singapore, and Singapore’s role in rising Asia. By coming to the university, he’s now engaging future leaders in the public sector and also the private sector. He’s drawn some of the best minds in Asia. In this way, the fruits will come much later, but be more enduring.”

The majority of students at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy (named for Singapore’s founding prime minister, who held office from 1959 to 1990) are not from Singapore. Seventy-four percent of the 214 students enrolled in 2007’s fall semester are from other Asian countries, primarily China and India, and to a lesser extent Vietnam and Indonesia. Although it is, as Shih notes, too early to judge the results of Mahbubani’s academic undertaking, high-profile graduates of his young school include vice mayors of several large Chinese cities, and department or division directors in the Chinese State Development Planning Commission, the Vietnamese Ministry of Finance, the Lao Ministry of Commerce, the Reserve Bank of India, and the Philippine Department of Health. In addition, graduates include at least one Chinese CEO — Bao Ke of the Beijing Development Area Company Ltd. — and the chief economist of the Agrarian Reform Communities Project of the Asian Development Bank, Jay Bertram T. Lacsamana, who is Filipino.

The graduates of Mahbubani’s programs will be making decisions that affect billions of people in the region in the decades to come. They will be the emerging leaders in institutions of government that struggle to keep up with the pace of Asia’s growth.

Europe was the world’s center for education in the 400 to 500 years before World War II. In the 20th century, that role shifted to the United States. Now, with the rise of China and India, and the economic power that accompanies this as­cendance, many expect Asia to emerge as the center of education sometime in the 21st century. Already, according to the Times Higher Education Supplement in 2006, 15 percent of the world’s top 200 universities are located in Asia. These include 11 in Chinese-speaking Asia (China, Hong Kong, and Taiwan), 11 in Japan, three in Korea, and two in India (with the Indian Institutes of Technology ranked collectively as 57th). Three Asian universities rank in the top 20, including the National University of Singapore and the University of Tokyo, which are tied for 19th place.

Although the Lee Kuan Yew School has relationships with Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, the Global Public Policy Network, the London School of Economics, and the Institut d’Etudes Politiques, it is not a carbon copy of its Western partners. Rather, its three master’s degree programs emphasize the public policy experiences of Asian countries and the critical challenges facing them, according to Mahbubani. “You’ve got to understand the cultures and political systems of the region.” Students at the Lee Kuan Yew School encounter a world view that departs in some ways from pro-U.S. or pro-Western mentalities. “Apply an Asian lens and you will perhaps see things somewhat differently; you will get a different perspective,” says Mahbubani’s deputy, Vice Dean Stavros Yiannouka, a former strategy consultant. “It’s the flavor of the courses that’s different.”

This difference is not quite as simple as rearticu­lating the “Asian values” idea, which in the 1990s extolled the influence of Confucianism, viewed as loy­alty to family and society, a strong work ethic, and the forgoing of certain personal freedoms for the sake of societal stability. Among its adherents were Lee Kuan Yew, Malaysia’s Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, and Mahbubani himself. But the concept of Asian values has largely been discredited in academic and policy circles because it does not represent the diverse cultures of Asia, nor is it unique to Confucius-influenced societies. 

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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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