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


Ambassador for the Asian Century

Rather, Mahbubani and his school embrace the “viable alternative path” theories of development, which hold that societies need not adopt every democratic ideal of the West to be fully functioning and successful. “His view is that he, and Asia, sees the world differently than the U.S. does,” says Nobel laureate and Columbia University economist Joseph E. Stiglitz, who sits with Mahbubani on a World Economic Forum panel charged with developing a global public policy agenda. “In many respects he is right. For a part of the world where, for 150 years, Western values meant colonialism, imperialism, and talking about democracy but taking away democratic rights, as it did in the Opium War, ‘Western values’ may seem vacuous and hypocritical. This is a population that could easily say, ‘We don’t know what Western values are, but if this is what is meant by Western values, we don’t like them.’”

Championing Asian Ideals
It’s worth noting that the Western ideal of democracy was not what drove the development of such potent economies as South Korea, Taiwan, and, yes, Singapore. Between 1959 and 2006, Singapore’s per capita GDP rose from US$427 to $29,474, making it one of the wealthiest countries in the region. It has a transparent and scandal-free government, a model system of revenue collection where citizens can pay their taxes online, one of the highest rates of broadband access in the world, a high level of public safety, dedication to the creation of green space, exemplary public services such as water and waste management, tough emissions standards that keep the city’s pollution levels low, and world-class health care that draws patients from all over Asia and the rest of the world.

That success is partly attributed, by Lee Kuan Yew himself, to the implementation of economic freedoms linked integrally with social controls. “If this is a ‘nanny state,’ I am proud to have fostered one,” Lee wrote in his memoir, From Third World to First: The Singapore Story 1965–2000. His People’s Action Party has dominated politics since 1959; his eldest son, Lee Hsien Loong, was elected prime minister in 2004. Although opposition parties technically exist, the think tank Freedom House ranks Singapore as only “partly free.” 

Notes K. Kesavapany of the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies: “Yes, democracy and human rights are important, but the right to have a roof over your head, to provide for your family, is equally important. If the latter have to override the former, that’s the choice we make. Iraq has shown how flawed the Western argument is. Iraqis say, ‘Yes, we have democracy, but we are not safe, we don’t have a means to put a roof over our heads.’ Lee Kuan Yew had state control to ensure that the [government] can be left to safely do work in peace, and media was to be used for the development of the country and not for people with agendas to interfere in internal affairs.”

Mahbubani does not disagree, and it’s clear that he has had to play by Singapore’s rules in order to reach the position he is in today. He publicly supports such Singaporean tenets as the former ban on chewing gum and other so-called nanny state laws. In fact, he is “110 percent the apologist for the Singapore government,” according to a professor at the Lee Kuan Yew School who asked for anonymity. Of course, espousing those policies would have been expected of any representative of Singapore, and Mahbubani served in the country’s foreign service for 33 years. “He thinks outside the box except when it comes to Singapore government policy,” says Tommy Koh, a fellow Singaporean diplomat who preceded Mahbubani at the U.N. and also published widely during the “Asian values” debate. When pressed, Mahbubani will concede that the Singaporean government is not perfect, but insists that he will not criticize it either, since he owes “everything I have” to the opportunities it provided him.

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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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