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


Ambassador for the Asian Century

Mahbubani asserts that Singapore has done an excellent job of addressing the needs of the majority of its people — and that American ideals such as a free press do not work in small countries like Singapore, nor in countries, such as China or Vietnam, where economic development has not reached a certain level of stability. Ironically, Mahbubani wanted to be a journalist when he graduated from college and twice applied to work at the Singapore Straits Times newspaper; however, the terms of his scholarship dictated that he join government service.

Rather than theoretical ideals, Mahbubani says, what’s most important is what a government delivers to its people. “It’s not about the kind of government you have; it’s more about the quality of government you have. You can have good governance with democratic rule as you do in India, or under Communist Party rule as you have in China. You can have bad governance under democratic rule as you have in the Philippines, or bad governance under Communist rule as in North Korea,” he says. “The West said, ‘Russia, you’re taking the right road in becoming more democratic; China, you’re taking the wrong road in keeping your Communist Party.’ In 1990, that was a Western judgment. Seventeen years later, it’s very clear that Russia took the wrong road and China took the right road. It’s so hard to get any Westerner to admit that now. The lesson we learned is that good governance is far more important than the form of political system.”

But he won’t go so far as to say that he’s advocating that other governments — those that send their students to his school — replicate the “Singapore model.” Although he lauds Singapore’s achievements, Mahbubani recognizes the key flaw of the Singapore model: that it never fostered home-grown entrepreneurialism and a flourishing private sector. Lee Kuan Yew’s model of development was to invite in foreign multinational companies to create jobs, stimulate growth, and use Singapore as a hub for the region, rather than encourage indigenous growth fostered by Singaporean companies. The result is that today, big business is largely controlled either by multinationals or by state-owned corporations — a dramatic difference from the business environments of other thriving economies such as China and India. Singapore’s $100 billion investment vehicle, Temasek Holdings, has as its executive director Ho Ching, the wife of the current prime minister and therefore Lee Kuan Yew’s daughter-in-law. Entrepreneurialism in Singapore is confined to relatively few small- and medium-sized enterprises.

Mahbubani notes that as the image of the U.S. suffers blow after blow on the international stage, Singapore’s example is playing well in a region that is in need of strategies for managing rapid growth, and that increasingly refuses to be judged on its human rights record by the country responsible for the abuses at Guantanamo Bay and Abu Ghraib. “I never thought that in my lifetime, Singapore’s human rights record would be better than America’s,” Mahbubani scoffs. “America has lost its moral authority on human rights issues. As someone who’s been on the receiving end of human rights lectures for the last 30 years, I can tell you, the rest of the world laughs at the U.S.” That sentiment makes the Lee Kuan Yew School a palatable option for governments sending their officials abroad for education. Also fueling that sentiment is the fact that officials from developing countries get their education at the Lee Kuan Yew School almost free, through scholarships.

In keeping with his view that the West’s demo­cratic ideals do have an important place in a region where economies have matured, Mahbubani supports the eventual adoption of those concepts, including universal human rights, for all Asian countries at some point in the future. But economic progress, he insists, has to pave the way toward those ideas. “I have seen great shifts in history,” he says, noting that in his lifetime, he has witnessed the end of both colonial rule and the threat of communism. Now, he says, “I can see the rise of Asia as one huge tide coming.” His chosen contribution is to help both the East and the West navigate that tide toward a future that benefits both.

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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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