Idea Man

Idea Man

One of Asia's most prominent thinkers, Kishore Mahbubani is always searching for new ways to challenge himself.

Another day, another forum of global leaders in sharp business suits at a five-star hotel. But I spot the person I have come to interview in a second — he's the only one not wearing a jacket.

"I left the jacket in my friend's car when we met for dinner last night," Kishore Mahbubani explains. "My friend will return it to me this afternoon, so no problem."

The offhand remark helps break the ice as I ride the elevator with one of the world's most prominent thinkers, who has graciously agreed to be interviewed in his hotel room because the room provided earlier was less photogenic.

At the entrance to the room, a welcoming chocolate from the hotel with his name painted on it lies untouched on a low coffee table. Dr Mahbubani had yet to fully settle in despite having arrived in Bangkok the day before. He was here to be a keynote speaker at the Insight Asean Summit organised by the Young Presidents Organization at the Plaza Athenee Hotel. His topic, and one for which he has become renowned worldwide: the global power shift to the East.

"I've been expressing my ideas about the rise of Asia through my writings for over two decades and so far all my predictions are coming true," he said.

"More people are inviting me to give speeches because it's a matter of global interest in trying to understand why Asia is rising."

A Singaporean national of Indian ethnic origin who turned 66 last month, Dr Mahbubani is now the dean of Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy at the National University of Singapore. "I'm working much harder now. It's ironic. Normally as you get older, you tend to work less and less."

Before he "retired" in 2006 at age 58 and moved into the academic world, he had spent 33 years in Singapore's Foreign Service, working closely with three men he describes as irreplaceable mentors: Lee Kuan Yew, the first prime minister of Singapore; Dr Goh Keng Swee, the acknowledged architect of the city-state's economic miracle; and Sinnathamby Rajaratnam, the country's first foreign minister.

As a diplomat, he had been represented Singapore in various places around the world including Cambodia during the civil war, Malaysia, Washington DC, and New York at the United Nations.

"When I became an academic, I was then able to reflect on international relations quite well," he said. "If I hadn't had 33 years of diplomatic experience, I would not have been able to write the four books that I did."

Writing is his greatest passion. Some days, he can write six or seven articles consecutively. Music, he says, holds the key to his productivity, but it must be the music of Indian artist Mohammed Rafi. "The functionality of my brain is attached to Mohammed Rafi's music. If I don't listen to him, my brain doesn't work and I can't keep writing. I can write much better and faster with the music on."

Kishore Mahbubani's critical commentaries on global issues have appeared all over the world and are seen regularly in leading publications such as the Financial Times and the New York Times. He has also written four books that have been widely praised.

"I have been very fortunate that so far I have been able to always come up with new ideas. Once you stop coming up with new ideas, then you are in trouble," he said, adding that getting old is in fact an asset as things become clearer.

At the same time, as he gets older, he wants to spend more time with family too because all his three children, two sons and one daughter, are living in different parts of the world.

His oldest son, now 28, is married to an American woman and lives Pittsburgh where he obtained a master's degree in engineering and public policy from Carnegie Mellon University. His 26-year-old daughter graduated with a degree in history from Yale University and his youngest son, also a Yale graduate, is now in Taiwan studying Chinese.

His Irish-American wife, Anne, is now living with him in Singapore. They met when Dr Mahbubani was deputy chief of the Singapore mission in Washington DC. They are now trying to pursue their "bucket list" which simply includes travelling the world.

"When I turned 65, I decided I have to start visiting places before I die. I learned how to scuba dive at the age of 65 and I went to the Maldives. I've been to Galapagos Islands, Machu Picchu in Peru, and also Jordan to see the famous ruins of Petra. All of these travels, I have been on with my wife," he explained with noticeable exhilaration.

HUMBLE BEGINNINGS

The contented life Dr Mahbubani enjoys today is a far cry from the struggles of his early days. His parents were part of the great migration of 1947 when India and Pakistan came into being.

"My parents were Sindhi Hindus living in Pakistan then. When partition took place, my parents left Pakistan and fortunately I was born in Singapore in 1948," he said.

His father had come to Singapore earlier in 1933 at age 13 to work as a peon for 5 cents a day. Familiarity with Singapore convinced his father to move the whole family there in hopes of a better life. But the family struggled just the same.

For the first 26 years of his life, Dr Mahbubani lived with his parents and three sisters in a one-bedroom house. He was the second child and he considered it lucky as his parents could still afford an education for him.

"I was fortunate because my family was relatively poor by any standards. When I first went to school at age six, I was put in a special programme because I was technically less knowledgeable," he recalled with a chuckle.

School was uneventful until he developed a passion for reading after discovering the Joo Chiat public library a few kilometres from his house. He would go there two or three times a week while others headed for the playground after school.

"The process of reading transformed my life. The more you read, the more your mind opens up and the more prepared you are," he said, adding that his all-time favourite novels are War and Peace by Tolstoy and The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoyevsky.

After finishing high school, he received a president's scholarship due to his outstanding exam results. That was what really changed his life.

"I was supposed to work as a Sindhi textile salesman for a $150 a month salary because I got the job when I finished high school," he said. "But fortunately, I was then offered the scholarship which gave me $250 a month. Since it was worth more, I ended up going to university instead.

"Most president's scholars will study in universities like Oxford and Cambridge, but because I assumed I wasn't going to go to university I hadn't applied. Therefore, I ended up studying in Singapore."

Dr Mahbubani graduated with a First-class Honours in Philosophy from the University of Singapore (now National University of Singapore) in 1971. He received a master's degree in Philosophy in 1976.

He joined the Ministry of Foreign Affairs right after his undergraduate years in 1971. Career highlights included a term as Singapore's permanent representative to the United Nations and president of the UN Security Council.

As a chargé d'affaires, representing a country where one is a minority might seem a challenge, but Dr Mahbubani says he feels blessed to have worked on behalf of Singapore where people are judged based on merit.

"In such a multinational society, only 6-7% are Indians. The majority of Indians there come from southern India, but I'm one of the minorities who came from the north," he said. "Technically I belong to a minority within a minority in Singapore, but even then it's remarkable that I was able to represent Singapore in the United Nations."

Singapore's commitment to developing its people has made it a beacon in Asia and one of the most competitive countries in the world because it is one of the most open societies in Asean, Dr Mahbubani said.

ASEAN MIRACLE

"Asean needs a champion and I hope to be one of the champions of Asean as I'm a great believer in Asean. I think Asean is a living, breathing modern miracle," he said.

In his view, Southeast Asia is home to the world's most diverse community of 600 million with extensive differences in cultures, religions and social systems, as well as stages of development. The region comprises 250 million Muslims, 100 million Christians, 80 million Mahayana Buddhists, 150 million Hinayana Buddhists, Taoists, Confucians, Hindus and even Communists.

"Despite its diversity, Asean has managed to achieve greater peace than the Middle East, South Asia, or Africa, even those regions are not as diverse as Southeast Asia," Dr Mahbubani observed.

"[Asean] provides a model for the rest of the world to learn from. Can you imagine if Iraq, Syria, Israel, Palestine could learn from Asean? It will be a completely different world."

The difference of political systems, he believes, is not a source of tension but one of the sources of strength of Asean, unlike the European Union where all countries practise a similar form of democracy.

Dr Mahbubani admires Asean for its ability to maintain peace and order, despite some tensions over the South China Sea. "These sorts of disputes can lead to war, but it's remarkable that they haven't yet because Asean has played a positive role in creating a culture of peace in the region.

"There is a very low probability of the use of force, very low. I actually believe that at the end of the day, peace will prevail though there will be challenges."

Southeast Asia has also been quite pragmatic in successfully engaging the world's two superpowers, China and the United States. Even better days are yet to come with the formation of the Asean Economic Community (AEC), which will be reflected in Dr Mahbubani's next book, The Most Blessed Corner on Earth.

GLOBAL POWER SHIFT

Dr Mahbubani has also been a spirited advocate of a bigger Asia. In The New Asian Hemisphere, he asserts that the era of Western domination is finally over. He notes the dominance of India and China before 1820, while Western powers came afterward and lasted for only 200 years.

"Power is definitely going to shift eastward. The past 200-year history of Western domination has been a historical aberration and all historical aberrations have come to a natural end," he said.

The book is critical of the West for pressing certain values on the world, including "democracy" as an ideology.

"They have worshipped democracy as an absolute good, so they have stopped being critical about it. They treat democracy like a god. Democracy is not a god. Democracy is a tool," Dr Mahbubani said firmly.

Such views have their critics in the West, but the author says simply that western minds are programmed to believe that theirs is the superior civilisation, so they cannot accept the new reality.

"I'm not saying that we are superior to the West. I think we are equal, that's all. The West must learn to treat Asians equally and not treat Asians as inferior."

Dr Mahbubani admitted that part of his enthusiasm for being a champion for Asia stems from the psychological inferiority he felt as a child growing up under British rule in Singapore.

"Today, I realise it was a mistake [to feel that way]. Nobody is inferior to any Europeans," he said.

"In top American universities, young Asians outperform young Europeans and young Americans. It shows that the Asian mind is as good as the other minds in the world.

"I don't think any civilisation is better. We are all equal. It is just that the Asian societies were very slow in modernising and opening up the economy, but finally they have done so. Having finally done so, they are now in the position to catch up."

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