Today's date:
Spring 2008

Peeling Away the Western Veneer

Kishore Mahbubani, dean of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy in Singapore, is author of The New Asian Hemisphere: The Irresistible Shift of Power to the East. He recently spoke with NPQ editor Nathan Gardels.

NPQ | One aspect of post-globalization, of the world growing more diverse after the playing field has been flattened, is non-Western modernization. Do you see this in Asia?

Kishore Mahbubani | Yes. I try to distinguish between modernization and Westernization.

They are not the same thing at all. The paradox that the West hasn't grasped yet is that you have modernization and de-Westernization taking place at the same time. That is something that doesn't fit the Western mindset. For them, modernization can only be Westernization.

Modernization means that you want to have a comfortable, middle-class existence with all the amenities and attributes that go along with it -- clean water, indoor plumbing, electricity, telecommunications, infrastructure, personal safety, rule of law, stable politics and a good education system.

As these societies modernize and become more confident, they are rejecting the Western frame of mind and cultural perspectives they have accepted, or been forced to accept, for the past 200 years.

You have to go inside the Asian mind to understand this new thinking. In prospering Asia today, there is a sense of pride and liberation. There is a sense that "I've had this Western veneer covering my mind, now I can peel it off. Now I can be myself. I may speak English fluently, but I have a different soul."

Just as the Italian Renaissance reconnected Europeans back to the greatness of Greek and Roman times, so too, in Asia today, a kind of renaissance is taking place as we rediscover our cultural roots.

The Nalanda project is a good example of what I'm talking about. From the 5th through the 12th century, Nalanda was the biggest university in the world, where scholars from China, India, Japan and Korea connected Asia until the Turkish invaders destroyed it without a trace. It was a center of learning and innovation. Now, after the Western interlude, we are rediscovering these old connections of the past and rebuilding a new civilization on its foundations.

This shift in the Eastern mind seems to have been largely missed by the West. Indeed it has taken on real momentum in the years since 9/11 when the West has been preoccupied with terrorism and Islamic radicalism.

NPQ | How are these values different from the West's? Are you talking about Confucian, socially conservative values versus the more libertarian West? Is it anti-West?

Mahbubani | For the moment, parents in Asia still want to send their kids to American universities, at least until more Asian universities, improving ever more in quality, reach world standards. We are not about to give up the modern world of science, technology and economics. What we are rediscovering are new perspectives on the cultural and moral side.

Yet, even with respect to Confucian values, we don't want to go back to the old days. But we do want to modernize those values in light of our own experience, not just adapt some liberal outlook on freedoms of the individual because that is what the West had done.

I grew up in a household not of Confucian but of Hindu values. As a child, I was supposed to touch my father's feet as a demonstration of respect. I always hated that. I rebelled against it. Today, of course, the notion of respecting elders remains, but not the extreme oppressive form of it from the old era. It is leavened more by the concept of equality, the Western gift to the world. So, we have a mix.

I have spent my whole adult life listening to Western music. But now it is the old Hindi songs of my childhood that get me going. This shows in my thoughts somewhere, I am returning to my roots. What do the rich Chinese buy? Chinese antiques so they can connect to their past.

NPQ | What is the difference here between what you are describing and the globalized hybrid culture everyone shares today with the crosspollination that comes from a more open global society?

Mahbubani | There is a kind of new cosmopolitan global personality emerging, it's true. That is one phenomenon we see. I'm intrigued to see how popular culture mixes with traditions the world over. I went to a Chinese function in Singapore recently in which Punjabi Bhangra music was being played. That is part of the cosmopolitanism that is coming.

But one particularity of what is happening in Asia is a rediscovery of the once-lost past, in China, in India. One good example is what is happening in TV shows. As a child growing up, I only saw American TV shows like I Love Lucy, My Three Sons and so on. Today, increasingly the Chinese TV is about some legendary hero from the Qing dynasty.

NPQ | Does that mean a loss of hegemony over hearts and minds by Hollywood?

Mahbubani | I think so. Hollywood still has an edge over everyone else because of technology, technique and sophistication in making feature films, not to speak of its long entrenched global distribution networks.

These days, Bollywood's reach has become nearly as great. Not long ago I was driving through the desert in Morocco. Passing through a small town, I saw these huge billboards advertising Hindi movies! That's very far away from India.

NPQ | In your book, you say China has joined the global trend toward democracy by empowering its people through economic liberty, if not political liberty, making them masters of their destiny more than at any time in the past.

Is illiberal democracy such as we see in China a form of modernization that is non-Western?

Mahbubani | Look at it from the Chinese standpoint over the last 200 years. The British came and said, "We want to buy your tea. We have no money to pay you, so we'll sell you opium." The Chinese said no. The British clobbered them, and they were forced to buy opium.

The Chinese experience for the last 150 years was one of humiliation upon humiliation. In 1949, they were liberated by Mao and the Communist Party, but the people didn't see any improvement in their condition until Deng Xiaoping's modernization program after the Cultural Revolution. Since then, they have had the fastest growing economy in the world.

I have seen so many examples of individual Chinese whose lives have flourished and changed for the better. They have so much more freedom in their lives than ever before.

We employed, to give an anecdotal example, a young Chinese woman as our children's Chinese-language tutor who had come to Singapore to learn English. She later went back to China and, with her husband, set up a secretarial school in Xian, not even Beijing or Shanghai. Within seven years she had an institute of three or four buildings and a considerable number of employees. Today, she could employ me!

NPQ | The Chinese dream is every bit as valid as the American stories about Horatio Alger.

Mahbubani | Yes, it is amazing. That is just one story. Imagine that replicated millions of times over. That is empowerment. Compared to what their parents and their grandparents went through, they are having the best possible life.

Do they want to shake all that for the sake of liberal democracy? Even the American university-educated Chinese elite are far from certain that liberal democracy is what China needs now.

Of course, they know in due course China has to head in that direction. But it has to be a very careful transition, on Chinese terms in Chinese time, not by some false tempo dictated by human-rights advocates in the US or Europe.

There is a simple test. Remember all the Vietnamese boat people running away from communism? Today, 15–20 million Chinese regularly travel abroad. And they all go back to China. That is because they believe they have a future there for the kind of life they want.

Why do almost all the American-trained Chinese Ph.D.s return to teach in Chinese universities? It is because there is today a credible "Chinese dream" of empowerment and mobility just as there has been an American Dream. The sense of pride in China is so strong now. They feel they have a future in a wonderful country.

NPQ | Indeed, there is a sense of opportunity and mobility in China today akin to America. There is a sense of a blank slate that can be drawn on, an open future without the past tying you down.

America is that way because it is an immigrant society that was built up in an essentially empty country. There was only a future, not much of a past to weigh an individual down. China is that way because the devastating Cultural Revolution wiped the slate clean, destroying all old relationships of hierarchy, privilege and inequality. Whatever other disasters it wrought, it did level society.

It is not a fashionable notion, but perhaps, in retrospect, we can see that Mao's Cultural Revolution was the midwife of Deng's modernization?

Mahbubani | Horrible things happened in the Cultural Revolution. Everyone knows this. At the same time, Chinese culture was profoundly feudal. If you were a peasant, you were a peasant for all your life. That would be the fate of your children, too. And that was that.

What Mao sought to do, and did, was shake off a thousand years of feudalism in a very brutal way. But that was enormously liberating to people at the very bottom. All the barriers in front of them disappeared.

Today, everyone in China is equal in the marketplace. "To be rich is glorious." What a remarkable thing to say for a once-feudal society! Today, all the dormant brains once mired in feudalism are being put to work. Is it any wonder growth keeps skyrocketing?

Look at the alternative, the Philippines. It never had any kind of social or cultural revolution. It remains deeply feudal. The people at the bottom cannot rise. They have no hope. That is why the Philippines is the largest exporter of labor. You can see the hardworking maids taking their day off sitting around the harbor in Hong Kong on Sunday afternoon. If they can, they go to America.

India, of course, has also had a social revolution in a less devastating way.

NPQ | Some say that the road to the East goes through the West -- that is, the world order built by the West. This means the free-trading system, the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank, the United Nations, the sea lanes, particularly from the oil states, secured by the US Navy. And there is relatively easy entry to that system if you agree to the rules.

In this perspective, isn't talk of non-Western modernization really a figment? All you are doing is really joining the Western order.

Mahbubani | I certainly agree that the international rules, the so-called 1945 rules, which set up Bretton Woods, the IMF and the World Bank -- and ultimately the WTO (World Trade Organization) -- are Western gifts to the world. We are happy to abide by the rules. Asia is ready to compete on a level playing field.

What is missing in this argument is that the West itself is losing faith in these rules and institutions. Americans no longer believe that a level playing field is to their benefit. The problem is that the West wants to remain custodians of those rules -- in the top positions at the IMF and World Bank, for example -- even though they no longer believe in them!

It is yet another paradox that it is the powers of rising Asia that want to salvage these gifts which the West appears ready to abandon.

NPQ | After the Asian financial crisis, the US, the IMF and the World Bank lectured Asian nations on their lack of transparency and competence in the global financial system. Now, it looks like the tables have turned.

Mahbubani | If you want to compete, as we in Asia know from that financial crisis a decade ago, you have to have your fiscal house in order. Now the shoe is on the other foot. Whose banks and nations are incompetent at managing their finances and their currencies?

Now, another paradox. The key financial institutions of the West are looking to the sovereign wealth funds of China and Singapore for cash infusions to ward off insolvency! George Soros is right to say that this indicates a new power alignment, with a relative decline of the US and the rise of China and other countries in the developing world.