Can Asians Think? Understanding the Divide Between East and West
Can Asians Think? Understanding the Divide Between East and West

Can Asians Think? Understanding the Divide Between East and West

Jan 24, 2002

The world is nearing the end of a 500-year cycle of Western-dominated history that began with European colonization, says Mahbubani. The end of the Cold War "unfroze" historical forces, but most Americans remain unaware that major changes are imminent.

The world is nearing the end of a 500-year cycle of Western-dominated history that began with European colonization, says Kishore Mahbubani. The end of the Cold War "unfroze" historical forces, but most Americans remain unaware that major changes are imminent.


JOANNE MYERS: As part of our Books for Breakfast series, it is a pleasure to welcome back a special friend of the Carnegie Council, Kishore Mahbubani, Singapore's distinguished ambassador to the United Nations. Ambassador Mahbubani will be discussing his recently reissued book, Can Asians Think? Understanding the Divide Between East and West.

When Ambassador Mahbubani first published these essays, the world was a very different place. It was a time when the debate over Asian values loomed large, a time when the rapid and remarkable economic strides by countries in the Asia-Pacific region served as a testimonial to a collective value system of non-Western intellectual and social traditions. However, in the summer of 1997, when the once-healthy Asian economy rapidly began to deteriorate, Asian values, once touted as the driving force behind these economic successes, were raising questions about the future of Asian societies.

Today, as we enter a new period in world history, the essays presented in this book are perhaps even more relevant than when they first appeared, for now it can be argued that Ambassador Mahbubani's work provides a foundation for a far-reaching discourse between East and West, and, to paraphrase him, may even call attention to the possibility that contributions of other civilizations have influenced the development and growth of mankind and may yet equal those of the West.

It is his belief that the world will be a much richer place when Western minds stop assuming that Western civilization represents the only universal civilization.

It was with these thoughts in mind that Ambassador Mahbubani directs his first questions to his fellow Asians and challenges them to look inward to ask why they have slipped so far behind European societies whom they once outstripped at the end of the last millennium.

His second objective is to open new windows for the West and to free us from an intellectual rigidity, which he hopes will lead us to see ourselves as the rest of the world does, a point that has been reinforced by the events of September 11th.

As Ambassador Mahbubani stresses, the future lies in the fusion of civilizations, not in their divide. To pollinate this great divide, I cannot think of anyone who possesses a more penetrating insight into these issues than our guest.

Ambassador Mahbubani's life has taken him on a journey which traverses both East and West, and it is this experience which informs his thoughts in these essays. His thinking represents a rare combination of imagination, extraordinary vitality, and an intellectual rigor which we all admire.

His clarity of insight into these and other international issues earned him a reputation as one of Asia’s most distinguished voices and led The Economist to label him an Asian Toynbee.

Ambassador Mahbubani was born and reared in Singapore. A career diplomat by day and a student of philosophy and history by night, he has published extensively in leading journals and newspapers, including Foreign Affairs, The National Interest, The New York Times, and The Wall Street Journal.

He began his career at the Singapore Foreign Ministry in 1971. Before his current posting at the United Nations, Ambassador Mahbubani was a Permanent Secretary at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. He has served in Cambodia during the war in 1973 and 1974, in Malaysia, Washington, and the United Nations. In addition, he has held positions on the boards of several leading institutes and think tanks in Singapore, including the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, the Institute of Policy Studies, the Li Kwei Yu Exchange Fellowship, and the Institute of Defense and Strategic Studies. From 1991 to 1992, he was a Fellow at the Center for International Affairs at Harvard.

Please join me in welcoming our guest, Kishore Mahbubani. Thank you.


KISHORE MAHBUBANI: I want to begin first by emphasizing that I am actually not speaking here as an Ambassador. As you know, diplomats are those who think twice and say nothing, so I want to apologize to my colleagues here from the UN community and say that I hope you don’t mind if I am undiplomatic this morning.

I should also add that I am quite amazed to be here today speaking about this book. I suppose one of the most famous stories is The Little Engine that Could. That’s the way I feel about this book, which was first published in Singapore as a kind of a lark. The publisher was a friend of mine, and he said, "Hey, let me just publish a book of your essays. I won’t make any money, but never mind."

And then, to our surprise, it became a best seller, and I even got an e-mail from Tom Friedman asking, "Kishore, how come your book is selling more copies than mine at the Singapore airport?"

And then, a Canadian edition, and now this U.S. edition, and yesterday I happened to get an e-mail saying that a Mexican edition will appear this summer. At the book launch at the Yale Club a week ago, a Chinese television station, which has an audience of 150 million people, was covering the event. And finally, I have heard rumors that there is a Chinese publisher also translating it, although I don’t think I’ll get many royalties from them.

The question in my mind is: What's driving this book?

When I step back and look at the book from a somewhat detached perspective, I come up with four or five different answers.

The first is the main reason why we read books; we use them to see whether they can change the way that we look at the world. That is one of the key contributions, if any, that my writings make, because they work on a very different assumption from Western thought.

The Western mind is a huge world, but even in that huge world, you are actually trapped in a mental box. For those who live in the West, you assume that you can understand the world just by looking at it through Western perspectives, which gives you a limited view of the world.

Let me give you an example to illustrate what I mean: You recall that one of the most successful essays that appeared immediately after the end of the Cold War was Francis Fukuyama's essay The End of History. I found it amazing that an idea as absurd as the end of history could become so popular in the Western world. For a start, if you are going to have the thawing of the global order at the end of the Cold War, the logical result would be the return of history, not the end of history. And indeed, in the last ten years, we have seen the resurfacing of historical forces that were buried by forty years of the Cold War. Now, why did the Western mind believe that the rest of the world would transform itself to become carbon-copy replicas of Western liberal democratic societies? This is Francis Fukuyama's underlying thesis.

But having asserted that the Western mind is trapped in a mental box, how do I document it? Fortunately, in some ways, I have been helped by the events of September 11th, which created a whole new era of world history. There has been a flood of analyses, including two instant books by the Council on Foreign Relations and the Yale Center of Globalization.

The essays that I have read so far have failed to pose the most obvious question: Were the events of September 11th an earthquake or merely a tremor, i.e., has all the damage been done and we can now proceed to rebuild after that; or was it an indication of what is going to come in the world tomorrow?

Nobody knows the answer to the question. Paul Walker very generously gave me a very nice blurb, saying, If you want to understand the world after September 11th, read Kishore Mahbubani's book.

If it was an earthquake, then the worst is over and you can relax. But if it is a tremor, then the question is: What else is coming?

After September 11th, the one person whose reputation got a further boost was Sam Huntington, whose book, The Clash of Civilizations, has suddenly regained resonance. He told me that immediately after September 11th he got about 300 phone calls from journalists from all over the world wanting to talk about his book.

You are also aware that when Sam Huntington's essay came out, I responded to him in Foreign Affairs. One of the issues that I touch upon is relevant to understanding what happened on September 11th when the American media repeatedly asked: Why do they hate us? What have we done? Why are they so upset with us? I found that very surprising, because if you go back in the history of the 1990s, there were many signs that trouble was coming. Since the first bombing of the World Trade Center, Americans have begun to absorb European paranoia about Islam, perceived as a force of darkness hovering over virtuous Christian civilization. It is ironic that the West should increasingly fear Islam when daily the Muslims are reminded of their own weakness. Islam has bloody borders, Huntington says, but in all conflicts between Muslims and pro-Western forces, the Muslims are losing, and losing badly, whether they be Azaris, Palestinians, Iraqis, Iranians, or Bosnian Muslims. With so much disunity, the Islamic world is not about to coalesce into a single force.

Oddly, for all their paranoia about Islam, the West seems to be almost deliberately pursuing a course designed to anger the Islamic world. The West protests the reversal of democracy in Yemen, Peru, and Nigeria, but not in Algeria. These double standards hurt. Bosnia has wreaked incalculable damage. The dramatic passivity of powerful European nations as genocide was committed on their doorstep has torn away the thin veil of moral authority that the West has spun around itself as the legacy of this recent benign era. Few can believe that the West would have remained equally passive if Muslim artillery shells had been raining down on Christian populations in Sarajevo or Strevenichya.

I am not saying that we could have easily foretold what happened on September 11th, but clearly it is the result of events and developments in the previous decades.

That is why I find it very puzzling that one of the most frequent criticisms of my essays is: Kishore, aren't your essays out of date? Haven't they been replaced by new times? But if you really want to understand today's developments, you have to go back and see how the world looked upon things even five-to-ten years ago.

One of the most important underlying threads that runs through all my essays is that we are actually reaching not just the end of the post-Cold War era, but the end of 500 years of Western domination, which began with European colonization of the whole world. Finally, after 500 years, we are coming to an end of that major cycle of world history. Will that cycle end in one year, two years, five years, ten years? Perhaps in the next fifty to a hundred years. If I am right, you can use that as the underlying mental assumption to understand what is happening.

Another point is that how we look at the world depends upon our fundamental assumptions about the nature of the global infrastructure. We would like to believe that we live in a stable world order, that things are as they should be, and that in some ways you can perhaps improve them a bit.

I am surprised by that assumption, because in some ways we are generating today two sets of global forces, both of which are actually leading to a major contradiction.

On the one hand, as the result of globalization, and the explosive burst of Western technology, we are shrinking the world into a global village, and now we are now sailing in the same boat. Sometimes I mischievously say this boat may perhaps be the Titanic. We have become one world. And yet, on this one ship you have 1 billion people living in first-class cabins, in relative comfort, and 2 or 3 billion people living in various degrees of deprivation, some in hunger and starvation.

But what's puzzling is that these people who live in a world detached from all of you suddenly are being reminded every day of their state of deprivation. You may have seen the story in The New York Times of the Somali villagers seeing the movie Black Hawk Down almost the same day that it was released. That is how the world has changed. You release a major film here; the same day it is shown in a Somali village. And then, these people are becoming connected with the rest of the world.

We are creating a fundamental contradiction, because instead of leaving them at peace in the world that they have grown accustomed to, you are now making them aware of how poor and deprived they are. It is only natural that something big is going to happen as a consequence.

Let me read you an essay that I wrote addressing an American audience:

I see daily the forces of globalization are generating greater and greater interdependence. Actions in one corner of the world can affect a distant corner relatively quickly. Most people living outside the United States can feel and understand the impact of globalization. They feel the loss of autonomy each day. Most Americans do not feel this, or not yet. They live in one of the most powerful countries ever to have existed in the history of man. Sheer power and two huge oceans make Americans unaware of how the world is changing. The great paradox here is that the world’s most open society is among the worst informed on the inevitable impact of global changes. A tidal wave of change is already on its way to American shores. And, perhaps, maybe that is another way of looking at September 11th.

I go on to say:

The current overwhelming power and geographic isolation is, at best, a temporary dam holding back the inevitable impact of globalization on American society. When the dam is breached, Americans will regret not having used the window of opportunity available to them when they were clearly and overwhelmingly powerful relative to the rest of the world to strengthen the UN, to help deal with the small interdependent world emerging. Of course, many Americans firmly believe that they will be the most powerful forever. History teaches us otherwise.

The remarkable thing is that, after September 11th, the most useful instrument that the United States found was the United Nations. All of the terrorism Conventions were removed from the voluntary Conventions and put into Security Council Resolutions, made mandatory, and all 189 nations had to comply. This could only have been done by the United Nations, which came close to being destroyed during the pre-September 11th era.

Let me move on to another example of what I call possible instability in the same world. If we are all in the same boat, it is in our obvious interest to ensure that all the boat's passengers become stakeholders in peace and prosperity, rather than in misery. Now, apart from the world of Islam, the other important passenger on the boat is China, and the way in which we handle China will clearly be one of the determining forces of how the world will evolve. I find it very surprising that at the time when the Chinese themselves want to become stakeholders in this world of relative stability and calm, they are often rebuffed. It would serve the interests of the West and the United States to draw China into this world, rather than to lock it out. Today, post-September 11th, we have completely forgot what happened in March. You remember the spy plane crisis in Hainan? If we don’t handle China properly, we will see more of such crises.

One of the biggest misunderstandings about this book is the perception that I write about the superiority of Asian values over Western values. No one in Asia, and certainly not me, believes that Asian values are superior. If Asian values were superior, why did Asian civilizations fall back for hundreds of years? And indeed, in many of my writings I am much more critical of Asian than Western societies.

I tell my Asian friends that, If you think you're so smart, why are you so backward? And, perhaps, that’s why this book resonates well in the Asian mind.

In the world to come, if any force will save us, it will be the dynamism of Western civilization, which has carried the world to where it is today. All of the advances of human civilization are the result of what has happened in the West.

The only question in my mind is: Can a shrinking population of the West, which now makes up about 10 percent of the world's population, carry the burden of the world on its shoulders? We need to have burden-sharing between the West and other civilizations to have stability. We need a fusion of civilizations rather than a clash of civilizations.

I can see the fusion of civilizations taking place in the Asia-Pacific, and my friends here can see it happening daily across the Pacific with East Asia and the United States cooperating in economics, politics and culture. I still haven’t been able to see how we are going to get fusion of civilizations between the West and the Islam, and that is where the problems will lie in the world to come.

Questions and Answers

QUESTION: One of the question you ask is: Where are the models within Asia for development? I believe you stressed Japan in particular. Could you expand on how Asian societies can draw upon their greatest strengths to fuse them with Western qualities that you have enumerated?

KISHORE MAHBUBANI: If you are in a comfortable, civilized room, like today, you accept the idea that we all have equal potential, and that there are no natural distinctions between the two of us.

But in the 18th century or 19th century, my ancestors happily accepted second-class status in the British colonial empire. And I asked myself: Why? Why did they allow themselves to be colonized? The colonization occurred in societies which were not necessarily backward compared to Europe in the 17th and 18th centuries.

One of the great miracles of world history is that a small country like Portugal carved colonies out of huge countries like China. How did a country of 3 million people go to China and say, I’m taking Macao from you? Asians should be forced to think, What did I do wrong? Why did I fall behind?

And what’s even more puzzling is that about 100 or 200 years after the great industrial revolutions, after the great economic advances in the West, still today only one Asian society has caught up with the West, and that is Japan. Maybe Korea, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Singapore, et cetera, are getting close. But even a country like China, which was, by far, the most developed society a thousand years ago, has flipped so far back relative to the rest of the world. What has happened?

Asians are doing themselves a huge disfavor if they fail to analyze what has held them back, and, at the same time, they will lose another hundred years if they don’t understand what they must change within their own system to catch up with the West. It is very strange that I am seen sometimes as an advocate of superior Asian values, because when I look at Asian societies, I just see their weaknesses. It amazes me that they are still repeating the mistakes that they made in the past.

For example, in an essay I wrote on the turn of the millennium, I argued that the West succeeds on one very simple principle: meritocracy. You always ensure that you pick the best people to run your societies, your universe. A lesson I learned at Harvard after one year was how ruthlessly meritocractic Harvard was. They didn’t care if you were from Harvard or you had a Ph.D. from Harvard. If they appointed any professor, they made sure that professor was the best in his field anywhere in the world.

That’s the way you run a society and progress. And the trouble is that, unfortunately, most Asian societies haven’t learned such basic lessons.

If more Asian societies are going to achieve what Japan has done, there will have to be far more fundamental questioning than there exists today in the Asian world.

QUESTION: You mention the fusion of values between the two cultures. What do you mean by setting up a dichotomy between Western civilization and everybody else? We certainly think we know what the West means, or meant. Colonialism fifty or a hundred years ago had a certain racial component. But today, so much of the West is fused, diversified, with so many different cultures, it’s hard for me to understand where the dichotomy is, except on the most basic stereotypical level. But beyond that, how far can you really take the apposition of the two cultures without contradicting yourself?

KISHORE MAHBUBANI: That's a very tough question. When you live in the West, it's very hard to understand where the boundaries of the West are, because the natural assumption is that of Francis Fukuyama or V.S. Naipaul, that the West is a universal civilization, that history is a one-way street, that all societies as they grow and evolve will become more and more like the West.

What separates my life from many in the room is that I have heard conversations in Western living rooms about the world, and then I have been in non-Western living rooms, in an Islamic home, in Chinese homes, and I have listened to their conversations and how they see the world. You begin to realize that there are many different perspectives.

If the other societies succeed, what you will see is modernization, but not Westernization, as they grow and change. What exactly will it mean?

In the world of tomorrow, you will wake up and switch your television from one channel that gives you a Western perspective of the world to another which will describe the same events from a completely non-Western view.

Cities like New York City, like London will be the meeting places that bring these perspectives together, and that’s why you feel, "Hey, there’s no big difference between them." But if you travel outside and you go into these living rooms, you will find that there are still different worlds out there.

QUESTION: I read a book about Asia in the early 1970s. A British and a Japanese, both professors of art, met in a Japanese house. The British professor asked his Japanese friend to see his collection of Japanese art. They spent half an hour in front of a scroll painting. The British professor got rather impatient and said, "Could we move on now to the rest of your collection?" His Japanese friend said, "Oh, I’m surprised that you can absorb more than one masterpiece in an evening."

I don’t know whether that’s Asian thinking, but it impressed me at the time, and when I go to The Met now, I tend to look only at one department.

I want to use that personal anecdote to propose the thesis that the most dynamic civilizations are probably those which are most able to learn from others. You can trace that through European history, where, for example, much of our progress in science came from our absorbing from early Islam. Where in the world today do you see societies which are most open to adopting ideas from other societies and, therefore, most dynamic?

KISHORE MAHBUBANI: I would say that the West is the most open because you are willing to absorb and learn everything. And certainly, in terms of the fields of science and technology, no other society even comes close to the exponential growth in the West.

One of the big changes in today's world is that the American military is becoming so far superior to any other force that it has profound strategic implications for the whole world.

Because of demographics, the greatest number of minds that will be open will be in Asian societies and not in the West. These are the people now outside the intellectual mainstream who are being sucked in. We hope that they will absorb all of the strengths of Western culture and civilization without becoming detribalized, or losing their roots. So these are the ones that will lead to the combination of what you find in the East and the West.

When that happens, you may find that living in the West is a competitive disadvantage because you only have roots in one area, whereas these young people, who can dig their roots deep with different cultures, are the ones who will have the greatest competitive advantage.

QUESTION: I accept completely that you are not arguing the superiority of Asian values over Western values. But would you not agree that, perhaps five years ago, many in Asia took the way in which you articulated your position as an argument in favor of the superiority of Asian values? At a time when East Asia, in particular, was doing very well, there was a hubris about their achievements which contributed to their downfall at the time of the economic collapse in 1997-1998.

There is a risk that Asians will, in fact, not do as you are suggesting and draw heavily from other cultures, but will once again, when they are successful, become arrogant about their achievements, and fail to learn the lessons of the past. Would you not agree that your points contribute to this risk?

KISHORE MAHBUBANI: I don’t know when the final history of the 1990s will be written, but there were at least two phases of hubris.

Phase one was at the end of the Cold War, when, as shown by the thesis of the end of history, all you have to do is change yourself to succeed. And that hubris was probably never felt so much in the West as by those who lived outside, who received a barrage of lectures about how you should change yourself.

What you call Asian hubris was a reaction to that, and I agree with you that there were many over-confident assertions on the part of Asians that they had arrived, that they had made it. I would say that the Asian financial crisis was a very healthy, useful shock for Asian societies to remind them that the race for development is a marathon and not a sprint. When I speak to young Asians today, there is a much healthier attitude towards the future.

QUESTION: In the colonial era, Asians saw Western civilization as something imposed on us, something in which we were denied full participation. I remember the famous anecdote where Mahatma Gandhi was asked, "What do you think of Western civilization?" and he replied that it would be a good idea.

What struck me about many of your remarks today is that you still seem to be judging the success of Asian societies in a Western frame of reference. You spoke of backwardness, of catching up with the West. Is there any merit in the argument that if there is any meaning to the categories of Asia and the West, that Asia must represent an alternative to the West, that perhaps instead of gleaming chrome-and-glass skyscrapers in cities, we should be having a different version of civilization, with idyllic villages and people sitting under trees contemplating their navels?

Are you not, in effect, seeing Asia as a teleological march towards a Western standard of living and type of civilization?

KISHORE MAHBUBANI: I agree with you that for someone who says that we should not become carbon copies of the West, there may be a contradiction in what I am arguing.

The difference is this: If you live in a state of poverty, you cannot in any way appreciate or enjoy any civilization, including your own. If you go, for example, to Cambodia, you have magnificent architectural ruins which have gone to waste because of war and poverty. You see the loss of Asian culture and civilization.

If you want to preserve those great monuments, it costs a fortune. And indeed, for someone who lives in Southeast Asia, there is not a single good museum of Southeast Asian art, not even in Singapore, because to start and run a museum costs hundreds of millions, if not billions of dollars.

If the Asians and I agree they have a rich history and past which they really want to revive and resuscitate, they first need to revive their economies and have the wealth needed to appreciate and understand the past.

The only advantage of being a Singaporean is I happened to have lived in a very typical developing country during my childhood. Our per capita income was the same as Ghana's, and we had riots. And now, I have also seen what it is like to live in a modern, developed society.

QUESTION: One of your comments is that we in the West do not necessarily understand what is happening in Asia. Considering that people who live in Maine in this country do not see things the same way as people who live in Texas, or people who live on the West Coast similarly with those in the Midwest, it's not unusual that you would have a certain lack of comprehension of what is happening elsewhere.

When you look at Asia, you perhaps see a resurgence, much of which has been accomplished through Western money. And so, at this point, what does Asia do? Does it, as China, finally begin to relax a little bit of the Communist control, allow Western investments, keep building as it has, and then develop its own areas of specialization? In this way, will not Asia begin to redevelop and come out with its own areas of expertise to participate in the broader world economy and, through that, improve economic life?

KISHORE MAHBUBANI: The biggest accusation leveled against my writing is that there is no such thing as a Westerner, no such thing as an Asian. They are Indians, Chinese, Malays, Arabs, and so Asia is as diversified, indeed, as the West is.

But you have levels of generalizations. If you live in the Western world, there is such a thing as the West. You don’t sense this so much if you live in the United States, but if you live outside and you see the amount of writings that come out that say the West is this, the West believes this, then you realize the impact of the West.

You asked me if China will have to change its political system to develop. In the long run yes, in the short run no. And indeed, what China should do depends upon your assumption about what the rise of China will mean. As you know, there is a very powerful, influential school of people in Washington, D.C., who believe that the rise of China will be detrimental to American long-term interests, for which you can make a fairly plausible case. If you believe that, it is not in your interest to allow China to succeed. The question is whether you can stop this force that has already started gaining momentum.

On the other hand, if you believe that we all are now traveling in the same boat, presumably, you want to ensure that the 1 billion Chinese have a vested interest in the stability of the boat, and it is in your interest to get China to join the more comfortable passengers on the boat.

If you want to ask the single biggest question that will determine the course of the 21st century, even though we are in the immediate aftermath of September 11th, it will not be the whole question of the West and Islam. If China succeeds, which looks likely, the amount of displacement that it will cause in the current global power structures will be enormous, and the adjustments required equally enormous.

Will it happen smoothly? It depends on how you treat China. If you say, I will work with you and try to get there, then you might see a happy outcome. But if you say, I’m going to try to trip you up, then you might see an unhappy outcome. That is why it is important now to raise this sort of question.

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