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Mina Choi Tenison

Kishore Mahbubani

Author, The New Asian Hemisphere


Professor Kishore Mahbubani’s new book, The New Asian Hemisphere: The Irresistible Shift of Global Power to the East, charts Asia’s rise from an Asian perspective. CIB sat down with Mahbubani during his recent visit to Shanghai to find out more about the book’s provocative message.


What compelled you to write this book?

We’re experiencing one of the greatest shifts in power in human history. As [Harvard president and former US treasury secretary] Larry Summers says, this is bigger than the Cold War, bigger than the Islamic resurgence, and someone had to write about it. I also discovered that Western writers do not understand Asia. Their minds are wrapped in the past; they cannot see the future.

Do you feel that only an Asian could write this book?

Yes. I find that Western minds have the illusion that they can see the rest of the world through Western lenses, but Western lenses are distorting and do not show the real world. So my goal was to wear undistorted lenses to tell what the real world looks like. Clearly, Asians can feel what’s happening in Asia because they [are living] it. If you go to China, you can feel the excitement and the optimism of the Chinese people. If you go to India, you can feel their excitement and optimism. Westerners cannot feel it.


In your book, you mention that Asia’s rise is often referred to as “dangerous” by the West.

President Bush uses the word dangerous; the French foreign minister uses the word dangerous; but in fact the world is becoming a less dangerous place because of the arrival of hundreds of millions of Asian middle-class citizens. . . . If you have more and more people living in middle-class societies, all they want is stability, order, and predictability. They don’t want a sudden revolution; they don’t want to burn things down, to become suicide bombers.


If the rising Asian middle-class is making the world a safer place, why is the West not celebrating?

Well if you’re so used to being the top dog, so used to positions of power, you don’t celebrate the loss of power. Right now there is still this rule that to be the head of IMF, you have to be a European; and to be the head of World Bank, you have to be an American. That means 3.5 billion Asians don’t qualify. Now as Asian states become more powerful, they will say: “Excuse me, I should be given a chance to run these organizations.” And will the Europeans and the Americans give up these places voluntarily? They won’t.


Do you think the West is in a state of decline?

No. . . . When I say that we’re reaching the end of Western domination in world history, this is not the end of the West. The West will carry on as a single civilization, but now it will be joined by other successful civilizations instead of being the only dominant civiliation.


Your book promotes the idea of “the march to modernity.” What do you mean by this?

The march to modernity is the march away from feudal societies. The reason why Asia in the past could be easily conquered by the West was because of its feudal structures. A very small percentage of Asian society understood the modern world. But now, the march of modernity that started in Japan, then went to the four tigers [Hong Kong, Singapore, South Korea, and Taiwan], and then on to southeast Asia, is now moving to China and to India, and more and more people want to have the middle-class life that most people have in the West. Modernity, superficially, is about physical and material things, but modernity in fact delivers very profound ethical and psychological results in terms of reducing poverty, giving people belief in the rule of law, and providing a stable environment. It also makes people realize the futility of war.


Is this “modernity” synonymous with Western values?

Well, to achieve modernity, you have to implement the “seven pillars of Western wisdom.” Once you modernize, succeed, and become prosperous, then you can rediscover your own culture and heritage. The one new thing I mention in my book is that with modernization, you don’t necessarily get Westernization, and you can even get de-Westernization. That is a concept that the Western mind cannot understand.


So what are these “seven pillars of Western wisdom?”

They are: free-market economics; science and technology; meritocracy, pragmatism, a culture of peace, the rule of law, and education. . . If you want to understand why Western countries have succeeded and why they have been able to dominate the world, you can see it by the way they’ve implemented the seven pillars.


Isn’t it a generalization to group countries into “the West” and “the East”?

Well, the West does often act as a single unit. When there is a crunch, there is a lot of Western solidarity. The best example is the NATO intervention in Afghanistan. Osama Bin Laden attacks America, and all of NATO, including Europe, Australia, and Canada, join in the battle. Why do they all join in? Because they believe in Western solidarity. But in the case of the East, it’s not so simple. There were many pre-existing links between Asian countries that were cut up by the Western colonial era that are [only now] being established again.


How about the fact that not all “Western” countries supported the Iraq War?

There are temporary breaches. Despite this, many in the West have still continued to send troops to Afganistan and send prisoners to Guantanamo. So in a crunch, there still is a deep sense of solidarity.


Do you foresee this kind of deep solidarity emerging in the East?

No, not for a long time. In the West, you only have one civilization. In Asia, you have many civilizations – Chinese civilization, Indian civilization, Persian civilization, Arab civilization. . . I don’t think we’ll see geopolitical alliances among Asian states, but what we’ll see is that Asian states will learn from each other.


Do you believe in strong government?

I always maintain that the solution for development is to not bother having a debate on democracy or authoritarian states, but to focus on good governance, because you find that some democracies do well, like India, and some democracies do poorly, like the Philippines. Some Communist states do well, like Vietnam, and others do poorly, like North Korea. So the critical variable is not whether a place is democratic or not but really whether there is good governance. But I do believe that all states eventually have to become democratic; there’s no choice. There’s no question about the destination, but the question is about the route. Many Western societies think that any society, anywhere, at any point in its history, can become democratic overnight. This is not true.

The New Asian Hemisphere: The Irresistible Shift of Global Power to the East,336 pp/ PublicAffairs/ USD 26


---"We are entering a new era of world history: the end of Western domination and the arrival of the Asian century. The question is: will Washington wake up to this reality?” This is the central premise of Kishore Mahbubani’s provocative new book The New Asian Hemisphere: The Irresistible Shift of Global Power to the East.

Mahbubani, the dean of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy at the National University of Singapore, delivers a blistering attack on Western governments’ apparently ossified approach to the emergence of Asia, and what he sees as Western academia’s distorted vision of reality. To rectify this, Mahbubani, a Singaporean of Indian descent, has written a book charting the rise of the new Asian middle-class through what he terms “Asian lenses.”

Mahbubani is no hot-headed nationalist or regionalist. He pays homage to the West, outlining his “seven pillars of Western wisdom” as the necessary building blocks of successful development and going as far as to suggest that the USA has done more good for Asia than any other country, by pressing for decolonization and by educating many of its leaders. Even as he does this, though, he does not hesitate to launch a scathing attack on the US government’s handling of the Iraq war.

Although Prof. Mahbubani provides much food for thought about ever-shifting global power dynamics, one can’t help but be suspicious of some of Mahbubani’s views on Asia’s economic miracle – especially the contention that wealth alone is enough create a peaceful society. His statement that hundreds of millions of new middle-class people will want stability and order, and “not revolution,” or even his suggestion that “freedom to think” is more important than “freedom of expression” will raise some eyebrows, given that he was a career diplomat for the Singaporean government.

What is for sure, though, is that for all its flaws, this book is a genuine attempt to make sense of a world that is changing too fast for many of the West’s more sluggish politicians to keep up with.--

China International Business (CIB) - May 2008

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