There is a lot of India in Kishore Mahbubani’s latest book, probably for a good reason. India is way up in Singapore’s top-of-the-pop list. Relations between what some see as a red dot on the southern tip of the Malay peninsula, but is in fact one of the most pragmatic nations in the world, and New Delhi have boomed in the past decade. India is not a basketcase as it was made out to be in the late 1980s. In the new century, it is now a paragon of democratic practices despite its chaotic politics, and an emerging global economic power that, along with China, will make the big Asian dream of taking on the West come true.
That indeed is the theme of Mahbubani's book — an Asia that is challenging the West’s supremacy in more ways than one and a confused West that’s dragging its feet in accepting that it’s time has come. Few in the West have “grasped the full implications of the two most salient features of our historical epoch” — first, that the West's domination of world history has ended and second, there will be an “enormous renaissance” of Asian societies.
Very few Asian thinkers have closely studied and highlighted the changing rules of engagement between the West and the rest as Mahbubani. He has not only dwelled deep into the insecurities of the West and its ills, but also appreciated the Western practices that he says have played a big role in changing Asia’s pace of political and economic growth.
According to the former diplomat, Asian societies are not rising now because they have rediscovered the civilisational strengths that gave them a solid edge over the rest of the world not so long ago. It is because Asian nations have willfully accepted the pillars of “Western wisdom that underpinned Western progress” and allowed it to outperform Asia in the past two centuries.
He peppers his argument with several Indian examples, starting with Tamil Nadu that has produced internationally renowned scientists, mathematicians and top corporate bosses. His argument: Asian minds are exploding with creativity and if one Indian state could produce so many gifted individuals despite low per capita incomes, imagine the impact that India will have on the world as it modernises. Some would say it’s simplistic, but the truth is that something like what Mahbubani talks of in his book is indeed happening.
The adoption of free market policies by Asian countries has opened opportunities that did not exist until about two decades ago. Many Asian countries also began encouraging meritocracy, which unlocked the minds and let ideas flow freely. Rule of law, a culture of peace after years of colonisation and wars and a renewed focus on education — steps that the West took to achieve global domination — helped immensely in creating societies that could challenge those who built those pillars.
However, as Mahbubani points out, it isn’t easy for the West to accept Asia’s rise. For so long has the West dominated the world — militarily, politically and economically — that it can’t quickly learn to share power. It has to choose between embracing Asia’s march to modernity and become a partner or feel threatened and retreat behind a protectionist wall.
The United States, that leads the West, can’t afford to lose its pragmatism as we prepare to witness some of the biggest changes in human history, the author says. “Western minds can make one simple change to become more optimistic: they need to drop all the ideological baggage they accumulated in the several eras of Western triumphalism, and they much stop believing that they can remake the world in their own image. The world can no longer be Westernised.” Pragmatic words from a citizen of a pragmatic nation.