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'Asia Needs to Provide Global Leadership'

The dean of Singapore's Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy says it's time to come to grips with the end of Western domination of global affairs
Kishore Mahbubani, dean of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy in Singapore.

Kishore Mahbubani is the dean of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy in Singapore. He was also, twice, Singapore's ambassador to the U.N., where he made many friends, acquired a global mindset, and built a network far, far larger than the little country he represented. That's helped him write a series of books that ask questions such as Can Asians Think? and more recently, whether Asia is ready to accept the mantle of global leadership. In his latest book, The New Asian Hemisphere: The Irresistible Shift of Global Power to the East (PublicAffairs, New York), Mahbubani, 59, attempts to analyze and answer, for Asia and the world, what the rise of Asia will entail. The former ambassador was recently in Mumbai, India's commercial capital, and spoke to BusinessWeek's Manjeet Kripalani.

You have boldly written about the hypocrisy of the West and its own inner conflicts that do not allow it to acknowledge that its time is up. What was the trigger that compelled you to express yourself thus?

I wrote because the Asian voice is never heard in the rest of the world. We are entering a completely new historical era, with new maps and new guidelines, [moving from] a monocultural world to a multicultural world. This new era is so different because it is the end of the era of Western domination of world history—though not the end of the West—and the beginning of a new era of a rising Asia. Because of Western dominance, the West has run the world for the past 200 years—in many ways benignly. It could do that when it felt confident and secure, when it felt the future belonged to it. But history teaches us that when these same powers become insecure, they become part of the problem, not part of the solution.

What are some of the consequences?

There is a global leadership vacuum at a time when you need new kinds of thinking. Asia needs to provide global leadership. But none of us seems to want to figure out what the consequences of the end of Western domination will be. It is painful for the West to give up power [and] it resists the transfer of power. It is anachronistic and absurd that the head of the IMF should still be a European and the head of the World Bank should still be American. The Doha round failed because the West has lost the confidence that it can push for trade talks and win.

And you think Asia would do better?

Asians could do as good a job in representing global interests. It is the responsibility of the rising powers to take this on, but there is a reluctance on the part of India and China to take this on too early.

But hasn't Asia been a big beneficiary of this Western dominance?

Yes. East Asia rose because [of] the rules-based order of the world, inherited from the West. America has done more for the rise of Asia than any other country. The yeast from which Asia rose came from Asian elites trained in the U.S. Larry Summers, then-president of Harvard University, said that in the industrial world, productivity improved by 50% in a single generation; in Asia, it has improved by 10,000%.

You give high praise to the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) over the EU. Why?

Asean is an economic mini-power worth under $1 trillion, but it is a diplomatic superpower. The EU is an economic superpower, but a diplomatic mini-power. After all these years, the EU still remains a Christian club. Look at Asean. It has all religions in it: Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam, Taoism, Confucianism, Communism, Christianity. Asean is the role model of the future, the EU is not.

What about the Middle East. Where does its rise fit in?

Its moment is nigh. The picture on the cover of my book is not Shanghai, but Dubai. Dubai wants to be Singapore. Dubai's success can pressurize and inspire Iran. The march to modernity in Asia began in Japan, then went to Southeast Asia, then China, then India—and from there it will go to Pakistan and the Middle East.

And China?

China is one of the most misunderstood countries in the world. Chinese society has changed 180 degrees in the last 30 years. Western universities are rushing to partner with Chinese universities. They have to join the line now. These are the universities of the future. China may have a closed political system, but it has open minds.

Finally, where do you see India in all this change?

India will have a critical role to play. With the rise of Asia, there will be a lot of angst in the West, especially if they lose to China, a Communist country, and fear the "yellow peril." India's rise in the West is seen as nonthreatening, because there are no traditional differences between India and the West.

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