Peeling Away The Western Veneer

Modern China

Modern China

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.

Now this is the way the future SHOULD evolve. Bravo! A wonderful interview. Read it all.

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