I write this blog to pay my respect to Prof. Kishore Mahbubani, both a Singaporean career diplomat and an Asian scholar.
I encounter him through his engaging debates encapsulated in his book Can Asians Think? The 264 page book is a collection of his essays first published in 1998. His lively arguments to posit an equal footing of debates between the East and the West and at the same time posing challenge to post-colonial mentality of Asians is very close to my own personal experience.
Grew up and educated in a Jesuit school in Timor and later study philosophy and International Relations (IR), my intellectual development and worldview has been shaped by Western philosophy and ideas. For instance it is impossible for me to think about better political system than democracy. I appreciate the fact that although Mahbubani challenges dominant liberal democracy narrative culminating after the fall of Berlin wall he believes that at some point all nations must be a democracy.
I also learn to appreciate that democracy also has evolved into various ideological strands and political system not only liberal democracy. For instance we can also find social democracy in some European countries and if you ask a Cuban he or she would also say that their political system is also a democracy within one party system.
Therefore I would argue that in forging dialogues one should be able to appreciate different historical and political development of each nation and civilization. The fact that liberal democracy in the United States is also not a perfect system resulting in what Fukuyama calls vetocracy and neopatrimonialism should bring everyone into mutual respect when it comes to debates over our political systems and values.
Mahbubani believes that Asians should stand firm with their thousands of year culture and values and strengthen the state capacity to deliver development and end poverty. This view is different with most Western development templates during the liberal peace era which tends to weaken the governments capacity by over-emphasizing the ill-conceived individual freedom and market fundamentalism without strengthening the government capacity and rule of law. He believes that economic development can only be better delivered in the poor and developing countries through establishment and strengthening of ‘good government’. By this term he refers to (1) political stability, (2) sound bureaucracies based on meritocracy, (3) economic growth with equity, (4) fiscal prudence and (5) relative lack of corruption.
While I appreciate this view, I also think that this is only part of the story – the technocratic narrative. The other part of the story as I personally experienced during the Suharto authoritarian regime in Indonesia and witnessed the use of military force to commit violation of human rights in Timor, is that a strong government without proper check and accountability mechanism from the citizens and other state apparatus will also lead to disaster. Developmental state advocated by Mahbubani can only work effectively when you have a ‘good emperor’ and enlightened elites in Confucian ethics which is not always the case in many Asian societies. Too much power without sound accountability and feedback mechanism is potentially corrupt.
It appears to me that he wants to export Singaporean development template with a population less than Jakarta, the Indonesian capital, to other Asian nations but I think he fails to appreciate variety of historical and political narratives of these societies.