Can Mahbubani think?

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Pope Francis, Amartya Sen, Lawrence Summers, Christine Lagarde, Janet Yellen and … Kishore Mahbubani.

These are among this year’s Top 50 thinkers in the world, as picked by the British magazine Prospect, but the last name has raised some eyebrows in Singapore, with many asking how the dean of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy made it into such an illustrious list of cerebral celebrities.

Not that Mahbubani doesn’t have a distinguished career. His 33 years in Singapore’s diplomatic service have been more than impressive, having had an impact in the United Nations as the president of the Security Council and as Singapore’s ambassador to the world body for two terms.

He was among a group of diplomat activists who combined quiet diplomacy and fire-brand speeches to make sure that South Vietnam’s defeat bythe communists in 1975 did not follow the pundits’ storyline of other Southeast Asian states being washed over by the Red tide, like one domino after another.

He combined his suave charm and PR skills to get the West not to ignore this part of the world, a strategy formulated by Singapore’s first Foreign Minister S Rajaratnam and first Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew, and which is still embedded in Singapore’s foreign policy.

American journalists covering Washington politics in those years were impressed with Mahbubani. They spoke of his charm offensive in Washington, saying how the diplomat cultivated journalists. He was always on call, ready to give sound bites and add colour to a story.

He used these connections and experiences to give the media the good story when he reinvented himself as an academic 10 years ago.

Like Lee, he understood that the Western media loves provocative, even rude, statements.  The timing was in Mahbubani’s favour. The world narrative was changing, with China and India slowly overshadowing the strongest nation in the world.

He wrote four books, all with different variations of this core theme: the East is rising, the West is declining.

The man who once spoke out against the injustices of the early Lee era as a student activist in the University of Singapore became a changed man after he entered the diplomatic service in 1981. Singapore had left Malaysia, gotten over the pain of the British troop pullout, with Lee becoming unassailable as the country’s leader after having locked up many of his detractors.

Mahbubani understood the niche he could exploit for himself and his small country to survive in a difficult world torn by political and military ideologies and later by economic muscle. The Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy became the vehicle. Astutely, he used that as a meeting point for world leaders and thinkers to discuss the central issues of the world today.

This is Singapore’s soft power at work; part of a grand scheme to make the city-state’s voice heard and to make sure that the country is not squeezed out by bigger powers competing for influence and power.

Mahbubani’s critics say he is no real thinker. His thoughts lack originality, follow establishment thinking and have a PR spin to them.

Nominated MP and academic Eugene Tan told The Edge Review: “It’s not surprising that Prof Mahbubani’s latest accolade has had an ambivalent, lukewarm at best, response locally. His forthright, contrarian views may come across to some as being smug and hard-hitting to foreign audiences.

“For the domestic audience, some segments perceive him to be an ardent apologist for Asian triumphalism and Singapore’s exceptionalism. I suppose Prof Mahbubani is caught in the biblical ‘prophet is never welcomed in his homeland’ situation. There’s still some wariness of self-assured public intellectuals if they are closely identified with the establishment.”

One of Mahbubani’s books was called Can Asians Think? This award has pushed the question –Can Kishore Mahbubani think?  – to the forefront.  He has the experience and intelligence to show that he can. To win over his critics, he needs to display an independence of mind, like colleague Tommy Koh has done, and not follow somebody else’s script.

The article first appeared in The Edge Review.