Kishore: Law's loss, philosophy's gain

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By Tan Bah Bah

If not for a fortuitous early awakening to the beauty of philosophy on his part, the Kishore Mahbubani that we know would have been a different one. Whether or not he would gone to have made a name for himself in foreign affairs and even be cited a top thinker is anyone’s guess. Prospect, a British foreign affairs magazine, has  just named him in its list of Top 50 World Thinkers for 2014.

Kishore could have been another Prof S. Jayakumar or Prof Tommy Koh, both of whom were Deans of the Law Faulty at the then University of Singapore who went on to serve as Singapore’s Permanent Representatives  at the height of the Vietnam War.

Indeed, Kishore read law in his first year at the then University of Singapore but later switched to his real passion, philosophy. Law’s loss, philosophy’s gain.

Much of Kishore’s writings and speeches were not just the musings of an ivory tower academic, it must be pointed out. The veteran Singapore diplomat’s intellectual observations have been etched out of a long career that spanned more than 40 years and took him to the summit of the UN at the organisation’s Security Council and as envoy to countries such as  the US, Malaysia and Cambodia.

Together with an early group of diplomats and other Foreign Ministry leaders, coming just after the two luminaries, Prof Koh and Prof Jayakumar,  they were quickly sucked into a life-and-death battle with the communist bloc – and a fledgeling nation’s  determination to carve a rightful place in the international community.

It was observed at that time that we were  really a baby in the diplomatic world. Singapore was swimming among sharks, whales and barracudas.  Every step we took from 1965 was a new one.

Compare our boys who had only humble backgrounds and no experience with, for example, the more suave Malaysians who already had a foreign service from 1957 and royalty to structure their protocol on when it came to the expectations and demands of VIP diplomacy and international relations.

At every level Singapore’s pioneer diplomats had to learn it the hard way.

What do our boys know about political scientist Hans Morgenthau’s Convergence theory which, in simplified layman’s terms, says that as the competing Capitaliist and Communist systems develop, they will eventually converge and become identiical.

Interestingly Prospect’s listing mentioned Kishore’s own convergence book  – The Great Convergence: Asia, The West And The Logic Of One World.

Basically, this sums up his theory:

Policy-makers all over the world must change their preconceptions and accept that we live in one world. National interests must be balanced with global interests. Power must be shared. The US and Europe must cede some power. China and India, Africa and the Islamic world must be integrated. Kishore urges that only through these actions can we create a world that converges  benignly.
Earlier, Kishore had written another book, ‘Can Asians Think?’.

Because the West has been dominant for so long – 500 years – the impression is that there will always been one dominant civilisation. This is not so; others – especially from the East  – will challenge this dominance

Kishore has been pursuing this school of thought through his essays, talks and books. Not all in the West are enamoured of his critiques.

But that is what debates are all about.

Kishore has his admirers. He was not a theoretician. He has always been in touch with the news-makers and with how political systems function.

He has some distinguished company in Prospect’s Top 50 thinkers list – Pope Francis, Harvard President Emeritus Lawrence Summers and economist-author Amartya Sen.

Well done, Kishore Mahbubani.