As I am reading: “The New Asian Hemisphere” by Kishore Mahbubani

As I am reading are my casual thoughts on a book I’m currently reading. Since I quickly move from one book to the next after I’m done, I often forget to write a review. While these posts aren’t full reviews exactly, I think they capture my excitement and interest even more than a done-in-one review can. Reviewed previously was “The Spirit of Democracy” by Larry Diamond.

I ordered this book as part of my birthday package from Amazon.com because Kishore Mahbubani is, quite simply, one of my favorite Asian thinkers. As a former ambassador for Singapore, he has traveled widely and his writings borrow deeply from his experiences. I’ve read his earlier work such as Can Asians Think? and Beyond the Age of Innocence, and so I immensely looked forward to this new volume. A lot of his ideas resonate with my own. I share his cheery prospects for Asia and his reverence for our rich historical legacy. His core thesis is that the Asian century is here and it is our destiny.

It is no surprise then that I recently applied to the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy to which he is the dean. Hopefully that will be a story for another time.

At the time of this writing, I am exactly halfway through the book. In the first chapter he elaborates on the three trajectories of history — The March to Modernity, Retreat into Fortresses, Western Triumphalism — in order to illumine us as to why the rise of Asia is inevitable and good for the world. I really enjoy when he mixes grand theses with personal experience; I couldn’t stop laughing with how he segued into “the other WTO” — World Toilet Organization — to illustrate our March to Modernity.

His discussion of the West’s “Retreat into Fortresses” focused a lot on trade protectionism, though I would have wanted to read more on the geopolitical and militaristic forms of “fortresses”. Using his framework, I think we can further argue that the West’s “War on Terrorism” follows a similar Cold War model of containment that can be seen as another form of fortress which protects Western interests and stems Asia’s (particularly the Middle East’s) rise. Nonetheless, I completely agree that Western Triumphalism is the remotest possibility; with the rise of Asia and “de-Westernization” as he would term it, Fukuyama’s “End of History” thesis is largely passe.

Thus far, I really enjoyed his chapter on “Why Asia is Rising Now”. He outlines seven things that Asian states (particularly Japan, Singapore, China and India) have learned from Western wisdom namely: free-market economics, science and technology, meritocracy, pragmatism, culture of peace, rule of law, and education. What I found really impressive in this chapter was how Mahbubani illustrated how each of the seven manifest themselves in uniquely Asian ways. He has made me optimistic that at the opposite end of brain drain is “brain gain”, and that pragmatism has powerful historical roots in Asia. This chapter alone is an excellent synthesis for my course.

I paused reading just after the chapter where he details the history and nature of Western power, and began talking about how Asia is currently decoupling itself from the West. I am in the middle of an excellent discussion on the nature of freedom and the implications it has on how Asian states are run.

I am definitely finishing this book by tomorrow. I clearly get the sense that the rise of Asia is imminent and will be good for the world. However, I always ground myself after reading a book of high intellectualism such as this. I remind myself that I am in the Philippines; do we have our place in that new Asian hemisphere as well?

If dean Kishore Mahbubani’s work has a message for us, it is that we do. We have a place but it will be our task to find it. Often, the Philippines finds herself in a peculiar spot — not quite Western and not quite Asian. However, the trajectory of history is clear and there is much reason for us to be confident. In the end, let us not squander that too.

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One thought on “As I am reading: “The New Asian Hemisphere” by Kishore Mahbubani

  1. I’ve been eyeing the the New Asian Hemisphere for a month now but instead this morning I bought the book 48 Laws of Power. I find your review enlightening. Next time I’d buy the book. Thanks!

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