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Mar. 10, 2015 - Updated 04:16 UTC



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Prospects for 2017

Sho Beppu

Jan. 4, 2017

Xenophobia and frustration with globalization are spreading in countries that have been considered models of democracy. Where's the world heading, and is it on the right path? We asked one of Asia's leading thinkers about his outlook for the year 2017.

"The time has come for Western leaders and intellectuals to become more humble and to accept the fact that they have lessons to learn from the rest of the world," says professor Kishore Mahbubani, dean of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy in Singapore. "They only want to listen to themselves, and that’s very dangerous."

We have a proverb in Japan that says "don't let the unacceptable become the norm." I found this phrase particularly relevant last year.

I wonder, are we not getting too used to hearing xenophobic remarks from some Western politicians such that we start to lose our sense of outrage.

Some say that our democracy is standing on edge, while others say it's a phenomenon in decline in the West, and will only have a limited impact on the rest of the world.

Today and tomorrow, we'll present a 2-day series of interviews with leading intellectuals and analyze the prospects of globalization, democracy and diversity in Asia and around the world.

For the first part, I sat down with Mahbubani, a former diplomat who has served twice as Singapore's ambassador to the United Nations. His interview was stimulating and I thought that it may be even provocative to some.

Beppu: We might be able to characterize the year 2016 with 2 big political shocks. One is Brexit and one is the victory of Mr. Trump at the US Presidential election. There are many ways to interpret these 2 political events. What struck you most?

Mahbubani: Well I think you’re absolutely right when you say that they are “shocks” that happened in 2016. There have been fundamental changes in the world order. Three major structural changes have taken place at the same time and have severely affected the conditions of people living in the West.

And the 3 major structural changes are: No.1, the return of Asia, which meant that lots of Chinese and Indians have now joined the global economy and that has led to creative destruction and people losing their jobs. Then you have globalization, and the third thing is of course the rapid advance of new technology, which again has made the world smaller and more interconnected.

The Western politicians have been continuing to pretend that everything is the same. And because the Western leaders failed to prepare their people, then the people have got fed up with the politicians and say we don’t trust them anymore. We say it to use our rough English expression, “Throw the bastards out and try something new.” And that’s how Donald Trump happened.

Beppu: Do you think this represents decay in the Western democratic system itself?

Mahbubani: Well I’m actually optimistic for the West, because the West has gone through lots of challenges and has overcome the challenges and resurfaced again. So this is another major challenge. The difference today is that they haven’t yet woken up to the challenge. But to do that, they got to change their mind-set first, and they got to accept that the return of Asia is real and they now have to deal with Asians as equals and not as inferiors. And that change of mind-set hasn’t happened yet.

Beppu: What is hampering them to come to the understanding to see the reality that is happening now?

Mahbubani: Well I think the problem is that quite simply if you’re used to being No.1 for so long, and everyone says to you you’re No.1, how do you then psychologically adjust and accept the fact that maybe I’m going to become No. 2? That’s very difficult, you know.

Then I realized that American politicians are not allowed to speak publicly about America becoming No. 2 because if they have words coming out of their mouth saying if America is No. 2, or when America becomes No. 2, it’s considered political suicide.

Beppu: Then what happens to the freedom of press or the freedom of the speech that they’re so proud of, if they cannot point out to their own public. They’re very, it could be bitter but a very important reality surrounding them.

Mahbubani: See, one reason I’m sometimes unpopular especially with American intellectuals is that I expose their double standards. They’re very quick to criticize other counties when they think that other countries are closing up. But the paradox about America is that it is an open society with a closed mind. And their press unfortunately is not opening to hearing other points of view. They only want to listen to themselves and that’s very dangerous.

Beppu: What do you think they can learn from the dynamics that we’re seeing in Asia now, particularly the experience of Singapore, for example?

Mahbubani: Well I think you know when Singapore turned 50 in 2015, I published an article in the Huffington Post, which said something quite outrageous. It said not since human history began thousands of years ago has any society improved the living standards of its people as quickly and as comprehensively as Singapore has done so. And that article went viral, got 400,000 views, which is amazing, right?

But if you go to an American leader or you go to European leaders and say, “Why don’t you learn from Singapore?” The idea is almost inconceivable to them. So I think the time has come for Western leaders and intellectuals to become more humble and to accept the fact that they have lessons to learn from the rest of the world. We may not have the best companies in the world in Singapore, but we have some of the best public policies in the world in Singapore.

Singapore Looks Forward

So what are the public policies that professor Mahbubani invited us to learn about? I visited the country to get an idea.

There's probably no country that symbolizes Asia's rapid economic growth better than Singapore. Per capita GDP there has surged by more than 50 times since 1960.

Since gaining independence from British colonial rule, achieving harmony between the majority Chinese population and the Malay and Indian minorities has been a top priority for the government.

Public housing has been a key policy to maintain stability in this multi-ethnic society. Most people live in a public flat which they bought from the government.

There are clearly defined ethnic quotas. On any estate and on any block, there's a degree of diversity that more or less reflects the country's overall ethnic makeup.

Most residents send their children to daycare centers attached to their housing block so children from different backgrounds mix from the earliest stages of life.

"It’s important because Singapore is a multi-ethnicity, multicultural nation, we learn to accept others, we learn to embrace other cultures and work together," says Ang Ann Na, principal at Sunshine Kids Educare. "The children actually have no notion of race, or culture or religion. They actually work very well together. They don’t see this as how they should ostracize others."

I visited the National Museum to learn how these policies were introduced since the country's independence in 1965. Lee Kuan Yew is seen as the nation's founding father. As the first prime minister, he took on the immense task of leading a newly independent country that was poor, had few natural resources and was ethnically divided.

Under strong government control, the country styled itself as a leading Asian economic hub. It welcomed massive investment from abroad.

Singapore's leaders felt the country had to compete by embracing global markets and accepting the rules of free and open trade. Lee was a strong advocate of deals like today's TPP. His view was that countries that are connected economically are less likely to go to war.

Lee passed away in 2015, just when the country was marking its 50th anniversary. A graduate school bearing his name helps teach younger generations about his legacy.

"I believe that is something which makes Singapore from somewhere which is merely a place which is prosperous, but to somewhere which is a livable city as well," says Koh Min Ee, a student at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy. "Because I think when we think of Singapore when we are away, we don’t just think of the banking sector, or the commerce, but we think of all the greenery and the beautiful home that we have. I think a lot of that is really is something which comes from his vision as well."

Like other open economies, Singapore isn't immune to the negative effects of global competition. But what is certain is that it has lifted itself up from the third world to the first in just a generation, and it's a perfect example of Asia's dynamism.

Singapore's Experience

Beppu: Could you tell us about the strength of Singapore’s policies to harmonizing different communities?

Mahbubani: Definitely, as you know it’s quite remarkable. I’m ethnically Sindhi. My family came from Sindh, which is now part of Pakistan. And Sindhi are a minority within the Indian community and Indian community is a minority within Singapore. So I belong to a minority within a minority in Singapore, and yet I became ambassador to the United Nations twice.

So it shows that Singapore is truly a meritocratic society, and as long as Singapore remains a meritocratic society it will do well. It will provide opportunities for the minorities, and it provides a role model for other multicultural societies in the world.

Beppu: How about the country’s policies towards those who lost by the globalization? Many people profited by globalization -- America, for example -- but not all. It happens to other countries as well. What is your country doing to help or how do you deal with those people who will fall out from the competition due to globalization?

Mahbubani: Well I think here too I think it’s worthwhile for Western societies to study what Singapore has done because in the West they have the concept of welfare. Singapore has the concept of workfare, and the difference between workfare and welfare is that welfare supports you when you’re unemployed. Workfare tries to keep you employed.

So, for example, at the height of 2008-2009 financial crisis, the Singapore government paid part of the salaries of people at the bottom. So it gave incentive for the employer to keep the person employed for a couple of years to ride the downturn and then when the economy came up again the Singapore government stopped the workfare and the people remain employed all the time.

Beppu: When it comes to Singapore, we do quite often hear that the system lacks freedom of the press. Do you think Singapore when it comes to this notion of freedom of the press is as good as other aspects of your country’s system?

Mahbubani: It may seem as though Singapore therefore is disadvantaged but the paradox is that UK has the freest press and you have Brexit. America has the freest press and they elect Donald Trump. So tell me what is the virtue of having freedom of press, if at the end of the day people are worse off not better off? So I actually think that Singapore's system may work better for Singapore and, you know, the various restraints on freedom of the press in Singapore are often designed in view of Singapore’s special circumstances.

For example, in France you can draw cartoons of Prophet Mohammed. In Singapore you cannot because we respect the religious sensitivities of each of the religions in Singapore. If you live in a multicultural society, you have to impose some restrictions on what people can or cannot say when speaking of other religions.

Beppu: Do you think that America’s diplomacy under the next presidency of Donald Trump would cause Asia itself to flourish independently from -- if you see it from that angle -- intervention from America? Or do you think that if there’s something of a retreat of US from this part of the world there will be more confusion for this part of the world?

Mahbubani: Well, for a start I think nobody knows what Trump is going to do and Trump doesn’t know what Trump is going to do. But at the same time, he has done one crazy thing, which is to walk away from the TPP. And that’s a big mistake that he has made, because if America is no longer actively involved in the economic game in this region, China will dominate. So China has won big time because America has walked away from the TPP. Big mistake.

Malaysia Under Pressure
Hideki Yabu

One of the member states of the TPP in Southeast Asia is Malaysia. While the pact contains ambitious rules that would be difficult for the country to meet, it provides an opportunity to promote domestic reforms. But with the ratification of the agreement now in question, Malaysia faces difficult choices.

Malaysia’s economy has been growing steadily and the country hopes to become a developed nation by 2020. Foreign workers make up about 20 percent of the country's workforce and they've brought in investments from overseas, which have supported economic growth. But these workers are often subject to discrimination in the work place.

At the Bangladesh Embassy in Kuala Lumpur, crowds of Bangladeshi workers gather to replace their passports. It’s standard practice at temporary employment agencies in Malaysia to confiscate workers’ passports in order to control and restrain them. The international community has criticized this custom because it raises the possibility of forced labor.

"Even if I were to pay lots of money, the employer would not return my passport," says one Bangladeshi worker. "I haven't been able to return to my country for the last 2 and half years."

Not carrying a passport can also bring more serious problems.

"If I go out without my passport, the police may find me and demand bribe money," says another Bangladeshi worker.

Nations participating in the TPP must not allow forced labor. The US has also insisted on a rule that prohibits employers from confiscating passports, and has requested that Malaysia implement measures to follow it.

The Malaysian government announced that it would revise its labor laws in return for access to the US market under the TPP agreement. It’s been trying to come up with measures to improve working conditions for foreign workers.

But with the election of Donald Trump and uncertainty surrounding the TPP, the government may struggle to get employers' approval for the reforms.

"We must not make rash decisions. We should be patient, take our time and try to decide what's right for our citizens," Malaysian Minister of International Trade and Industry Mustapa Mohamed has said.

Some organizations that have been trying to improve working conditions for foreigners are concerned that the government’s new measures will come to a standstill.

“We believe, even without TPPA, all foreign workers should enjoy equal rights to local workers,” says Irene Xavier, an official with Friends & Women Organization.

US lobbying organizations that have been promoting the TPP deal are keeping a close watch on Malaysia's reform efforts. They encouraged officials at Malaysia's trade and industry ministry to implement the TPP-based changes as planned.

"We all continue to be supportive of free trade, we continue to be supportive of trade liberalization," says Michael Michalak of the US-ASEAN Business Council.

Still, the organizations themselves are unsure whether the TPP agreement will move ahead as the US, which led the negotiations, is almost certain to withdraw.

"'Oh my gosh, what are we going to do now?' And this is what's been happening, I think people are trying to sit back and take stock of what's going on, trying to figure out what is the new administration going to be like (and) how the new administration going to view TPP," Michalak says.

Asia's Challenges

The year 2017 may prove challenging for Asia to deal with its own problems, and one is the territorial disputes in the South China Sea.

It’s a far from ideal situation for Asia as it seeks to return to the center stage of the world, and then there's the difficult question of international relations in Northeast Asia.

Mahbubani: When I travelled in Europe and America, everybody thinks the war is about to break out in South China Sea. So whenever I give a speech on Southeast Asia, I tell my American audience, let me give you a shock. There will be no war in the South China Sea.

Now, why can I confidently predict that there will be no war in the South China Sea? Because while the disputes will carry on, it is not in the interest of any of the parties to start a war in the South China Sea, so at the end of the day I predict that there will be various kinds of bilateral settlements that will be reached between the parties. For example, there could be a sharing of resources. There could be a sharing of fisheries.

Beppu: How about the relations between Japan and China? What should the 2 countries find as a solution to improve the relations?

Mahbubani: Unfortunately in the case of China and Japan, the role of history is much stronger, and frankly there is absolutely no reason why something that happened 70 years ago should continue to dominate the future of Japan-China relations. So I think both side should find a way to deal with history and say that history belongs to history. Let’s not argue about history.

Beppu:So, professor Mahbubani, to conclude the interview my question is about your prospects for this new year 2017 in terms of the future of the globalization itself. Do you think the trend of globalization is on a turning point or do you think that despite all what is happening, the political events of 2016, it is an inevitable process that will go on?

Mahbubani:There’s a fusion of civilization is taking place and if you look at it statistically, the world is getting better and better partly through globalization. So as far as the long-term trend is concerned, I’m optimistic that globalization will carry on. But 2017, in the first 6 months there will be a lot of uncertainty. And the uncertainty is because we do not know what Donald Trump will do. He is still a leader of the most powerful country in the world. So I hope after the 6 months the world will settle back to a more comfortable steady pace of growth and development.

What is interesting is that many people seem to become friends with the idea of globalization as long as they feel the fruit from it, but, start to hate it when they see others enjoy it more.

After hearing the analysis of Professor Mahbubani, I feel that both the promoters and opponents of globalization may be able to find a common position by finding policies that mitigate the negative impacts that are caused by this inevitable process.

Tomorrow, in the second part of our new year's special interview series, we will hear from an expert in Thailand about how Asia should face religious extremism and maintain its historical harmony among different religious communities.