Kishore Mahbubani was appointed Dean of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy on 16 August 2004 after having served 33 years in the Singapore Foreign Service (with postings in Cambodia, Malaysia, Washington DC and twice as Ambassador to the UN, during which he also served as President of the Security Council). He was the Permanent Secretary of the Foreign Ministry from 1993-1998.
He is the author of Can Asians Think? published in Singapore, Canada, US, Mexico, India and People’s Republic of China and of Beyond The Age of Innocence: Rebuilding Trust between America and the World. His new book entitled The New Asian Hemisphere: the Irresistible Shift of Gobal Power to the East was published in New York in February 2008. He was also listed as one of the top 100 public intellectuals in the world by Foreign Policy and Prospect magazines in September 2005.
Question: How do you account for a lack of progress in human rights?
Kishore Mahbubani: : Well, I think it is good live in a world where we acknowledge that we are all imperfect, rather live in a world where one side says we are perfect and you are imperfect. Certainly China, Singapore and other societies have a some way to go in moving forward, but the critical question is what direction are they moving in? Take China, for example. If you look at it from the viewpoint of a Chinese citizen, the last 150 years before the full modernizations began were among the worst 150 years of Chinese history. The British came in the 1840s and said, “we want to buy your tea, please accept our opium in return” and the Chinese said “no, we don’t want your opium.” The British bombarded there ports, seized the Hong Kong and insisted that the Chinese accept opium in return. Now, if you are going through those kinds of humiliations, you have gone through the invasion by Japan, you’ve seen civil war, you’ve seen famine, to go through a period of 30 years by a complete peace, where every year, your living standard improves dramatically and the most amazing statistic in my book was the one given to me by Larry Summers, where he said that in the western industrial revolution, where you saw this significant improvement in standard of living, you could see an improvement in one life time of 50%. Now in Asia you are not seeing an improvement of 50%, not 100%, not 200%, but 10,000%, and that’s a remarkable transformation. So hundreds of millions of Chinese families who struggled to find food, who struggled to find shelter, who never dreamt of sending children to school, guess what? They can do all these things and China by the way the only reason why the United Nations is going to meet its millennium development goal of halving global poverty is because China has reduced the number of people living on less than a dollar a day from 600 million to 200 million: 400 million people, larger than the population of United States, larger than the population of Europe, has suddenly been lifted up. Now, that is a remarkable improvement in the sense of human freedom than you have. So, if you tell these 400 million people, “how come you don’t have democracy here?” Well, it will come. Give us time. In the case of United States right, you greed on the principle of the equality of man in 1770s. It took you almost years to get your slavery after accepting the principle of equality of men. It took you 150 years to give the women right to vote, and it took you almost 200 years to finally give the blacks effectively the right to vote. Come on. If the United States took 200 years right to establish a real democracy, how do you expect China which is a much larger, much older society to transform itself overnight? It’s very unrealistic, but as long as China is moving in the right direction we should welcoming it, because you can see this progressively as China will have the largest middle class of any society by 2030, in which you have 60 million people in the middle class and these 360 million middle class citizens will want to have exactly the kind of open society that United State and Europe has. So, it’s coming. Give it time.