Book Review: “Can Asians Think?” by Kishore Mahbubani (1998)

Despite its provocative title (which got many a stare an angry stare at the doctor’s office), this book is one for all world-politics lovers to read. Though merely a collection of essays by a renowned UN Official from Singapore, Kishore Mahbubani, this book provides insight into Asia and Asian politics that few Westerners could ever gain on their own. A book by Asians about Asians for the West in English—be still my beating heart! Though all of the essays predate 9-11 and even the Bush Administration, much of the information and anecdotes Mahbubani delivers about how those “otherworldly” governments function will most certainly prove to be timeless bits of wisdom, even if just in principle.

To mention just two insights from the book briefly, I first call your attention to Mahbubani’s treatment of this “thinking” issue that has become his book’s title. He states that “The most painful thing that happened to Asia [in the last 300 years of colonization] was not the physical but the mental colonization. Many Asians…began to believe that Asians were inferior beings to the Europeans…The mental colonization has not been completely eradicated in Asia, and many Asian societies are still struggling to break free.” (21) In answer to his own titular question, he responds that it’s not that Asians cannot think, but that they have yet to learn en masse how to think freely.

In discussing the usefulness of transmitting democracy into societies and cultures which have no foundational ability to handle such a government type, Mahbubani writes that “The crucial variable in determining whether a Third World society will progress is not whether its government is democratic but whether, to put it simply, it is a ‘good government.’…The common characteristics found in the successful East Asian societies may help to provide a useful definition of ‘good government.’ These would include: 1) political stability, 2) sound bureaucracies based on meritocracy, 3) economic growth and equity, 4) fiscal prudence, and 5) relative lack of corruption.” (48-49) Could a Westerner with Western ideals and a democratic background come up with such a clear definition for how a government could thrive in the dangerous soils of Asia? Likely not, yet with poignant clarity Mahbubani has delivered the perfect recipe for success within such a framework, and Western and Eastern leaders alike would do well to consider with this great thinker has to say.

©2015 E.T.

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