Can Asians Think?

Yeah, sure, you could say that this book has a bit of controversial title. The reason I was interested in it was because I read an interview with the author, Kishore Mahbubani, on a random Web site about a year ago, and he sounded like he had some pretty interesting things to say about the world, politics, and the Asian/European dichotomy. Of course, after reading the half-page biography spiel on Mahbubani, I shouldn’t have been surprised: it turns out that he’s Singapore’s ambassador to the United Nations.

The reason for the controversial title (other than to make people give it more than just a passing glance at the bookstore, I suppose) is this question that Mahbubani poses: on the total timeline that humanity has been present on this Earth, the East (including the Middle East) have been the dominant civilisation until very recently. To an outside observer, it seems quite incredible that Europeans have ascended so quickly, so fast: in 1500 years, they’ve gone from being the most backwards culture to being the world leaders in almost every respect. The simple question that Mahbubani asks is: why, and how, did this happen?

Once you get past the first few essays, however, it’s clear that this historical question is just a teaser: Can Asians Think covers much more ground than just that. For example, the book discusses the conflicting agendas of the United States and the United Nations, gives insight into the moral and ethical values of the more traditional Asian mindset (which many Australians may be interested in reading given Singapore’s recent capital punishment of Nguyen Tuong Van), says quite frankly why the imposition of democracy on lesser-developed countries is doomed to fail, and talks about the occupation of Cambodia by Vietnam and the Khmer Rouge.

People who have grown up being truly exposed to both the Western and Asian mindsets will probably not get a huge amount out of the book, simply because they will most likely understand and agree with much of what Mahbubani wants to say. I’m reluctant to state whether people who have been exposed to only either the Asian or Western mindset will find the book useful, but only because I haven’t given it yet to any of my Intelligent Worldly Friends™ I consider to be in those categories and discussed the issues in the book with them yet. I am, however, very keen on doing exactly this. The book talks about some damn interesting topics, and if it can generate intelligent (perhaps heated) discussion at a dinner table, it’s hit its mark, has it not?

About the only criticism I have about the book is that the essays now seem a bit dated, even if the oldest ones were only written around 15 years ago. It would be a much more compelling read, for example, to see his opinion on the United States’s reaction to September 11, 2001, their recent opposition against the United Nations, and his thoughts on the occupation of Iraq given his views on the spread of democracy before economic development. It would also be interesting to read about his thoughts on post-British Hong Kong, and China’s incredible economic growth since the turn of the century. However, it’s impossible to fault the book for this lack of discussion: even mathematics textbooks can become outdated at some stage of their life :).

Highly recommended.

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