Engaging the World

Considered by leading international publications as one of the world’s top intellects, Professor Kishore Mahbubani shares stories of how friendships can promote international cooperation, as well as his thoughts on Singapore’s place in the world.

BY CLAIRE TURRELL

PHOTO SPH MAGAZINES

 

Professor Kishore Mahbubani has spoken and published extensively on a wide range of global issues, from geopolitics to economics.

 

I

n the office of Professor Kishore Mahbubani, there are many photographs which show him shaking hands with countless world leaders like the late United States president Ronald Reagan and former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev. These photographs are more than great keepsakes – they document the wide-reaching role the former diplomat has played as a representative of Singapore for more than 30 years. When he was in Singapore’s Foreign Service from 1971 to 2004, he served as the nation’s permanent representative to the United Nations (UN), and as president of the UN Security Council (UNSC) for two stints, among other roles.

Now, as dean of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy at the National University of Singapore – a role he has occupied since 2004 – he frequently gives talks and contributes articles around the world, sharing his views on world affairs. He also sits on the boards of various global institutions, including the Yale President’s Council on International Activities, and the Bocconi University International Advisory Committee. He is also chairman of the Lee Kuan Yew World City Prize Nominating Committee.

When he’s not being invited to speak internationally or being interviewed by media outlets, he is busy penning articles and books filled with advice for future world leaders. His latest book, The ASEAN Miracle: A Catalyst For Peace, co-written by historian Jeffery Sng, looks at the success of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) as it celebrates its 50th anniversary this year.

Growing up in Onan Road – in the Joo Chiat area in the eastern part of Singapore, which is known for its multi-cultural heritage – Prof Mahbubani, 68, saw from an early age the importance of bonding with multicultural neighbours. “I grew up in a Hindu family, with Muslim families on our left and right, and then Chinese families on either side of them. I grew up understanding as a child the diversity in Singapore. I saw that as a big gift to me,” he says.

“ Singapore can play the role of the capital of the Asian century, the doors through which people walk to understand Asia. Singapore is the only city in Asia where the four major civilisation streams – Islamic, Indian, Chinese and Western – exist harmoniously and comfortably. The future of Asia rests on how these four civilisations can work together. If Singapore can be a good model of this, it would be a fantastic global citizen. ”


Kishore Mahbubani,
dean of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy

1. How important are personal friendships in diplomacy?

In diplomacy, personal relationships matter enormously. When I was permanent secretary at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, it was very important that I had very close personal relationships with my counterparts in other countries so that we could get things done. For instance, then-Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong was proposing various initiatives, including the Asia- Europe Meeting. Initially, Malaysia was reluctant to support it, but because of my close friendship with my Malaysian counterpart, Tan Sri Ahmad Kamil Jaafar, I managed to persuade him to do so.

2. How have personal relations helped in the resolution of global issues?

When I was president of the UNSC, I became personally close to some of the big powers there. The US Ambassador, John Negroponte, was a friend before that and remains a friend. In fact, when I had my bypass operation last year, he made a stopover in Singapore and came to my house to see me. That’s how close we are.

The Russian Ambassador, Sergey Lavrov, who is now the Foreign Minister of Russia, is also a good friend. When I went to call on him at his office a few years ago, I brought a bottle of whiskey. He opened it and we drank whiskey together in his office at three o’clock in the afternoon.

Then there is the British Ambassador, Sir Jeremy Greenstock. We both left the UNSC 15 years ago and have retired from the foreign service. But when I was in London last year with my wife, we went to his house and had tea with him.

There is the Chinese Ambassador, Wang Yingfan. When I went to Beijing a couple of years ago, I saw him and had meetings and a dinner with him. Even the French Ambassador, Jean-David Levitte, I got to know quite well.

These were the five most important players in the UNSC. When I was president of the UNSC, the close personal relationships I had with them enabled me to get things done. The UNSC is the last stop you go to to resolve a major international crisis. To be able to secure agreements on major international issues is never easy, and personal relationships matter a lot in terms of getting agreement on many of these issues.

3. You have suggested twinning every school in Singapore with another school in South-east Asia. Why so?

The sad part about Singaporeans is that they know so little about their own region, South-east Asia. As they say: “Geography is destiny.” Singapore’s destiny is tied forever to South-east Asia. We are so blessed that South-east Asia is doing well. I want Singaporean children to know and understand the real South-east Asia. If every school in Singapore is twinned with one in Thailand or Laos, children will get to understand that others have a very different world view. The best time to start is when they are young.

4. How would South-east Asia’s youth benefit from this exchange?

For them, it’s an exposure to see what a first world city is like and it makes them aware of the potential for their countries. There’s one story I was told by the former Indonesian Ambassador to the UN, Ali Alatas, who is also a good personal friend. He said that Indonesia used to send urban planners to Zurich, Amsterdam, London and Paris. They would all write reports about the cities and when they came to the last paragraph, they would say: “But Zurich is in Europe, Jakarta is in Asia. We in Asia cannot do what Europe has done.”

One year, they came to Singapore and wrote a story about how brilliant its urban planning is. When they came to the last paragraph, they realised that Singapore is not in Europe; Singapore is in Asia. That’s when they said: “OK, maybe we can do it too.” So in the same way, when young children from other South-east Asian countries come here, they can learn an incredible amount from Singapore and go back with a bolder ambition to transform their societies.

5. How can Singapore become a better global citizen?

London was the capital of the European century; of Asean’s, but the EU Commission’s budget is 8,000 times more than the budget of the Asean Secretariat. Certainly, I don’t think that the Asean Secretariat’s budget should be nearly as big as the EU’s, but you can’t have such a disparity. I’m arguing that Singapore should take the lead in asking for a different principle of payment to the Asean budget. Right now, the Asean budget is determined on equal shares, which means you can only pay up to the amount that the poorest member can pay. And that’s wrong because Asean has poor members and rich members. At the United Nations, countries pay on the basis of their capacity to pay, so richer countries pay more, and poorer countries pay less. New York was the capital of the American century. Singapore can play the role of the capital of the Asian century, the doors through which people walk to understand Asia. Singapore is the only city in Asia where the four major civilisation streams – Islamic, Indian, Chinese and Western – exist harmoniously and comfortably. The future of Asia rests on how these four civilisations can work together. If Singapore can be a good model of this, it would be a fantastic global citizen.

6. How best should Singapore engage with the rest of the world?

Encourage the rest of the world to visit Singapore. The Western media can be very critical of Singapore. The only way to explain Singapore is to let them see it first-hand. The famous American political scientist Samuel Huntington once came to my home for dinner. I was driving him back to his hotel at around 11pm when he saw a woman walking alone in the street. He was shocked. He said: “Kishore, is she safe?” And I said: “Perfectly safe.” Letting him see how safe Singapore is was far more persuasive than just telling him about it.

7. What lessons can Singapore share in terms of navigating the world?

Singapore has moved very fast whenever the world changed. We are a price taker; we adjust and we change. That has to be the hallmark of Singapore’s foreign policy. We can take advantage of the fact that we are small and we can move quickly. During the Cold War in the 1980s, I used to fight with the Vietnamese ambassador to the UN all the time over Vietnam’s occupation of Cambodia. By the 1990s, Singapore was one of Vietnam’s best friends.

8. What role should Singapore play in Asean?

Singapore should play a bigger role in Asean. One of the concrete recommendations that we make in our book The ASEAN Miracle: A Catalyst For Peace is that Asean deserves a bigger budget. The European Union’s [EU] Gross National Product [GNP] is only six times the size of Asean’s, but the EU Commission’s budget is 8,000 times more than the budget of the Asean Secretariat. Certainly, I don’t think that the Asean Secretariat’s budget should be nearly as big as the EU’s, but you can’t have such a disparity. I’m arguing that Singapore should take the lead in asking for a different principle of payment to the Asean budget. Right now, the Asean budget is determined on equal shares, which means you can only pay up to the amount that the poorest member can pay. And that’s wrong because Asean has poor members and rich members. At the United Nations, countries pay on the basis of their capacity to pay, so richer countries pay more, and poorer countries pay less.

9. How can we help Singaporeans to better understand Asean’s importance?

The Singapore citizen benefits more from Asean than any other country’s citizen for a very simple reason: Our total trade is around three to 3½ times the size of our GNP. You can only have trade coming in and out of Singapore if there’s peace. If Asean collapses, Singapore won’t have trade. The peace that Asean has delivered is a gift to Singapore. If somebody gives you a gift, you should reciprocate and be equally generous.

10. What do you want people to take away from your book The ASEAN Miracle: A Catalyst For Peace?

We live in very pessimistic times. I meet so many people who think the world is coming to an end and things are going off the rails, but they don’t realise that in many areas we have performed miracles. Asean is certainly a miracle. It has taken the most diverse region on planet Earth, which has seen two of the biggest wars fought since World War II – the Vietnam War and the Sino-Vietnamese conflict – and converted it into a peaceful and prosperous oasis. That is why Jeffery Sng and I recommend that it should be given the Nobel Peace Prize. It has improved the lives of over 600 million people, giving them a greater sense of security, prosperity and confidence in the future.


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