Kishore Mahbubani: If you look at the common challenges that the world faces today, whether it's global warming, whether it's COVID-19, we should all be coming together to take care of these common global challenges rather than to focus on our bilateral differences.



Paul Laudicina: I am Paul Laudicina, chairman emeritus of Kearney and founder of the Global Business Policy Council, and this is Coronavirus: a world transformed.

We’re recording this on July 1st.

We’re joined today by Kishore Mahbubani, a diplomat, thought leader, educator, and prolific writer whose latest of some eight previous provocative books is entitled Has China Won? His impressive and distinguished diplomatic career has spanned 33 years with the Singapore Foreign Service, including as Singapore’s ambassador to the United Nations, including two stints as president of the UN Security Council. He was the founding dean of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy at the National University of Singapore and he is currently a distinguished fellow at the Asia Research Institute and has been described as “the muse of the Asian century.” 

I’m grateful to Dr. Mahbubani for joining me today to talk about how coronavirus continues to impact geopolitics and the state of the world.

Interview with Guest

Paul Laudicina: Kishore, welcome. As you know, we at the Kearney Global Business Policy Council were supposed to be with you in Singapore around this time for our annual global CEO Retreat. But sadly, we had to postpone it for a year because of the pandemic. Nonetheless, I'm grateful that you're able to be with us today virtually for this podcast.

Let's talk a little bit if we could, Kishore, about how the pandemic has played in Singapore. Singapore has managed to keep the death toll from COVID-19 remarkably low and at the same time, at the time of this recording, you've just seen you know, two dozen or so, 26 deaths in a country of more than 5.5 million people. What is it? How is it that Singapore has been able to keep the spread and death rates so low? And what can we in the rest of the world learn from the Singapore experience, Kishore?

Kishore Mahbubani: It's a complicated story, but if I had to put it to two words, I would say good governance.

Now you remember, Paul, President Ronald Reagan once said government is not the solution; government is the problem. And so basically what Ronald Reagan was advising was please let's try to cut down government, and we will all be much better off. Singapore has the exact opposite attitude. In Singapore, government is not the problem; government is the solution. So the reason why you’ve seen such a low death rate in Singapore, and by the way, the death rate in terms of number of fatalities is the lowest in the world, incidentally. Among the Singapore population, the long-term residents, the number of cases is very low. 

But if there was a surge in the foreign worker population who were living together. And that's most of the cases, the 40,000 cases that we had come from about 300,000 foreign workers, but the population of 5 million basically has less than 1000 cases, or 1,000–2,000 cases. So it's a very, it's a two part story that is at play here. But in any case, we actually took very good care of the foreign workers, and they got the world-class medical care and attention that they probably couldn't get any other country in the world.

Paul Laudicina: Well, and the amazing thing, in addition to the statistics of how low both the infection rate and, importantly, the death rate has been in Singapore as you are the quintessential connected entrepôt economy. So you know, for Singapore to achieve this clearly is a testament to good governance, and I think that the rest of the world really has a lot to learn from your experience. Now, you released a book, Kishore, back in April, Has China Won? And before the pandemic, China was, by all accounts gaining momentum clearly as a global economic power. But the question I have for you is: Has COVID-19 in your view changed those dynamics any? What would China “winning” under this circumstance mean? Is it really this sort of zero-sum game of one winner and one loser? Or is the Sino–American relationship more likely to be a complex web of pluses and minuses across the broad spectrum of macroeconomic, technological, geopolitical dynamics? Give us a little insight about that if you would, please. 

Kishore Mahbubani: Well, as you know, sadly, you know, Paul, you know, the world that we live in, things are very complicated. And the one thing missing in the discussions on China and on US–China relations is the lack of understanding of the complexity of the issues that we're dealing with. 

So for a start, I want to emphasize that's it for the question, has China won? The answer is no. Or more accurately, not yet. But if you allow the present trajectory to continue, where China is, in a sense, enjoying relative good governance, and I think the economy will continue to grow after COVID-19 is over, China will eventually win. Because the Chinese have a very patient long-term strategy on how to manage this geopolitical contest with the United States. 

And by contrast, as Henry Kissinger told me over lunch in New York, in March 2018, the United States does not have a comprehensive long-term strategy on how to manage China. And a lot of reactions that the United States has been having to China have been driven as much by emotion, as much as by reason.

And so, for example, when COVID-19 came along, the oldest rule of geopolitics should have come into play. And the oldest rule of geopolitics is that the enemy of my enemy is my friend. So if COVID-19 is an enemy of the United States of America, and COVID-19 is an enemy of China, the US and China should have to have both come together and said, “Hey, we are now fighting a common enemy, COVID-19. Let's put a pause button on the US–China geopolitical contest.”

And let's focus on fighting this common enemy, destroy it, and then we can go back to life. Before then, and it's actually quite shocking that even though COVID-19 has done so much damage to the United States and so much damage to the world economy and in fact to much of the world, the US and China could not press the pause button on their geopolitical contest, therefore showing that it's not reason that's driving this contest, it’s also emotions. 

And you know, one of the most delicate points I make in my book is that in the West, including the United States, there's always been a long-standing fear of what I call the yellow pattern. And this is subconscious fears in the western mind about the yellow peril, and these subconscious fears are also at play in the US–China geopolitical contest and explain to some extent some of the irrational actions that are being taken against China because the irrational actions taken against China don't just damage China. They also damage the United States, and especially today when the US economy is struggling, the wisest thing the United States could do is to say, “Let's stop this trade war. And let's try and restart the global economy.” But that's something that’s sensible that should be done, but it's not being done. 

Paul Laudicina: Let's drill down on that a little bit more if we could, Kishore. I remember one of our conversations not too many years ago in which you observed that the US had strong political freedoms, but weak political leadership, whereas China had weak political freedoms and strong political leadership. Is this one of the fundamental reasons that you're more bullish on China in its competition with the United States? Or—question is, have you given sufficient credit to the ability of the American people to, paraphrasing Winston Churchill's famous quip about Americans, to do the right thing after exhausting all other options? Might not 2020 give America another shot at getting it right?

Kishore Mahbubani: Well, I can tell you, Paul, almost the whole world is going to celebrate if Joe Biden's elected president of the United States of America, let's be very clear about that. I think the Trump administration has been such a major destabilizing force, not just for the United States, but for the world, that people will be happy to see a new chapter begin in the United States. And I completely agree that it would be a fatal mistake for China to underestimate the United States of America. 

You're absolutely right about Winston Churchill's quip earlier. But at the same time, the United States has been the most successful country ever in human history. I mean, the amount of power in military, economic, political, cultural soft power the United States has accumulated is of a scale the no other country has ever seen. And so the United States is, and I have a fictional memo in my book to Xi Jinping from one of his colleagues saying, “Whatever we do, we cannot underestimate the United States. It’s a formidable country.” But at the same time, we also know that the United States has had in the last two, three decades, some of its worst decades, and the average income of the bottom 50% in America has gone down over a 30-year period. And that's created a sea of despair among the White working classes. And of course, that's created all the, many of the problems that you see in the United States. 

And by contrast, if you look at China, the Chinese people have just experienced the best 40 years in 4,000 years of Chinese history. That's a remarkable thing. And that's why Chinese civilization is also now recovering its traditional strength. And if you look over 4,000 years, the most successful civilization in human history has been the Chinese civilization. Because there's a very eminent historian in Singapore, Wang Gungwu, who says, Chinese civilization is the only one that's been knocked down four times. And then it stands up every time.

But at the end of the day, the big message of my book is that the world can see a strong America, and the world can see a strong Chinese civilization, and they can both co-exist in peace and work together. I know that's an idea that is almost unthinkable and heretical to say in the current American context, but if the primary goal of any American administration is to improve the well-being of the American people, and if the primary goal of the Chinese government is improve the well-being of the Chinese people, there is no fundamental contradiction between these primary goals of the United States and China.

Paul Laudicina: Well, that's certainly a hopeful message, Kishore, but irrespective of the outcome of the next election here in the United States, there will be some obvious frictions between China and the US, and we just saw recently even in the Himalayas on the Chinese–Indian frontier, this confrontation between Chinese and Indian troops raising tensions between India and China in this long-standing rivalry there. 

How could the resurgence of tension between these two most populous countries in the world affect China's ability to influence and extend its influence in the region, especially among the so-called quad countries of Australia, Japan, India, and the US for countries that have managed historically close relationships? That's not inconsistent with this peaceful coexistence with China, is it, that you hope will emerge? 

Kishore Mahbubani: Well, I think what happened at the border was truly sad and tragic. And it's, of course, unfortunately, these sort of accidents happen when military forces operate very close to each other. And even though they very wisely adopted a policy of not shooting each other, and you notice no gunshots were fired in this contest at the border but still there was a tremendous loss of life on both the Indian side and the Chinese side. 

And this clearly has been a major setback in China–India relations, and it's conceivable that relations within China and India could go down in the coming decades. But you know, at the same time if the Chinese and Indians go back to their longer history, for most of their history, China and India have lived at peace, and the previous Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and the previous Premier Wen Jiabao, had a famous statement together, saying the world is big enough for both China and India to grow together.

And if India's priority today should be, as I mentioned earlier, the well-being of its people, and India's priority is to grow the economy, then clearly, it's also got to work with China in that dimension. And one important statistic to know is that in 1980, before China started its economic reform programs, the size of the Chinese GNP and Indian GNP was about the same. Today, the Chinese GNP is almost five times the size of India's GNP. 

So if I was a national leader of India, I think my big national priority would be to try and eradicate as much poverty in India as China's eradicated poverty in China, and to focus on growth and development. And to focus on growth and development, the biggest distraction can be a geopolitical contest. 

Paul Laudicina: Hmm. Well, to be sure, the United States is absorbed with its own internal problems today, not just in dealing with this pandemic and its inability to get it under control and the racial tensions and questions that relate to a chronic political gridlock. 

But China as well has its own internal issues, doesn't it? And by the time of this broadcast, we will have passed this 23rd anniversary of the handover of Hong Kong back to Chinese rule under the one country-two systems architecture. Yet, China's pledge to honor Hong Kong's autonomy under the system is somewhat in question with the promulgation of this new national security law, limiting political freedoms in Hong Kong. 

And at the same time, we see the US and Europe condemning what they allege are forced labor camps among the 1 million or so Muslim Uighurs in China's extreme West. How do you reconcile these kinds of problems, you know, in terms of China winning and leading the world, how can they have been perceived to win, given practices like this that limit basic freedoms of assembly of speech, of self-determination, of religious freedom, and so forth? How do you manage those seeming contradictions, Kishore?

Kishore Mahbubani: Well, I want to emphasize, as I said at the very beginning, number one, China has not won yet. And China still has many challenges, massive challenges, at home. And, and in fact, the primary goal of the Chinese leaders is to take care of their domestic problems and not get engaged in external adventures elsewhere. So the Chinese want to focus on all the domestic issues.

Now, the big question is, what is going to happen to the Hong Kong economy after the national security law has been passed, as you know is already been passed, and if the pessimists are right, Hong Kong's economy will crash. If the optimists are right, Hong Kong's economy will keep on going and keep on growing. So let's wait and see, and I will, I will make a relatively bold prediction that Hong Kong's economy will continue to grow and do reasonably well, even after the passing of this national security law. 

Now, the legal problem is a very different problem, which I, in fact, discuss in my book. And of course, it's wrong to detain all these people in China, but you know, one fact about China that many people outside do not know is that China itself also experienced its own 9/11 moment, when there were a lot of Islamic terrorist attacks on various Chinese cities. And so many of the actions taken against the Uighurs were a result of this attack. I'm not saying they were right actions to be done. But just as America after 9/11 launched a war in Afghanistan, launched a war in Iraq, and got involved, you know, in several post-9/11 wars, when countries feel that they are under attack, they do take extreme actions. Again, I want to emphasize I'm not defending what the Chinese are doing. I'm explaining what the Chinese have done.

Paul Laudicina: Well, let's zoom out a little bit, Kishore and talk more broadly about the region. In the subtitle of one of your first books 15 years ago was the phrase “the irresistible shift of global power to the east.” Obviously, to say that the world is in a fluid state would be a gross understatement, but do you still see this power shift to the east as inevitable, inexorable and perhaps irreversible? And, you know, much of the world after all has been subjected to in recent history, unforeseen developments. What are some of the wild cards that you think might play out and bend history in a somewhat different direction than the one that you believe is inevitable?

Kishore Mahbubani: Well, I think the shift of power to the east is irresistible because of a 2000 year logic. Because you look at the human history where the past 2,000 years, the two largest economies of the world from the year one to the year 1 to the year 1800, or the last 2,000 years, were China and India, and it took a massive amount of underperformance on the part of this societies and the remarkable success, of course of the West, initially in Europe in the 19th century, and then in America in the 20th century, that led to an explosion of Western power over the last 200 years. 

But if we view the past 200 years of world history, against the backdrop of the past 2000 years of world history, the past 200 years of world history have been basically an aberration. All aberrations come to a natural end. So the return of Asia is unstoppable. 

And I would say if there's one big lesson that is coming out of COVID-19, it's actually quite striking. And I'm not sure I fully understand these figures myself. If you look at fatalities per million of population of countries affected by COVID-19, all over East Asia, South Korea, Japan, China, Singapore, even Australia, New Zealand, the numbers are below 10 per million. 

But if you go to Europe, there's 600 per million, 500 per million, United States 300 per million. And it may be too early to assess what these figures mean. But they at least provide an early indicator that East Asian governments have become surprisingly more competent in their management of such crises than many Western societies have become. 

So if you want indicators of how the world is changing, look at the response to recent crisis. And I think by the end of this year, we may be surprised to see an economic recovery coming initially from East Asia, rather than as you would expect from Europe or America as a result of COVID-19. 

But you're absolutely right about wildcards. And of course, the biggest wildcard and the one that is at play here, of course, is the US–China geopolitical contest. And if that gets out of hand, you know, prove to be destabilizing for United States, destabilizing for China, and destabilizing for the whole world. That's exactly why I wrote my book Has China Won? because the conclusion of my book is that, frankly, if you look at the common challenges that the world faces today, whether it's global warming, whether it's COVID-19, we should all be coming together to take care of these common global challenges, rather than to focus on our bilateral differences. 

I know that this is not a popular message to convey at this stage. But if we look at the overall interests of humanity, of the 7.5 billion people in the world, then I think the overall interests of humanity dictate a pause in this geopolitical contest.

Paul Laudicina: Well, it may well be Kishore, that the silver lining to this very dark tragic cloud of the global pandemic will be a more universal embrace of capable government and governance going forward, certainly at the national level, and perhaps even globally, and I've asked many of our guests about the future of globalization and in our own research, some years ago, we talked about growing islandization instead of globalization. But what's your hope for global collaboration in light of these challenges that we've seen this year? Are you hopeful that this common tragic global experience of the pandemic could provide that kind of cathartic influence for the world to finally abandon its move toward nationalism and tribalism, and back to a more reasonable integration that would benefit everyone?

Kishore Mahbubani: Well, I think, you know, as you know, human beings claim to be the most intelligent species on planet Earth. And if indeed humanity is right in its claim that it represents the most intelligent species on planet Earth, the last thing he would do is to destroy the only planet that they can live on. Because he doesn't have a planet B to go to. 

And if there's one big message from COVID-19 and its rapid spread, it confirms what I've said in one of my earlier books, The Great Convergence. That as a result of globalization with the world shrinking, when the 7.5 billion people live in 193 separate countries. In the past, they used to live in 193 separate boats with captains and crews taking care of each boat and rules to make sure the boats didn't collide.

But today as a result of globalization, and you can see this with COVID-19, the 7.5 billion people no longer live in 193 separate boats. They live in 193 separate cabins on the same boat. But the problem about a global boat is that you have captains and crews taking care of each cabin. And no captains or crews taking care of the global boat as a whole. 

And that's why COVID-19 spread so fast because the COVID-19 and global warming and all these challenges, they are borderless, and yeah, we're trying to manage our borders to handle borderless problems. So at some point, humanity has to wake up and understand that now we live in literally on the same boat, not metaphorically. And we have to come together and manage this global boat. And the only way to do it, as president Macron of France has said, is to strengthen global multilateral institutions, whether it's the UN, the World Bank, the IMF, the World Trade Organization, the World Health Organization, we should be now coming together to strengthen multilateral institutions rather than to weaken them.

And fortunately, Bill Clinton himself advised in a speech in 2003 in Yale, he said, “If America is going to be number one forever, fine, we can keep on doing what you want to do.” But then he added a “but.” He said, “What if America can conceive of a world where it becomes number two?” It's in America's national interest to strengthen multilateral institutions, norms, processes. And so if America wanted to adopt a wiser, more enlightened policy towards the world, it should join Europe and Asia in strengthening global multilateral institutions.

Paul Laudicina: Well, and surely those institutions have been in somewhat disrepair over the last number of years. I mean, we're 75 years since the formation of that global vessel in 1945, the United Nations, and you know that system inside out and both the promise and disappointment of many with how increasingly inadequate our international governance system has become, in part because the way many of its actors, participants like the United States, have treated it. But global organizations like, ironically, the World Health Organization, have been underfunded for years. How do we build up international organizations like the WHO so that we can regain confidence and better prepare the world for future crises like this pandemic, that will require that kind of cooperation that only an effective global governance system can manage?

Kishore Mahbubani: You know, Paul, I think you've had more experience in helping to strengthen and build organizations than I have. But I think one thing that you and I will completely agree on that if you were asked to rescue any organization, the first thing you would do is, let me find the most dynamic, capable, courageous CEO to run this organization. And when you talk about the weakness of the United Nations, and you talk about the weakness of the World Health Organization, I can tell you that the reason why they're weak, they're not weak by accident. They're weak by design. 

Because if you are a strong, dynamic, courageous CEO, you are not qualified to become Secretary General of the United Nations, because the requirement of the five permanent members of the UN Security Council, where as you said, I served for two years and I served as president twice, the requirement of the permanent members of the UN Security Council. They don't agree on everything but one thing they agree upon us when you select a UN Secretary General, we want somebody who's relatively spineless. 

Now if you have a selection process, whereby only spineless people are to run an organization, why should you be surprised that the organization underperforms? And I can tell you even at the height of the Cold War, when the United States and Soviet Union disagreed on everything, but then the only one thing we agreed upon is that we don't want a strong UN Secretary General. So what we have to do is change our mindset towards these organizations, and realize that the world will be better off if we have stronger CEOs for these organizations, and we must fund them well and not cut their funding. So at the end of the day, the solution for good global governance, the solutions are actually quite simple and easy to find. But of course, first you have to make a political decision: yes, I want a courageous, principled, strong, dynamic individual to run an organization like the United Nations.

Paul Laudicina: So leadership clearly matters. And I remember, perhaps you do as well Kishore, some years ago, Paul Volcker, when he was chairman of the Fed, used to say that the US had three deficits: a fiscal deficit, a trade deficit and a leadership deficit. And he went on to say, the leadership deficit was the worst of the three. 

So now we're in a leadership change contest in the US. And, you know, leaders have struggled to coalesce the American public around the clear message or a shared understanding of the virus, not to mention these other, you know, critical issues. What do you hope to see from leaders in the US going forward that could make a difference in the kinds of challenges that you have been so clear about over your distinguished career that face the world?

Kishore Mahbubani: Well, Paul Volcker was also a very dear friend of mine. And Paul Volcker, to me, represents exactly the kind of leader that we need in the world today. And as you know, Paul Volcker, genuinely believed that in institutions of government, you must select the best people to work in the government and you must train them well. If you can find Paul Volckers, and there are many Paul Volckers in the United States, then the United States can of course, bounce back. 

And I can tell you, the whole world would be very happy to see the return of a strong and dynamic United States of America, once again, leading the world with the same kind of generous spirit with which America led the world in the decades after World War II. 

So I think if the United States could decide that we shouldn't go about undermining institutions of government, and also frankly, this is a very delicate point, don't let money determine the outcome of politics. The role of money in politics must diminish. And therefore you can allow greater integrity to come back in public policymaking and that's what at the end of the day Paul Volcker stood for. He stood for integrity in public policymaking.

Paul Laudicina: Well, that's a great note on which we can conclude this discussion. Kishore Singapore certainly has been known to select the best and the brightest public servants, which has helped explain the extraordinary rise and success of Singapore over the years. And you, my friend, have been among the best of the best. For that, we thank you for your service. We thank you for your insights in this broadcast, and especially for your continuous reminder that the world needs to be led by people of principle and courage. So thanks very much Kishore for joining me today.

Kishore Mahbubani: Thank you very much for having me. 

Wrap-up (Paul Laudicina)

There’s only so much ground we can cover in one interview, and we’re aware there are undoubtedly many more questions that you might wish we had been able to discuss during each podcast. So don’t hesitate to be in touch with me with any additional insight we might be able to provide by contacting me at [email protected] or on Twitter at @paullaudicina, and I would be happy to respond. 

We’ll be back with new episodes of Coronavirus: a world transformed soon. So stay tuned. More is coming.


About Kishore Mahbubani

A veteran diplomat, student of philosophy, and prolific author, Kishore Mahbubani is a distinguished fellow at the Asia Research Institute at the National University of Singapore.

In diplomacy, he was with the Singapore Foreign Service for 33 years (1971 to 2004). He had postings in Cambodia; Malaysia; Washington, DC; and New York, where he twice was Singapore’s ambassador to the UN and served as president of the UN Security Council in January 2001 and May 2002. He was permanent secretary at the Foreign Ministry from 1993 to 1998. As a result of his excellent performance in his diplomatic career, he was conferred the Public Administration Medal (Gold) by the Singapore Government in 1998. 

Kishore joined academia in 2004, when he was appointed as the founding dean of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy at the National University of Singapore (NUS). He was dean from 2004 to 2017 and a professor in the Practice of Public Policy from 2006 to 2019. He has also been the chairman of the jury panel of the NUS Singapore History Prize since 2019. In April 2019, he was elected as an honorary international member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, which has honored distinguished thinkers, including several of America’s founding fathers, since 1780. Kishore is also a member of the World Economic Forum 2020 Global Future Council on China.

Kishore was awarded the President’s Scholarship in 1967. He graduated with a first-class honors degree in philosophy from the University of Singapore in 1971. He also earned a master’s degree in philosophy in 1976 and an honorary doctorate in 1995 from Dalhousie University in Canada. He spent a year as a fellow at the Center for International Affairs at Harvard University from 1991 to 1992.

He has achieved several firsts in his two careers. He was the founding dean of the Lee Kuan Yew School, the founding director of the Civil Service College, and the first Singapore ambassador to serve on the UN Security Council. He was also the first Singaporean to publish articles in globally renowned journals and newspapers, including Foreign Affairs, Foreign Policy, The New York Times, and the Financial Times, and he has co-authored articles with distinguished global thought leaders, including Kofi Annan, Klaus Schwab, and Larry Summers. Kishore has never shied away from taking on new challenges. 

He has also published eight books: Can Asians Think?, Beyond The Age Of Innocence, The New Asian Hemisphere, The Great Convergence, Can Singapore Survive?, The ASEAN Miracle (co-authored with Jeffery Sng), Has the West Lost It?, and his latest book, Has China Won?, which was released in March 2020. 

Kishore has received significant international recognition for his many accomplishments. He was awarded the Foreign Policy Association Medal in New York in June 2004 with the following opening words in the citation: “A gifted diplomat, a student of history and philosophy, a provocative writer and an intuitive thinker.” He was listed as one of the top 100 public intellectuals in the world by Foreign Policy and Prospect magazines in September 2005 and included in the March 2009 Financial Times list of top 50 individuals who would shape the debate on the future of capitalism. He was selected as one of Foreign Policy’s Top Global Thinkers in 2010 and 2011. In 2011, he was described as “the muse of the Asian century.” He was selected by Prospect magazine as one of the top 50 world thinkers for 2014.