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Kishore Mahubani - Can Asians Think

Kishore Mahubani - Can Asians Think

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Published by Tracy
Asian Values
Asian Values

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Published by: Tracy on Feb 03, 2013
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One Sunday morning in August 2000, I was very excited to read a

news report in the New York Times stating that Dr Richard Nisbett,

a professor of psychology at the University of Michigan, had

discovered through laboratory studies that the Asians in the study

“tended to be more ‘holistic’, showing greater attention to context, a

tolerance for contradiction and less dependence on logic. Westerners

were more ‘analytic’, avoiding contradiction, focusing on objects

removed from their context, and more reliant on logic.”1

I have not seen Dr Nisbett’s study, and it may be too early to jump

to any definite conclusions. But these findings do seem to confirm an

intuition I have had from my life experience: Asians and Westerners

do think differently on some issues. Mathematical truths cannot be

varied in cultures; moral truths can. So too some values.

Looking back at my life after having completed half a century,

I realise that I have had the good fortune of travelling through many

different cultures and times. As a child, I was part of a Hindu Indian

(“Sindhi”) immigrant family in Singapore. My neighbours were

Muslim Malay families. The society was predominantly Chinese.

I was born a British subject, became a Malaysian citizen, and two

years later, in 1965, assumed a Singaporean identity. My education

was always in English. Hence, all through my life I have travelled

simultaneously through the East and West. It is this life experience

which informs the thoughts expressed in these essays.

The title chosen for this volume of essays—“Can Asians

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Preface to the Second Edition 11

Think?”—is not accidental. It represents essentially two questions

folded into one. The first, addressed to my fellow Asians, reads as

“Can you think? If you can, why have Asian societies lost a thousand

years and slipped far behind the European societies that they were

far ahead of at the turn of the last millennium?” This is the harsh

question that the first two essays try to answer.

The second question, addressed primarily to my friends in the

West, is “Can Asians think for themselves?” We live in an essentially

unbalanced world. The flow of ideas, reflecting 500 years of Western

domination of the globe, remains a one-way street—from the West

to the East. Most Westerners cannot see that they have arrogated

to themselves the moral high ground from which they lecture

the world. The rest of the world can see this.

Similarly, Western intellectuals are convinced that their minds

and cultures are open, self-critical and—in contrast to ossified Asian

minds and cultures—have no “sacred cows”. The most shocking

discovery of my adult life was the realisation that “sacred cows”

also exist in the Western mind. During the period of Western

triumphalism that followed the end of the Cold War, a huge bubble

of moral pretentiousness enveloped the Western intellectual


Even though some of the contents of these essays (especially the

statistics) may appear a little dated, the arguments remain, I believe,

valid. They provide one of the few antidotes to the sweet, syrupy

sense of self-congratulation that flows through Western writing on

contemporary issues. Several American professors have told me

that these essays fill a void and provide a counter-balance to

prevailing assumptions.

If my intuition is proven right, we will begin to see, for the first

time in 500 years, a two-way flow in the passage of ideas between the

East and the West early this century. The world will be a much richer

place when Western minds stop assuming that Western civilisation

represents the only universal civilisation. The only way that the

Western mind can break out of its mental box is to first conceive

of this possibility that the Western mind may also be limited in its

own way.

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In this second edition, I have added three new essays: “Asia’s

Lost Millennium”, “The Rest of the West?” and “UN: Sunrise or

Sunset Organisation in the 21st Century?” I have also taken out

three essays: “The End of an Epoch”, “An Asia-Pacific Consensus”

and “The ASEAN ‘Magic’ ”. In addition, I have written a brief

introductory note for each of the older essays in an effort to relate

them to recent developments. After some reflection, I decided not

to revise these essays to update them. They have to retain their

contextual consistency. It is the arguments, not the statistics, that

have to stand the test of time.

Finally, I wish to emphasise that the views contained in this

volume are my personal views. By no means should they be taken

as a reflection of the Singapore government’s views.

New York, 2002

1. “Tomayto, Tomahto, Potayto …”, “This Week in Review”, New York Times,

13 August 2000, p. 2.

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