Can Asians Think?

June 1, 1998 Topic: Society Regions: Asia Tags: AcademiaBusinessCold War

Can Asians Think?

Mini Teaser: Realistically, can the rest of the world continue to ride on the shoulders of the West? If Asians double in population in the next fifty years, will they be able to carry their fair share of this burden?

by Author(s): Kishore Mahbubani

This is obviously a sensitive question. In this age of political
correctness that we live in, just imagine the uproar that could be
caused if I went to Europe or Africa and asked, "Can Europeans
think?" or "Can Africans think?" You have to be Asian to ask the
question "Can Asians think?"

Given its sensitivity, let me explain both the reasons why and the
context in which I raise the issue. First, I believe that if one had
to ask one single, key question that could determine the future of
the globe, it could well be "Can Asians think?" In 1996 Asians
already made up 3.5 billion out of a global population of over 5
billion (or about 70 percent of the world population). By
conservative projections, the Asian portion of the world population
will increase to 5.7 billion in 2050 out of a global population of
9.87 billion, while the populations of North America and Europe will
remain relatively constant at 374 million and 721 million,
respectively. Clearly in the past few centuries, Europe, and more
recently North America, have carried the larger share of the global
burden in advancing human civilization. By 2050, when Europeans and
North Americans make up one-tenth instead of one-sixth of the world's
population, would it be fair for the remaining 90 percent of mankind
to expect this 10 percent to continue to bear this burden?
Realistically, can the rest of the world continue to ride on the
shoulders of the West? If Asians double in population in the next
fifty years, will they be able to carry their fair share of this

Second, I am not asking this question about individual Asians in
terms of limited thinking abilities. Clearly, Asians can master
alphabets, add two plus two to make four, and play chess. However,
throughout history there have been examples of societies that
produced brilliant individuals but yet experienced a lot of grief
collectively. The classic example of this is Jewish society. Per
capita, Jews have contributed more brilliant minds, from Einstein to
Wittgenstein and from Disraeli to Kissinger, than any other society.
Yet, as a society, they have suffered so much, especially in the past
century or so. (Let me stress that I am not speaking about the
travails of Israel in modern times. I am speaking of the period from
135 A.D. when the Jews were forced to leave Palestine to 1948 when
Israel was born.) Will the same happen to Asian societies, or will
they be able to think well and ensure a better future for themselves?

Third, the time scale in which I am posing this question is not one
of days, weeks, months, years, or even decades. I am looking at the
question from the time scale of centuries, especially since we stand
two years away from the new millennium. Arguably, the future course
of world history in the next few centuries, as I will explain later,
will depend on how Asian societies think and perform.

Back then to the question: "Can Asians think?" In a multiple-choice
examination format, there would be three possible answers: "Yes",
"No", or "Maybe." Before we decide which choice to tick off, let me
make a case for each answer.

No, They Cannot Think

I will start with the reasons for the "No" answer, if only to refute
any critics who may suggest that the question itself is manifestly
absurd. If one looks at the record of the past thousand years, one
can make a very persuasive case that Asians, Asian societies that is,
cannot think.

Let us look at where Asian societies were a thousand years ago, say
in the year 998. Then, the Chinese and the Arabs (i.e., Confucian and
Islamic civilizations) led the way in science and technology,
medicine and astronomy. The Arabs adopted both the decimal and the
numbers 0 to 9 from India, and they learned how to make paper from
the Chinese. The world's first university was founded just over a
thousand years ago, in the year 971, in Cairo. By contrast, Europe
was then still in what are familiarly known as the "Dark Ages", which
had begun when the Roman Empire collapsed in the fifth century. As
Will Durant summed it up in The Age of Faith (1994):

"Western Europe in the sixth century was a chaos of conquest,
disintegration, and rebarbarization. Much of the classic culture
survived, for the most part silent and hidden in a few monasteries
and families. But the physical and psychological foundations of
social order had been so disturbed that centuries would be needed to
restore them. Love of letters, devotion to art, the unity and
continuity of culture, the cross-fertilization of communicating
minds, fell before the convulsions of war, the perils of transport,
the economies of poverty, the rise of vernaculars, the disappearance
of Latin from the East and of Greek from the West."

Against this backdrop, it would have been sheer folly to predict at
the time that in the second millennium Chinese, Indian, and Islamic
civilizations would slip into the backwaters of history while Europe
would rise to be the first civilization ever to dominate the entire
globe. But that, of course, is precisely what happened.

It did not come about suddenly. Until about the sixteenth century,
the more advanced societies of Asia, while they had lost their
primacy, were still on a par with those of Europe and there was no
definite indication that Europe would leap far ahead. At that time,
Europe's relative weakness was more apparent than its strength. It
was not the most fertile area of the world, nor was it particularly
populous--important criteria by the measure of the day, when the soil
was the source of most wealth, and human and animal muscle of most
power. Europe exhibited no pronounced advantages in the fields of
culture, mathematics, engineering, navigation, or other technologies.
It was also a deeply fragmented continent, consisting of a hodgepodge
of petty kingdoms, principalities, and city-states. Further, at the
end of the fifteenth century Europe was in the throes of a bloody
conflict with the mighty Ottoman Empire, which was pushing its way,
inexorably it seemed, toward the gates of Vienna.

Asian cultures, on the other hand, appeared to be thriving as late as
the fifteenth century. China, for example, had a highly developed and
vibrant culture. Its unified, hierarchic administration was run by
well-educated Confucian bureaucrats who had given an unparalleled
coherence and sophistication to Chinese society. China's
technological prowess was also formidable. Printing by movable type
had already appeared in the eleventh century. Paper money had
expedited the flow of commerce and growth of markets. China's
gargantuan iron industry, coupled with the invention of gunpowder,
gave it immense military strength.

However, and amazingly, it was Europe that leapt ahead. Something
almost magical happened to European minds, and this was followed by
wave after wave of progress, from the Renaissance to the
Enlightenment, from the Scientific Revolution to the Industrial
Revolution. While Asian societies degenerated into backwardness and
ossification, European societies, propelled forward by new forms of
economic organization, military-technical dynamism, political
pluralism within the continent as a whole (if not within all
individual countries), and the uneven beginnings of intellectual
liberty (notably in Italy, Britain, and Holland), produced what would
surely have been called at the time the "European miracle"--had there
been an observing, superior civilization to mark the event. Because
that mix of critical ingredients did not exist in any of the Asian
societies, they appeared to stand still while Europe advanced to the
center of the world stage. Colonization, which began in the late
fifteenth century, and the Industrial Revolution in the nineteenth
century, augmented and entrenched Europe's dominant position.

Coming from a small state like Singapore, with a population of three
million, it is a source of great wonder to me that a modest country
like Portugal, also with a population of only a few million, could
carve out territories like Goa, Macau, and Malacca from larger and
more ancient civilizations. It was an amazing feat. But what is even
more amazing is that it was done in the 1500s. The Portuguese
colonizers were followed by the Dutch, then the French, then the
British. Throughout all this period, for almost three centuries or
more, Asian societies lay prostrate and allowed themselves to be
surpassed and colonized by far smaller societies.

But the most painful thing that happened to Asia was not the physical
but the mental colonization. Many Asians (including, I fear, many of
my ancestors from South Asia) began to believe that Asians were
inferior beings to the Europeans. Only this could explain how a few
thousand British could control a few hundred million people in South
Asia. If I am allowed to make a controversial point here, I would add
that this mental colonization has not been completely eradicated in
Asia, and many Asian societies are still struggling to break free
from it.

It is truly astonishing that even today, as we stand on the eve of
the twenty-first century and five hundred years on from the arrival
of the first Portuguese colonizers in Asia, only one--I repeat, only
one--Asian society has reached, in a comprehensive sense, the level
of development that prevails generally in Europe and North America
today. The Japanese mind was the first to be awakened in Asia,
beginning with the Meiji Restoration in the 1860s. Japan was first
considered developed and more or less accepted as an equal by 1902,
when it signed the Anglo-Japanese alliance.

Essay Types: Essay