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

If Asian minds can think, why is there today only one Asian society
that has been able to catch up with the West? I rest my case for the
negative answer to our question. Those of you who want to tick "No"
to the question "Can Asians think?" can proceed to do so.

The "Yes" Answer

Let me now try to draw out the arguments for answering "Yes" to the
question "Can Asians think?"

The first, and the most obvious one, is the incredible economic
performance of East Asian societies in the past few decades. Japan's
success, while it has not been fully replicated in the rest of Asia,
has set off ripples that now, current problems notwithstanding, have
the potential to become tidal waves. Japan's economic success was
first followed by the "four tigers" (South Korea, Taiwan, Hong Kong,
and Singapore). Their success convinced the other Southeast Asian
countries, especially Indonesia, Malaysia, and Thailand, that they
could do the same. Lately they have been followed by China, which now
has the potential to overtake the United States and become the
world's largest economy by 2020 or earlier. What is amazing is the
pace of economic development. It took the British 58 years (up to
1780), America 47 years (1839), and Japan 33 years (1880s) to double
their economic output. On the other hand, it took Indonesia 17 years,
South Korea 11 years, and China 10 years to do the same. As a whole,
from 1960 to 1990 the East Asian miracle economies grew more rapidly
and more consistently than any other group of economies in the world.
They averaged 5.5 percent annual per capita real income growth,
outperforming every economy in Latin America, sub-Saharan Africa, and
even the OECD countries, which only averaged 2.5 percent growth in
that period.

You cannot get good grades in an exam by luck. It requires
intelligence and hard work. Similarly, you cannot get good economic
performance, especially of the scale seen in Asia, simply by luck. It
reflects both intelligence and hard work. And it is vital to stress
here that the pace and scale of the economic explosion seen in Asia
is unprecedented in the history of man. The chief economist of the
World Bank, Joseph Stiglitz, captured this reality well in a recent
Asian Wall Street Journal article (February 2, 1998):

"The East Asian 'miracle' was real. Its economic transformation of
East Asia has been one of the most remarkable accomplishments in
history. The dramatic surge in gross domestic product which it
brought about is reflected in higher standards of living for hundreds
of millions of Asians, including longer life expectancy, better
health and education, and millions of others have rescued themselves
from poverty, and now lead more hopeful lives. These achievements are
real, and will be far more permanent than the present turmoil."

The confidence of East Asians has been further boosted by the
numerous studies that now demonstrate their impressive academic
performance, both in leading Western universities and at home. Today,
many of the top students produced by American universities are of
Asian origin. Educational excellence is an essential prerequisite for
cultural confidence. To put it baldly, many Asians are pleased to
wake up to the realization that their minds are not inferior. Most
Westerners cannot appreciate the change because they could never
directly feel the sense of inferiority many Asians experienced until

The second reason why we might answer "Yes" to the question "Can
Asians think?" is that a very vital mental switch is taking place in
many Asian minds. For centuries, Asians have believed that the only
way to progress was through emulation of the West. Yukichi Fukuzawa,
a leading Meiji reformer, epitomized this attitude when he said in
the late nineteenth century that for Japan to progress, it had to
learn from the West. The other leading modernizers in Asia, from Sun
Yat-sen to Jawaharlal Nehru, shared this fundamental attitude. The
mental switch that is taking place in Asian minds today is that they
no longer believe that the only way to progress is by copying; they
now believe they can work out their own solutions.

This switch in Asian minds has taken place slowly and imperceptibly.
Until a few decades ago, Western societies beckoned as beacons on the
hill, living models of the most successful form of human societies:
economically prosperous, politically stable, socially just and
harmonious, ethically clean, and, all in all, providing the best
possible conditions for their citizens to grow and thrive as
individuals. These societies were not perfect but they were clearly
superior, in all senses of the word, to any society outside the West.
Until recently it would have been folly, and indeed inconceivable,
for any Asian intellectual to suggest, "This may not be the path we
want to take." Today this is what many Asians are thinking, privately
if not publicly.

Overall, though, there is no question that Western societies still
remain more successful than their East Asian counterparts. They
retain fields of excellence in areas that no other society comes
close to, in their universities, think tanks, and certainly in
cultural realms. No Asian orchestra comes close in performance to the
leading Western orchestras, even though the musical world in the West
has been enriched by many brilliant Asian musicians.

Many Asians, however, are shocked by the scale and depth of social
and economic problems that have afflicted many Western societies. In
the case of North America, they are troubled by the relative
breakdown of the family as an institution, the plague of drug
addiction and its attendant problems, including crime, the
persistence of ghettos and the perception that there has been a
decline in ethical standards. This is exemplified by statistics
provided by the U.S. government that reflect social trends for the
period 1960-90. During that period, the rate of violent crime
quadrupled, single parent families almost tripled, as did the number
of U.S. state and federal prisoners. Asians are also troubled by the
addiction of Europeans to their social security nets, despite clear
evidence that these nets now hold down their societies and have
created a sense of gloom about long-term economic prospects. In
previous decades, when East Asians visited North America and Western
Europe they envied the high standard of living and better quality of
life in those societies. Today, though, the high standards of living
remain in the West but Asians no longer consider them as role models.
They are beginning to believe that they can attempt something

A simple metaphor may explain what Western minds would see if they
could peer into Asian minds. Until recently, most of those minds
shared the general assumption that the developmental path of all
societies culminated in the plateau on which most Western societies
now rest. Hence, all societies, with minor variations, would end up
creating liberal, democratic societies, giving emphasis to individual
freedoms, as they moved up the socio-economic ladder. Today Asians
can still see the plateau of contentment that most Western societies
rest on; but they can also see, beyond the plateau, alternative peaks
to which they can take their own societies. Instead of seeing the
plateau as the natural end destination, there is a desire now to
bypass it (for they do not wish to be afflicted by some of the social
and cultural ills that afflict Western societies) and to search for
alternative peaks beyond. This kind of mental horizon never existed
in Asian minds until recently. It reveals their new confidence in

The third reason why we might answer "Yes" is that today is not the
only period when Asian minds have begun to stir. As more and more
Asians lift their lives up from levels of survival, they have the
economic freedom to think, reflect, and rediscover their cultural
heritage. There is a growing consciousness that their societies, like
those in the West, have a rich social, cultural, and philosophical
legacy that they can resuscitate and use to evolve their own modern
and advanced societies. The richness and depth of Indian and Chinese
civilizations, to name just two, have been acknowledged by Western
scholars. Indeed, for the past few centuries, it was Western
scholarship and endeavor that preserved the fruits of Asian
civilization, just as the Arabs preserved and passed on Greek and
Roman civilization in the darkest days of Europe. While Asian
cultures deteriorated, the museums and universities in the West
preserved and even cherished the best that Asian art and culture had
produced. As Asians delve deeper into their own cultural heritage,
they find their minds nourished. For the first time in centuries, an
Asian renaissance is underway. Visitors to Asian cities--from Tehran
to Calcutta, from Bombay to Shanghai, from Singapore to Hong
Kong--will find now both a new-found confidence as well as an
interest in traditional language and culture. As their economies grow
and as they have more disposable income, Asians spend it increasingly
on reviving traditional arts. What we are witnessing today is only
the bare beginnings of a major cultural rediscovery. But the pride
that Asians feel about their culture is clear and palpable.

Essay Types: Essay