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Celebrity talking heads missing the point on Chinese domination

Held last month, the annual Singapore Global Dialogue always shines like a comet in an otherwise dull constellation of conferences and junkets for celebrity talking-heads.

One of this year’s speakers, a long-time friend, was, despite his faux demurral, not unduly discomfited by being introduced as “the most enlightened man in East Asia”.

Kishore Mahbubani is a former Singapore ambassador who now runs the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy.

Perhaps predictably, he reiterated his favourite spiel that Western economic domination of the world is ending and that Asia, namely China, is reclaiming the top spot.

Others, most recently Australian political scientist Hugh White, have expressed a similar Sinocentric view of the future.

It is a flawed and shallow assessment, which, in Kishore’s case, is replete with factual inaccuracies.

There is no personal animus in saying this, nor any Sinophobia. My wife is Chinese, as are many of my friends, and on each visit to China I am wowed by the developments there.

As well, it must be conceded that Kishore’s shtick is captivating, especially to Westerners who love being taunted by a dark verbal dominatrix.

Likewise, Asians adore hearing they will soon be able to get on top and screw the White Ghosts.

So it goes down well with audiences. But sadly, when one takes a step back and thinks for a second, it becomes palpably obvious that much of what Kishore says is complete and utter baloney.

For starters, consider his claim that only in the past 200 years has the West been economically dominant. Before that, says Kishore, China and India were tops and will be again by 2050.

This revisionist history air-brushes out dominant pre-1800 economies like the Roman, Byzantine and Czarist empires, let alone the high-end Renaissance and the Aztecs and Mayas.

Yes, China and India had great and powerful, but largely home-based, periods in their past, and both may well be entering another golden era now.

But there is no need to go on to extrapolate that they once ruled the world economically and that the West was as nothing until the time of Napoleon.

It makes no sense, though Kishore cannily seeds his tosh with a few valid points in a vain attempt to at least give it some credence.

No one denies, for instance, that the American and European monopoly of the head posts at the World Bank and International Monetary Fund must end.

Nor that the permanent members of the United Nations Security Council must include rising powers like India, Indonesia and Japan; although the major opponent to that is China, not the West.

As for saying Beijing’s geostrategic and diplomatic acumen trumps that of Washington, Kishore should note how China’s recent militancy has sparked widespread resentment and fear across this region.

The brutal assertion of its “9-dash line” claiming the entire South China Sea has been a godsend to the United States, which now finds Southeast Asia urging it to boost its presence here.

As Stanford University’s Southeast Asia expert Don Emmerson said: “The sheer muscularity of recent Chinese diplomacy has made Kishore’s assessment seem, in retrospect, wishfully Sinophilic.”

Meanwhile, China is enraged at Myanmar’s decision last month to stop building the Myitsone Dam on the upper Irrawaddy, and it frets about current US overtures to Naypyidaw, Hanoi and Vientiane.

At home, Beijing struggles feverishly to block reportage of the Arab Spring, the democratic transitions in Indonesia and Myanmar, and even Malaysian leader Najib Razak’s political reforms.

These are not the hallmarks of a potential globally-dominant nation, but rather one fearful of its own domestic stability and integrity.

So kindly cease the misguided Sinophilia, Kishore, and return to your other line about Singapore experiencing the greatest advance in the past half-century of any nation in recorded history.

And I’ll resume peddling my conviction that one million Singaporeans typing 10 hours a day will never write Hamlet. Disprove that, if you can.

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