Kishore Mahbubani on COVID-19

"His statement was roundly criticized in most Western think-tanks, but it carries more than a ton of truth."


Kishore Mahbubani is a recognized public intellectual. The founding Dean of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy of the National University of Singapore (NUS), he was a pioneering member of Singapore’s foreign service corps and served as the country’s Permanent Representative to the United Nations. He has long been a keen observer of the changing dynamics of the world order which arose out of the ashes of World War II and watched with awe the resurgence of Asia and the “nations of the East” from the horrors of war which included the Korean War, wars of liberation in certain countries and the insurgencies fueled by the Cold War.

Now a Distinguished Fellow at the Asian Research Institute of the National University of Singapore (NUS) and a highly sought lecturer on world affairs, he has written a number of books on East-West affairs the latest being the best seller “Has China Won?” which highlights his long-time thesis that the era of Western domination is ending.

In a recent controversial piece written for The Economist, a weekly newsmagazine, and in various interviews after, Mahbubani noted that the global response to the COVID-19 pandemic clearly exposed the West’s demise and marks the start of an Asian century. He noted that the pandemic will not fundamentally alter global economic directions but “will only accelerate a change that had already begun: a move away from US centri globalization to a more China centric one.”

Of course, his statement was roundly criticized in most Western think tanks but given what we have observed and known thus far about the responses of various countries to this outbreak, it carries more than a ton of truth.

Reacting to his critics, Mahbubani insists that the COVID-19 crisis will only cement the coming of a new world order which was already happening before the outbreak itself. He firmly stated that “the deference to Western societies, which was the norm in the 19th and 20th centuries, will be replaced by a growing respect and admiration for East Asian ones.

Said the veteran diplomat in his piece for The Economist as summarized in Yale Global news:

“The crisis highlights the contrast between the competent responses of East Asian governments (notably China, South Korea and Singapore) and the incompetent responses of Western governments (such as Italy, Spain, France, Britain and America),. Asia’s lower death rates “reflect not just medical capabilities, but also the quality of governance and the cultural confidence of their societies.” Asians express shock about how many governments have rejected advice of public health experts. Governments have a tendency to downplay reports that deliver economic damage: China initially downplayed the virus, punishing doctors who tried to relay alarm before imposing tough restrictions. Political divisions in many democracies hampered that response.”

“Mahbubani concludes that respect for education, science, environment and public service – and efficient investment – contributes to global leadership. “Clearly there are sharp differences between the communist system of China and the societies of South Korea, Japan, Taiwan and Singapore,” Yet one feature they share in common is a belief in strong government institutions run by the best and the brightest. Competence, cooperation and smart decisions for the global common good based on best science translate into global influence.”

The low death rate in China and other East Asian countries like Japan, South Korea, Singapore and Taiwan and Hong Kong is attributable to their response in locking down quickly and decisively. And, perhaps, equally important, ensuring the full and proper implementation of the pandemic response protocols: testing, tracing, isolation and protection. Of course, given its political system, China initially downplayed the extent of the pandemic, even muzzling some of the health workers who reported signs of the outbreak early on. But in the end, the discipline, sense of nationalism and the people’s belief that their leaders were doing what was needed for the nation to survive under the circumstances carried the day.

All of these countries, China in particular, have very strong institutions of administration which have strengthened over the years. That these systems of governance have delivered and enhanced the well-being of their peoples have only increased the respect and bond of the governed with the leaders. In contrast, many of the countries in the West have had to contend with the vagaries of liberal democracy resulting in unnecessary compromises, slower responses and weakened public services.

Taking a final shot at the manner by which the US and other Western countries including Australia and New Zealand have responded to the pandemic, Mahbubani noted that they are now using COVID-19 as a means to embarrass China. They are making some allegations that this virus was secretly manufactured in a Chinese laboratory. That should not have been their collective action. It is as if that kind of blame throwing would accelerate the discovery of a vaccine or a cure to the virus.

We cannot but agree with the veteran diplomat. Instead of joining hands and helping each other to put a lid on this pandemic, the governments of these countries have resorted to finger pointing which only exposed. It is good that credible Western journals like The Lancet and Nature have verified these allegations and concluded that the information provided by China is correct, and that the virus arose from natural causes. More than that, China has gone ahead in providing as much assistance as it can to as many countries as wanted their help. In addition, it has gone ahead and provided a kind of lifeline for the World Health organization (WHO) which has also been attacked by some Western quarters by sharing its findings on the genome of the virus then providing much needed medical equipment and supplies to those willing to accept these and now working with various institutions to accelerate the discovery of the vaccine and cure and its eventual mass manufacture.

After all, despite the harangues and other innuendoes we cannot discount the fact that China’s pharmaceutical industry manufactures almost 60 percent of the requisite compounds for most of the critical medicines worldwide.

Topics: Jonathan Dela Cruz , Kishore Mahbubani , Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy , National University of Singapore , coronavirus disease 2019 , COVID-19
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