Looking Back: What the Rest can Learn from the West

Published 27 July 2018

HQ Asia reviews thought leader Kishore Mahbubani’s most recent book, Has the West Lost It? and shares three lessons to be learnt from the West.

The world has never been as peaceful or prosperous as it is today. However, humanity has seen more change in the last 30 years than in the last 300 or 3,000, Kishore Mahbubani, a former diplomat and Dean of Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, says in his latest book, Has the West Lost It? Mahbubani states the fast pace of change is causing people to be confused and order disrupted. In his book, Mahbubani takes a bird’s eye view to look at how a shift in world powers is affecting both the West and the East.

In his book, Mahbubani draws on an analogy of a boat to explain how the world has changed. It used to be that each country had its own boat and there were 193 boats. Now, he shares that the world is so interconnected that there is one big ship with 193 cabins, which means countries need to work together.

Mahbubani argues that in the 200 years of dominance, the West had given the Rest the power of reasoning, scientific knowledge and technologies which many Asian countries have adopted and became the economic miracles. The adoption of Western power of reasoning also led to three other revolutions in politics, psychology and governance in non-Western countries. The political revolution transformed deeply feudal Asia to different forms of democratic (such as India, Japan, and South Korea) and non-democratic societies (like China). The psychological revolution transformed people to the Rest from perceiving themselves as helpless people to change actors. And the revolution in governance marks the shift of Asian governments to believe in the power of rational governance in social transformation.

Mahbubani notes that the resurgence of the East should not come as a surprise because the last 200 years is the only time in history that Western countries have been the leading powers in the world. From year 1-1820, India and China were the largest economies, but in 1980, they (China and India) had less than 5% of the world’s gross domestic product (GDP). This is quickly changing. In 2015, China and India accounted for 25% of the world’s GDP and they are expected to account for 35% of the world’s GDP in 2050.

Lessons from the West

Even though the West has been the more dominant power for a few hundred years, Mahbubani argues that the West is losing its position in the global political economy and there are a few lessons for the Rest to learn from.

Remain alert to global shifts

Mahbubani states that the West went to sleep post-Cold War. After ‘winning’, they turned a blind eye to events that should have been paid attention to. One such event was when China entered the World Trade Organisation in 1990. “The entry of almost a billion workers into the global trading system would obviously result in massive ‘creative destruction’ and the loss of many jobs in the West,” Mahbubani writes.

Pay attention to trends, over news or events

In 2014, China’s economy eclipsed the US in Purchasing Power Parity (PPP) terms. This was a shift in power and few people paid attention to this and the long-term effects. Everyone should be considering what this means for business, especially the West.

Another example from Has the West Lost It? is that many people assume Malaysia is doing poorly because of recent negative press, including the fallen Malaysia Airlines planes and the scandal with the former Prime Minister, Najib Razak. In fact, Mahbubani writes that the economic trends and human development indicators show that it’s one of the most successful countries in the developing world.

These are just two examples of why we should look at what the data says rather than relying on news reports.

Avoid hubris and be pragmatic

Mahbubani states that the West has hubris, that they thought they found the right model and that it would endure. When reviewing the trends, this is obviously not true. As other major economies emerge at the top, Mahbubani states, “a resurgent Rest will not wear the same degree of Western intervention as it did in the past. Until the West understands this, it will not understand why it needs a new strategy to remain successful.”

While it is hard to say definitively whether the West has ‘lost it’, there are plenty of lessons to learn from the West’s actions. For example, leaders need to pay attention to changing shifts in trends and the economy. Rather than stay on autopilot — what Mahbubani states the West is doing– leaders can use this information to adapt strategy and change course, as needed.

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