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Profile: Kishore Mahbubani of Singapore

Published by The Straits Times, Singapore on 2004-11-04

KISHORE Mahbubani has been considered a wunderkind in international circles virtually from the time that he studied philosophy and history at the University of Singapore (now the National University of Singapore) as a recipient of the President's Scholarship in 1967. He edited the student newspaper and impressed his teachers with provocative editorials about world affairs. After obtaining a master's degree in philosophy at Dalhousie University in Canada, he joined the Singapore Foreign Service in 1971.

He possesses a golden resume: His overseas postings have included Cambodia - where he served during the war, in 1973-74 - and Malaysia, and as Singapore's deputy ambassador to the United States and then the permanent representative to the United Nations. Of Indian Singaporean origin, he was also Permanent Secretary (Policy) at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and the first dean of the Civil Service College in Singapore. He has served on the boards of several leading institutes and think tanks in Singapore, including the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, the Institute of Policy Studies, the Lee Kuan Yew Exchange Fellowship and the Institute of Defence and Strategic Studies.

Author of the best-selling book, "Can Asians Think?" and the forthcoming, "Beyond the Age of Innocence," Mr Mahbubani's byline appears frequently in prestigious journals such as Foreign Affairs, the National Interest, and in the New York Times and The Wall Street Journals. He is sought after on television current-affairs shows, and at international gatherings such as the World Economic Forum's annual meeting in Davos, Switzerland.

The Economist once called him "an Asian Toynbee, preoccupied with the rise and fall of civilizations"; the Washington Post weighed in by characterizing Mr Mahbubani as a "Max Weber of the new 'Confucian ethic.'" And Time magazine designated him as "a prototype 21st century leader." And Mr Henry Kissinger, the former US Secretary of State, referring to "Can Asian Think?" says of Mr Mahbubani that he's "interesting, provocative, and intellectually engaging."

In fact, Mr Mahbubani's name often surfaces when there's talk at the United Nations about an Asian candidate to succeed Secretary General Kofi Annan of Ghana, when Mr Annan's second five-year term expires in 2006.

With these kinds of encomiums, one would expect him to be a touch conscious of his own celebrity. But Mr Mahbubani is a modest man, who often deflects questions about his personal ambitions and reputation with a smile. He prefers instead to talk about the new Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, whose first dean he became in August 2004 upon his return to Singapore from the US.

Excerpts from an interview that Mr Mahbubani gave The Straits Times:

How would you deal with the perception that Singapore is, however implicitly, trying to show the world that its standards concerning the conduct of public policy remain better than most anyone else's?

Singapore is a small country. Our circumstances are unique. We cannot be a model for others. The curriculum of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy was designed in consultation with the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University. It is similar to the curriculum found in public policy schools all over the world. Hence, we do not promote the Singapore model. However, we do use case studies from Singapore and invite speakers with an excellent track record of public service in Singapore. We also have case studies and speakers from the region. All the cases are subject to rigorous analysis and critique in the classrooms. Our students learn quickly that no single country's experience can be blindly exported or applied. All policies must be adapted to specific environments.

How will you establish the School's brand?

Excellence in any educational institution cannot be established overnight. We are lucky to have inherited a strong public policy programme, which the National University of Singapore started in 1992. So we have the benefit of about 300 alumni throughout the region. The success of our alumni will eventually establish the brand name of the School, although we will also promote excellence in research.

What does the School teach? To think? To analyze? To innovate? In other words, what's the School's mission and ethos?

All of the above. Our goal is to challenge our students to think out of the box.

Pranay Gupte,
Senior Writer and Global-Affairs Columnist

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