01 Jun 2014

As Dean of the School, I also serve as its Chief Administrator. As a result, I am unable to teach a full course at the School. However, I try to make up for this by delivering the “Dean’s Lectures” each semester. This semester, I am starting a new tradition by delivering the first lecture on a topic I have not spoken about before: “Three public policy paradoxes”.

What are these paradoxes that mystify me? The first is that while the best public policy schools are in the West, the best public policies are in the East. After the 2007-2008 financial crisis, there is no doubt that the institutions and processes of governance are struggling in the West. Larry Summers says that the United States is caught in “secular stagnation”. Francis Fukuyama laments the lack of attention to governance in the West. In his article, “What is Governance”, Fukuyama states that “…everyone is interested in studying political institutions that limit or check power—democratic accountability and rule of law—but very few people pay attention to the institution that accumulates and uses power, the state.” In a recent illustration of weakening governance, the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) has said that one out of every nine US bridges is structurally deficient and 32% of roads are in poor or mediocre condition.

By contrast, in the period that America ignored its infrastructure, China has seen a spectacular improvement. From 2000 to 2010, China increased its roads from 1.76 million km to 4.0 million km, built over 10,000km of bullet train lines, and increased its power capacity from 100GW in 1989 to over 900GW in 2009. The big question is this: if the best public policy schools are in the West, why are their public policies trailing behind the East?

The second paradox is that while the best known “gurus” of leadership are in the West, the best leaders are in the East. Many Asian organisations, including those in Singapore, pay hundreds of thousands of dollars to Western leadership gurus to speak to them. Yet their theories have not resulted in the emergence of great Western leaders. With the possible exception of Angela Merkel, no Western leader enjoys great respect and admiration, even in their own societies.

By contrast, as I documented in two articles for Project Syndicate, Asia is truly fortunate that three of the most populous Asian states, China, India and Indonesia are blessed with strong, dynamic and reform-minded leaders. If Xi Jinping, Narendra Modi and Joko “Jokowi” Widodo succeed in implementing their reforms, these three Asian countries will be set on a long-term path of sustainable economic growth. The odds are that they will succeed. When will the West begin to learn the art of leadership from the East?

The third paradox is that while Western universities have created the concept of “academic freedom” to allow academics to courageously speak truth to power, it has surprisingly resulted in a lack of courage. I was in New York City when the United States made plans to invade Iraq in early 2003. The late American Professor of International Law, Tom Franck warned that this war would be illegal. I expected him to receive a chorus of support from American academia. Instead, most academics felt intimidated and remained silent. One brave soul who opposed the Iraq war was Barack Obama.

Sadly, few academics supported him. Similarly, Western academics have been remarkably silent in the face of revelations of torture in Guantanamo and the killing of civilians in Gaza. What explains this lack of courage? Why hasn’t academic freedom led to greater courage in the Western academic voice? Sadly, I do not have the answers to all these difficult questions that arise out of these public policy paradoxes. When I deliver the lecture on this topic to the students of our School, I hope that some answers will emerge in the process of our discussions. I would be happy to share those insights in future issues of Global-is-Asian.

Kishore Mahbubani is Dean of the LKY School of Public Policy.