The Straits Times
Published on Nov 17, 2012

Asians must engage one another before asking others to do the same


PROFESSOR Kishore Mahbubani's commentary ("Listen up, Australia, the Asian century is knocking"; last Saturday) gently criticises Australia for not considering and engaging Asia with an Asian perspective.

Yet, do Asians know how to engage one another through a continental lens in the first place? How would we define Asian-ness or an Asian perspective?

The continent stretches from the Middle East (West Asia) to Papua New Guinea. Many Asian countries are at odds with one another: China and South Korea against Japan; India against Pakistan; Thailand against Cambodia; or even China against the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region, which is part of, well, China.

Singaporeans, including Chinese Singaporeans, encounter many challenges in dealing with mainland Chinese.

Singapore's neighbours, from Malaysia and Indonesia to Thailand and the Philippines, view us with varying degrees of suspicion.

Are Singaporeans thus any more capable of dealing with Asia compared to Australians? After all, we have had our fair share of failings and misunderstandings with countries in Asia.

So it is ironic that the one country that is most welcoming of Singaporean investment is Australia - largely because many Asian markets are so closed or protected or suspicious of Singapore.

It is our shared heritage of being former British colonies, using the English language and British common law, having low tolerance for corruption and, ironically, having Western ways of doing business that have promoted strong people-to-people, government, trade and investment ties between both nations.

Prof Mahbubani ends by saying that "in private, many Asians have whispered to me that they wished Australians would understand them better".

Asians should first try to understand one another and their neighbours better, including Australia.

Australia is no more guilty of failing to engage Asia than Asians are guilty of failing to engage one another.

Anthony Prakasam