Kishore loves SE Asia. So do I. But don't dismiss Europe

Hieronymus Bosch's famous 15th century painting Garden of Earthly Delights depict humankind's journey from Paradise to Hell. It hangs at the Prado Museum.
Hieronymus Bosch's famous 15th century painting Garden of Earthly Delights depict humankind's journey from Paradise to Hell. It hangs at the Prado Museum. PHOTO: PRADO MUSEUM

A German journalist responds to Prof Kishore Mahubani's declaration of love for South-east Asia, in which he described SE Asia as representing the future, while Europe represents the past. There's life yet in Europe, counters the journalist.

Dear Kishore,

On April 15, you wrote in My new love: South-east Asia, that you had come full circle in appreciating and loving the South-east Asian region. You also added: "Europe represents the past. South-east Asia represents the future." 

Being in love is a wonderful thing, and let me confess: I am in love too. I used to be in love with South East Asia for a long time (I was based as a political correspondent  in Jakarta) but now, back in the old world where I am now based in London, I rediscovered and partly renewed my love for Europe. I admit, Europe has seen better times and she is not the beauty she used to be, I mean not the type that made you look ahead to a glorious future. But I must say: Europe is still surprisingly attractive, even seen from its departing island called Britain from where I write these lines. 
It's not that I have betrayed my love for South East Asia, perhaps I am more the kind of a benevolent adulterer or rather someone who has peacefully accepted that life is big enough for two loves. There is so much truth in what you have written about your neighbourhood (and the inability of Singaporeans to understand their privilege of living in the midst of a great region).

Since I have left South East Asia almost five years ago I constantly miss her vitality, her optimism, her inspiring art of improvisation. I miss this smell of the New (that always reminded me of my youth in West Germany), the open-mindedness, this natural wide spread confidence that tomorrow will be better than yesterday. 

Coming from old Europe - which it was already 14 years ago when I first moved to Delhi and then to Jakarta - Asia was mind-boggling and confusing at the same time. My editors and many of my readers expected me to write about poverty and social injustice, about natural disasters, wars and violence and state arbitrariness. All this was there and I covered it extensively. But what really fascinated me was something else and that was much harder to translate. It was the Asian way to see things differently, to question the Western role with some fair arguments, to choose a different path of development socially and politically.

Asia had actually sometimes been surprisingly successful, when it didn't follow the western model. Malaysia in her stubborn resistance to the IMF recipes during the financial crisis of the late 90s, Indonesia pursuing her very special way in reconciling democracy and Islam, Singapore building a highly prosperous and socially cohesive society under the firm grip of Lee Kuan Yew. Many developments came at the expense of “Western  Values”, but I understood when you (and Lee) advocated for the rights of countries to choose their own values or better: priorities.

China wouldn't be where it is today had she followed western advice over the last 40 years, this I believe like you do. There is no such thing as “right priorities” for every culture in every stage of its development. This is not to exculpate suppression of free speech, persecution of minorities or other violations of basic human rights. And I think there are lots of bad examples in Asia. But quite often “you Asians” were right in confronting “us Europeans” with the charge of double standards or simply of ignorance. 
Alas, Europe is not dead. In a way it has already started to recover, at least to learn. The populist tide is seen by many as a threat of the old order, but I would rather consider it a corrective. Western righteousness is being challenged and probably rightly so. Invading other countries to bring about “good” has become yesterdays´ concept already. (Some countries will see the back of this since the generous development aid policy will also be coming to an end soon.)

The European Union is in its deepest crisis since the Treaty of Rome, but now there a signs for a way out. As a fierce supporter of the European idea I hope we can draw from the ASEAN experience that has always understood the necessity of the nation-state and therefore preferred and prefers intergovernmental cooperation over integration. Britain's exit from the EU is being loathed but at the same time it has brought the question of returning sovereignty from Brussels to the capitals back on the table.

The East Europeans are in favour of a less-is-more-approach and there is growing support for this in other EU countries too. Wait a few years and you might see an European Union which is less harmonised but a stronger political force with more cooperation among its member governments.   
Same with imigration, the other severe crisis back here. Undoubtedly (Western) Europe is struggling with this growing challenge. But again the populist corrective has the potential to alter our naive and failed policies in the long run. Borders are not going to be closed, I predict, instead there will be stricter controls opening access for those immigrants that we really need. And believe me, Kishore, Europe is still a place which attracts some of the brightest minds.

If things take the right direction it will only be a matter of time until Europe proudly shares the experience of South-east Asia of being a “multi-civilisational laboratory” - and on our side, perhaps, even without the problems that the Rohyinga face in Myanmar or the Ahmadiya in Indonesia. 
Seen from today it seems unlikely that Europe is ever going to lead the world again. Fine. But it won't be marginalised either. Europe may be looking sclerotic, over-regulated, saturated and widely pessimistic in its outlook, but the fundamentals have remained pretty robust, and the best way to notice this is to leave the old world for a while and then return to it. I am not only talking about Europe's still strong institutions and her relatively resilient economy despite the on-going Euro crisis. It is the reaffirming depth of Europes culture which is truly connecting and its intellectual capacity to deal with change.   
I just returned from a museum tour in Madrid and what I found in this place - not the most important among the (still) 28 EU capitals - reveals a degree of cultural richness and European inter-connectedness which deeply moved me. One of its treasures is Hieronymus Bosch's “The Garden of Earthly Delights” which shows almost everything Europe can still gather around. Playing with Christian images of the creation of the world, it bursts with irony and wit, of questioning and criticism. Astonishingly it was painted even before the Enlightenment (around 1500) - and it would still graze the front cover of any magazine issue today. 
Back in London I flipped through the papers that I missed during Easter and what I read in these two or three hours about new books, new opera and theatre productions, new exhibitions etc. was so overwhelming that I couldn't help but think: No, this is not a dying continent. It may be a place in turmoil, but it will find its way. 
What I am trying to say is: Don't underestimate the cultural and political debate here and its capability to question our course. Yes, there is a lot of doom-saying to be read, from us and from others. But the variety of perspectives on national, regional and global developments is impressive. Europe's deeply ingrained tendency to criticise - its politicians, its failures, its direction - is very intact, as is its lust to challenge common wisdoms and to advocate for change.

So don't write us off, Kishore. In a few generations people will write postcards from Jakarta and from Berlin, from KL and from Vienna and all will be sending postcards from the present 
With love from Europe, 

The writer is a London-based political correspondent at German daily newspaper Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung.