Beyond Three Points: Dean Kishore Mahbubani

We walk into the Dean’s office on the third floor of Oei Tiong Ham building – a serene array of large offices that seems a world away from the busy corridors of Manasseh Meyer. He stands from his desk and greets us with a warm smile. Dean Kishore strides confidently across the room and offers each of us a firm handshake. He looks us all in the eyes, as if he was scanning the thoughts in our minds. After all, he has stood side by side with the leaders of the world from the time he was a young ambassador to Cambodia in the late seventies up to the time he headed the U.N. Security Council in 2002 as Singapore’s permanent representative. The Dean knows that true power lies in the realm of the mind.

We are invited to relax on the couch and we follow curtly – still conscious of the fact that he is the Dean and we are his students. Soon we forget this as he puts us at ease. Today, the Dean is not the talking head we see on the BBC or just a picture on the inside jacket of his books. Today he is the professor, the wise mentor, or even the favorite uncle that you often visit for a small chat.

It turns out this man was once a lanky boy who was so underweight that he went through a special feeding program at the age of 6. His family, indeed his generation, grew up in poverty and debt was normal part of life. “I had no flush toilet until the age of ten. One day, the debt collector came to our home and removed all our furniture. It was a traditional third world childhood,” narrates the Dean with just a hint of nostalgia.

Armed with a president’s scholarship and a hunger for knowledge, the now adult Kishore entered the University of Singapore (currently NUS) in the late sixties. He fondly recalls the long hours he spent sipping hot ginger tea under the trees and reading tons of books at the library of the then Bukit Timah Campus. From the old Raffles Hall, where he lived, he would not think twice about walking to Adam Road hawker center (which was then located where the Bukit Timah Canal now runs) to drink coffee until three in the morning.

In the university, he ran the school newspaper “The Singapore Undergrad.” This often got him into a lot of trouble. “I wrote some very provocative articles, one was critical of (then) Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew. I wrote about student apathy [and instead of] a full page of articles, I left [the page] completely white. And in small lettering I wrote, ‘Are we really this blank?’” As a caveat, the Dean explains that Singapore in the sixties was a time of political uncertainty and big issues were needed to be debated upon. Forty years later, the Dean is still a firm believer in free speech. “It is better for the young generation to voice their opinion,” he says, though he adds, “but now Singaporeans live a very comfortable life, so what do you want to protest about?” With none of us being Singaporean, we declined to comment.

With only a few minutes left of our time with the Dean, we asked him what vision he has for LKYSPP. “The first five years was rapid growth and we accomplished it. We’re not going to grow the size of the school anymore so now we’re going to go ‘from good to great’. So the next big challenge is for us to grow from being a school of public policy in Asia to becoming an Asian school of public policy.” This means a lot more content, discussions and cases focusing on Asian issues. But going from good to great, says the Dean, will really succeed when students “demand higher standards, demand more Asian context and demand more inter-disciplinary work.” On this last point he cites how Harvard is looking into ways of integrating economics and politics in the teaching of public policy – something he said LKYSPP will be working on over the next five years. But more than just copying Harvard, the Dean wants to carve out a niche for the school. “This school has got tremendous opportunity. In an Asian century, you need more Asian leaders. There are very few schools in Asia that produces Asian leaders, so this is the place to come.”

For someone who speaks so highly of Asia, it is ironic that the Dean must travel around the world to get his message across. As you read this, he is flying somewhere over the Pacific on his way to Peru, and later Mexico then France. The irony is not lost on the man who has coined this century as the “Asian Century”, but one can argue it is a necessary duty as the dean of, what would hopefully be, the Asian public policy school.

To make up for the frequent trips abroad, he has noticeably increased his public time with the students, even attending a College Green Dialogue on April 5th. “I have never been busier in my life,” he says almost as if he was complaining. But like the true diplomat that he is, the Dean soldiers on. In fact, he is already late for his next appointment. We rush the pleasantries and watch him make a hurried departure with his executive assistant giving him a literal elevator briefing. A question we asked earlier on why he never entered politics flashes back in my head, “I’m happy being the Dean of the Lee Kuan Yew School. I’ve never thought of getting into politics.” Indeed with a schedule like his, who needs politics?

— by Zak Yuson (MPP 08/10)

 

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