A failed attempt at classifying nations

I refer to Mr Mahbubani’s 8 Jun 2013 Straits Times article “So, what is a Singaporean?”

Mr Mahbubani classifies France, Russia, China and Spain as old nations based on such descriptions as a common culture, common language, common history and relative ethnic homogeneity.

The common culture description is not valid for Russia and China since both are multi-ethnic and multi-cultural. If multi-cultural Russia and China are considered to have common cultures respectively, then multi-cultural Singapore can also be said to have a common culture.

The common language description applies to Singapore as well since we have English as our common language.

The common history description is true only after the respective nations attained their present day boundaries. For example, French territories like Alsace-Lorraine and Burgundy once belonged to other powers or were once independent and so had different histories prior to their absorption into France. Similarly various Russian and Chinese territories had different histories prior to their absorption into the respective nations. Spain used to be separate kingdoms of Leon-Castile, Aragon, Granada and Navarre. These nations began building their respective common histories after they attained their present day boundaries. Similarly, Singapore began building its common history since 1819, the day we were founded.

If Mr Mahbubani considers Russia which comprises 80% ethnic Russians to be relatively homogeneous ethnically, he should also consider Singapore which comprises 75% ethnic Chinese to be relatively homogeneous ethnically too.

So by examining how the examples given by Mr Mahbubani, especially of Russia, fit into his description of what constitutes an old nation, Singapore should be considered an old nation too. Yet Mr Mahbubani doesn’t consider Singapore to be an old nation.

It’s strange that Mr Mahbubani classifies China as an old nation and India as an old-new nation when the Republic of China was founded in 1912 with the end of Manchu rule just as the Republic of India was founded in 1947 with the end of British rule. Thus, China has ‘new elements’ as India has and so should be considered old-new too if India is considered old-new.

It’s also strange that Mr Mahbubani would reset America’s age as a nation according to the time of their civil war. Spain’s last civil war ended in 1939, so by Mr Mahbubani’s civil war age reset theory; Spain should be a new country of 74 years of age only. Yet Mr Mahbubani classifies Spain as an old nation. Mr Mahbubani resets America’s age due to civil war but doesn’t reset Spain’s age due to civil war. Mr Mahbubani’s definitions of old and new nations fail to stand the test of his own examples.

Mr Mahbubani has no doubt that an American will recognise a fellow American when the latter opens his mouth. But according to our MP Mr Hri Kumar, Singaporeans don’t even need to open our mouths for people to recognise that we are Singaporeans [2].

After categorising nations with descriptions that fail to properly categorise them, Mr Mahbubani then claims that Singapore doesn’t belong to any of his ill-defined categories. Instead, Mr Mahbubani defines Singapore as an accidental nation as though the incidents that led to America’s War of Independence were deliberate and inevitable. Singapore is no more accidental as America is having been the product of historical events as America has been.

Conclusion: Mr Mahbubani fails in his attempt to classify nations and to show that Singapore is one of a kind that doesn’t belong to any category.

[1] Straits Times, So, what is a Singaporean?, 8 Jun 2013, Kishore Mahbubani

[2] Straits Times, Playing Robin Hood ‘may cause class wars’, 7 Mar 2013

On a hot day in Bangkok, my two Chinese friends and I walked towards a street vendor selling drinks. Before we could say a word, he looked at us and said ‘Singaporean.’ We asked him how he knew. He said: ‘Different colour, walk together; must be Singaporean.’

Mr Hri Kumar Nair (Bishan-Toa Payoh GRC), on a backpacking trip he took in 1991 and being proud to be a Singaporean

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One Response to “A failed attempt at classifying nations”

  1. ;Annonymous Says:

    I wonder why you would bother with Mahbubani’s writings. A superficial intelligence, as the late Harold Pinter would call him. Have you read Ian Buruma’s review of his book, with the absurd title ‘Can Asians Think’ (with a picture of himself on the front cover in a ‘thinking’ pose)? It’s time to stop wasting public funds supporting these so-called think tanks.

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