Through the distorted lens of “The Western Imagination”

The former prime minister of Spore, Lee KY, had a recent interview with The New York Times and the International Herald Tribune. He has had so many interviews with foreign newspapers but this one seemed especially poignant, with questions asked and very candid answers given, on a range of topics including his advancing age, how Sporean society may progress after his passing, and particularly on his thoughts and feelings on taking care of his currently bed-ridden wife, who had suffered strokes in recent years.

Days of Reflection

“So, when is the last leaf falling?” asked LKY, the man who made Singapore in his own stern and unsentimental image, nearing his 87th birthday and contemplating age, infirmity and loss.
In a long, unusually reflective interview last week, he talked about the aches and pains of age and the solace of meditation, about his struggle to build a thriving nation on this resource-poor island, and his concern that the next generation might take his achievements for granted and let them slip away.
But in these final years, he said, his life has been darkened by the illness of his wife and companion of 61 years, bedridden and mute after a series of strokes.

Article of interview from the NYT.
Full transcript of the interview.

Within the interview are some interesting points (he is an agnostic but has been practicing christian meditation), and some not so interesting; some amusing (his favourite book is Don Quixote), and some not so amusing.

As always, there will be many from all quarters who will take offence at any number of his comments on the many issues covered, political social economical. But these are just the usual stuff for which he normally receive applause as well as sharp knives anyway.

I have nothing to say about the political social economical issues mentioned in the article. The only item in the article which made me sit up and take notice is one purely on literature.

The following little remark he made seemed to me to be rather unfortunate:

Q: ‘And what kind of books do you read to her?”

Mr Lee: “So much of my time is reading things online. The latest book which I want to read or re-read is Kim. It is as beautiful a description of India as it was in Kipling’s time. And he had an insight into the Indian mind and it is still basically that same society that I find when I visit India. “

The remark was referring to reading books to his currently infirmed wife, which I find really heartwarming.

But to say that Kipling “had an insight into the Indian mind” or that Kipling’s portrayal of India is accurate, will only reinforce a flawed viewpoint and carry on the perpetuating of that most insidious of modern myths — the Western view of World History, and of Asia and ‘Asiatics’ (another mythical word).

But this is hardly a surprise, after all, considering LKY’s background:
his anglicized Straits-Chinese (Peranakan) family background;
his early education at what was probably the closest version of British ‘public’ schools outside of the British Isles – Raffles Institution;
and later, his university law education at Cambridge.

And here is what an Indian (also Cambridge educated) has to say about Kipling’s and the larger western view of India.
Amartya Sen, in his book The Argumentative Indian, from the chapter Indian Traditions and The Western Imagination, notes that the typical Western approaches to and interpretations of India falls into three main categories — the Exoticist, the Curatorial and the Magisterial approaches; with all three suffering from myopic and distorted preconceptions in varying degrees, but undoubtably, all flawed.

And the most lamentable approach (and probably with subsequently grim consequences), the Magisterial Approach:

The Magisterial Burden

I turn now to the second category, the magisterial approaches. The task of ruling a foreign country is not an easy one when its subjects are seen as equals. In this context, it is quite remarkable that the early British administrators in India, even the controversial Warren Hastings, were as respectful of the Indian traditions as they clearly were. The empire was still in its infancy and was being gradually acquired, rather tentatively.

A good example of a magisterial approach to India is the classic book on India written by James Mill [father of the philosopher John Stuart Mill, who influenced his son’s thinking tremendously, for better and for worse] published in 1817, on the strength of which he was appointed as an official of the East India Company. Mill’s The History of British India played a major role in introducing the British governors of India to a particular characterisation of the country. Mill disputed and dismissed practically every claim ever made on behalf of Indian culture and its intellectual traditions, concluding that it was totally primitive and rude. This diagnosis went well with Mill’s general attitude, which supported the idea of a bringing a rather barbaric nation under the benign and reformist administration of the British Empire. Consistent with his beliefs, Mill was an expansionist in dealing with the remaining independent states in the subcontinent. The obvious policy to pursue, he explained, was to make war on those states and subdue them.

Mill chastised early British administrators (William Jones) for having taken ‘Hindus to be a people of high civilization, while they have in reality made but a few of the earliest steps in the progress to civilization’. At the end of a comprehensive attack on all fronts, he came to the conclusion that Indian civilization was on a par with other inferior ones known to Mill — ‘very nearly the same with that of the Chinese, the Persians, and the Arabians’; he also put in this category, for good measure, ‘subordinate nations, the Japanese, Cochin-chinese, Siamese, Burmans, and even Malays and Tibetans’.

How well informed was Mill in dealing with his subject matter?
Mill wrote his book without ever having visited India. He knew no Sanskrit, nor any Persian or Arabic, had practically no knowledge of any of the modern Indian languages, and thus his reading of Indian material was of neccesity most limited. There is another feature of Mill that clearly influenced his investigations, his inclination to distrust anything stated by native scholars, since they appeared to him to have ‘a general disposition to deceit and perfidy’.

Perhaps some examples of Mill’s treatment of particular claims of achievement may be useful to illustrate the nature of his extremely influential approach. The invention of the decimal system with place values and the placed use of zero, now used everywhere, as well as the so-called Arabic numerals, are generally known to be Indian developments. In fact, Alberuni had already mentioned this in his eleventh-century book on India, and many European as well as Arab scholars had written on this subject. Mill dismisses the claim altogether on the grounds that ‘the invention of numerical characters must have been very ancient’ and ‘whether the signs used by the Hindus are so peculiar as to render it probable that they invented them, or whether it is still more probable that they borrowed them, are questions which, for the purpose of ascertaining their progress in civilization, are not worth resolving’.

Mill proceeds then to explain that the Arabic numerals ‘are really hieroglyphics’ … At one level Mill’s rather elemetary error lies in not knowing what a decimal or a place-value system is, but his ignorant smugness cannot be understood except in terms of his implicit unwillingness to believe that a very sophisticated invention could have been managed by such primitive people.


There are plenty of other examples of ‘magisterial’ readings of India in Mill’s history. This is of some importance, since the book was extremely influential in the British administration and widely praised, for example by Macaulay (‘the greatest historical work…since that of Gibbon’). Macaulay’s own approach and inclinations echoed James Mill’s.


The impact of the magisterial views of India was not confined to Britain and India. Modern documents in the same tradition have been influential elsewhere, including in the United States. In a series of long conversations on India and China conducted by Harold Isaacs in 1958 with 181 Americans –academics, professionals in mass media, government officials, missionaries and church officials, and officials of foundations, voluntary social-service groups, and political organisations– Isaacs found that the two most widely read literary sources on India were Rudyard Kipling and Katherine Mayo, the author of the extremely derogatory Mother India. Of these, Kipling’s writings would be more readily recognized as having something of the ‘magisterial’ approach to them. Lloyd Rudolph describes Mayo’s Mother India thus:

First published in 1927, Mother India was written in the context of official and unofficial British efforts to generate support in America for British rule in India. It added contemporary and lurid detail to the image of Hindu India as irredeemably and hopelessly impoverished, degraded, depraved, and corrupt. Mayo’s Mother India echoed not only the views of men like Alexander Duff, Charles Grant, and John Stuart Mill but also those of Theodore Roosevelt, who glorified in bearing the white man’s burden in Asia and celebrated the accomplishments of imperialism.

-Amartya Sen, The Argumentative Indian, “Indian Traditions and The Western Imagination”

I actually want to paraphrase, borrow and extend from Amartya Sen above to make another point:
The (far-reaching) impact of the Magisterial approach of the Western viewpoint on World History (that is, on Political Sociological Economic and especially Scientific histories of the world in its entirety), which is pretty much accepted as orthodox currently, is due primarily to the events of the last 200 years. In time, much of what currently passes for historical orthodoxy will be revealed as self-serving dogma, and the real historical truths and attributions restored.

When the effects of The Great Game and Adventure of the last 200 years finally die away (it will probably take 50-100 years at the quickest, but in truth may be as long as the gestation period itself, 200 years), and a true New Global Normal finally transpires (however transient), erasing that diabolical and utterly fraudulent divisive line in the head, Hemispheres, then…
Histories will be rewritten, but only back to their rightful places.

After all, history is always revisionist in nature, and indeed written by the Victors…or those who control the printing presses (of both the written word and of money), and of academic centres, and who write the textbooks, and manipulate the media in all its forms… and those with the biggest loudhailers.
For a time anyway.


Anyway, I wonder what George Yeo, with his Neo-Nalanda university project, might say about LKY’s remark.
[And this is the historical Nalanda.]
And whether if that number one cheerleader for the Asian Renaissance, Kishore Mahbubani, will cringe at it.

LKY, despite his detractors decrying his alleged championing of ‘Asian Exceptionalism’ and ‘Asian Values’, is actually rather anglicized and probably see the world through very much the same lenses as his western critics than they realize.

[BTW, there is a delicious irony in the above; an almost ‘swapping’ of perspectives between Lee and Sen on two congruent issues.]

5 thoughts on “Through the distorted lens of “The Western Imagination”

  1. An Asian Studies scholar (Tan Ta Sen), in his investigation of the historical development of old and new cultures and religions in Southeast Asia, noted that the few existing studies on this subject, mostly Dutch British and French, suffers from serious fragmentary and insular weaknesses. And makes the following restrained comment, and interestingly, quoting from the colourful historian Arnold Toynbee:

    Eurocentric theories generally tend to underestimate the vitality of the indigenous cultures. Arnold Toynbee apty states that “in the past the impact of culture change has been softened by a persistent survival of the old, side by side with the new. Each successive new type of culture has been embraced whole-heartedly and thoroughly by no more than a minority, and, even within this minority, ancient cultural habits have held their own”

    Ah, Toynbee…
    His rise and fall of civilizations accompanied much of my childhood wonderings.
    Especially derivatively through Asimov.

    [A pity Toynbee died just before the re-emergence of one of the civilizations he had consigned to the Broken and Decaying bin, the Sinic/Han.
    Guess he suffers from the same malady like many others of his kind: Looking at too short a timeframe.
    160 years (I am counting and dating from that most obvious and infamous incident of course) is really too short to count off a true Living Ancient Civilization which had survived foreign occupation many times in its long history, sometimes up to nearly 300 years; and more often, absorbing the occupiers (thus ‘Sinicizing’ them) whole.

  2. Just remembered Rabindranath Tagore’s famous utterance “China is unconquerable”, in his series of correspondences with his friend, the Japanese scholar, Noguchi Yonejiro, over the issue of the Japanese invasion of China in the 1930s.

    Here is a site with a very nice presentation of the exchange of correspondences, with a good introduction to the background and context of the times, and even with some portraits and sketches:

    And here is an excerpt of the passage from which the above line was quoted:

    I speak with utter sorrow for your people; your letter has hurt me to the depths of my being. I know that one day the disillusionment of your people will be complete, and through laborious centuries they will have to clear the debris of their civilisation wrought to ruin by their own warlords run amok. They will realise that the aggressive war on China is insignificant as compared to the destruction of the inner spirit of chivalry of Japan which is proceeding with a ferocious severity. China is unconquerable, her civilisation, under the dauntless leadership of Chiang Kai-shek, is displaying marvelous resources; the desperate loyalty of her peoples, united as never before, is creating a new age for that land. Caught unprepared by a gigantic machinery of war, hurled upon her peoples, China is holding her own; no temporary defeats can ever crush her fully aroused spirit. Faced by the borrowed science of Japanese militarism which is crudely western in character, China’s stand reveals an inherently superior moral stature. And today I understand more than ever before the meaning of the enthusiasm with which the big-hearted Japanese thinker Okakura [Kakuzo or Tenshin] assured me that China is great.

    You do not realise that you are glorifying your neighbour at your own cost. But these are considerations on another plane: the sorrow remains that Japan, in the words of Madame Chiang Kai-shek [that is, Soong May-ling, youngest of the 3 amazing and brilliant Soong sisters] which you must have read in the Spectator, is creating so many ghosts. Ghosts of immemorial works of Chinese art, of irreplaceable Chinese institutions, of great peace-loving communities drugged, tortured, and destroyed. “Who will lay the ghosts [to rest]?” she asks. Japanese and Chinese people, let us hope, will join hands together, in no distant future, in wiping off memories of a bitter past. True Asian humanity will be reborn. Poets will raise their song and be unashamed, one believes, to declare their faith again in a human destiny which cannot admit of a scientific mass production of fratricide.

    Yours sincerely,

    Rabindranath Tagore

    PS I find that you have already released your letter to the press; I take it that you want me to publish my answer in the same manner.

  3. Reading Noguchi Yonejiro’s lines in the Tagore-Noguchi letters above, one is struck by the eerily similar words and hollow bluster used by self-serving expansionist Imperialists throughout history and the world, in their empty justification of the Moral Righteousness of their wars and crusades over their neighbours and beyond. The words remind one of especially, the superciliousness of Napoleon, Hitler, and one much more recent other:

    With a crusader’s determination and with a sense of sacrifice that belongs to a martyr, our young soldiers go to be [the] front. Their minds are light and happy, the war is not for conquest, but the correction of mistaken idea of China, I mean Kuomingtung [Kuomintang] government, and for uplifting her simple and ignorant masses to better life and wisdom. Borrowing from other countries neither money nor blood, Japan is undertaking this tremendous work single-handed and alone. I do not know why we cannot be praised by your countrymen. But we are terribly blamed by them, as it seems, for our heroism and aim.

    the Japanese soldiers are followed by them [ie. the common Chinese people] with the paper flags of the Rising Sun in their hands; to a soldierly work we have to add one more endeavour in the relief work of them. You can imagine how expensive is this war for Japan. Putting expenditure out of the question, we are determined to use up our last cent for the final victory that would ensure in the future a great peace of many hundred years.

    –Noguchi Yonejiro, 1937

    The words seem like they could have come out of the mouth of that Bush(y)-tailed and self-styled Sheriff of the Freeworld and wanton Liberator-Invader of this past decade.

    Demagogues talk the same language, wherever and whenever they appear…

  4. George Yeo assures Indian state of Nalanda commitment:

    MAY 21, 2011

    NEW DELHI – THIS week, outgoing Foreign Minister George Yeo received a phone call from Patna, the capital of the Indian state of Bihar. On the other end was Chief Minister Nitish Kumar, who has picked up what used to be a sad, sorry Indian state and turned it into the makings of what could be a future success story.

    Among the key projects contributing to the re-energising of Bihar is the move to revive Nalanda, the ancient Buddhist seat of learning that predates Oxford University by several hundred years.

    Mr Kumar’s words were warm, and amid the banter about the vicissitudes of electoral politics, he said he hoped that Singapore’s departing foreign minister would continue to show the same enthusiasm for Nalanda as he did while in office.

    The 57-year-old Singaporean leader’s response was equally friendly.

    ‘I am strongly committed to the project,’ Mr Yeo assured Mr Kumar, according to a person who had access to the conversation. ‘And I look forward to visiting Bihar in July along with the Core Group on Nalanda.’

    Mr Kumar’s anxiety to keep Mr Yeo involved in the project underscores the deep impact the outgoing foreign minister has made, not just on the Nalanda project, but also on India in general.

  5. “For over 700 years, the great university in Nalanda was a center of learning for a wide range of subjects, including philosophy, science, mathematics and public health. Nalanda is an icon of the Asian renaissance in the 21st century and should draw students and scholars from everywhere, as it once did. It should be a center of civilizational dialogue and inter-faith understanding, as it once was. It should again make available for the common betterment of all human beings knowledge already existing in the world. In this way, the Nalanda project is not only a celebration of the past but also an inspiration for the future of Asia and the world. In a messy multipolar world, the Nalanda spirit of man living in harmony with man, of man living in harmony with nature and of man living as part of nature should be our common spirit.”


    Nalanda and the Asian Renaissance
    by George Yeo Foreign Minister, Singapore

    Posted: 04/12/11 01:47 PM ET

    SINGAPORE — As Asia reemerges on the world stage in this century, its civilizational origins will become a subject of intense study and debate. Asians are rediscovering their own past and deriving inspiration from it for the future. This inspiration covers all fields including governance, scientific inquiry, architecture, wellness and aesthetics. A tremendous burst of creative adaptation is increasingly evident across Asia. The Western world went through a similar phase as it emerged out of the medieval ages. Hence the word “renaissance” has come to be applied to Asia’s reemergence today.

    As part of this renaissance, the Indian Parliament recently passed a bill reestablishing Nalanda University as an international university. Nalanda was the world’s oldest university by far, flourishing for centuries before it was destroyed by Afghan invaders in the 12th century.

    In the same way as one could identify the origins of Western civilization in Greece, Rome and Judeo-Christianity, so too could one trace the origins of East Asian civilization to the influence of Confucianism, Taoism and Mahayana Buddhism.


    For over 700 years, the great university in Nalanda was a center of learning for a wide range of subjects, including philosophy, science, mathematics and public health. Nalanda is an icon of the Asian renaissance in the 21st century and should draw students and scholars from everywhere, as it once did. It should be a center of civilizational dialogue and inter-faith understanding, as it once was. It should again make available for the common betterment of all human beings knowledge already existing in the world. In this way, the Nalanda project is not only a celebration of the past but also an inspiration for the future of Asia and the world. In a messy multipolar world, the Nalanda spirit of man living in harmony with man, of man living in harmony with nature and of man living as part of nature should be our common spirit.

    George Yeo is Singapore’s foreign minister. This article was adapted from a presentation to the Berggruen Institute’s 21st Century Council.

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