Razeen Sally – TALKS WITH PETRI
Razeen Sally talks about the threat of China, the role of Singapore in the new volatile world, what’s ahead of us in geopolitics and what he discovered in Sri Lanka.
Razeen Sally is a Sri Lankan-British writer. His new book, a travel memoir, is Return to Sri Lanka: Travels in a Paradoxical Island (Juggernaut). He is a visiting associate professor at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy at the National University of Singapore, and previously taught at the London School of Economics.
He was chairman of the Institute of Policy Studies, the main economic-policy think tank in Sri Lanka, and senior adviser to the minister of finance. He has been director of the European Centre for International Political Economy, a global-economy think tank in Brussels, and has held visiting research and teaching positions in the USA, France, Australia and Hong Kong. He was also chair of the World Economic Forum’s Global Agenda Council on Competitiveness.
(NOTE: The text may contain errors, misconceptions and even comical unintended contexts. Please use it only as a reference to the actual audio conversation from where it has been transcribed.)
Petri: Hello Razeen!
Razeen: Hello Petri, how are you?
Petri: I’m pretty good. It’s midsummer here in Tallinn. So quiet. How is the summer in the city in Singapore?
Razeen: We’re going through a few rainy days. It’s been raining today and it’s pretty overcast. This is normally a pretty hot time of the year. The rain has cooled it down a bit. But a taxi driver once told me that in Singapore, there are three seasons: hot, hotter, hottest. That’s it.
Petri: How big is the difference between those?
Razeen: Not much. It’s between 30 and 35 degrees. Thereabouts.
Petri: What is fun and cool in Singapore? I haven’t been there for a while.
Razeen: At the moment, nothing. But that’s true everywhere or most places around the world. Singapore has a reputation for being straight-laced which is true. It’s a controlled society. It’s not a place where people generally go wild. But I’d say since the late 1990s, the government is trying to open up Singapore more and allow people to let their head down, but in a controlled well-behaved way, in a very Singaporean way.
There is much more of a restaurant scene, an art scene even a clubbing scene, a bar scene than that used to be. I’d say Singapore has global city characteristics. There aren’t that many genuine global cities around the world where you have a confluence of ideas and activities from different continents and not just one continent.
Singapore is in that small basket alongside London, New York, perhaps Dubai, and Hong Kong. It’s become more pronounced in Singapore. I first came to Singapore in the year 2000, so I have 20 years of experience. The first 10 years visiting Singapore and the last almost nine years living here.
It has become much more of a global city resembling a place like London, much more than it was when I first came here. I hear many languages spoken on the street. I can go to restaurants, serving cuisines from around the world. The airport has excellent connectivity in normal times.
It’s regularly voted the best airport in the world and so on. I teach at a university with lots of students from other parts of Asia in particular. English is the working language. I don’t speak Chinese. I don’t need to, to function in Singapore. Like most expats here, I hardly speak a word of Chinese.
There’s all that in Singapore, which certainly makes it convenient. Also makes it very expensive. What’s unique about Singapore compared with the other cities I mentioned is that as some people like to say in Singapore, it’s a CSI: it’s a city, it’s a state and it’s an Island, all in one.
It still feels a little strange living in Singapore. It’s not as if you live in a big bustling city but then can take a car or a train or a bus to another city or the countryside or a small town in the same country. To leave Singapore either you have to go across one of two bridges to Malaysia. Another country, so you have to show your passport. Or you would take a flight from the airport to another country and show your passport again. It’s perhaps the only real city-state left in the world, a city-state of significant size. In that sense, it’s a real vestige of a world, which was run by city-states several centuries ago.
Petri: What do you think of Singapore’s future?
Razeen: Singaporeans have always been anxious about the future because this place is so small and vulnerable. Even when it was a British colony. When the world was doing badly during the World Wars and during the depression in the 1930s, I think there were existential questions. Will we survive?
And that was also true after the Second World War. Would Singapore survive? In a world of more powerful, bigger nation States. It seemed to be really existential in the mid-1960s when Singapore was kicked out of Malaysia, left on its own. Because it’s so small and it makes its living from the world, trade is 400% or thereabouts of GDP.
Multinationals account for a big chunk of industrial employment in particular in Singapore and a lot of services employment. Its lifeblood is trading with the rest of the world. And now as a global hub for all sorts of service activities, starting with financial services Singapore really lives and breathes international trade, investment capital and people from around the world. When the world economy is doing well, when big places, small places, medium places around the world are liberalising, when we have intense globalisation then Singapore does disproportionately well. Because it’s very well positioned for all of that.
But when we move into a different phase or a different era one where there’s more conflict in the world geopolitically. Where nations are looking more inward. Where they engage in more protectionism. When the world moves into a deep globalisation phase as it were, a place like Singapore tends to do disproportionately badly, because it is so dependent on the rest of the world. The EU average trade to GDP is probably I guess 30 to 40%. Maybe something similar or less in the United States. In Singapore, it’s more than 10 times that number.
With the way the world has been moving in recent years and added to that this increasing conflict in the region between the United States and China, it makes the government here jittery. It makes people anxious because they wonder about the existence and viability of a place like this in a more dangerous, fractured world. Those fears are heightened at a time like this when the world is closed up shop due to this coronavirus pandemic.
We had an effective lockdown in Singapore for 73 days. It only ended last Friday. And we still have comprehensive travel restrictions. GDP will shrink here by probably something close to 10%. The big question for Singapore’s future is can it really survive and do well as a global city, which is at the same time a city-state in a world, which is going to look quite different and in many ways more dangerous and divided than it has done in the last half-century. That’s the big question.
Petri: Can you recommend it to someone who is having maybe their own company and they need a presence in Asia? Now, Hong Kong is basically out of the question and there really aren’t that many regional headquarter places to put your company. Is it worthwhile still to consider Singapore?
Razeen: Yes, withstanding all the worries and anxieties I mentioned. I think the answer is still yes. But even without bringing Hong Kong into the equation. Why? Because growth rates are still much higher in this part of the world than they are in the old West or most parts of the old West. Singapore, as I mentioned, it’s not just a global hub, but it’s a regional hub. Hong Kong and Singapore are the main destinations for multinationals, for regional headquarters operations.
If you look at these economic indexes, Singapore takes pride in coming at the top or close to the top of most of them. It’s regularly ranked number one or number two, at least in the top five in the doing business index, the economic freedom index, the World Bank’s Logistics Performance Index, and so on. It’s not hype, it’s true. It hits you when you come here as a visitor. As soon as you arrive at the airport, you get the impression. Yes, this is probably one of the best airports in the world. It takes very little time to disembark from your plane to check into your hotel downtown. I timed it once and the fastest I did it from my apartment on the West coast to checking in at the airport on the East coast was 25 minutes.
Petri: That’s fast. That’s pretty close to what you can do in Tallinn as well.
Razeen: I rather like that. Crime is very low in Singapore. I will on the odd occasion when I’m in the back of a cab or passing by some buildings, see a big blue sign put up by the police reporting a crime incident in big red letters. And it’s usually about, a bicycle being stolen or maybe someone’s wallet being lost, or maybe some scam, but I’ve never seen one about a murder or a rape or something like that. It’s one of the few urban places on earth where even a lot of women will feel reasonably safe walking alone late at night.
Doing business here is compared with most of the rest of the world very straightforward. You can set up your business in a matter of hours. Most things are digitised online.
You can clear your goods from the port very quickly. The government actually works pretty well in Singapore. Most public services I encounter in Singapore are quick and smooth. The tax system is very simple and efficient. I am a representative example, middle-class professional, expat, about 10% of my gross income goes on tax.
I don’t have to fill out a tax form. it’s all done by my employer. Anything I earn outside Singapore, which is legal, I can remit to Singapore without paying tax on it. There are also good international schools, expensive ones. There’s good health care. Public transport is very good. In other words, it’s a city that really works very well in the basic, even the sophisticated functional sense. And it’s a very good platform for travelling and doing business around the wider Asia. It’s also geographically very well located. It’s roughly halfway between India and China.
From here it’s a three to four-hour flight to the main destinations in India. it’s a six-hour flight to Beijing. It’s a three-hour flight to Hong Kong. Maybe a four, four and a half hour flight to Shanghai. Six and a half to seven off like to Tokyo and Perth is five or six hours away. Sydney and Melbourne are eight-plus hours away.
That makes the international connectivity very good. Those are all the attributes of Singapore. To sum that up, Singapore’s main selling point to attract business and people from around the world is stability, predictability, clarity and also a certain strategic sense.
The same government has been in power since 1959, winning every election by a huge margin.
Petri: That is a long time.
Razeen: Yes. They were really frightened in 2010 when they only got 60% of the vote and only got 81 out of 87 seats in parliament. It’s a controlled democracy. It’s not identikit Western-style, liberal democracy. Democracy is certainly more liberal in South Korea and Taiwan, even in Japan.
But that longevity, that continuity of government enables it to think and plan for the longer term. In other words, it has a luxury very few other governments in the world have. Of course, it was led by one extraordinary character for decades, Lee Kyan Yew. As one person described him, he was a political Superman, albeit only in charge of a metropolis. His legacy lives on in Singapore and he built the institutions to outlive him. In a world that is becoming more unpredictable and more unstable that Singapore premium of stability, predictability and openness is at least as valuable as it has been in the last few decades. I think that remains its main selling point.
Petri: What you just told us, it sounds almost like a paid advertisement from the government.
Razeen: It’s not paradise, nowhere in the world is paradise. If we want to probe Singapore’s disadvantages, its weak points then I would think of the following. From a liberal standpoint, Singapore is not exactly liberal. It may be a little bit more liberal than it used to be but it still has a paternalistic, controlling even nanny state features. And a lot of conformism in the population. it’s one of the most open economies on earth, but at the same time, it’s not an open society in the Western sense.
It’s a controlled democracy. There are lots of things enshrined in law and many things in practice, formal and informal practice, that don’t conform to Western-style liberalism. Restrictions on the freedom of speech, on the freedom of assembly. There’s a lot of self-censorships still in Singapore.
The mainstream media is highly controlled. The domestic economy is dominated by government-owned companies. The government in one sense is a Western classical liberal’s dream: low taxes, a little red tape, free trade, for example. But in another sense, it’s an industrial policy interventionist’s dream, the government owns lots of companies.
Including Singapore airlines, the national carrier and port services authority, the main taxi company, one of the main banks and many other things besides. The government-linked companies dominate the local stock market. The government intervenes in all sorts of micro ways. Over the decades, the governing elite here has engineered Singapore and engineered a largely conformist local population.
One reason perhaps why Singapore still relies so much on importing foreigners and that translates into a society and an economy without much genuine innovation. And I think this is the really big difference between say New York and London. And other cities I can think of in the West or the kind of subcultures you’re familiar with in Tallinn on the one hand and Singapore on the other hand. Singapore is very good at imitating what’s already been done in the West and then copying in a very sophisticated way to do even better than the West.
But what you don’t find in Singapore or find little in Singapore, is a genuine innovation in the Schumpeterian sense. There’s very little creative destruction in Singapore. There is a startup culture, but even that is government-supported.
But it’s not the kind of startup culture that you would associate with Silicon Valley or Herzliya or Tel Aviv, places like that. There’s still a society and an economy that’s dominated by big companies by big multinationals and by big domestic companies, most of them owned by the government.
Petri: It’s an excellent place to put a regional headquarters, but you know, if you want to disrupt the market, that’s probably not the best place to do that.
Razeen: Yes. it’s quite common to find your usual list of Western multinationals with their regional headquarters operations here. Those are coordinating functions. It’s rarer to come across those same companies with really high-value R&D engineering things going on, design and engineering things going on in Singapore.
Those they will keep in their home markets or in global innovation hubs, so to speak, not much of that in Singapore.
Petri: So you’re saying that creative people probably would not thrive in Singapore’s environment in a sense that maybe London and other places can provide?
Razeen: I think, creative types can still probably thrive depending on the niche. The answer depends very much on the niche. If you’re say in FinTech, you’re not an already big company, then Singapore might well be the place to be because Singapore is becoming the Asian hub for FinTech.
In another sense, you’re right. if you’re comfortable, also in a lifestyle sense with a place like Silicon Valley or Tel Aviv, or some little pockets in Europe, London then you might find Singapore a bit of an anticlimax. Maybe still a bit too bit too straight-laced, a bit too conformist.
And with informal barriers to entering and breaking through as it were. So far we haven’t talked about Hong Kong but now maybe the time to bring Hong Kong into the picture.
Petri: And also as an addition to Hong Kong, what happened within the last 24 hours was that the US was pretty much closing its borders for immigrants, no visas allowed. You’ve been focusing on trade policies and you’re an expert on the field. That’s also an interesting aspect. We can obviously talk about Hong Kong, but I think this is a related thing. It’s a global world and, it seems to be that a lot of the countries are closing down.
Razeen: We’re in a new phase of de-globalisation around the world. That actually started before this pandemic. I think after the GFC liberalisation around the world stalled. In some places went into a kind of creeping reversal. And then when president Trump took office we saw the United States retreating into protection aimed at China in the first instance, but also aimed at others.
We’ve seen much more Chinese protectionism and we’ve seen other countries like India and Indonesia engaging in copycatting protectionism. All of that was in trend before this pandemic. And trade was suffering and it was having detrimental effects on economic growth on the global economy. And then this pandemic struck when it forced countries shut down, which also meant shutting down their borders, to the flow of goods, capital, and people. That’s the current situation. We’ve seen a lot of new interventions, governments trying to prop up their economies while in lockdown.
The portents aren’t good. The trend is that protectionism is accelerating around the world. Starting from before this pandemic crisis, we’ve seen more of it during the crisis. For example, countries, governments, imposing export bans on medical equipment, talking about manufacturing critical medical equipment at home, rather than importing equipment, talking about protecting strategic industries from China and others. Dishing out a huge, additional amount of subsidies. The unspoken assumption is that those subsidies are basically for production employment at home at the expense of production and employment abroad. They have a home production bias. Many of them will probably end up as being trade discriminating.
All of this is happening now, and many of these interventions will likely stick. Some might be reversed, hopefully, but some will have staying power and they will last into the medium term. They will last beyond the time when a vaccine is found and we look back on this pandemic as something that happened the day before yesterday.
There is a lot of new protectionism in the pipeline. What’s most dangerous about it is that it’s led by the big powers by the United States, by China and by an increasingly inward-looking EU without Great Britain. That bodes ill or around more protectionism will mean lower levels of growth coming out of the pandemic. It’ll mean in the longer term, lower levels of productivity which of course translates into fewer jobs and jobs that are not as valuable. Lower growth will mean more political and social tensions within countries and between countries.
It will contribute to making the geopolitical environment even more unstable than it is. All those signs are worrying for everywhere around the world. From places that are extremely dependent on the external world like Singapore. Two big economies, like the United States and Europe, that in one sense, are more self-contained, they rely more on activities going on domestically, but are still very much, intertwined with the rest of the world. And that goes for China as well.
Petri: What is the way out of this? It seems that there’s a lot of populism. There’s a lot of reactionism. There’s also short term thinking involved in all of this geopolitical situation around the world. What is the way out of this?
Razeen: There’s no easy answer to that one. I’m an old fashioned classical liberal. I believe in fairly limited, but still effective government. I believe in markets, I believe in free trade, all of those things. And I could repeat that mantra, but just repeating it and not going further would just be lazy wishful thinking. One has to be realistic as well. A classic realist is someone who starts by taking the world as it is rather than as one wishes it to be and then tries to improve on that rather than imagining a perfect world and say, we must get there. That’s sort of no use to anyone.
The complicated answer I would give, taking a stab at your question, would be to say, I think it’s incumbent on decision-makers of a liberal mind and individual opinion formers who want to influence policy to…I suppose the first injunction is to say first do no harm, to advocate not making matters worse by engaging in ill-advised interventions. And that probably starts with protectionism. Domestically these are emergency times. I think there is a case for extra government intervention that is temporary on the fiscal side, on the monetary side, wage subsidies, corporate subsidies and so on.
The challenge is to find ways first to do them in the least inefficient way possible, the most non-discriminatory way possible. And second to keep them time limited. And to reverse them, so that regulation doesn’t get in the way of recovery. That’s the simplest way I can put it. The answer is more complicated than that.
One has to be pragmatic about this. I don’t have much time for really ideological doctrinaire libertarians who say this crisis is hyped. We don’t need these lockdowns. We should allow people their freedom and to take the risk of getting infected, but that’s their call and keep economies going.
I think that’s just reckless, not just from a public health standpoint, but from an economic standpoint. I think it’s important to combat the kind of populism that we’ve seen in the West so far. I don’t think pure laissez-faire is the way to combat it. One has to be pragmatic about thinking of interventions that would repair the social fabric while keeping markets open and functioning and without making government too big and too intrusive.
On the international front, it’s important that we do have leadership and cooperation to keep markets open, to provide public goods as it were to keep the world economy open. That’s really difficult because the country that we expected to take the lead in that, the United States, certainly not being leading or has been leading in the wrong direction under Donald Trump.
It is more inward-looking and populist itself that infects foreign policy including and trade policy. Some of those things are not likely to change with a Biden presidency. It’s important to look, to build coalitions of the likeminded broadly speaking around the world to keep the world economy open and also to prevent international political tension from escalating into violence and war.
There’s a role for small countries and so-called middle powers, including places like Singapore, Australia, New Zealand, Japan, South Korea, to push that agenda, to try and nudge the Americans and the Europeans to be more outward-looking and globally constructive. And to face the new dangers coming out of China.
There was a time maybe 10 or say 15 or 20 years ago when I was more sanguine about China. I took the standard liberal position that we should remain fully open to China. And that with globalisation, China itself would become progressively more open. And more of a stakeholder to use Robert Zoellick’s term in the international system than a threat to a liberal order. But what we’ve seen clearly, especially in the last decade, is China moving in the opposite direction.
Petri: Hasn’t it always been moving that direction? It just hasn’t been that obvious. It’s a slight misjudgment from the West side?
Razeen: There’s a bit of all of that in the mix. Yes, I think with hindsight, there was too much naivety in the West that because China was genuinely opening up in the economic sense to the world from the late seventies until I’d say about 15 years ago. And opening up in other ways as well, including through the movement of people, lots of Chinese students abroad, for example. Western business people in China, not to mention, of course, big Western investment in China. That it would not just keep up that liberalising momentum economically, but that would spill over into politics and society as well, however gradually.
And that turned out to be naive and wrong because China has been moving in the opposite direction on all fronts. There have been different phases. One can definitely point to a long opening up phase in China from 1978 until say the global financial crisis with the interruption of the Tiananmen incident.
The late eighties, early nineties, there was, if you like a blip on the screen, but economically China was opening up for that period. And then from the GFC onwards, it’s become more protectionist economically. And the authoritarian screws politically have been tightened. But another way of answering that question would be to say that, of course, China has remained an authoritarian political system throughout that hasn’t changed and yes, in the West, I think we’ve been too naive about that right the way through.
There was a while when there was a kind of equilibrium between economic opening up and political authoritarianism. The state remained a one-party state and China continued to have market Leninism so-called. And as we’ve seen on the Xi Jinping that equilibrium has been upset. It’s become a more state interventionist economy. It’s become more protectionist and it’s become more politically authoritarian and culturally controlled at the same time.
There was a view maybe about ten years ago that you could actually have a happy combination of Mao and markets. We know now that that’s wrong. We see more Mao politically, but more restricted markets at the same time.
And the difference this makes to the world is the size of China. It’s multiple size economically what it was decades ago, the economy has probably doubled in size, over the last decade given the growth rates in China. It’s been doubling in size at least once a decade and at purchasing-power it’s the biggest economy in the world.
When these things are happening, more stages of intervention in the economy, more political control domestically with the burgeoning size of China, that power gets projected abroad, which is precisely what we’re seeing in the last decade with a much more assertive China, regionally and globally. And that upsets the geopolitical apple cart.
Petri: China has been quite active in Africa for a long time, securing resources, they invest in a lot of different infrastructure projects. Do you see that it is really a planned strategic thing to start to become a global dominant power and buying influence and also securing resources? Is that really a long-term view that we also should be really cautious about?
Razeen: Yes It’s clearly part of the Chinese leadership’s strategy. China investing in Africa and in other parts of the world…it’s not just Africa, it’s Latin America. And the countries that are covered by this Belt and Road Initiative, which is a very broad framework to accommodate all sorts of different projects.
It’s part of securing natural resources for a huge economy that is a resource-scarce. And needs to import ever more resources, and doesn’t want to rely on the US Navy for the safe passage of those resources across the seas. At the same time, it’s really a bundle of lots of opportunistic projects here and there.
There’s a heavy emphasis on infrastructure which is not surprising. A hard authoritarian state during a fast period of growth or catch-up growth is usually in the business of building lots and lots of infrastructure.
Petri: That’s the easiest way to go get things done.
Razeen: Yes, you do it through a controlled and repressed financial system. Your philosophy as it were: if you build it and they will come. China is doing abroad what it’s been used to doing at home during its three-plus decades of catch-up growth with highly subsidised, essentially created money domestically. It’s using those tools, not just as a commercial proposition, the commercial proposition is there, but also as a political strategy or political proposition to cement influence and overriding influence in the countries where these projects take place. It’s usually state-owned companies, financed by policy banks at home that do the job often with Chinese labour and the government at the other end assumes the debt. You have a kind of dependency relationship created.
The actual results on the ground are very mixed. Some of these projects do actually work, and they materialise far quicker than alternative projects from Western donors and from international organisations like the World Bank and the regional development banks. But many of these projects also involve lots of corruption. They operate behind the veil of secrecy.
They involve the co-option of local political and commercial elites and help China recreate in the 21st century the kind of tributary system they used to have. It’s in the minds of Chinese strategists, and certainly in the policy conversation that what China is doing today is reminiscent of the kind of tributary system the Middle Kingdom had in previous centuries. And I would translate that into China becoming a classic mercantilist power.
This is the big difference between China now and its ambitions for leadership abroad and the US leadership during the Pax Americana. The Americans have thrown their weight about unilaterally and bilaterally. There’s been a lot of power politics involved, but I think the great gift of post-1945 American leadership has been to provide the public goods for international order. Starting with global peace extending to freeish trade and capital flows around the world and doing that by essentially taking the lead in organising concerts of cooperation, which have found expression in the WTO, for example, in multilateral trade roles and in other organisations.
The legacy of US power at its best was to actually provide the rules for markets to work around the world involving countries with very different diverse contrasting and conflicting political systems and societies. Now China, as I see it, is emerging to be a very different kind of power.
And as I said a classic mercantilist power. My comparison would be with of China today be less with the old Soviet Union if there’s talk of a new cold war. One thinks of the old Cold War between the US and the Soviet Union. That’s misleading in one sense. The Soviet Union was a totalitarian command economy sealed off from the market economies of the world. China is not a totalitarian political system. It used to be on the Mao. It went from being totalitarian to being authoritarian, quite different. And of course, it became a much more marketised economy and an economy that became much more globally integrated. Very different from the old Soviet Union.
The similarity perhaps is more with Japan and Germany in the late 19th century and in the first half of the 20th century. Because Japan and Germany as rising powers were authoritarian and increasingly so but not totalitarian. They had market economies, but market economies with an increasing amount of states’ intervention and direction. And that’s pretty much the kind of mix we’re seeing in China today. The big difference perhaps is that China, in terms of its economic weight in the world, is turning out to be bigger. And more decisive than Germany was, or Japan was, except perhaps during the Second World War.
A mercantilist power is not so much concerned with plurilateral, multilateral rules that constrain the exercise of power. It doesn’t want that. It wants to exercise as much discretionary power as it can preferably bilaterally. That’s the essence of China’s relationships with the countries that really interest it. To keep it bilateral so that Beijing can control the power and the outcomes as much as possible and be as little constrained by overarching rules as possible.
Petri: Are you saying that China is basically the medicine what the West needs in a sense that we need to unify and be a unified front in order to cope with China because it’s so big?
Razeen: Yes. Different people read that medicine from China in different ways. One way of reading it would be to say, China, as this rising mercantilist power shows how superior it is to Western liberalism, which is a kind of self-enfeeblement. We need to become more like China. We need to become more mercantilist ourselves in order to combat China and defend the West.
And I think that is precisely the wrong way of looking at it. It’s the wrong answer.
Petri: It’s about going back in history.
Razeen: Yeah. That’s a recipe for self-harm. The right diagnosis or the better diagnosis is that yes, China as a rising mercantilist power is a threat. One has to face it realistically. There are genuine national security concerns dealing with them might actually involve restricting trade and technology transfer and supply chains up to a point. But the way to deal with that threat is precisely not to become more like China, but rather the reverse. It’s for countries of the West with like-minded allies outside the West to actually become more liberal and more open. To strengthen the market economy, the rule of law, open societies and liberal democracy.
To allow societies, to allow economies, to innovate and societies to flourish, while maintaining or increasing military strength. To do so in a coalition formation. The late John McCain, his great pet idea was an alliance of democracies. He couldn’t advance it in a time that was more complacent about China and more generally about the rise of authoritarianism around the world. Maybe the time for that idea has come or should come. The liberal democracies of the world, those with market societies should think of ways of institutionalising their corporation collectively. And then dealing with China in terms of a delicate balancing act. In one sense, China has to be contained for the reasons I gave. But in another sense, it has to be engaged. Part of China has become much more open to the world.
There is a substantial private sector in China. The links that have been built up including people to people connections over the last 40 years are considerable. They are dense. We don’t want to get rid of all that. In a sense accelerate China’s retreat into a kind of authoritarian command and control cocoon.
That mix of containment and engagement, keeping oneself open to China, while at the same time dealing with legitimate security threats is a problematic mix and it’s going to be a difficult balancing act. It may not be a balancing act that will succeed. It may tip over into an extreme reaction of closing oneself off from China too much. Or it may end up being a naive reaction of not doing enough in the belief that the problem is not as serious as some people make out or simply because of the power of Chinese money around the world. And Chinese force around the world filling a vacuum left by Western weakness and Western negligence.
Petri: It certainly sounds like that we would need to be in a rather enlightened and even ethical standpoint in our societies in the West. But looking at what’s happening in democracies around the world, EU and the US, there’s a lot of populism, Brexit happened and we are not very organised as there’s a lot of government debt actually happening. There’re a lot of internal issues as well. That’s quite a demanding task ahead of us.
Razeen: Yes. The way I look at populism in the West…I look at it in two broad ways. Firstly, there are genuine cleavages in society that are going to be difficult to deal with, to repair the social fabric as it were. Some of them have to do with modern economic and technological developments. People who are less educated and less skilled have done relatively worse than in the previous eras. They tend to be regionally concentrated and this spills over into politics and insights of backlash. And that backlash includes an anti-migration and anti-globalisation strain. Dealing with that is genuinely difficult.
Another way I look at it is it’s very much through the lens of Hayek and Schumpeter when they were writing about the state of capitalism in the West, in those dire times of the 1930s and 1940s. Perhaps the chief reason that they found for the enfeeblement of capitalism and more broadly of liberal society in the West was a kind of intellectual momentum from the late 19th century. That was relentlessly anti-liberal, anti-market, anti-capitalist and which gathered an increasing force to the extent that these forces starting with the intellectuals, just hacked away at the liberal foundations of the West until those foundations were no more. And then to put it extremely, Hitler’s tanks or Japanese soldiers marched in.
I don’t think it’s nearly as dramatic as that today, but I think there are substantial constituencies, starting with the chattering classes who find all sorts of excuses to undermine the foundations of Western liberal society. And often they don’t face powerful principled opposition. So, they come to dominate the world of ideas. And ideas eventually embody themselves in people who march through institutions and change outcomes. That’s something to worry about as well. Allan Bloom wrote a famous book in the 1980s called The Closing of the American Mind.
And what he wrote is, an echo of what I just said, happening very much on the American campus. And that has, if anything, got more extreme on the American campus since his day. It’s happening on European campuses. There’s the danger of that closing of the Western mind, which then becomes dominated by a kind of rampant, postmodern relativism that progressively enfeebles the West. And, makes it more vulnerable to threats from outside, not just from inside.
Petri: You are educating young minds. You made a long career in London Business School. It takes decades, takes generations for people to get into the power. Should we actually look back into the eighties, nineties, maybe early two thousands and, see what was the sentiment there?
Because it tends to be that when people are young, they open to new ideas and then they fixate on the things they have learned. Is that some kind of signal or a way of looking at what’s ahead of us? How are things on the campuses and what was happening there?
Razeen: My impression from my student days in the eighties and then as a young lecturer in the nineties is that outside certain pockets of study, most students became unideological. The kind of great debates that one had in previous decades, faded away and studying became much more instrumental to get a job and progress in one’s career. In that sense, university life became less interesting, less vital.
Universities have, in that fundamental sense of being a place for discussing foundational ideas, degenerated. Academics have become much more specialised. They have become much more limited. They have less of a broader culture. And become more like those very narrow instrumental students just chasing after a career. I’m not knocking students being instrumental in chasing after a career. That’s fine.
My general impression is that universities, going by my experience before in London and my experience since then here in Singapore, are not really the places these days where great ideas germinate, get chewed over and propagated the way that might have happened once upon a time. You get instrumental stuff coming out of the universities. And then you get these pockets in departments of English literature, sociology, cultural studies, what have you, where you do have worldviews created, revolving around all sorts of identity politics, and a general sense of bashing Western civilisation in quotation marks. It’s just much more fractured.
And yes, the graduates from these places go on to march through the institutions, and ideas still matter in a sense. I don’t get a sense looking back on my career, my teaching career started almost 30 years ago, that I was shaping these minds, who would go out into the wide world, shape outcomes that would correspond to what we discussed in a seminar back in the early 1990s.
I don’t think I ever got that impression. And I think that’s a sign of the times. Maybe it would have been different a few decades earlier.
Petri: You mentioned that you always feel like an outsider. Can you tell something about your past? And I think you’ve been having a bit of a self-discovery journey and you put it in a book.
Razeen: I’m half Sri Lankan, half British. I was born in Colombo, the capital of Sri Lanka. My mother comes from North Wales. My father is a Muslim from Sri Lanka. They met on a ship. My mother went out to Ceylon, as it was then called, to get married in 1961. Then I came along in 1965 and my two younger brothers in the years after. Growing up in Sri Lanka, my childhood there lasted until I was about 13, until the late seventies.
I always felt half, half. Half insider or half outsider. I felt different from my father and my cousins and my uncles and aunts because I never felt completely Sri Lankan. I felt somewhat detached. And then when we went to live in the UK, I certainly didn’t feel completely British.
I felt equally if not more detached and that feeling of being a half outsider, I’ve carried with me throughout my life, wherever I’ve been, wherever I’ve lived. I’m usually looking into what’s happening around me from the outside. Never really feeling a member of the club, full insider as it were. And I’m comfortable with that feeling.
It has its disadvantages, but it has its advantages. Taking a distance, looking at things maybe with clearer eyes and a cooler frame of mind. I attribute a lot of that to Sri Lanka.
You mentioned the voyage of self-discovery. Going back maybe about 15 years, there was a long period from the late seventies until 2006 when I went back to Sri Lanka, very infrequently, only for the odd holiday once every four or five years on average.
Sri Lanka wasn’t a big part of my life for about three decades, but I felt some kind of call to go back from my early forties. Then when I did start going back and the first visit back was in 2006, which was also a few years after my father died. I felt a really powerful pull back to Sri Lanka. I resolved to go back and travel around to reconnect in a sense with my childhood years, which were mainly the 1970s. And to really discover Sri Lanka fresh because I’d seen a limited amount of it as a child and I wanted to see much more.
I started doing a lot of travelling around the Island. I spent a lot of time in Colombo and then when I moved to Singapore, almost nine years ago, it gave me the opportunity to do a lot more travelling and to spend a lot more time in Sri Lanka because it’s only a three and a half hour flight away.
Early on once I started going back, I told myself I really want to write a book about Sri Lanka. But early on, I also told myself, I don’t want to write an academic book about Sri Lanka or a policy book about Sri Lanka. For one thing, I’m not a Sri Lankan expert in that sense. And also I was getting a bit bored with academic, even policy writing.
I wanted to write a writer’s book on Sri Lanka, something less constricted and more free-ranging. Something that could mix together lots of different subjects, history, current affairs, politics, religions, ethnicity, culture, and my own story of growing up in Sri Lanka or being absent. And then coming back.
Once I resolved to write about Sri Lanka, it meant that when I went back and went travelling, I did so much more seriously because I had a purpose. I knew I would have to take lots of notes, talk to people, read up a lot, reflect, and then put pen to paper and eventually come up with a book.
After about a decade of travelling and really very difficult writing, the book came together and was published late last year. It’s labelled a travel memoir Return to Sri Lanka: Travels in a Paradoxical Island where I try to make sense of all of the different facets mentioned. Apart from being a voyage of discovery, I discovered a lot of Sri Lanka and obviously Sri Lankans in the process. It also ended up being a kind of self-discovery. The best kind of travel is when you discover parts of yourself that are perhaps unknown or unfamiliar to you while you’re on the road as I were.
There was a lot of that as well. I discovered a new form of writing. I took to writing more like a writer, a travel writer than as a professor or a policy wonk. I discovered a new love for Sri Lanka that I didn’t realise I had before, a new connection with. I discovered Buddhism and meditation along the way.
That was a parallel journey, Vipassana meditation in particular. Vipassana’s foundation is in original, early Buddhism. It made a big difference in that this spiritual journey happened alongside my travels in Sri Lanka over the last decade.
Sri Lanka is a predominantly Buddhist country. The main ethnicity, the Singhalese are over 70% of the population and the overwhelming majority of them are Buddhists. There’s a singular Buddhist culture in Sri Lanka that is now 2 300 plus years old and there are signs of it everywhere.
That gave my inward journey, an outward connection expression in a way. That’s how I would describe it.
Petri: How has the reception been for the book inside of the country and also from the outside?
Razeen: It’s still relatively early days. This pandemic has thrown a bit of a spanner in the works because I can’t travel to book festivals and do traditional face-to-face book talks. So far, the reception has been very good in Sri Lanka. I had my book launch in Colombo just before the world went into lockdown.
This was in late February. The main reception for the book so far has been from Sri Lankans in Sri Lanka and Sri Lankans in the diaspora around the world. And also from foreigners who have some sort of connection with Sri Lanka. I’ve had what I would consider a very favourable response from these sets of people. What I think has been particularly interesting and gratifying for me is that different people have picked up on different aspects of the book, different passages in the book that resonate with their lives in some form or other.
It could be travelling back beyond places. It could be growing up half/ half, which we talked about earlier. It could be the Buddhist dimension. It could be living as a Sri Lankan abroad and wondering about one’s relationship to the country of one’s birth or one’s ancestry, growing up with multiple identities, Sri Lankan politics, or all of the above.
The people who are going to read the book mostly will have a connection to or some kind of interest in Sri Lanka. I’d like it to reach a wider audience to people who don’t necessarily have a strong connection with Sri Lanka. It’s a travel book and a memoir, and I think there are some themes to do with travel, to do with childhood.
And adult reconnection with childhood, to do with religion, culture, ethnicity more broadly, those themes I do touch on in the book. Those are themes that travel well beyond Sri Lanka. I hope there are some potential readers out there who might latch onto those themes and pick up the book.
Ultimately I hope it is a book about Sri Lanka and, one reason why I would like it to be read beyond Sri Lanka is to get people so far not acquainted or not well acquainted with Sri Lanka, acquainted with it and come to Sri Lanka and discover it because it’s a stunning, beautiful country.
I don’t want to repeat all the tourist cliches about Sri Lanka. The one thing I would say is that I don’t know anywhere else on earth of comparable size that is as stunningly diverse in its landscapes. Its people, its coastlines, its biodiversity, as is Sri Lanka and you see most of that in a blaze of tropical colour, different shades of tropical colour.
You don’t have to travel long distances from one place with a particular combination of landscape, animals, plants, and people to another place a few hours drive away with a very different look and people are generally very welcoming. Sri Lanka reminds me a little bit of Ireland.
Most people are just very warm and welcoming to the foreigner, and makes him or her feel very welcome. As I said, I don’t want to give a tourist advertisement for Sri Lanka. It has many dark sides. It’s not a tropical paradise. What makes it fascinating in addition to what I’ve already mentioned is that it has layers upon layers of complications and paradoxes.
And one thing I tried to do with the journeys and in the book was to tease out some of those paradoxes.
Petri: What is your favourite word?
Razeen: Since we were talking so much about Sri Lanka, my favourite word is serendipity. Serendipity comes from the name the ancient Arab traders gave to Sri Lanka. Probably going back 1500 to 2000 years ago. Serendip is what they’re called ancient Lanka. It was an English writer and essayist, Horace Walpole who saw that word and converted it into serendipity.
And the Oxford dictionary’s definition of serendipity, my paraphrasing here is something like chancing upon something, having an encounter that is happy and beneficial, something spontaneous, something that’s not planned with a happy and beneficial outcome. That’s serendipity. I think that’s my favourite word.
Petri: What is your least favourite word?
Razeen: Like. I hear it far too often as a filler in a sentence. Particularly in the United States where it’s become an epidemic. But it’s travelled from the United States around the world. It dominates in international schools in places like Singapore, where you have big expat bubbles. Everything is like, like, like, and if it’s not a like, it’s you know. So like is my least favourite word.
Petri: What turns you on creatively, spiritually or emotionally?
Razeen: I think the answer I would give now is silence and preferably silence in nature. In a natural environment far away from the madding crowd. I would have given a different answer in previous decades. The more meditation I’ve done, the more I thought about spiritual questions the more I appreciate silence. In other words, true quiet, which gives one space to think, to move, to experience. That’s what I probably treasure most of all, those moments. Particularly those moments in a remote, rural setting.
Petri: What turns you off?
Razeen: Relentless self-promotion.
Petri: Have you been doing that lately?
Razeen: I don’t think I’ve ever been a relentless self-promoter, but I have in the past been a self-promoter. I still am a self-promoter. For example, I want my book to be read by as many people as possible given the effort I put into writing it. That’s a form of self-promotion, but I think one of the traits of modern society exacerbated by the Internet and social media is the compulsion to constantly promote oneself in all sorts of ways. And I just find it so shallow, tacky and character deforming. I see the products of it all around. And I try to check myself if I find myself going too far in that direction. Ultimately, it’s just very boring.
Petri: What is your favourite curse word?
Razeen: Bugger. Now, this is very culture bummed. The British, the English. It’s a rather muted curse word unlike someone could mention. But if you’re annoyed with something, if you’re on a certain generation in Britain, you might say bugger just as you do still, even with younger generations in some of the old British colonies now independent like Sri Lanka.
I grew up with hearing that word around me. Bugger not meant in any sense sexually, but just as a form of annoyance. Sometimes even as a way of teasing someone or as a kind of term of endearment, you bugger. If you take it out of that specific cultural context, of course, it can be misread and lead to unfortunate consequences.
Petri: What sound or noise do you love?
Razeen: I’ve been spending a bit of time in Japan just in the last three to three and a half years. I’ve been to Kyoto five times in three and a half years. My first visit was just three and a half years ago. Kyoto has rapidly become perhaps my favourite city in the world. I would love to live in Kyoto and travel around Japan for six months to a year at some stage.
But live in Kyoto. And Kyoto was the capital of Japan for a thousand years. It’s very much older Japan, classical Japan, and it’s full of temples and temple gardens, and I visited many. My favourites being the Zen temples of Tokyo. I think I visited about 30. I have a list. In some of these exquisite temple gardens, you find water running down a small stream, or sometimes just dripping from a perfectly placed leaf off a fountain going plop plop. Hearing the sound of water in that kind of setting is one of my ideas of heaven.
Petri: What sound or noise do you hate?
Razeen: Everybody talking or shouting at the same time with no one listening. That’s familiar from Sri Lanka. Sri Lankans, indeed a lot of South Asians are incessant talkers. They love to talk all the time. They’re not that great at listening and they love to talk and interrupt while other people are talking at the same time.
Petri: What profession other than your own would you like to attempt?
Razeen: Global vagabond is what I would like to be as an alternative professional. Someone just wandering around the world with plenty of time on his hands.
Petri: What profession would you not like to do?
Razeen: A full-time academic turning out useless publications that hardly anybody reads.
Petri: If you could be a co-founder of any startup in any era, which one would you choose?
Razeen: I would choose a charitable organisation or a social enterprise in Sri Lanka today.
Petri: Thank you, Razeen. This has been a trip around the world on many levels.
Razeen: Thank you very much, Petri, for asking those questions and piloting that trip around our virtual world.