The dean of the Lee Kuan Yee School of Public Policy, National University of Singapore, was speaking at the concluding Asia 20/20 session at the Asia Society Conference in Mumbai on Monday.
"The current world order was created by the United States and it is being benign enough to allow Asian nations to do well," he continued. "But why will it allow India or China to become leaders easily?"
This vital issue of geopolitics came at a time in the conference when everyone had been very optimistic about China-India relations and how both countries could even, possibly, go into the sunset together. But as moderator Vishaka Desai, president of the Asia Society, said, the idea of this session was to highlight what had not been discussed at the previous sessions at the conference.
Purnendu Chatterjee, chairman of the Chatterjee Group, said India and China could, despite other considerations, look at collaborating with one another as global leaders. The problem, he said, would be that the losers in the West "will not lose quietly."
Ronnie Chan, the Hong Kong-based chairman of the Hang Lung Group, who had been playing the role of sceptic throughout the conference, questioning India as much as China, spoke about ideological barriers. "I have never met a Communist in China, not even a socialist," he joked, before elaborating how ideological barriers have fallen in that country, increasing confidence. "But in India, there is a disinvestment ministry, which makes me wonder why ideological barriers still exist," he questioned. In India, he said, the problem is not economics but politics.
Dr Mahbubani agreed with the point on self-confidence -- "Asian synergies were fuelled when Japan woke up and said, 'I can do whatever anyone else is doing' and each country followed its example."
Chan also brought up the issue of democracy in India versus Communist central rule in China, which had become a point of argument during an earlier interaction with Bo Xilai, the Chinese commerce minister. China, Chan pointed out, has had 3,000 years of central rule as against India, which has never experienced anything similar.
"Democracy in its Western, liberal form will not work in China," Chan said. "The government right now is benign and China is moving toward an open, pluralistic society."
The problem, Chan said, is when "doctors like Uncle Sam, who do not know the patient, prescribe democracy as the cure for all ills."
Dr Mahbubani also spoke about the importance of Asia giving up looking at the world through "Western spectacles." "A young Indian would rather go to London to find his fortune than look towards Beijing or Shanghai," he said. "Young Asians need to realise that their destinies lie with their Asian neighbours."
Another vital point of this lively, well-attended debate, which was peppered with wit, was that with India and China eclipsing attention, other key players have been sidelined. The US, Russia and other Asian countries cannot be forgotten, the panel cautioned.
"Russia is yet to decide whether it is part of Eastern Europe, of Asia or a nation all on its own," said Dr Mahbubani. "And even as we speak, debates rage in Washington about whether the US must stop China's growth."
He, however, added that what would stop extremist steps from any country would be the realisation that in the globalised world, "if one country does not succeed, we all have problems."
"We need to watch very carefully who the next caretaker of the world will be," he said.