Promoting Thought Leadership in Asia: Time for Something Disruptive?

Thought Leadership

What is Thought Leadership, really?

I personally don’t really know how this term was coined. Wikipedia says the idea is seen to be inherently contradictory. Apparently, the political scientist Daniel W. Drezner thinks it is an oxymoron, saying that public intellectuals are supposed to cultivate opposing views and ambiguities while on the other hand thought leaders tend to develop their own singular lens to explain the world. Some even opined that the term is a meaningless management speak.

But does it matter, if I can use it to illustrate a thought of mine?

Many universities in Asia now rank amongst the top in the world; they are making waves in many fields, especially in Science, Medicine and Technology. But Liberal Arts education, in the form that is being promoted like at Yale-NUS and a number of European style university colleges in China and elsewhere, is still glaringly lacking. What’s so special about these university colleges?

First and foremost, their class sizes are usually very small. The emphasis is not really on teaching per se; rather, they stress LEARNING.  Learning with their professors, lecturers, tutors, and cohort.  Many universities require candidates wanting to do degrees in Law and Medicine to first equip themselves with a basic degree. Maturity matters in these courses, I suppose. Intellect also needs a matured mind to flourish.

I do not mean to say there is a shortage of thinkers in Asia. I am not a good reader and have only browsed through Kishore Mahbubani’s Can Asians Think? casually. I thought the title was a little too condescending when I first saw it in a bookstore. But I think it deserves a closer read. Mahbubani is a classic example of what a thought leader is!

However, I believe that Asia, because of its economic success, is now gripped by materialism, ostentatiousness, greed and obliviousness towards others. And all this, like smoke, has billowed upwards to become the norm among many leaders in Asia. As a result, huge, many a time obscene, fortunes are being built without conscience or humanity. Leaders who steal from their people do not feel any shame at all and their sycophants, many of whom are well educated, have no qualms becoming these leaders’ “eunuchs”. With this trend becoming the emergent culture, Asia cannot hope to become a centre of greatness or exemplariness.

Many respected intellectuals in Asia are beginning to argue that economic revival in Asia must be supported by a corresponding cultural-intellectual reinvigoration in order to sustain growth and good social order. Asians should draw on their own cultural and intellectual heritage, and, at the same time, learn and borrow from the West with an open and inquisitive mind.

With the advent of MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) and other online learning tools, knowledge has become more accessible to more people. High-quality education contents shared generously by reputable academic institutions make quality education affordable to those who have the determination and curiosity to enrich themselves intellectually.

I believe one of the ways to begin the process of developing and nurturing more thought leaders in the region is to design a programme, for instance, a “Masters in Thought Leadership”; a blended programme facilitated through MOOCs and complimented by a face-to-face residential component called “Learning with Thinkers”. The onsite element is an opportunity to invite interested young men and women to be part of the Asian reinvigoration, where they interact with thinkers and experts from various fields. It is a kind of “cognitive apprenticeship” where the programme participants observe, question and learn the process of how experts think, address problems, write and articulate why they do what they do.

The academic content can include subjects from the arts and humanities, social sciences, life sciences, data science and technology, as well as environmental and social sustainability. Specific courses in these domains can range from both traditional and contemporary topics. For the residential component, topics could be anything that is thought-provoking and ethical. Let’s pick for example a topic, “The role of the Internet in shaping history”. An expert thinker’s way of thinking through (assumption is the thinker has started his life before the advent of the Internet) and sharing his varying points of view on this topic might be quite different from the programme participant who is now born into the digital world.  This is where the aspiring thinker can learn from the “expert thinkers”.

To sum it up, a confident individual, full of purpose in life, extremely contemplative and ethical, and always ready to help change the world is who we look for to come on “board” the Master’s in thought leader“ship”!

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