Is it possible that Singapore is just too Pragmatic for its own good?

December 27, 2010

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It goes without saying, politics is all about power. Try as we may, we can neither negotiate or run away from this harsh reality. But how this power is defined, what philosophy guides its usage is the crux of the matter in this sharing. And when we speak about power in the context of Singapore Inc, one word dominates the field of possibilities squeezing out all others –

PRAGMATISM! And this brings into sharp focus the question: are we too pragmatic?

The cult of pragmatism hardly requires any elaboration in Singapore. You could even say pragmatism in all it endless shapes and forms (some even reduce us all into lesser mortals) permeates every aspect of life in Singapore. And as a metaphor, ideology and philosophy, pragmatism has become one of the same reality as the PAP – ironically, the quintessential guiding force that explains pragmatism is best summed up not in a Singapore idiom, but one that is Deng Xio Peng onced used,

“Black cat, white cat – what does it matter? Providing it catches mice.”

Implicit within the idea of pragmatism is the feudal concept of power. This is because when a word is taken out of its dictionary meaning and elevated to the upper reaches of a political science, it’s not so different from trying to sail around the world in a bath tub or using a washing machine to mix concrete – for that nutty idea to work (notice even the communist have relegated Deng’s idiom into the dustbin of history), it is first necessary to marginalize principles in the name of solving problems. Consequently the idea of pragmatism requires the destruction of principles, ideology and any higher philosophy – as to promote expediency efficiently, it is first necessary to do any away with principles. Now you understand why soundbite culture has managed to root itself so successfully into the social political culture of Singapore; instead of whole narratives which are supposed to provide an exhaustive account of why this or that policy is required; politicians are not only able to hide under the cloak of pragmatism whenever they are lazy to flesh out the rationale of policies – and since pragmatism doesn’t have any ideology to speak of, the political class is able to get away with mere vignettes, nanobites and sometimes even animal grunts.

To reframe the question therefore whenever we consider whether pragmatism should be dispensed? We are ineffect asking whether it makes more sense to premise Singapore on principles or is it better to base the decision making process on what is expedient using the trade off analysis and the cost & benefit calculus?

This question acquires a renewed edge especially when one considers how pragmatism when it is elevated to a political and social science in Singapore seems to be creating more problems than it solves in the face of globalization – this is at least how I see it. I could however be wrong of course, then again, I could be right. 

Consider for example the GINI coefficient which is an index that measures the divide between the have’s and have not’s; and consider how policy makers continue to eschew at every turn and opportunity the negative side effects of income inequality as a “necessary cost” of globalization – one may even take issue with how pragmatism has mesmerized so many policy makers to pursue the idea of privatization blindly without due consideration to the broader social questions, even when it fails to produce any discernible benefits to the tax payer – what for example is the point of privatizing wet markets when all it does is create optimum conditions for prices to be raised thus exacerbating inflation for those who are already economically challenged? And is it possible that some state services such as healthcare and transport should not even be privatized in the first place as ideally they should run at a lost as these will always be social services in any society that values principles above pragmatism? – the question then arises – have we taken the idea of pragmatism too far? Or worse still has the pragmatic approach morphed into just another one of many ways to justify and legitimize the turning of profit even if it produces grief? Is it time for us to consider buying into a governing ideology, philosophy or a set of principles to temper the stream roller approach of pragmatism that only focussed on efficiency and effectiveness and discounts all else?

Perhaps it is time for us to reconsider before it is too late?   


“My young apprentice…Our German friends have come up with a new toy, it is the latest in digital immersion technology – the idea is to put one into the folds of history. It is still in the prototype stage…but let us switch it on.”

“It is the signing of the Bill of Rights….but it is so real master”

“So it is apprentice. Have you asked yourself why the founding fathers went through the fuss of codifying certain rights? Bear in mind these were not a bunch of people who were just growing cotton and fermenting moonshine in their backyard. These were intelligent folk, they were well read and men of the letters, who knew only too well the moment, they put on paper certain rights…then those rights would be considered elemental…that means neither the executive, legislature or even the judiciary can negotiate them. There is nothing pragmatic here, as it is akin the tying one hand behind the backs of government…..yet they did it nonetheless – so you have to ask why apprentice? Maybe they knew only too well the limits of the human condition; they especially knew how crafty the political mind can be. Because given half a chance, there will never be a shortage of reasons and justifications not keep to principles; there will never be a shortage of people who will say, we need to suspend this or that for the greater good – but I think above all else the founding fathers knew that certain rights will always be timeless and universal, it matters little whether you live in the age of candle or the incandescent light bulb; but freedom denied in any age is freedom denied, so these men knew that the only safeguard against abuse was by putting principles before what is expedient – in Singapore, we find this inconceivable as we are constantly told changes are inevitable and that we have to be realistic and pragmatic and accept these changes for better or for worse. But what these men were trying to do was say, not all progress is necessarily progress. There is a metaphysical dimension here, a Faustian irony even.”

“Yes, I see your point master, one where they recognize that to live a purpose driven life, men will always need to put principles before what is expedient…..tell me why do you allow our German friends to spend so much money making over the top holograms.”

“Yes, you are right, it is not very pragmatic. But its fun…it seems…”

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