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The ugly side of pragmatism May 11, 2011

Posted by laïcité in Politics, Singapore, Society.
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6 comments

Over the past few weeks leading up to the elections, I’ve found that one word seems to be mentioned a lot by PAP supporters: pragmatism.  Even the PAP itself is an embodiment of pragmatism. In contrast to other political parties that bring up the idealistic notions of “human rights”, “first world parliament” and “freedom of speech”, the PAP is a party that espouses the practical notions of stability, efficiency and economic progress on a national level. Going by the election results, it seems that most Singaporeans still identify with this pragmatic approach to governance.

At face value, pragmatism isn’t all that bad. When lofty ideals and academic theories are brushed aside in favour of policies that deliver the goods in real life, who can really complain when wealth and development are achieved at such a fast pace? Singapore itself is a testament to the power of pragmatism – in a mere half a century, it has become an economic and technological success, thanks to the pragmatic approach of ignoring (or silencing) critics and bulldozing ahead with policies in an unhindered manner not unlike a dictatorship.

But pragmatism is simply a means to an end, not an end in itself. Pragmatism has succeeded in bringing our country from third world to first (economically, at least,) but then…. what? Is this all there is? Money? At the end of the day, we live in an exceedingly wealthy country. Most of us would be considered among the richest people in the world. But are we the happiest? Do we have the best quality of life? How much of our happiness, our sense of empathy, our humanity, have we compromised in the pursuit of wealth?

“Pragmatism” has simply become an euphemism for the ideals that we are willing to compromise, and the ugly traits we are willing to take on, all in the name of pursuing wealth. As long as an approach has a “pragmatic” label stuck onto it, it suddenly becomes legitimate, never mind that it goes against basic human rights, our own sense of morality, or even personal dignity.

As long as the ends always justify the means, there is nothing wrong with putting political dissidents in jail or suing them to the point of bankruptcy. Never mind the right to free speech, never mind the benefits of the marketplace of ideas, never mind the injustice done to people who have not even done anything wrong. As long it makes us politically and financially stable, it’s all okay, right?

As long as we hold pragmatism dear, there is no problem with having economic investments in Burma, directly or indirectly supporting the military junta. Who cares about Burma, who cares about the lives of the average Burmese people, who cares if they ever attain democracy? Our GIC makes money from them! Who cares if we’re economically on semi-friendly terms with North Korea? Money is money, right? We’re not being selfish or money-centric, we’re being pragmatic!

As long as pragmatism remains the ultimate goal, why should anyone care about anyone else? Notions of helping the poor escape the poverty cycle, or ensuring that the working class get a decent wage, or protecting the rights of the marginalized have  become too idealistic for the pragmatic Singaporean to consider. What’s more important are the practical issues: HDB upgrading, making sure my kid scores As in school, getting a promotion at work, making more money. Rights, freedoms and empathy have become the furthest things from our minds.

Perhaps this is because our society has become so “meritocratic”, so cutthroat that it now becomes pragmatic to see the world as every man for himself. Or perhaps this efficient, fast paced society has alienated us from each other, making us lose the will to empathise with each other – an attribute that is such an intrinsic part of our humanity. Ultimately, what makes a country liveable has less to do with its GDP, but more to do with what it does with its wealth. There is nothing pragmatic or desirable about a dog-eat-dog society that only aims to make its rich richer.

As I watched the PAP colors fill up the Singapore map graphics during the elections, what disappointed me most wasn’t the fact that the PAP would be in near parliamentary hegemony again for the next 5 years. Instead, what I was most dismayed by was the fact that given a choice between the status quo and an idealized future, 60% of Singaporeans were too pragmatic to even give idealism a chance.

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