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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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What the elites (or rather, elitists) think April 30, 2011

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

This morning I woke up to a rather offensive post on my facebook newsfeed. It was made by an ex-schoolmate of mine who had gone to the same junior college as me. (If it matters, said JC had somewhat of an “elite” reputation, ahem)

80 percent of those voting for the opposition are ignorant hypocrites sour about their failures in life deciding to blame their inadequacies on the pap.

What was worse was the number of people who “liked” it within minutes, and the people who voiced their agreement. Not being able to restrain myself from butting in, I hastily typed out a reply and left for school.

By the end of the day, I saw that 17 people had “liked” the original elitist post. Unfortunately the original poster had deleted the post before I had the sense to screengrab it again.

So is this what the more privileged people in Singapore really believe? That they got where they are merely through their own hard work, and that those who are not able to live comfortably in Singapore deserve their fates as a result of their own stupidity and laziness? Are all elites elitists?

Now, before I end up shooting myself in the foot here, let me just clearly state that some people may classify me as privileged, and I wouldn’t disagree. I am fully aware that as someone who doesn’t live in public housing, whose family finances have never really come under threat, and who has the opportunity to do postgraduate studies abroad, that I am a very fortunate Singaporean. But that’s just it: I’m fortunate. Lucky enough to be born at the right place and time. I know full well that if I had been born into different circumstances: if I had to work after school or if I didn’t have the resources to help with my studies, I would probably be in a very different situation right now. Hard work and intelligence play but a minute role; even in our “meritocratic” society, the social and economic stratum into which you are born still plays a significant role in deciding how successful you are in life.

Which is why I found the initial comment so offensively elitist. If you are lucky enough to be born into a comfortable life and you can’t be bothered to try to fight for social equality or give back to society, the very least you can do is just shut up and be happy. Be thankful that you had the luxury of time to study and pursue your interests, be appreciative that you get to enjoy the fruits of your parents’ or grandparents’ labor, and be glad Dad’s business contacts or Mom’s law firm gave you the opportunity to do internships and build up your CV.

But a few (not all) elites can’t seem to simply be happy and shut up. Instead, comments like the above come about when one gains a sense of entitlement, and starts to believe the meritocratic myth that all successful people deserve their successes, and that logically, those who are visibly less well off are suffering due to their own personal failings. Being poor has become God’s (or Karma’s) punishment for being lazy and stupid.

Of course there are people who are unsuccessful in life because of laziness and/or stupidity, and of course there are many successful people who got there because of sheer hard work and ingenuity.  But to argue that the status quo is perfect and fair is simply naivety, and to accuse those unhappy with the status quo of being responsible for their own failures is simply elitism at its finest. The sad truth is that meritocracy in Singapore is imperfect. The sadder truth is that the disconnect between the average Singaporean and a privileged one is wide enough for the latter to make such comments and be proud of it.

Who will the moderates choose? April 26, 2011

Posted by laïcité in Liberalism v Conservativism, Politics, Religion, Singapore.
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7 comments

It’s already a given that hard-line conservatives will come running to Vivian Balakrishnan’s call to arms when he decided to bring up the issue of Vincent Wijeysingha’s sexual orientation and the accusation that the SDP has a “gay agenda”. It doesn’t matter if it was an ad hominem attack and it doesn’t matter if the PAP attempts to retract his statements. His message has already been sent and it rings clearly in the hearts and minds of staunch conservative Christians: your fellow believer needs your vote, especially now that he is running against a homosexual.

On the other end of the political spectrum, I’m sure that this incident of Vivian rearing his ugly homophobic head has pretty much secured the vote for the opposition for the liberal-inclined residents of Holland-Bukit Timah. Any apprehension or indecision about who to vote for has pretty much disappeared for these people. The answer is now simple: vote for those who did not resort to underhanded, sneaky, homophobia-motivated religiously-aligned smear campaigns to direct attention away from questions about their own competence.

But despite the huge wave of criticisms against Vivian’s gutter politics that has suddenly taken over the internet, and despite the real and scary threat of a growing hard-line conservative streak amongst the Christian elite, I’m convinced that these people make up but a minority of residents. The people who really hold the fate of Holland-Bukit Timah in their hands are not the gay activists or the Thio Li-Ann’s, but the religious and social moderates who are now finding themselves having to make a real choice for the first time.

In any other elections, these moderates would be politically apathetic or slight PAP-leaning, content with the status quo that lets them live in relative comfort. But now that Vivian has resorted to such unsavoury tactics, their educated, rational minds can no longer reconcile with what their PAP candidate is spouting out: making irrelevant insinuations about the opponent’s sexual orientation, oblique and clandestine remarks about an “agenda”, and rambling innuendos accusing the opponent of having something to hide. It’s now not as simple as voting for the status quo anymore

If you are a social/religious moderate from Holland-Bukit Timah, I implore you to make your choice wisely. Yes, on the one hand, you may have been brought up to believe homosexuality is wrong, and perhaps you still do. But on the other hand, surely you don’t believe that one’s sexual orientation has any bearing on one’s ability to be a good MP, and of course you don’t believe the right-wing conservatives’ fearmongering attempts to associate homosexuality with paedophilia. Moreover, surely you see through the personal attacks and insinuations and realize that Vivian has simply dodged criticisms against him and has yet again avoided a direct confrontation with the opposition in the form of a debate.

Now that religion and sexual orientation have been brought into politics, there are many more pertinent questions to ask yourself – magnitudes of importance greater than a single candidate’s sexual orientation:

  • Do you think religious-secular relations in Singapore will ever be the same again if Vivian’s actions are not only condoned, but rewarded in the form of voting him into parliament?
  • Do you think the 377A issue is really more important that the issues of the growing income gap between rich and poor or the generous monetary rewards given to ministers despite their glaring inadequacies? Are you willing to let Vivian’s strategy of misdirection and pandering to homophobia work in making you forget about these issues?

I trust and believe that most of the people in Holland-Bukit Timah have maturity and intellect to see what is really going on here. This is their chance to step up and show the rest of us what they will and will not tolerate in politics. I am nervous but eager to see who the Holland-Bukit Timah residents will choose, for it will be telling of just how much (or how little) religious persuasion influences politics and its resulting strain on the secular public sphere.

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