This article is part of a new column on “Asian Values”, where we explore ideas that we take for granted as being inherent to our Singaporean identity.
‘Innovation’ would be a fair guess, and you probably can’t go wrong with a perennial favourite like ‘resilience’. However, I would wager my CPF on ‘pragmatism’, a word that shows no signs of retiring despite its age.
You see it everywhere. ‘Pragmatism’ is a mainstay in minister speeches, ST opinion articles, and internet comments. Whenever a new policy is proposed or a controversial decision made, you can be sure someone will emerge to defend X’s merits on the grounds of ‘pragmatism’.
To find an example or nine, simply open your eyes. Singapore’s approach to foreign policy is described as ‘pragmatic’, as is our attitude towards the death sentence, socioeconomic inequality, public housing, casino building, LGBT issues, economic development and—in one bizarre detour—iris-scanning for immigration checkpoints.
Many a minister have reiterated pragmatism’s golden principle of ‘focusing on outcomes’ and academics like Kishore Mahbubani have cited pragmatism as the cause for all that’s good and holy about Singapore.
To them, pragmatism is the best thing since sliced bread.
So forgive my scepticism when I say that we should be wary of messianic governing philosophies that promise to cure everything with no side effects. There’s nothing wrong with the idea of a ‘pragmatic government’, until you take a closer look and realise that ‘pragmatism’ is just elitism with better PR.
As PM Lee puts it, a “pragmatic and non-ideological” government is “willing to try anything that works to improve social mobility … but it must also be realistic”.
This all sounds very reasonable, but it’s not.
In theory, pragmatism appears to be virtue incarnate, containing the best-of-all-worlds. In practice, however, pragmatism simply silences all but our elite.
Firstly, Singapore’s pragmatism is often nothing more than an euphemism for ‘pro-business’, ‘authoritarian’, ‘conservative’, and other politically suicidal phrases. When the government says that we should adopt a ‘pragmatic’ approach to ‘LGBTQ rights’, it really just means they don’t want to piss off religious and/or conservative groups.
After all, ‘doing what’s best for the country’ always ‘works’.
However, to do what’s best for the nation, you must first know what’s best for the nation. The P word is hence extremely important because it implies that some Oxbridge-educated civil servant has really done the math on repealing 377A, thus legitimising important decisions.
There is tacit agreement that every ‘pragmatic’ decision is a thoughtful one based on cost-benefit analysis, statistics, real-world experience, case studies, and other sources of information beyond the comprehension of a layman.
Yet most people are not senior civil servants. They have no access to the processes or the information used to make such a decision. They can only argue from principle, which pragmatism excludes from consideration.
This leads us to the main problem: pragmatism is an inherently elitist approach to government.
As Professor Kenneth Paul Tan writes in his thesis The Ideology Of Pragmatism, it has the “forceful effect of closing off any further inquiry or debate”.
Take for example the aforementioned problem of social mobility and meritocracy. In a CNA report, our PM dismissed the idea of a Universal Basic Income because it did not work in Finland. He also dismissed abolishing PSLE because it is “very hard to do”. To conclude, he said that “there are no easy solutions” to the problem of inequality, and that the government “must focus on practical, effective policies”.
In other words, Universal Basic Income and abolishing PSLE are impractical and therefore ineffective.
Sorry, but what is a ‘practical, effective policy’ then? Why is abolishing PSLE very hard to do? What is unrealistic about our desire for more social mobility?
No answers are given because none are required. By framing the debate as one of realistic/unrealistic or practical versus impractical, PM lee is creating an unfair battleground where the government can never lose. Who but a Permanent Secretary can possibly know if abolishing PSLE is easy or hard to implement? Only a Minister gets to define ‘practical’ and since we are a one-party state, pragmatism means that the government will always get the final say on any issue.
For an impassioned lay critic of PSLE, this is incredibly frustrating because no argument you make will ever be valid. When good and bad becomes practical and impractical, the minister’s final word is law.
Likewise for other issues like LGBT rights, the casinos, Budget 2018, and eyeball-scanning in airports.
In almost all cases, pragmatism serves as an excuse to plaster over disruptive opinions and dissenting voices that cannot be refuted. When pragmatism is evoked, it effectively kills the debate. It is pointless to argue because you have no access to the bureaucratic logic that deems casinos highly ‘practical’ while dismissing LGBTQ rights as an idealisitc impossibility.
In short, it is the rhetorical equivalent of moving your toy to a higher shelf so your brother can’t reach it.
Or as Professor Tan summarises in his research: “[it] privileges Singapore’s technocratic mode of governance over political and democratic modes, so that the practice of administration—portrayed as expert, technical, scientiﬁc, rational, value-free and pragmatic—can enjoy protection from political and ideological contestation.” (emphasis mine)
I don’t think so.
In my opinion, it is neither good nor bad. In Singapore, it simply means deferring responsibility for national decisions to an elite who is ‘better qualified’ and ‘expert’.
However, a pragmatic decision is only as good as the person making it, and I don’t think that anyone can be purely ‘objective’. No man, however highly-paid or well-educated, is without his prejudices, political bias, and self-interest.
And that’s why I find pragmatism incredibly problematic. When deployed in politics, it has the effect of silencing debate, dismissing criticism, and allowing the government free rein. Any decision they make can be justified on the grounds of ‘pragmatism’ because no one has the ability to truly contest vague claims like ‘long-term perspective’ or ‘finding the right balance’.
Any opposition from non-governmental actors—however sensible—can likewise be dismissed for lacking the bureaucratic rigour of ‘pragmatism’.
This is the reason why our government is often perceived as arrogant, and why I raise a skeptical eyebrow whenever pragmatism is arbitrarily used to justify X or Y. You can call it a governing ‘philosophy’, but it’s hardly a fair or transparent one when the logic behind every decision boils down to ‘Trust me, I went to Harvard/Oxbridge’.
These days, the average citizen is better educated and more skeptical.
We are less tolerant of condescension and elitism, and most do not take kindly to patronising PR-speak. So perhaps the pragmatic option would be to retire pragmatism, and just call a pro-business or socially-conservative policy by its real name, warts and all.