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Pragmatitis

This article was first posted on The Offline Citizen.

by Joshua Chiang

You can’t always get what you want. But if you try sometimes, you might find you get what you need.

- Mick Jagger

Everyone makes compromises. It cannot be helped. That’s life. Unless you are a dogmatic idealist, you will find out sooner or later that reality often charts its own course stubbornly refusing to conform to anyone’s vision of what the world should be.

Pragmatism is a philosophical movement that includes those who claim that an ideology or proposition can be said to be true if and only if it works satisfactorily, that the meaning of a proposition is to be found in the practical consequences of accepting it, and that impractical ideas are to be rejected. (source: Wikipedia)

I have always believed that one should not adhere too blindly to any ideology. The worst evils in the world were often caused by the most committed ideologues. Far better is it to see the world as it is, and work around the constraints of the real world.

So why it is that nowadays, the mere mention of the word ‘pragmatism’ is enough to make me feel as if someone has insulted my mother? (Ok, let’s justpretend that I am not one who is easily offended for the moment)

“Being ever so pragmatic, our approach to racial integration is a healthy mix of tolerance with active promotion of the value of common destiny – to achieve happiness, prosperity and progress for our nation.”

- ‘Do it the Singapore Way‘ ST Forum (Feb 8 2011)

If there’s a word commonly used to describe our Government, (apart from the ‘D’ word) it is ‘pragmatic’. And for some reason, we have become a pragmatic society as well. “When you have a family to feed and bills to pay, pragmatism suddenly looks a lot more appealing,” wrote a friend on my Facebook wall.

I think it is not too far-fetched to say that ‘pragmatism’ has become etched into our national psyche. More interestingly, we have created our own brand of pragmatism. American economist Bryan Caplan once compared the pragmatism practiced in Singapore with what's practiced in the US:

In the United States, he said, pragmatism was synonymous with populism. The pragmatist does not commit political suicide by force-feeding policies, no matter how sound, to a hostile public.

In Singapore, however, pragmatism takes on the exact opposite meaning. No matter what the polls say, a programme will be implemented based on a sober assessment of its merits.

- from a Straits Times article

He went on to describe Singapore’s brand of pragmatism as virtually a synonym for utilitarianism. So far so good. Political realities in both countries are very different. For reasons I do not want to go into, we seem to be able to put up with unpopular policies more.

But here’s the catch – What is reality?

If we can agree that an ultimate reality lies beyond the understanding of most people, and practically everyone has an incomplete picture of the world depending on where’s he/she’s standing at that point in time, then the next question is – who defines our reality?

Is it the person who insists on his perceptions as being the only hard truths that would keep Singapore from going ahead?

Before you go, “Of course not! I am my own man!” Think again. Think of what the word ‘pragmatism’ means to you. Then think of what the word ‘idealism’ means to you. If you have a somewhat negative reaction to ‘idealism’ then you may wanna stop and consider if you have become afflicted by the disease of ‘pragmatitis’. Pragmatitis is the belief that pragmatism as defined in the Singapore context is the only way we can survive. It is also a belief that for its lack of humaneness Singapore pragmatism is efficient and effective, and policies are made based on a sober assessment of all the information available.

Unfortunately, if you have pragmatitis, you have bought into a myth.

Singapore pragmatism, like any ‘-isms’ is an ideology, and its adherents equally stubborn. If I ask you to list down what you think are our decision makers’ sacred cows, you may have come up with a list that includes – no welfarism, mandatory death penalty for drug traffickers, GDP as the benchmark of progress, no national symbols on swimming trunks, etc.

It doesn’t matter. The fact is, the sacred cows exist!

All these sacred cows are based on premises decided upon by the ones in power. It is how they see the world – and they aren’t even necessarily the people with the most accurate information! It doesn’t necessarily mean that the world is such.

For example, the presence of the mandatory death penalty is based on the premise of deterrence. The big question is – how accurate is this assessment that death penalty is a better deterrent than no death penalty? Without any research or comparative studies done, your guess is as good as mine. Please don’t confuse unexamined beliefs with facts.

So the big question is really whether the reality that the incumbents see, and want you to believe are in fact real. Does materialism really bring happiness? Is the desire for freedom really nothing but a human construct? If that is so, then how do you explain people who are poor but happy? Why do people who we generally acknowledge as have much greater insights into the human condition often talk about compassion, respect for human dignity, as the ingredients of creating a happy society and not rely on bread alone? Who do you think has a firmer grasp of reality? Who do you think are the true pragmatists?

If happiness is the goal of all human beings, and that one of the pre-requisite for greater happiness in the individual and the collective is a shift away from a self-centered materialistic culture towards a more selfless, fairer, more democratic, more compassionate society, then isn’t it unpragmatic to not do so?

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The writer is also the Chief Editor of The Online Citizen. When he is not busy writing for The Online Citizen, he moonlights as a blogger for The Offline Citizen in which he posts stuff not related to TOC. Recently he's been finding the lines increasingly blurred.