Fearfully Opinionated

April 8, 2011

The PAP’s ideology is that they don’t believe in ideologies…or don’t they?

Filed under: Uncategorized — fearfullyopinionated @ 12:32 am

In my previous blog post, I outlined one of PM Lee’s arguments on why voters should choose PAP.  One of his key premises of the argument is this: “the PAP is a pragmatic party, and is ready to take in all good ideas”.  This is a very powerful claim, if indeed believed to be true.  It implies that if you have an idea contrary to the PAP’s, then it’s probably not a good idea, because if it is a good idea the PAP would have adopted it.  How can the PAP lay hold of such a powerful claim?  It is because the PAP is pragmatic, they say. Let’s unpack this a little further.

[I am aware that long time political observers will find the following ideas unoriginal.  I apologize for not shedding any new insight.  Nevertheless, I do think it is useful for all of us to think carefully about the pragmatic culture that the PAP endorses, especially for those who have not been exposed to such ideas before]

What does being pragmatic mean? It means not subscribing to any one ideology, but by doing whatever works.  This has always been the mantra of MM Lee, and this philosophy has shaped the PAP, the Singapore government, and the Singapore Civil Service since our very earliest beginnings.  When the PAP was first formed in 1954, Mr Lee Kuan Yew allied himself with communists and persuaded he was one of them to ride on their popular support to become secretary-general of the PAP.  However, he would later use the “communism threat” as the rationale for the detention of several political figures without trial during Operation Coldstore in 1963.  Was Mr Lee a communist?  Of course not.  It was pragmatic to ally with the communists in 1954, hence he allied with them.  It was pragmatic to be at war with them in the early 1960s, hence he became their enemy.

Another illustration which is closer to current times:  in the Kent Ridge Ministerial Forum Q&A, a student asked PM Lee why the residents in Hougang were not treated as well as residents in PAP wards.  I think PM Lee attempted to spin his reply  in such a way that made it seem like it was out of obligation to citizens who voted for the PAP.  But a spade is a spade.  The PAP government does not upgrade flats at Hougang and Potong Pasir because it is pragmatic for them not to do so.  By maintaining such a stand, they force voters in Hougang and Potong Pasir to consider harder about voting for the PAP, meanwhile this policy has cost them little votes (so far anyway) in the other constituencies.  Should the majority of the populace one day decide that such a stand by the PAP is unjust and this would cost the PAP to seriously lose votes, rest assured they will upgrade the flats.  It is only pragmatic that they do so.

Yet another example: 377A.  Does the PAP government hold any ideological belief that homosexuals are horrible people, or that they deserve to be liberated on basis of their inalienable human rights?  Hardly.  377A is one of those policies that people care very much about, but is of little value to nation’s strategic interest.  The PAP government just has to make the judgement call: if I repeal 377A will I lose votes?  If yes, then I will retain 377A.  If X years down the road the people change their mind, retaining 377A will make me lose votes, then I will repeal it.  It is only pragmatic that I do so.  This is where you get the “society is not ready for it yet” argument.  This was why 4 years ago I blogged that if gay activists really want to help their cause they shouldn’t be trying to convince the government by demonstrating and signing petitions, they should be trying to convince the common populace that homosexuals are normal humans too.

The lack of ideological preference in the PAP is pretty obvious.  Yet, if one is sharp, one will realize that the claim that the PAP does not subscribe to any ideology is an inaccurate one.  They do subscribe to an ideology.  Pragmatism is their ideology.  I do not think the PAP will adopt any policy which would have unfavorable outcomes (i.e. not pragmatic) but furthers the cause of justice, liberty, or whatsoever ideal.  Some political commentators have talked about Singapore needing to progress into a more mature democracy.  The PAP does not believe in any “progressiveness” or any “maturity” or any “democracy”.  There is only one right way of doing things.  The pragmatic way.  And surely that is the best way.  Because it produces the best outcomes, and we don’t need to devote resources chasing ideologies that do not result in positive outcomes.  “Positive outcomes” is the most important thing to the PAP, and not abstract values or ideals.  Ideologically speaking, this is a form of utilitarianism.  The PAP’s ideology sharpens into focus some more.

No doubt the ideology of pragmatism has served the PAP well for decades.  But looking forward they will face two challenges with such an ideology.  The first challenge is globalization and how that has influenced the views of Singaporeans.  Now more and more Singaporeans, especially the younger generation, are starting to believe that certain ideologies (for example, human rights) are a priori true.  To these Singaporeans, the pragmatic stance of the PAP government is  dis-compassionate,  inhumane, or downright unethical.  How the PAP can connect to these Singaporeans and convince them that the PAP is still worth voting for, this will be a major challenge for the PAP this coming elections, and beyond.

The second challenge is that after years of PAP rule, majority of the populace unconsciously adopts the pragmatic worldview as their own.  Compared to citizens of other nations, Singaporeans are self-centered, non-civil, doesn’t believe much in “giving back to society”, and scoffs at the notion that (of all people) the PAP government is trying to preach values to us.  Perhaps the most ironic manifestation of this is the difficulty PAP seems to have with leadership renewal.  [My gut sense is yes the PAP does have issues with leadership renewal…and I will probably blog a separate post about this] If you are a highly talented CEO earning millions will you leave your job to go into politics?  Certainly does not seem very pragmatic to do so.  The money may be good, but the pitfalls of a poiltician are many, just ask Ms Tin Pei Lin.  Risk it out of selfless love for the country?  Oh sorry, I don’t believe in ideologies.  I believe in pragmatism.

When I read the interviews of Chen Show Mao and Vincent Wijeysingha, it struck me that as much as these two appear to be intelligent and talented enough to be making high level decisions on a pragmatic basis, they both articulated ideological reasons why they are both in the opposition.  For Chen Show Mao it was to further the ideals of democracy (although he did argue it in a very pragmatic way), and for Wijeysingha it was a reflection of his personal ideological convictions of human and individual rights.  Is this going to be the trend?  While PAP struggles to find talented people who are willing to leave the comfort of their current jobs, more and more talented individuals return from overseas (or locally) to take on the opposition cause on ideological grounds?  If this is indeed the trend, then the future of Singapore politics, and the future of the ideology of pragmatism,  will be something worth watching.

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3 Comments »

  1. […] two-party system and opposition – Yawning Bread on WordPress: Papsicles 1 – Fearfully Opinionated: The PAP’s ideology is that they don’t believe in ideologies…or don’t they? – The Mind Game: Why opposition draws private sector talent – Singapore Life and Times: On Second […]

    Pingback by Daily SG: 8 Apr 2011 « The Singapore Daily — April 8, 2011 @ 10:53 am | Reply

  2. You forgot to mentioned that Lee Kuan Yew worked for the Japanese during the occupation. Of course you cannot label him a traitor, he was just being pragmatic. He needed the support of the Japanese to keep himself alive and to feed his family. He did not follow any ideology. Screw nationalism or patriotism when it comes to saving one’s ass. Nothing is more pragmatic than that and as the writer suggested that has always been the mantra of the ruling party, let alone aligning oneself to Confucianism to justify once action against human rights and democracy. That too is pragmatism.

    Comment by Dead Poet — April 11, 2011 @ 10:36 am | Reply

    • Hi Dead Poet,

      Apologies for late reply…I’ve been distracted of late. I must admit I did not know about MM Lee working for the Japanese, and I went to read it up. Actually, I personally don’t find it that much of a crime for a 19 year old young man to work for the Japanese while Singapore was occupied, when the Japanese were notoriously known to be cruel to locals who did not comply. Of course, you may choose to disagree and claim that he should have risked his life and refuse to work with the Japanese, but I won’t go that far.

      Cheers =)

      Comment by fearfullyopinionated — April 19, 2011 @ 12:18 pm | Reply


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