As a Singaporean, one of the things I've learned is that our governance is pragmatic. I assume that this means we do not care about particular ideologies, but rather whatever gets "things" done, where "things" are probably universally agreeable goals such as healthcare, environmental friendliness, economic growth, housing, safety, and food.

As Polymatter put it, "Is Singapore's healthcare system private or public? Yes."

Of course there are certain issues with this assumption. The universally agreeable goals might not be as universal as it seems. Pragmatism by itself might also be seen as an ideology as well. Pursuing these goals without care for certain things such as fundamental liberties is also something we are critisised for.

I'm not a political scientist. What do other countries or political scientists tend to think about the idea of pragmatism? Is it a well defined concept in political science?


1 Answer 1


It's 1965 and your name is Lee Kuan Yew. Congratulations! You are the leader of a newly independent Singapore. (You'd tried being part of Malaysia after decolonization but it didn't work out.) You have an island with negligible natural resources, and about 2 million people, most of them poor. To your north, the Vietnam War is in full swing. Indonesia is fighting Malaysia. The Cultural Revolution is brewing in China, and the India-Pakistan war is reshaping those nations' relationships to the major Cold War powers. You are deeply anxious that Singapore's fate will be subjugation by its powerful neighbours, or tearing itself apart on ethnic lines of tension, or becoming yet another battleground for communist and anti-communist guerillas.

The strategy you land upon is that you must be friends with everyone. And you must encourage inward investment by the great powers, who then have a stake in preserving your independence. This will build the wealth of the country and sustain the cycle. To do it, you pursue a policy aimed at strengthening social cohesion, political stability, a predictable environment for business, and openness to trade. Press freedom is limited and you suppress your opponents' ability to organize politically. But after a few decades, you navigate the country to greater prosperity, all under the banner that you are a pragmatic, competent leader who is simply trying to do his best for everyone.

"Pragmatic" is of course a genuine descriptor for being practically-minded as opposed to ideological, when it comes to political decision-making. There are real ways that LKY could be described as tactically pragmatic, which I would characterize as being open to a wide range of options and being willing to switch between them as the developing situation demanded. But there is more to say about the rhetorical use of the word.

When someone self-characterizes as pragmatic, they are casting themselves as cool, rational, competent, flexible. The political story they are telling is not neutral - it's an argument about why they are better than their opponents. In Lee's case, the opposition wasn't ideology in general, but specific communist and anti-colonial ideology with which he felt Singapore could not afford to align itself. He was not just claiming to be a better manager than other people, but that better management itself was a virtue, something that people should care about. It was a way to sidestep contemporary political tensions, and avoid being drawn into great-power conflict. It also worked to reinforce his own position at the apex of government and society: "you want somebody who is just plain good at running the economy" plus "I am good at running the economy" equals continued power.

Many politicians in other nations make the same kinds of claims - Bill Clinton, Tony Blair. There are general commonalities when they do it:

  • The appearance of competence certainly beats the alternative.
  • It can appeal to a constituency of regular people who just want nice things and are not invested in political theory.
  • By visibly trying to appeal to that constituency (regardless of whether it really exists or whether you're really appealling) you dissociate yourself from your opponents, who you present as factionally-obsessed political insiders. That includes opponents inside and outside your own party.
  • It allows a certain freedom to manouevre if you are not publicly fixed on particular positions.
  • But people might see you as a slimy, slippery character with no real ideas or beliefs.
  • As pragmatism shades into managerialism and technocracy, it can be seen as overly conservative; operating within the paradigm of an existing system even if it's a bad one; and supportive of a particular social class of manager-types at the expense of others.

Looking at Lee and Singapore, many others have tried to emulate his successes. It would be a mistake to say that pragmatism per se is the key to those political achievements. Just being pragmatic, on its own, can devolve into being non-committal and ineffective. For Lee, behind the mask of the label (one adopted in order to avoid a specific example of ideological strife) there was a clear strategic vision for how to develop the country. It bears comparison with Machiavelli, whose state of Florence was similarly beset by much stronger powers of the day, and who developed a famously practical set of ideas on statesmanship in response. Deng's China is an example of a successful transplant of the approach to a totally different geopolitical setting, where he positioned himself as a reforming pragmatist in contrast to the Gang of Four. Many others claim the label but without the competence or vision: if all you have going for you is "I will make good decisions and not bad ones", that's not saying much.

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