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Idealism v Pragmatism May 31, 2007

Posted by Ned Stark in Uncategorized.

Mr Wang seems to have become a self help guru; his recent posts have been talking about how one can live life and one can have big goals. What was interesting is the point that a commenter made:

Mr. Wang, for each person who made it to compete, let alone win, in the Olympics, there must be hundreds of thousands if not millions who aspire to that. It is wise for the average person to bear that in mind. Most champions are born and identified early in life. Goals must be realistic and commensurate with one’s ability. Otherwise, many will end up with miserable lives.”

Contrast that to Mr Wang’s point;

Although I believe that most people can achieve great things, I also believe that most people won’t. The greatest reason is that THEY don’t believe that they themselves can achieve great things.”

Both view points however are not wrong. The commentor is one who advocates pragmatism; namely, when one sets out on a course of action, one tries to take into account many factors and be realistic or, to use the word that Singaporeans are familiar with, practical. Mr Wang however, suggests that many people, in the name of pragmatism, start to give up on their dreams even before they started.

It is undeniable that pragmatism does play a role in people’s life, however, people should not, in the name of pragmatism, be forced to forego dreams and aspirations. Unfortunately, this is what is happening in Singapore now. While there is nothing wrong if a person simply aspires to live a simple life, have a simple job and live simply; how many people are in such a situation because it was their goal in life initially? How many people, in Mr Wang’s words, had  to water down their goals, blame your luck and just accept mediocrity?

Singapore society has made pragmatism into, for lack of a better word, a form of religion. The only ideal that is the norm among Singaporeans is the vaunted 5Cs, but evidently as one can observe majority do not even get a chance to hit 2Cs, not to mention 5. And there are also the conflict of Cs; for example if a person goes into debt just to get a car or condo, then he has problems with cash. Perhaps thats a reason why MLM is able to attract that many people for it offers the promise of 5Cs. It can be seen that, 5Cs notwithstanding, dreams and ideals are often quashed in the name of pragmatism, as witnessed from the example here. Other instances can be seen with regards to social, political and economic issues in Singapore. Often, those who have a different view from the government’s cold hearted pragmatism are often labelled as “ungrateful whiners, populist, western educated radicals” and so on so forth.

In an earlier post on the “Limiting Reagent“, YCK raised the point that there needs to be some sort of equilibrium in society. However with regards to the issue of idealism v pragmatism, I must say that there is definitely no equilibrium, in fact society is skewed in favour of pragmatism against idealism. While it is undeniable that there will always be a greater proportion of pragmatics then idealists, history has often shown that society progressed not because of pragmatism, but because of idealism. I find it highly unlikely the founding fathers of Singapore, or to put it simply the PAP, founded Singapore because of pragmatism. In fact as one of the national songs put it, there was a time when people said that Singapore would not make it. I hardly think that a pragmatic person would want to be in charge of a potential sinking ship; rather it was idealism which made the early leaders stay the course and build up this sleepy island into what it is today.

Unfortunately, it appears that idealism is discouraged and scorned upon in Singapore. And that is one of the limiting reagents which would limit Singapore’s development. As long as people are “programmed to fail”, have cold water poured on their aspirations, are told that they need to be”qualified” before they can talk about issues, then Singapore would merely remain as a city of robots, albeit one with clean streets and low crime, notwithstanding the attempts of authority to turn Singapore into a multi hub.



1. Dr.Huang - June 1, 2007

We must encourage Idealism for several reasons.
1.Only when the human species tries achieve something better, will it improve. The benchmark is then raised and the next cohort goes about improving their lot. If we remained “pragmatic”, we would still be in the Middle Ages.
2.The human spirit is very resilient and only if we believe something is possible will that task be achieved. eg Roger Bannister/Ed Hillary/Fall of Berlin Wall.
In my teenage/youth- it is almost not logical to believe that the Berlin Wall & Soviet communism could be dismantled, but with Gerbachov & Yeltsin’s help- the Wall tumbled before you could spell “Berlin”
3.”Pragmatism” is just another word for Laziness- Lazy minds and weak wills use it as an excuse not to do anything.
4.The control-freaks use “pragmatism” as a tool to subjugate the weak-minded and gullible. They say,” You are not made to do great things yet because you followed us and followed our bidding, you already achieved more than you should have, so be satisfied” In this way, they will always stay on top and we below them.

2. Ned Stark - June 1, 2007

Well Dr i personally dont see pragmatism as a byword for lazy; it depends on the context. Unfortunately in Singapore pragmatism is often raised as an excuse not to do anything and thus i agree with you on that point. And yes history has shown that humanity advanced not because of pragmatism but because of idealism.

3. guojun - June 1, 2007

Humanity advanced out of a synthesis of both. A king must be idealistic – he must cherish the freedom of his people and nation, but also pragmatic – he must be a careful, wily planner, crafty in battle and a skilled statesman.

A king, however, to lead his people on, has to be more idealistic than pragmatic. It’s kinda topsy-turvy here in Singapore, when everyone is more pragmatic than idealistic.

You can’t say however that people like LKY are not idealistic – i believe his is, just that his ideal may not be our ideal…like his ideal may have been to make Singapore His Own Country. With the Lee chop on it.

4. Ned Stark - June 1, 2007

Eh Guojun, can dont sabo me can ? 😛

5. scb - June 1, 2007

It is definitely pragmatism if the goals are: power, wealth, reputation(into posterity as well) and the continuation of all three into offsprings!

6. guojun - June 1, 2007

Who’s trying to sabo you…take our my philosophy trump card ah? hahaha…

SCB: Eugenics soon? You never know. If you’ve never heard of Robo Lee, go to uncyclopedia.com and search for it. heh.

7. Pandemonium - June 2, 2007

Although I know you are very aware of this, I still think it should be pointed out that between pragmatism and idealism is a spectrum where most, if not all, lie. No one is perfectly pragmatic, just as no one is perfectly idealistic. And I think the best success comes from people who have a balanced combination of both.

For example, Lee Kuan Yew may be a pragmatist, but he has sufficient idealism to lead Singapore. Mr Wang may be an idealist, but he does observe society and takes actions that best benefits him – signs of pragmatism. And you have Bernerd Leong declares himself as an pragmatic idealist! Then there are those who are highly idealistic, but lack pragmatism to suceed (e.g. Chee Soon Juan). And then of course, you have failures from the other end, which I believe is the subject of your post.

So it is often that everyone has both pragmatism and idealism running in their blood (or brain, or whatever you fits metaphorically).

8. Ned Stark - June 2, 2007

Pandemonium i agree with you, there will be a spectrum. Unfortunately my point is that in Singapore, the balance is skewed. This is not desirable if Singapore wishes to move beyond a clean city with a compliant workforce.

9. celluloidrealitys - June 3, 2007

Singapore’s current state is where the goal of keeping the idealism of one group as the main ideology, utilises the notion of consumption pragmatics to ensure that this ideology is not threatened.

When people consume, they are making a trade-off. And once they consume, they rely on it for sustenance, and this trade-off becomes wired into their system, and the “resource allocation” cannot be reset internally.

Let’s face it, Singapore is a consumption nation. If you want to shift idealism back into the fore, the reality is that it has to be able to talk to the ones who are in the process of ingesting for survival, or else, it’s not going to be very effective.

10. YCK - June 3, 2007

I am not very pragmatic to begin with. Maybe that is why I tend to be naive about the society righting itself.

But in this case I would see things your way and suppose that Singapre is cuaght in some kind of a bind with no realistic chance for one to social engineer out of.

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