Hating Singapore’s Pragmatism

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I’ve been starting to hate Singapore more and more in the past year. I could state many reasons why this is so, but this entry isn’t inspired by all those reasons but just by one – as I read a newspaper article about Singapore’s pragmatic foreign policy.

Let me state first of all that I’ve not always felt this strongly against Singapore. I wrote here about how I could relate better to the Singaporean culture – having been brought up here – than to the culture of other countries (like Australia) and therefore also about how I wanted to live in Singapore. But I guess affection and closeness to a place and culture can be both positive and negative. If you were brought up in a particular country and love what it stands for, you’re doubly in love with it and doubly proud of it as compared to a person who was not brought up in that country but still loves what it stands for. The opposite is true too: if you were brought up in that country and hate what it stands for, your hatred for that country is magnified as compared to if you weren’t brought up in that country. Why? Simply because the fact you were brought up in that country makes you more affectionate for the country and thus more sensitive to its successes and failures.

The article I’m talking about is Size matters – for S’pore’s foreign policy from the 27th July 2006 edition of the Today newspaper:

SINGAPORE does not have the luxury of pursuing a foreign policy of abstract ideals because of a simple reason: The world can do without Singapore.

This was a sombre message some 400 youth got from Transport Minister and Second Minister for Foreign Affairs Raymond Lim yesterday.

Speaking at the Temasek Seminar held annually to raise the awareness of security-related issues, Mr Lim drove home the truth about the republic’s vulnerability and called on youth to understand the country’s pragmatic approach behind its foreign policy.

…even though there have been criticisms that Singapore’s positions on global events are not always consistent — or as a student at the seminar put it, “we constantly cater to the views of the superpowers and lose our ‘Singaporean-ness’ as a nation” — sticking up for “abstract ideals” is a luxury that Singapore cannot afford.

Said Mr Lim: “By necessity, the Foreign Ministry cannot always elucidate the strategic considerations behind our public positions. Some have commented that our positions on global events are not always consistent …

“As someone once said, consistency is the virtue for trains. But what is consistent in our foreign policy is a dogged and clear-eyed protection of our core interests, nothing more or less,” he added.

Nothing in the above is particularly surprising to anyone who understands politics in general or international politics in particular. All countries act pretty much in their own self-interest. (This is realpolitik or realism). After all, they have a responsibility to their own citizens. However, it’s true to say that some do so much more than others. And Singapore happens to be one of the most guilty countries in this aspect.

While Singapore’s relatively tiny size makes it more difficult for her to stand for principles and ideals, I do not think that excuses us from being unprincipled in our actions. It’s precisely our pragmatic, unprincipled and utterly self-interested actions (in both foreign and national policy) that make me sick.

For example, Mr. Bilahari Kausikan, Permanent Secretary of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, once responded to a student’s question regarding Singapore’s support of the US War on Iraq by saying:

The Americans were deluded, it doesn’t mean we supported them because we thought it would work. I believe the question you are too polite to ask is, did we suck up to the US? Well, yes, our basic interest was to show support for the USA, you are right.

So Singapore leaders support America no matter how wrong her actions are. We do so because we would get things in return from them. Never mind the fact that what she does is wrong or that our support for her makes us complicit in her wrongful actions. For our leaders, morality never figured in the equation. It was all about sucking up to America so that they would return our favor in future. What kind of leaders do we have? And what kind of people does Singapore have when the majority (even Christians) just stand idly by? We are a politically apathetic people. Politics do not matter. If our leaders partake in oppressing others, most Singaporeans couldn’t be bothered. The suffering of others does not matter to us. What only matters to us is ourselves and our families. That’s the kind of country and people we are.

Also during this same National Education (NE) dialogue, Mr. Kausikan was asked:

Does that mean if thousands of people are being slaughtered in Burma, we won’t do a thing because it’s not in our self interest?

His answer?


Full credit to him for his honesty. Politicians are seldom honest, seeking always to hide behind politically correct rhetoric – just compare what Mr. Kausikan said above to what was said about Singapore’s support of the US War on Iraq by another government official here. However, I can’t say the same about him as a person. I’m not sure how he can say the above without feeling guilty or questioning why the hell he’s part of such an unprincipled government. But then again, most politicians are like that, perhaps especially so in Singapore.

As I said above, being small in size does not justify our lack of principles. It does not justify us supporting America in a foolish and unjust war so that they will ultimately sign an FTA with us and be merciful to us in other ways. It does not justify us supporting oppression (or merely ignoring oppression) in other countries in order that Singaporeans will live slightly better lives than if we were not to participate in such acts. Indeed size is not an excuse because there are small countries in the world that do have a backbone and do concern themselves with promoting good ideals – at least they do so much more than Singapore does.

I should add that pragmatism doesn’t just characterize the foreign policy of Singapore. Pragmatism characterizes the whole of Singapore society. I can’t totally blame the leaders of Singapore because they are but doing what the people want. If they are doing something contrary to what the people want, they would have gotten voted out. But the great majority of Singaporeans don’t actually give a shit about what happens to other people. We don’t have any high and good ideals we treasure and would defend. And in a way, I understand why political leaders, as well as people in general, are pragmatic and make decisions based on pragmatism, though I don’t always agree with it.

And, yes, it’s true that it’s not only the people living in Singapore who are pragmatic, but rather the majority of the world’s people live lives ruled more by pragmatism than good ideals. Yet I also believe that Singaporeans (and her leaders) are some of the most pragmatic people on this earth. Because of all this, I’m just not sure how I can feel anything but strong dislike for such a country that stands for nothing but its own self-interest.

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  1. I think that Singapore could work with its neighbours to alleviate poverty or have an apolitical approach to helping other people. Refusing to condemn the actions of others for whatever reason, is always going to be controversial, but Singapore can always do something more.

    Personally, I feel a principled stance to IR for Singapore’s foreign policy seems quite unlikely in the foreseeable future.

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