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Wednesday, Oct. 03, 2007 - 11:33 p.m.

(a fragment of a letter to a friend)

Before I argue for pragmatism, let me argue against it : the abolishment of slavery by the British parliament was one of the most impragmatic political acts in human history. All the European powers profited from colonies and slaves, and the argument for preserving the slave trade in Britain has a logic that one still hears today - if we don't do it, our rivals will. Landmines. Farm subsidies. The international arms trade.

I highly recommend the movie 'Amazing Grace' (link) , which is about the abolishment of slavery.

But you are right, I am not sure if we (meaning the government of Singapore - but also possibly referring to its citizens) could have done anything to change the course of events in Iraq or Burma; we can only be pragmatic. But pragmatism can have many values, such as:

  • cynicism (obsequience to the reigning superpower - a short term world view)
  • idealism (the antonym of pragmatism, but their meanings cohere in some instances-where the only possible course of action is to act on one's beliefs. Idealism may or may not have an effect*.)
  • a recognition of impotence (abstaining and keeping the status quo)
  • preparing the geopolitical conditions for the longer term (the pragmatic end justifies the means)

These are four mere nodes on a spectrum of possible courses of action a country can undertake. I would like to think that being against an obviously wrong choice makes a difference politically (and not morally, where the choices are more obvious), though I am not sure how one could prove this. This is another way of asking - does it matter politically that one is today Britain (wrong and supportive of the Iraq war) or Spain (right and opposed to the Iraq war)?

What I am saying is that one always has choices; pragmatism does not automatically mean obeying the country with the most aircraft carriers (though oddly enough, if every country took the American stance now, the Burmese junta would not last another week). Singapore need not have agitated for a 'democratic Burma' in the 90s, but neither did we need to give them arms and infrastructure. We gave the Generals telephones and radios to move men with guns to Buddhist shrines - the automatic end of which are monks drowned in swamps. We definitely did not abstain when it came to Burma. If we had done absolutely nothing (also a choice), the junta might conceivably not be around today.

This is a tragic, literal metaphor: two days ago a Singaporean in Burma was shot with the same bullet, which we sold to them.

It might also be politically instructive.

* Valclav Havel, The Art of the Impossible, Knopf 1997

(on the Velvet Revolution of the Czech Republic in 1989)

'I have experienced a beautiful revolt of children against the lie that their parents served, allegedly in the interest of those very children. Our antitotalitarian revolution was - at least its beginnings - a children's revolution. It was high-school students and apprentices, adolescents, who marched in the streets. They marched when their parents were still afraid, afraid for their children and for themselves. They locked their children in at home, took them away from the cities on weekends. Then they began marching with them in the streets. First out of fear for their children, later because they became infected by their enthusiasm. The children evoked from their parents their better selves. They convinced them that they were lying and forced them to take a stand on the side of truth.'


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