Can idealism co-exist with call to 'always be paranoid'?

I do not disagree with the premises of Professor Kishore Mahbubani's article last Saturday ("The enduring ideas of Lee Kuan Yew"), but I wish to comment on the conclusion to which he leads us.

Prior to this article, Prof Mahbubani had written of seeing a lack of idealism in young Singaporeans, relative to those in other countries ("In search of Singaporean idealism"; Feb 20).

He gave some possible reasons for this, such as parental pressure to take the "practical" path in life, or our "culture of pragmatism".

Consider an animal that lives in the wild.

It is not a very large animal and so needs to constantly be on the lookout for predators. It survives by hunting smaller prey. The world in which it lives is therefore a hostile one - a dog-eat-dog world.

Thus, the instinct of such an animal is, first and foremost, to protect its own. Its psyche has been conditioned to prioritise its survival, and its every move will be in service of this cause.

This scenario is a good analogy for what Prof Mahbubani observes.

When a national psyche is built on the narrative of survival and nurtured by constant reminders throughout a country's formative years, this psyche is passed down and ingrained into each succeeding generation.

In other words, parental pressure or a culture of pragmatism are, themselves, a consequence of this national psyche, of this narrative of survival.

Prof Mahbubani indirectly touches on this when he writes in last Saturday's article that small countries "should always be paranoid" in order to survive.

So, on the one hand, we have this need for more idealism in our young people, the kind which the professor observes in young Dutchman Boyan Slat.

However, on the other hand, we have this proposition that in order to survive, we must continue to be paranoid, continuing to propagate this national psyche.

Some might argue that this idealism and psyche can co-exist in the same space, but it is difficult to see how.

The idealism embodied by Mr Slat is a transcendent sort of mentality.

The very nature of this mentality relies on one being able to consider ideas greater than oneself - to care about the cleanliness of an ocean halfway around the world rather than finding stable career prospects to survive.

My question to Prof Mahbubani is, thus: How would he propose to reconcile the apparent contradiction between what he writes in his two articles?

Ajinkya Chougule


There is no contradiction between idealism and paranoia.

Idealism infuses the goals. Paranoia is part of the method of achieving these goals.

Our founding fathers, especially Mr Lee Kuan Yew, Dr Goh Keng Swee and Mr S. Rajaratnam, were idealistic in their desire to put food on our plates, a roof over our heads, and a school for our children.

However, they were paranoid and shrewd in looking for the best ways and means to achieve these idealistic goals.

My key advice to young people who want to be idealistic is that they have to be idealistic and shrewd.

I support idealistic goals like ending sharks' fin soup, reducing deforestation, or ending overfishing.

However, to achieve these goals, we have to be shrewd, calculating and even cunning.

History teaches us that some of the most successful idealistic leaders, like Mahatma Gandhi, were remarkably shrewd.

Can Singapore develop idealistic leaders who are equally shrewd?

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 17, 2016, with the headline 'Can idealism co-exist with call to 'always be paranoid'?'. Print Edition | Subscribe