Keep pragmatism as guiding principle

Pragmatism was a constant in Mr Lee Kuan Yew's thoughts and actions during his years as Prime Minister, and later. Boiled down, this was his capacity to single-mindedly seize opportunities for Singapore and avoid insidious dangers. Thus, the fledgling Singapore of the 1960s abjured nationalisation of private enterprise and import-substitution policies, which were staples of anti-colonial governance elsewhere. Instead, it invited foreign investment and created an export-oriented economy as the basis for buoyant growth. Thus, too, Singapore sought to avert the demographic threat posed by once necessary birth-control policies when these succeeded too well for the country's good. With no policies cast in ideological stone, Mr Lee's willingness to change meant that what mattered was what worked in practice.

Today, Mr Lee's legacy requires Singapore's leaders and its people to display a similar agility in confronting the exigencies of inexorable change. One cannot take this for granted when a lucky generation have not been tempered, like their elders, by roiling circumstances - the Japanese Occupation, the Confrontation waged by Indonesia, the ejection from Malaysia, and Britain's military pullout from Singapore.

As the past recedes as a guide to the present for many Singaporeans, how is the present, a transient road map of the future, to be shaped? One might choose to be swayed by rational considerations or by firmly held beliefs or by transactional approaches to issues. Which path would fulfil the concrete and abiding interests of citizens? Pragmatism can serve as a trustworthy compass when all agree that the good of the nation is what really counts.

The need for pragmatism will be felt most, perhaps, in the way budgetary allocations are made. Spurning "either/or" approaches and favouring "and/both" options, one might, for example, offer considerable funding for the needs of the young, alongside generous dispensations for the old. But when one can't have one's cake and eat it, pragmatism would point to the value of fiscal prudence and sustainability over the long term.

Upholding the larger interest should also shape the way Singapore operates on the global stage. It will have to work pragmatically with a rising China while seeking to anchor the United States as a counterbalance in an evolving Asia. Amid the call of religion, both far and near, Singapore must stand firm as a secular country that belongs equally to its religions and races. There is little a city-state can do to alter the trajectory of major global developments. However, the legacy of pragmatism would help it to navigate its way astutely through them.

Join ST's Telegram channel and get the latest breaking news delivered to you.