Lee Kuan Yew: Pragmatism for Whom?

In the recent commentary marking the death of Singapore’s founder Lee Kuan Yew, one characteristic of the late statesman has received much attention: his pragmatism.

The March 23 edition of the New York Times features a piece by Roger Cohen grandiloquently proclaiming that “the 20th century produced few greater statesmen and perhaps no greater pragmatist” and an op-ed by Ali Wyne, who writes that “in leading Singapore, [Lee] was, above all, a pragmatist.” The Economist’s obituary of Lee (featured in yesterday's Monday Morning Links) is slightly more descriptive, “for [Lee] ideology always took second place to a pragmatic appreciation of how power works.” Even an article critical of Lee’s authoritarianism acknowledges his “trademark pragmatism.”

In attempting to define Lee’s pragmatism, Roger Cohen writes that “Lee had one basic yardstick for policy: Does it work?” Unfortunately (but not surprisingly) Cohen does not ask the important follow-up question: “For whom?” British economist Nigel Harris, writing in 1978, sheds some light on this question:

Singapore’s economy relies heavily on an Untouchable caste of immigrant workers (possibly 120,000 in all, with an unknown number of “illegal” immigrants), most of them from neighbouring Malaysia, but with others from Indonesia, Thailand and the Philippines. Immigration is divided between low and high paid labour. The first enters on three year work permits (six month work permits for jobs in construction). Work permit holders have no right of permanent settlement, may not change their jobs for three years (if they lose their job, they are liable to deportation), are not eligible for public housing or welfare and medical services; many, six to a room, housed in makeshift shacks near their worksite, work seven days a week, ten to twelve hours a day, for a pittance. They are forbidden to hold trade union office, and militancy can also evoke deportation. Work permit holders are forbidden to marry without special permission from the labour commissioner; permission may only be granted to those who have worked five years in Singapore with a “clean” record and who sign a bond accepting that both partners to the marriage agree to be sterilized after a second child is born. Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew justified the policy on straight 1930s “eugenics” grounds that “The better educated and more rational” are not replacing themselves because of their low birth rate; whereas “a multiple replacement rate at the bottom [leads to] a gradual lowering of the general quality of the population.”

Brenda Yeoh and Weiqiang Lin point out that the control of immigrants in Singapore continues today:

Low-skilled foreign-born workers are managed through a series of measures, including the work-permit system, the dependency ceiling (which regulates the proportion of foreign to local workers), and the foreign-worker levy. These measures are expected to be tightened between July 2012 and July 2013. Workers are only allowed to work for the employer and in the occupation indicated in their work permit, though a sponsored transfer of employment is permissible and subject to work pass validity. The termination of employment of a foreign-born worker results in the immediate termination of the work permit, in which case the immigrant must leave Singapore within seven days.

Doing whatever works for the Singaporean elite is not “pragmatic” but a thoroughly ideological position, involving a belief that the exploitation of poor immigrants serves a greater good. Why, then, do so many journalists call Lee pragmatic? A 2011 article by cultural historian Thomas Harrington suggests the roots of associating authoritarianism with pragmatism:

People running authoritarian regimes have always been keenly aware of the need to hide or blur their true ideological goals and the real dimensions of their lust for power.  In the case of the mid-twentieth century fascisms, this was done by presenting the dictator as the ultimate post-partisan patriot (sound familiar?).

In more recent years, as discussions of governance have taken on a more economical turn (itself the sign of a silent and generally under-analyzed ideological transformation), they have sought to clothe their deeply ideological project in the mantle of a non-ideological “common sense.”

But of course, there is no place in our public discourse that is free of ideological contamination. We are all ideological beings, thinking and acting on the basis of ideological suppositions and hunches. Indeed, the oligarchs remind us of this every time we dare to raise our heads and criticize their carefully-designed program of economic subjugation.

Nicholas Haggerty is a former editorial intern at Commonweal.

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