Singapore needs political philosophy

In Singapore, “pragmatism” forms the basis of our approach to governance. It is largely a reflection of the late Lee Kuan Yew’s own worldview, in which policies are not cast in ideological stone. For instance, LKY pursued an open economy based on foreign investment and free trade, even though this ran counter to the norms of economic nationalism in post-war Southeast Asia. This is the mantra of we do whatever works best.

I will argue that this overriding concern with pragmatism as a governing value, translates into a highly technocratic brand of policy-making which excludes useful insights that political philosophy can offer. By encouraging ethical reflection on fundamental values in society, political philosophy can equip policy-makers with tools needed if they wish to pursue moral reform, and also helps to enrich public discourse.


Since pragmatism is such a cherished value, it has translated into a technocratic form of policy-making. This means that policy issues are approached as mainly technical problems which may be resolved by experts. This model necessarily abstracts away from intangible moral issues in favour of quantifiable, empirical evidence that can yield a concrete outcome. Singapore uses this technocratic approach to analyse, predict future trends and act accordingly, accounting for the regular usage of scenario planning within our government agencies, and the heavy investment in the best talent to fill civil service positions. That Singapore’s policy-making follows technocratic lines is no secret. The Economist Magazine puts up Singapore as the “best advertisement for technocracy”. Doug Hendrie, lecturer at University of Melbourne, published an article on how Singapore offers a promising technocratic model of governance that Australia can emulate.

The value of political philosophy

While this approach has served us well so far, and contributed to our far-sightedness, I insist that it lacks an important component: ethical reflection. We need to realise that policy questions involve deeper trade-offs between competing ends in political society, which are ethical issues that a purely technical approach cannot grapple with. This is evident in the context of immigration policy in Singapore, in which the dominant position articulated expresses the importance of welcoming foreigners for the larger goal of economic competitiveness. The value of economic growth however, conflicts with other social ends that Singaporeans may cherish. PM Lee himself acknowledged this in a recent 2015 interview, when he mentioned that when managing immigrants and foreign workers, “there are no easy choices”. He clarified: “there are trade-offs. If we have no foreign workers, our economy suffers, our own lives suffer. We have a lot of foreign workers, the economy will do well, (but) we have other social pressures, other problems…”

As such, it is clear that political philosophy can reveal the deeper trade-offs between competing ends in political society. Should economic growth in Singapore come first? Or should it be sacrificed for the sake of social objectives? PM Lee is right when he mentioned that there are no easy answers. These questions, are by nature, philosophical questions, and not technical ones. Hence, they must be confronted in the realm of philosophy. Political philosophy, by equipping one with useful tools to navigate such questions of value, enable policy-makers – and the public at large – to think more critically when facing such challenges, and make better choices, both in policy-making and at the ballot box. Political philosophy offers these tools because it involves applying reason and logic to carefully evaluate various moral claims, help to reveal any potential contradictions that may exist, and provides one with justifications to accept some as superior to others.

In an increasingly globalised world, policy questions are becoming more complex, bringing with them, ethical conundrums that must be tackled. Another similar immigration-related case is the attempted entry of the Rohingya refugees into Singapore waters in 2009, which was officially rejected on the basis of our small size. While a valid reason, there is also need to consider deeper moral questions involved, for instance, on whether or not human beings possess a fundamental and universal right of movement, and whether as cosmopolitan citizens, we also have an obligation to strangers, especially in times of humanitarian crises. While pragmatism may ultimately determine the policy outcome, political philosophy helps us to determine in the first place, whether or not, less pragmatic considerations, such as humanitarian duty and global justice, should be used instead.

Political philosophy is a wide field of study, and has contributed much to humanity’s understanding of key social phenomena. Green political theory, for instance, criticises the sustainability and justice of present-day institutions and asks for instance, if the interests of the non-human world should be taken into account in policy-making. Such ideas are relevant as Singapore considers environmental challenges resulting from our economic development.  Another contribution is from feminism, who have challenged society to rethink its notions of masculinity and feminity. Reflection on gender is relevant to us, as we think about the representation of women in our parliament and politics. Social democrats have enlarged out our conception of democracy to include the economic arena. Might we learn from this tradition when thinking about Singapore’s rising inequality? Alas, libertarianism, with its skepticism of political power, warns us against the stifling of individual liberty – relevant concerns when reflecting on Singapore’s participation in human rights regimes.

Political philosophy also helps map out the terrain in electoral competition in Singapore. Jason Brennan, in his introductory work on political philosophy, highlighted three major philosophical positions in politics: conservative/communitarian philosophy, liberal/egalitarian philosophy, as well as classical liberalism. I have transposed this into the following table with which we can better map out the various positions that people usually take, and where various parties fall into.

  Conservatism/ Communitarianism Left-Liberalism/ Egalitarianism Classical (Market-based) Liberalism
Fundamental value A good and virtuous society A fair society A free society
Opposition to The lack of virtue and moral character in individuals and institutions Patterns and practices of oppression and exclusion Instances and systems of coercion and aggression
Attitude to economic issues Generally favour free market policies like lower taxes, minimal government spending, and free trade. Generally favour policies that regulate the excesses of capitalism, redistribution of wealth to increase equality, and social spending for the least well off. Generally favour free market policies like lower taxes, minimal government spending, and free trade.
Attitude to social issues Generally favour regulatory approaches against activities deemed morally reprehensible, e.g. criminalisation of vices, outlawing of LGBT marriage Favour greater tolerance and diversity in personal life, policies like drug legalisation, marriage equality etc. Favour greater tolerance and diversity in personal life, policies like drug legalisation, marriage equality etc.
Parties around the world Republican Party (USA)

Conservative Party (UK)

Democratic Party (USA)

Labour Party (UK)

Libertarian Party (USA)
Parties in Singapore People’s Action Party Singapore Democratic Party (SDP)

Embracing political philosophy

Given the above, the value of political philosophy maybe incorporated by giving it greater weight in key strategic points in our education system. Both policy-makers as well as future citizens should be at least, exposed to the process of ethical reflection that political philosophy encourages. Singapore may, for instance, learn from the example of France, where philosophy is given weight in the national Baccalaureat examinations, similar to the GCE A’Levels. Introductory concepts of political philosophy could be incorporated into our Social Studies curriculum, or offered as a separate subject at the pre-university level. Such a proposal should be dismissed simply as “more work” for students. It has great value in moulding critical citizens necessary for a healthy, progressive democratic society. This is precisely why Ireland has also offered philosophy for secondary-school age children. Citing the tumultuous challenges of 2016, Irish President Michael Higgins recently explained that, “The teaching of philosophy is one of the most powerful tools we have at our disposal to empower children into acting as free and responsible subjects in an ever more complex, interconnected, and uncertain world.”

Policy-makers can also benefit from some exposure to political philosophy. This does not come at the expense of our famed pragmatism. In fact, in order to pursue “what works”, we need to determine in the first place what counts as “working”, hence, the inescapability of political-philosophic reflection. Accordingly, it is my hope that public policy training institutes, such as LKYSPP, and policy research organisations, such as IPS, produce research, hold events i.e. debates on moral questions and offer more courses on political philosophy, which does not necessarily distract away from more quantitative research issues, but may be a useful complement to them.

Political philosophy exists because of moral disagreement that individuals inevitably have. But its value stems from something we can all agree with: that we want policy-makers ready to confront policy challenges replete with ethical dimensions, and democratic citizens able to contribute critical content in public discourse.