Do Pragmatists Dream of Idealistic Sheep?
Singaporeans are some of the world’s most privileged and educated people. We have the best access to the resources, and networks in the region. Our reach is global.
In Cambridge, we outnumber students from China. Our homegrown companies and people reach far beyond our tiny island. Our Deputy Prime Minister (DPM), Tharman Shanmugaratnam, is the Chairman of the policy board for the International Monetary Fund (IMF). JJ Lin is a global pop star. Tan Min-Liang, founder of gaming company Razer, was voted by The Business Insider as one of the Top 25 Most Creative People In Tech. We even have a Hollywood actor, Chin Han.
Singaporeans are amazing. Idealism tells me we can do so much more. Pragmatism says we must.
Idealism tells us that some of the world’s greatest problems can be solved by us, tiny specks in a sea of globalisation. Pragmatism tells us that this is the only way for Singaporeans to progress in a world with even greater competition as our neighbours catch up and billions become educated.
What is idealism? Idealism is more than simply passion. Idealism is more than learning to take risks. As Professor Kishore Mahbubani hints in his article in The Sunday Times, idealism is intricately tied to pragmatism. I spoke with Zhong Xiaohan, a law student turned entrepreneur who joined the legal technology startup, Dragon Law. When I asked him why he would take such a risky path, he gave me a quick, puzzled look.
“It’s a bigger risk trying to succeed in a traditional industry than it is to join the future.”
To build this idealism, we need to be able to think broadly, and recognise the practical value of building different experiences. Amartya Sen, the world-famous Harvard economist, credited his philosophy degree for his innovative economic theories. Lord Denning, the most famous English judge, studied mathematics. Steve Jobs created the MacBook by studying calligraphy. Peter Thiel, the founder of Paypal, studied philosophy. PM Lee Hsien Loong studied mathematics.
Recognise the value of other experiences, that they develop holistic and creative problem- solving skills that are crucial to unlocking the future. Idealism is just exercising practical imagination. Pragmatism and idealism are not opposite, competing concepts. We can be pragmatic idealists. We cannot afford to be stuck in the future, as ‘average’ global citizens, or we will be crushed by globalisation. Being idealistic is the most pragmatic form of survival.
The common counter-argument from parents and students is that only smart people have the privilege to study widely and think about other subjects, only they have the opportunity to be idealistic. ‘Ordinary’ people have to concentrate on doing their best in their studies, in traditional paths of success. It is true that part of the problem is Singapore is a society structured around qualifications. We are told that success can only come from qualifications.
However, pragmatic idealism is understanding that an hour of studying is not going to be as useful as spending an hour learning about the world around us. An hour of tuition is not going to be as useful as understanding how different disciplines interact, and how to create something innovative from these interactions. This is the only way ‘ordinary’ people can make themselves stand out.
We need artists who can run businesses, scientists who can govern societies and engineers who understand art. Only then will we understand how changing the world around us is within our reach; how pragmatic idealism can bring value to our lives. Only then will Singaporeans take their place as individual leaders in the region, and the world.
We can continue to be a society that forever changes the world, people who can easily do great things. Embrace sensible and practical life decisions; be idealistic. Read outside your course, make unusual choices, learn from unorthodox people. It costs too much not to. Let us be cold, calculating pragmatists; let us be idealists.
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