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Singaporean Pragmatism

Posted by intellisg on May 30, 2007

The following is an extract from the book, “Harvesting the Seeds of Prosperity,” written by Christopher Ng Wai Chung. His own blog can be found in He can be reached at In chapter 1 entitled “Are you a scholar or a statistic”, he examines the concept of Kiasuism.


Singaporean Pragmatism

As an engineering undergraduate studying in the National University of Singapore, Chee Ming, aged 23, does not really care for anything else other than his examination results. After all, engineering students have punishing workloads, often requiring 25 – 30 hours of lectures and tutorials a week. Chee Ming’s philosophy as a student is simple – tune out all the extra-curricular activities and simply focus on his studies. For examination subjects, Chee Ming chooses only those subjects which he believes he would score in, considering complicated factors like the leniency of his lecturers and the feedback on course difficulty from his seniors. Chee Ming deduces that by scoring a solid Honours degree, he could land a good stable job. The technicalities of the work in the industry can come later.

In this country, there is a Chee Ming in everyone. From the uncle who carefully orchestrates the family on a proper strategy to attack a buffet table ( “ Ah Kow ! You go get a plate of prawns. Ah Zhu, you go for the fruits. I grab the fried rice for everybody ! ” ) to the middle-aged woman who positions herself next to school children in anticipation of a vacant seat in an SBS bus, Singaporeans are pragmatists – they do what works, optimise all their choices and alternatives and focus on their goals with religious fervour. In Hokkien this is known as being “Kiasu”.

Before we start to think that we invented “Kiasuism”, we should note that Pragmatism is largely an American invention. Pragmatism, first coined by William James, is the philosophy which emphasises the importance of results, consequences, utility and practicality as opposed to the navel gazing and intellectualism espoused by other philosophies.

If it works, it has to be true. That is the Singaporean way.

Singapore has honed pragmatism into a brand called “kiasuism” and has elevated it into a form of art. We’re such pragmatists that we even have a comic series with Mr. Kiasu in it, a bespectacled guy who performs all sorts of exaggerated stunts to get what he wants out of life – often with funny and amusing consequences. Travel guides that expound on Singaporean culture broadly make the generalisation that with Singaporeans, success and money are always paramount in their lives.

On a more serious note, a lot of policies which may seem painful for us arise from our fundamental belief in the principle of Pragmatism. Streaming in schools was institutionalised to reduce the number of drop-outs in the lower secondary and primary schools. The introduction of foreign talent into the economy was done to keep the multinationals invested in the country when there was a labour shortage in some sectors of the economy. We also offer the best remuneration to our ministers to attract the best people into politics. We are so pragmatic sometimes we need to ask ourselves whether a price is being paid along the way towards progress and success.

I believe that there is always a darker side to every principle that we have chosen to subscribe to. When we practise Pragmatism, we run the risk of becoming overly myopic. In such a case we sacrifice the long-term for the short-term. If we repeatedly execute a policy which is extremely effective at meeting our economic goals over a number of years and have educated the people on the wisdom of simply doing what works, does it not seem logical then that people, being pragmatic just like the ruling body, would then choose to emigrate when the economy is bad because it is the best thing they can do for themselves?

Pragmatism, should we subscribe to it, always functions as a double-edged sword.

Perhaps this can be explained with a continuation of the case study.

So Chee Ming, ever the pragmatist, with his excellent 1st Class Honours in Engineering, predictably joined a government agency as a research engineer. After 3 years, Chee Ming met his classmate, Srikanth, who barely passed with an Honours degree but bothered to participate in sports and some student union activities. Through his network of friends made in the hostels, Srikanth started out with an operations job in a foreign bank and rapidly moved up the ranks, scoring excellent bonuses when the economy picked up. Chee Ming now wonders why, with his excellent grades, his annual remuneration would still lag Srikanth by 30%.

There is a more enlightened way to move on with our lives.

While we see ourselves as pragmatists, we should challenge the statistics and figures that we subscribe to. Are we at risk of being short-sighted? Is there anything that we have missed out in our crusade to optimise everything that we do? Pragmatism needs to be balanced with vision and foresight in order for it to work in our lives.


Christopher Ng Wai Chung, 32, is an IT Project manager who dabbles in personal finance and wealth management. He has decided to spoil part so his latest book “Harvesting the Seeds of Prosperity” in the most intelligent Singaporean blogs in cyberspace. The book details his manifesto in reaching a state of Financial Nirvana, the ability to live within one’s investment income while still keeping day job to grow his portfolio even bigger. This book can now be found on sale at the World Book Fair’s Marketasia stall in Suntec City at about $22.90.


15 Responses to “Singaporean Pragmatism”

  1. Trajan said

    I think this makes more sense than the rubbish Mr Wang regularly writes and typically passes off as well meaning advice – he might as well call it the road to hell.

    Thanks, I learnt alot from this article.

  2. Trajan,

    Actually I’m a fan of Mr. Wang and I contribute regularly to his website. Mr. Wang and the Intelligent Singaporean attracts a very interesting demographic of Singaporeans which I think we can learn very much from.

    Regardless of one’s political inclinations ( I see myself as a conservative as compared to Mr. Wang’s very liberal political inclinations ), its interesting to know where bloggers come from and try to benefit from their postings as much as possible.


  3. wbg said

    Who comes to the internet to be reminded of the mundane stuff?

    Please post some exciting articles for elites who don’t need to work but can shop everyday!

  4. CT said

    It is interesting how in the end, even this article resorts to an appeal towards our pragmatic sensibilities to convince us of a more ‘enlightened way to lead our lives.’ Srikanth seems more ‘enlightened’ solely because of the fact that he is earning more than 30% than Chee Ming. Can people no longer pursue happiness and their dreams without ultimately having their self-worth and level of ‘enlightenment’ judged by how much they earn with respect to their peers?

    Such is the plight of our society that I’m beginning to wonder if Christopher intentionally highlighted this comparison between Srikanth and Chee Ming in the way he did, to catch unwary readers and send up their deepest assumptions about ‘enlightenment’?

  5. CT,

    That is a very sharp observation. Thanks !

    My examples are not trivial figments of my imagination. The folks in my examples are always people I do know with their names changed.

    If Srikanth were a poet who won international acclaim, I bet the impact would not be as strong for the reader, who, at the time of writing still a pragmatic Singaporean.

    So finance readers still care deeply about money.

    I wish to illustrate the dangers of pushing pragmatism to its logical extreme. Not disclaim pragmatism.

    Pragmatism is still one the of pillars which brought prosperity to this nation. ( Without the risk of sounding too PAP. )


  6. darkness said


    Do you realize. I am probably one of the first ppl in Singapore who has read and re-read your book at least a dozen times.

    The reason why I like it so much is bc many of the case studies have been localized to take stock of practical realities one would usually only come across in Singapore and perhaps Malaysia.

    That I find is sorely lacking in Western publications which try to appeal to the mass market.

    I would seriously recommend this book as a Swiss Knife in modern day Singapore and even consider it mandatory reading – if one is serious about success.

    It has been a privilege.

    Yours most respectfully

    Darkness (2007)

  7. Hey Darkness,

    It’s my privilege to have a reader like you. And to be fair, the blogosphere has been a very powerful tool for me to feel the pulse of my fellow countrymen.

    It’s easy to know issues we face as a people because of websites like the Inteligent Singaporean which aggregates all the better articles for us to really think deeply about life as a Singaporean.


  8. Gary said


    I guess what you wrote is not new but it is a good piece anyway. I sincerely hope more younger people can think like you, i am about to give up on the majority of young S’poreans. Our country is like the budding young rock star who gladly sells his soul to the devil and living his later years in misery. Mark my words, i am strongly encouraging my children to uproot in future. I do not think i am unpatriotic, just imagine people like what you wrote about becoming our rulers in future.

  9. Gary,

    Thanks for the words of encouragement. When I was trying to think of a product years ago, I almost wanted to do up a manual on emigration. But things took a positive turn in my life so instead, I wanted to write about alternatives to quitting Singapore. Hence a book on achieving financial independence right here in the little red dot.

    Maybe you could take a slight turn to check out my article in SG Entrepreneurs which takes a pretty different spin on human capital. It draws from material in the Financial Analysts Journal 2006 and 2007 articles so maybe there will be some refreshing material there.

    When my book hits the bookstores, I will actually submit articles to the intelligent Singaporean that is not from my book. So stick around to let me know what your biggest concerns are.


  10. scb said

    Pragmatism, to get the highest yields within the shortest time, practically provides viability and prosperity but the sad side of it is; considerations for wholesomeness become secondary.

  11. Scb,

    Maybe in the future there will come a time when when considerations for wholesomeness becomes a competitive advantage. If this day arrives, then a pragmatic nation like Singapore would have to be forced to examine it’s soul ( or the lack of it. )

    Sadly, my training and background will not enable me to herald this brand new age. But I have mentioned the emergence of the creative professional in my publication.

    Perhaps the USNW campus can be given free to any good US liberal arts college to set up shop here. We need this desperately because pretty soon the high value-add R&D work will begin to transition to India and China.


  12. Seeking a New Home. said

    To the people in power today, “Welfare” has become a dirty word.
    To me, without power, “Pragmatism” has become a dirty word.

    The society has not only become “Kiasu”, it has also become “Kiasi”, afraid to lose and afraid to die. And this is symbolized by none other than the Old Man himself, being so kiasu that he simply refused to retire, and being so kiasi that he resorts to anything to prolong his own life and the life of his political party.

    To me, a person who practises pragmatism is simply one who has no principles. He does not follow any principle nor moral and ethical norms of society. Whatever that will be of benefit to him, he graps. A very selfish attitude and mentality. Even though he may have obtained a First Class Honours Degree, he has still not been educated. He had simply trained himself to seize the best for himself, irrespective of whatever outcome to others and to the environment. Luckily, we have the strict enforcement of laws to counter-balance this selfish attitude and mentality, otherwise these people would have easily become highly intelligent white collar con men and criminals in our society. (I keep thinking of the unforgetable NKF saga and the unforgivable Ministerial salary hikes).

    Having said all that, I think and feel that pragmatism is going to stay for a very long time to come, especially so with conservative people who are more comfortable with the status quo than to risk a change for better or for worst. Together with the influx of foreign talents, it will be even more pronounced in the near future.

    My family and I intend to settle in another country for better or for worst. We do not think that this little red dot is worth our loyalty, patriotism nor any other worthy principles that we subscribe to because the country is run by pragmatists without any principles and supported by follow-the-leader kiasu and kiasi citizens, also without any principles.

    We do not feel proud to call this place our Home! It is just a concrete jungle with robots and animals in human form. This is the Animal Farm of George Orwell!

  13. scb said

    Wai Chung, thanks again for your response, pragmatism in practise invariably is typify by self serving(selfishness). It is well illustrated by Seeking a New Home(Post No. 12), it gets the desired result but often puts off most others. Personally, I think the present generation has been goaded(educated is not inappropriate here) by pragmatism culture to a point of losing much of their humanities. The Leadership is even worse, other than using money to run the Society(Country) it seems that it is incapable of understanding the importance of humanities. Wealth has overwhelmed feelings and humans differ with the other species simply because there is such a thing known as human feelings, imagine mankind without feelings. I am feeling cold, very cold and scared, my apology for the rant.

  14. techme said

    The highest paid leadership here has failed in its role in nation building. What it build successfully is the culture of M3 => MoneyX3. “Show me your money, not your fucked face.” Perhaps the next slogan for our so-called corruption free PAP, and use in election to gain mandate.

    The leaders doesn’t even lead by examples, and yet their face is shown everyday in newspaper ? That’s a propaganda.

    The gov give themselves money far what welfare can bring them and proclaim after doing so, has more moral authority. The higher the pay, the higher the moral authority, the less the corruption.

    Then why not ask all MNC to pay all employee millions to prevent corruption ?

    What don’t they simply called themselves God ? Because only can have moral authority with large salary. I will worship these PAP with 3 joss stick burn to them everyday.

    But even God will laugh at them, because I know of no God who love money more than their morality.

  15. wbg said

    A democratic government does not pay its leaders alot of money as monarchies of other countries do. The Queen of England gets millions a year.

    So, the PAP looks like a monarchy with white knights and LHL is the Prince and his father the King?

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