What if Singapore had philosophers?

Beyond the typical stereotype of a philosopher, such figures have a much more valuable role in society than most realise — yet, there is a seeming lack of philosophers in Singapore. So, what would a Singapore with philosophers look like?

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By Gerald Koh

What is your impression of someone who is called a philosopher? Maybe it’s someone with a lengthy beard constantly penning down a bunch of deep stuff all day long. Or perhaps you believe it’s someone who goes out onto the streets and outwardly articulates their musings. That label undoubtedly carries a certain stereotype in the mind of a typical person. However, beyond the typical stereotype, such figures have a much more valuable role in society than most realise — yet, there is a seeming lack of philosophers in Singapore.

While there is no specified way of defining what a ‘philosopher’ is, it generally encompasses someone who expresses values and ideas applying to human society and life as a whole, especially when they are innovative in the marketplace of ideas.

In Singapore, philosophically-minded figures are not usually people that your parents, teachers, peers or institutions encourage you to become. Rather, you are pushed toward picking up skills and credentials that are ‘practical’, and therefore be empowered to become the likes of businessmen, doctors, lawyers, engineers, architects and perhaps teachers (This is by no means a degradation of these professions). 

Common sense dictates that any functioning society requires enough people to do these jobs well in order to continue flourishing. And the people who are fulfilling the expectation of these jobs are doing us a huge service in keeping our economy going.

However, there is a common fallacy that those people who are fulfilling ‘practical’ roles are the only people truly contributing to society. This is a trap we can very well fall into while living in Singapore, which from the very start has been focused on pragmatism, almost as a dogma. Therefore, those who contribute to society through their writings, commentaries and speech are likely to be unfairly disregarded. In fairness, there are certain political commentators in our nation with considerable influence, such as Han Fok Hwang and Catherine Lim, but it is fair to say that they are largely few and far between.

One good example of Singapore placing pragmatism over philosophical thought is the infamous Catherine Lim affair. In 1994, Lim had published two political commentaries on Straits Times — “The PAP and the people — the great affectionate divide” and “One government, two styles” — drawing ire from the Government. In response, then Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong suggested she join a political party and run for elections if she wished to air her strong political views, and that her political agenda should not be expressed outside the “political arena”.

Having a group of people who can openly share different ideas, disseminate them to the rest of the public, and debate them among each other is a lot more valuable than we realise. This is more than just allowing a bunch of people to spew things from their mouth just for the sake of it. This is about stimulating the intellectual and cultural capacity of our society en masse. When that is developed, our society will continuously move forward in meaningful ways, be it in the areas of technological development, education or political leadership.

To build this up a bit further, allow me to dive more into various aspects of world history that prove this point further. Arguably the most influential and well renowned civilisation in the ancient era, Ancient Greece, had numerous philosophers and writings as one of its defining features. They were graced by the legendary trio of Socrates, Aristotle, and Plato, as well as many other mightily influential and impressive thinkers. This is what made them a large influence on many civilisations that came after it, and can be still felt in society today. Western civilisation was also strongly influenced by a wide variety of thinkers during the Enlightenment period. These men included the likes of Blaise Pascal, John Hume, Adam Smith, and Edmund Burke, among others. Aside from the specific intellectual contributions that the Enlightenment figures provided, they also birthed a culture where the marketplace of ideas was respected and authoritarian censorship from the ruling class was disregarded.

When looking back at Singapore’s national history, it is understandable about why our culture is quite stifled in this regard. The backdrop of Lee Kwan Yew, the People’s Action Party he led and the immediate years of independence provides context for what the cultural landscape in Singapore is currently functioning like. Being in the desperate predicament the nation was in right after Malaysia booted us out, measures had to be taken to ensure that Singapore would be able to survive at all. 

In his autobiography From Third World to First, Lee Kwan Yew argued that ‘we had to make extraordinary efforts to become a tightly knit, rugged and adaptable people’ in order to distinguish Singapore as a flourishing nation in comparison to all our neighbours. Idealistic ambitions that did not have a practical bent, especially when it came to national governance, had to be put on hold. Anyone who wanted to flourish in such an environment had to purely focus on pragmatic contributions to society, be it through military service, working in Government, or serving large profit-making corporations to boost the nation’s economy. This is not something that should be condemned; they added a level of stability that was sorely needed following independence and arguably removed weaknesses that would leave the new nation vulnerable.

However, times have changed and our society needs to shift in this regard. Following decades of hard work, we now have an economically flourishing and stable society for our residents to reap its fruits. Therefore, we have the opportunity to remove the  suppression of important cultural elements in society, such as allowing people to speak their mind and exchange different ideas on the big issues. And facilitating the ability for certain people to focus on expressing and debating ideas would do our society a lot more good than most Singaporeans realise. 

Human Rights Watch has described our political environment as ‘stifling’, and a place where ‘citizens face severe restrictions’. While human rights are not the only means of defining how successful or flourishing a country is, their claim here regarding Singapore’s restrictive environment is unfortunately quite true. It is worth considering pushing our society to better entertain the free exchange of ideas, even by figures who can be classified as ‘philosophers’ in the mould of Socrates, Aristotle and Blaise Pascal.

All things considered, having these full-time philosophers may bring some problems that will need to be addressed. For example, they could unfairly take the spotlight off the forgotten people doing important and pragmatic work to keep our society going. Their messages could also be too idealistic, which may come off as deceiving to some.

However, with how we’ve progressed as a country, its about time we throw away the stereotype of a curly, bearded man holding a scroll and preaching about things beyond our comprehension. With an overall intellectual and cultural climate that can seem stale in our country, such figures could then change the direction of this society that we live in.