Did Prime Minister Lee mean “Natural Aristocracy” or “Aristocracy”?

Lee hsieng loong

Many individuals and sites, such as The Online Citizen, took issue with PM Lee’s recent use of the term “natural aristocracy” and what it seems to suggest about the mentality of local leadership.

They saw his words as referring to social, political, and economic elites who receive their positions through hereditary titles or offices.

But the Prime Minister Office and others have stated that PM Lee’s reference to “natural aristocracy” was pointing to the Jeffersonian-Jacksonian model of democracy.

In an hour-long dialogue session hosted by Washington Post columnist, Fareed Zakaria, at the Institute of Policy Studies (IPS) conference on Thursday titled, “Singapore at 50: What Lies Ahead?”, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said:

“You want people to stand up, not scrape and bow. But if you don’t have a certain natural aristocracy in the system, people who are respected because they have earned that and we level everything down to the lowest common denominator, then I think society will lose out … If you end up with anarchy, it doesn’t mean that you’ll be delivered with brilliance.”

This was in response to Dr Zakaria’s remarks on communities that accept challenges to authority, as seen in countries such like the US, Sweden and Israel. These are also countries known for their dominance in innovation, science and technology.

The US journalist asked, “You spent six hours yesterday in a court trying to do this, to instil a culture of respect. And isn’t it exactly the opposite of what you need for your economic future?” Dr Zakaria was referring to the court hearing for PM Lee’s defamation suit with blogger Roy Ngerng.

The original mention of this “natural aristocracy” is in a letter written by Thomas Jefferson, an American founding father, the principal author of the Declaration of Independence (1776), and the third President of the United States (1801–1809).

Dated 28 October 1813, the letter was addressed to John Adams, another American founding father and second president of the United States (1797–1801). It is filed under “Equality”, Volume 1, Chapter 15, Document 61 of the Founders’ Constitution in America.

“Natural Aristocracy” as described in Thomas Jefferson’s letter

The letter by Thomas Jefferson started off with,

For I agree with you that there is a natural aristocracy among men. The grounds of this are virtue and talents. Formerly bodily powers gave place among the aristoi. But since the invention of gunpowder has armed the weak as well as the strong with missile death, bodily strength, like beauty, good humor, politeness and other accomplishments, has become but an auxiliary ground of distinction.

For Jefferson, this “natural aristocracy” rests on virtue and talents. However, technology and changing perspectives have added to new grounds for social distinction.

Jefferson goes on to describe the artificial form of aristocracy founded on wealth and birth without virtue nor talents. He wrote:

There is also an artificial aristocracy founded on wealth and birth, without either virtue or talents; for with these it would belong to the first class.

However, Jefferson further argued that:

The natural aristocracy I consider as the most precious gift of nature for the instruction, the trusts, and government of society.

Jefferson explains that ideally:

I think the best remedy is exactly that provided by all our constitutions, to leave to the citizens the free election and separation of the aristoi from the pseudo-aristoi, of the wheat from the chaff. In general they will elect the real good and wise. In some instances, wealth may corrupt, and birth blind them; but not in sufficient degree to endanger the society.

Singapore’s current model, “Natural” or “Artificial” aristocracy?

While “natural aristocracy” in the context of Thomas Jefferson’s letter can theoretically be a model with parallels to Singapore’s meritocracy, reading the original letter in context will also reveal parallels between today’s Singapore and Jefferson’s description of artificial aristocracy:

It is probable that our difference of opinion may in some measure be produced by a difference of character in those among whom we live. From what I have seen of Massachusets and Connecticut myself, and still more from what I have heard, and the character given of the former by yourself, who know them so much better, there seems to be in those two states a traditionary reverence for certain families, which has rendered the offices of the government nearly hereditary in those families. I presume that from an early period of your history, members of these families happening to possess virtue and talents, have honestly exercised them for the good of the people, and by their services have endeared their names to them.

Then there are areas addressing the merit of free elections surrounding prominent families and elites within a government.

For instance, Jefferson noted that:

Our clergy, before the revolution, having been secured against rivalship by fixed salaries, did not give themselves the trouble of acquiring influence over the people… A Randolph, a Carter, or a Burwell must have great personal superiority over a common competitor to be elected by the people, even at this day.

In regards to fixed salaries, does our civil servants who are paid handsomely along with fat bonuses each year, come to mind?

Randolph, CarterBurwell, were political families in America that had clearly established influence in the political arena of eighteenth and nineteenth century America.  Despite so, the families still need to exhibit superiority as individuals so to win a common folk in a fair election.

Science is progressive, and talents and enterprize on the alert. Resort may be had to the people of the country, a more governable power from their principles and subordination; and rank, and birth, and tinsel-aristocracy will finally shrink into insignificance, even there. This however we have no right to meddle with. It suffices for us, if the moral and physical condition of our own citizens qualifies them to select the able and good for the direction of their government, with a recurrence of elections at such short periods as will enable them to displace an unfaithful servant before the mischief he meditates may be irremediable.

The letter can be viewed in its entirety in this link.

If one were to read the writings of Thomas Jefferson on free elections which his “natural aristocracy” is to be applied to:

The example of four Presidents voluntarily retiring at the end of their eighth year, and the progress of public opinion that the principle is salutary, have given it in practice the force of precedent and usage; insomuch, that, should a President consent to be a candidate for a third election, I trust he would be rejected on this demonstration of ambitious views.
– Thomas Jefferson: Autobiography, 1821

If some period be not fixed, either by the Constitution or by practice, to the services of the First Magistrate, his office, though nominally elective, will in fact be for life; and that will soon degenerate into an inheritance.
– Thomas Jefferson, 1807

Issues of how the prime minister holds the power to fix the exact date of when elections are called with oppositions kept in dark, redrawing of electoral boundaries with lack of independent oversight, one could imagine that PM Lee was referring to Jefferson’s “artificial artistocracy” instead.

Can “natural aristocracy” be used in its original context in PM’s response?

Going back to the question to which PM Lee invoked the “natural aristocracy”. Dr Zakaria asked PM Lee, “You spend six hours like yesterday in court trying to do this, to instill a culture of respect and isn’t it exactly the opposite of what you need for your economic future?”

Now, what is wrong with using this term in response to Dr Zakaria’s question?

Because there is nothing that would entitle one with the right of being respect even if one were to rise in society as part of some “natural aristocracy”.

The only system that would grant someone respect because they are of a higher class is that of an “artificial aristocracy”, where positions of power were accorded to individuals by default rather than by merit.

PM Lee rose up through the ranks in the army to Brigadier-General, then rose up through political office, taking up the highest office of Prime Minister out of his own merits and virtues.

But, let us not deceive ourselves by forgetting that Singapore’s first prime minister and former Minister Mentor, Lee Kuan Yew, who held political power for 50 years, is PM Lee’s father.

Therefore referring to the entirety of the letter, it can be understood how in Singapore’s context, the term, “natural aristocracy” as uttered by Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong should be view in a different manner from its original form.

You can’t have your cake and eat it (too)

In the same dialogue where he uttered the words “natural aristocracy”, PM Lee said, “If we take the view that if you voted against me, I should help you first (as) that shows my largeness of spirit, then I think you will go extinct as a government.”

PM Lee was responding to Mr Zakaria’s opinion that Singapore was one of the only developed economies in the world that has not transitioned to a multi-party liberal democracy.

“We are a multi-party liberal democratic system,” Mr Lee said. “The outcome is not what you would like to see, but that is what Singaporean voters have decided.”

By suggesting that a free election cannot pick out the “wheat from the chaff” and may generate uncertainty among the electorate, Mr. Lee seems to gloss over what may be fear-mongering via the mainstream media, an equation of the People’s Action Party with the state of Singapore, or claims the system of government in Singapore will fail if his party is not elected.

Left unaddressed, there seems to be an implication that the political party Mr. Lee leads should be kept in perpetual power. PM Lee’s government and political values deviates from the kind of democratic government which Thomas Jefferson would envision himself.

Whenever a man has cast a longing eye on [offices,] a rottenness begins in his conduct.
– Thomas Jefferson, 1799

Both cannot be true at the same time, and pulling all stops to ensure a particular political party remains in perpetual power for a democratic government is at odds with Jefferson’s idea of a “natural aristocracy”.

Nothing is more incumbent on the old than to know when they should get out of the way and relinquish to younger successors the honors they can no longer earn, and the duties they can no longer perform.
– Thomas Jefferson, 1815