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SG50: What Lies Ahead: A Natural Aristocracy or a Self-Perpetuating Family Oligarchy?


In April this year I received an invitation to an Institute of Policy Studies and Lee Kuan Yew School of Policy Studies Conference held to mark SG50 entitled “What Lies Ahead”. Predictably the State academics organising the conference anticipated no surprises in what lay ahead, as shown by the Conference line-up.

I reproduce below the main text of the invitation:

Dear Mr Jeyaretnam,

The Institute of Policy Studies and the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, National University of Singapore (NUS), invite you to a conference to mark Singapore’s Golden Jubilee and NUS’ 110th anniversary.

Titled “Singapore at 50: What lies ahead?” (SG50+, in short), the conference will take place on 2 and 3 July 2015 at the Shangri-La Hotel. International and Singaporean thought leaders will discuss geopolitical, economic, environmental and governance trends that may affect the future of our world, and shape how Singapore and Singaporeans can be future-ready.

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong will be the Guest of Honour at the conference gala dinner and dialogue on 2 July. The dialogue will be moderated by Dr Fareed Zakaria, the host of Fareed Zakaria GPS on CNN. The conference programme on 3 July includes a lunch dialogue with Deputy Prime Minister and Finance Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam, and a discussion on the topic of governance between Emeritus Senior Minister Goh Chok Tong and former UK Prime Minister, Sir John Major. We hope to host up to 700 public, private, community and student leaders at the conference. 

We would like to personally invite you to register to attend the conference. Registration details are in the column on the right.

We look forward to you joining us at this special event.

With warm regards,

Janadas Devan
Institute of Policy Studies

This is how I replied:

Dear Sir,

You have managed to arrange a programme without one Singaporean speaker outside the Government and the PAP.

I am at a loss to understand how this event can then be entitled SG50:What Lies Ahead

The nearest parallel would be a conference hosted by the Soviet Union in 1989 with only speakers from the Communist Party invited.

We will not be attending particularly as you have the effrontery to charge $1500 to hear PAP propaganda that I can read in the State media every day.

Yours sincerely

Kenneth Jeyaretnam

My views on the conference have been borne out by the reports of Lee Hsien Loong’s remarks during the dialogue with Fareed Zakaria from CNN (whom numerous publications including Time, CNN, Slate and Newsweek  have accused at different times of plagiarism or failing to attribute correctly). I quote from the TOC article:

Dr Zakaria said that countries such as the US, Sweden and Israel have been dominant in innovation, science and technology. He noted that the common underlying thread in these countries was “a culture of a lack of respect for or challenging authority.”

“You spent six hours yesterday in a court trying to do this, to instil a culture of respect,” Dr Zakaria said. “And isn’t it exactly the opposite of what you need for your economic future?”

In his response, Mr Lee, who was testifying in court on Thursday in his defamation suit against blogger Roy Ngerng, 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.”

Apparently the PM, who was undoubtedly given plenty of time for his researchers and media specialists to prepare his answers for him, was not referring to traditional notions of aristocracy but to the concept put forward by Thomas Jefferson, one of the authors of the US Constitution and a founding father and President of the young United States.

Jefferson was the author of the Declaration of Independence and in particular of the famous paragraph:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness. That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed;

Jefferson may have been a hypocrite, since he owned slaves and had an intimate relationship with a female slave while “continually puling about liberty, equality and the degrading curse of slavery” as Lincoln put it. However, while remaining central to the US system of government,  the concept of inalienable rights and liberty is something that was quickly jettisoned by the PM’s father after he seized power.  The rights conferred by our Constitution are so limited by sweeping exceptions that they are not rights at all and our Executive feels free to ignore the Constitution or amend it whenever it suits.

Jefferson may have put forward the concept of a natural aristocracy but he meant by it something very different from the spin that the PM was trying to put on it. In his letter to John Adams in 1813 (another founding father and President) Jefferson says:

“… I agree with you that there is a natural aristocracy among men. The grounds of this are virtue and talents. 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. The natural aristocracy I consider as the most precious gift of nature for the instruction, the trusts, and government of society. And indeed it would have been inconsistent in creation to have formed man for the social state, and not to have provided virtue and wisdom enough to manage the concerns of the society. May we not even say that that form of government is the best which provides the most effectually for a pure selection of these natural aristoi into the offices of government? The artificial aristocracy is a mischievous ingredient in government, and provision should be made to prevent its ascendancy. On the question, What is the best provision, you and I differ…. You think it best to put the Pseudo-aristoi into a separate chamber of legislation where they may be hindered from doing mischief by their coordinate branches, and where also they may be a protection to wealth against the Agrarian and plundering enterprises of the Majority of the people…

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

While Jefferson said that there is a natural aristocracy, the grounds of which are virtues and talents, as opposed to an artificial aristocracy founded on wealth or birth, he clearly states that the way for this to emerge is through electoral competition, where it can be left to the citizens to “sort the wheat from the chaff.”

However LHL is talking about something very different. Whereas Jefferson says the electorate are perfectly capable of choosing the best rulers, LHL displays the familiar mistrust of democracy and the will of the people that his father displayed and that defines the PAP. When the PM talks about people being respected because they have earned it, when he worries about everything being levelled down to the lowest common denominator and society losing out leading to anarchy we just hearing the same self-serving message that the PAP have always put out.

This is: we are the “natural aristocracy” but we cannot trust you the people to make the right decisions and elect us to office if we hold free elections. Therefore we will continue to tilt the playing field so that we and our friends will stay in power indefinitely. We will exercise complete control of the media and of the Elections Department. We will clamp down on freedom of expression and dissent to instill a climate of fear, that we wll euphemistically call “respect”, through the persecution of bloggers like Roy Ngerng and children like Amos Yee. We will use state resources, such as housing and control over CPF to intimidate you. If despite this, you dare to elect anyone who challenges us we will have them removed from Parliament on fabricated charges.

After ensuring that no opposition can emerge to challenge us we will have the arrogance to claim that we are a natural aristocracy and the only people fit to lead the country. Once we have succeeded in silencing all dissenting voices then we will give the impression to foreigners through orchestrated events like this conference that Singaporeans are solidly united behind their “natural aristocracy”.

The truth is somewhat different. Far from being a natural aristocracy, the PAP Government has become increasingly an old-fashioned oligarchy where our rulers are what Jefferson called “an artificial aristocracy founded on wealth and birth, without either virtue or talents.”


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