Applying Aristotle’s Politics to the Singaporean regime


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Aristotle classifies the political structure of a polis into three broad categories: monarchy, aristocracy and polity. He asserts that a regime aspires to autárkeia, or “self-sufficiency” (p. 3), and the city exists “for the sake of living well” (p. 3). Thus, a good polis provides a materially satisfying and happy life for all. In contrast, a deviant regime that is ruled with “a view to the private advantage” (p. 73) instead of the common good is considered a tyranny, oligarchy or democracy. Although these classifications are based on existing regimes in the 4th century BCE, Aristotle’s political theory is still impressively applicable today. Despite its relatively large population of 5.47 million people when compared to a classical Greek polis, Singapore is a small city-state by 21st century standards. This essay therefore uses Singapore as an empirical study of Aristotle’s relevance to the modern world through an examination of whether his political categories can be applied here. The success of Singapore’s political structure will also be evaluated with the criteria that Aristotle uses in Politics – whether the regime fulfills its purpose of “living well” (p. 3) and can be preserved for a relatively long time.

A regime that allows its people to “[live] well” (p. 3) is often based on certain favorable demographic, geographic and economic conditions, all of which allow it to attain “self-sufficiency” (p. 3). It is possible to argue that Singapore is not economically “self-sufficient” (p. 3) because it does not have “everything available” (p. 196) that it needs for its existence. 95% of its food and 40% of its water are imported from neighboring countries.[1] However, it is important to note that Aristotle also states that “access to the sea” (p. 197) is “beneficial” (p. 197) because it is “necessary” for cities to “import the things that happen not to be available at home” (p. 197). Aristotle is clearly not opposed to the idea of cities supplementing what they cannot produce within the polis with exports. Rather, “self-sufficiency” (p. 3) refers to the ability of a polis to provide a satisfactory standard of living, and this is something that Singapore is highly capable of. Firstly, though its “territory” (p. 196) is too small for food production, this is compensated by its ideal geographical location along the Malacca Strait and South China Sea[2] – easy access to trade allows for the procurement of necessary goods. Singapore’s nominal Gross Domestic Product per capita, which measures a country’s material standard of living, is ranked 3rd in the world.[3] Secondly, Singapore is financially independent and can provide for its citizens without external assistance. The spirit behind Aristotle’s condition of “self-sufficiency” (p. 3) can perhaps be quantified today through external debt. Singapore’s reliance on foreign lenders currently stands at 0 SGD.[4]

In terms of Singapore’s demographic “size” (p. 196), Aristotle clearly distinguishes a “great city” (p. 195) from a “populous” (p. 195) one. A city with a vast population does not necessarily attain military “self-sufficiency” (p. 3); the “capacity” (p. 194), or quality, of its resources is more important. Although Singapore has one of the smallest populations in the world, it can be considered “great” (p. 195) in the Aristotelian sense. Apart from materially providing for its citizens, Singapore also defends its own borders well. Singapore’s military power is ranked 26th in the world[5], and it is “formidable and capable of putting up a defense by sea as well as by land” (p. 198).

Thus, Singapore has the conditions vital for autárkeia and Aristotle is likely to approve of it as a 21st century city-state. Furthermore, Aristotle’s envisioned end of autárkeia remains something that countries strive towards. The sizable allocation of national budgets to defense spending reflects that “self-sufficiency” (p. 3) through military power is still highly desirable. Globalization has indeed created an interconnectedness that increases the dependence of countries on others for necessities. However, modern states differ from classical Greek poleis only in that their pursuit of “self-sufficiency” (p. 3) is now less narrowly focused on homegrown production. “Living well” (p. 3) is still an aspiration for many, be it through the adequate provision of goods, fiscal independence and military power.

Now that the ideal foundations for a regime have been established and evaluated, the regime itself can be examined. Aristotle describes the regime as “a certain arrangement of those who inhabit the city” (p. 62), and understanding its citizenship laws is therefore necessary to our understanding of the regime. Aristotle defines a citizen as one who “is defined by no other thing so much as by partaking in decision and office” (p. 63). The strong association between one’s membership of a city and one’s political participation is seen in Singapore. Like a classical Greek polis, residence in the city does not make one a Singaporean, as seen by the large immigrant population who are not considered citizens. Only Singaporeans enjoy the right to vote and stand in elections[6], and all others are denied participation in the political process. However, it must be noted that Aristotle’s idea of the citizen as someone who “[partakes] in decision and office” (p. 63) refers to the individual’s direct participation in the “deliberative”, “authoritative” and “adjudicative” (p. 120) offices. This is clearly expressed in Chapter 14 of Book 4 where Aristotle gives the examples of how citizens “all decide” (p. 121) in the political arena, be it through “all entering office by turns” (p. 121) or “all [meeting] to deliberate on all matters” (p. 121). This differs from Singapore’s form of political participation, where citizens are compelled by law to undertake the responsibility of voting[7], but few are directly involved. However, the lack of opportunities to be directly involved in Singapore is understandable because the average polis that Aristotle observes only numbers around 3,000-4,000 citizens.

Aristotle’s view on the type of person who should qualify for citizenship in a classical Greek polis is a more significant disagreement with modern practices. For Aristotle, women, though they are free persons, are not citizens in the unqualified sense. He states that “the relation of male to female is by nature a relation of superior to inferior and ruler to ruled” (p. 8), and women are therefore deemed incapable of holding political office or participating in decision-making. This is in contrast to Singapore and most other countries, where there is no longer a distinction drawn along gender lines; women and men are both eligible for citizenship and political involvement.

In addition, Aristotle draws a relationship between citizenship and the existing regime that is not observed in the 21st century. Even though unqualified citizenship is defined by political involvement, Aristotle states that the citizen must “necessarily differ in the case of each sort of regime” (p. 63). A poor laborer who is a citizen under a democracy will not be considered a citizen in an oligarchy as only those who possess a certain amount of property can partake in the political process. Nevertheless, in the modern world, though the Singapore regime differs from that of North Korea or Saudi Arabia, the concept of citizenship across the countries is similar – for example, a laborer would be considered a citizen in all three countries. Thus, unlike classical Greece, citizenship today is not contingent on whether one participates politically. In some countries such as Singapore, it is possible to do so as a citizen. In others such as Saudi Arabia and North Korea, being a citizen does not mean one has the right to vote or stand in elections. The difference, then, is that Aristotle’s definition of the citizen precludes a vast segment of the polis (depending on the regime), while in modern times, the criterion for citizenship is relatively low but the barriers to political participation range from low to high, depending on the regime.

While Aristotle defines the citizen as someone who participates politically, the regime of a polis determines the type of person who can do so. Aristotle describes the “governing body” (p. 71) as the regime” (p. 71), and it is therefore important to consider the various offices within it before classifying the regime. Singapore’s state organs consist of the Legislature, Executive and Judiciary. The Cabinet, which is part of the Executive branch and controls the “direction of the Government”[8], incorporates functions of the “deliberative” (p. 120) office in a classical Greek polis, which “deliberate[s] about common matters” (p. 120). For example, matters concerning Singapore’s foreign policy, or “war and peace” (p. 120), are decided by the Cabinet. The Judiciary, like the “adjudicative” (p. 120), “independently administer[s] justice”[9] through “courts” (p. 127) that decide on issues ranging from “private transactions” (p. 127) to “homicides” (p. 127). However, the “adjudicative” (p. 120) office in Aristotle’s time comprises solely of jury members. In Singapore, the appointment of judges is enshrined in the Constitution. Furthermore, the Legislative branch in Singapore does not directly correspond with the “authoritative” (p. 120) office as it is concerned with the enactment of laws that fall under the “deliberative” (p. 120). In fact, the duties of the “authoritative” (p. 120) office, which are concerned with “what offices there should be” (p. 120) and the “choice of persons” (p. 120) to occupy them, are undertaken by the President of Singapore rather than a particular governing body. According to Article 25 of the Constitution, the President of Singapore has the authority to appoint the Members of Parliament and the Cabinet. Thus, while Singapore’s governing body is broadly similar to Aristotle’s categorization of the three offices, there are slight differences in the allocation of responsibilities under each office. Perhaps most importantly, Aristotle’s division of offices does not include Heads of State such as the President or Prime Minister. This is due to the fact that regimes today outstrip a classical Greek polis in size. Small assemblies meant that special executives were not necessary.

Notably, Aristotle’s comprehensive classification of regimes into six different forms remains highly applicable to Singapore in the 21st century. The placement of certain individuals in elevated positions of power as the Heads of State can be described as a monarchical element in Singapore’s regime. More broadly, Singapore’s political structure can be described as a polity, which is a “mixture of oligarchy and democracy” (p. 110). Article 44 of the Constitution states that all Singaporean citizens who are proficient in one of the national languages are eligible to stand for parliamentary elections. This is an unquestionably democratic element in Singapore’s regime as the barriers to political participation are extremely low, with most Singaporeans meeting the proficiency criteria. However, the qualifications for Heads of State are oligarchic in nature as they correspond to Aristotle’s definition of a system where “offices are filled on the basis of large assessments” (p. 107). Article 19(giii) of the Constitution states that the individual must have held office “as chairman […] of a company […] with a paid-up capital of at least $100 million” to qualify. Only individuals who have occupied extremely influential positions and amassed significant wealth are able to participate at the highest level of politics.

In observing the distinguished profile of Singapore’s rulers, with many who graduated from world-class institutions, it is possible to classify Singapore’s regime as an aristocracy. Article 19(giv) of the Constitution further states that the individual running for presidency must have held “any other similar or comparable seniority or responsibility”. It can therefore be argued that political candidates are assessed based on experience and knowledge, and the best, rather than the wealthiest, are elected. However, it must be noted that standing for the presidential elections requires an election deposit that will be forfeited if the candidate receives less than 12.5% of the votes.[10] This was the case in the Presidential Elections of 2011, where Tan Kin Lian forfeited his deposit of $48,000.[11] Thus, even though the Constitution stipulates that candidates must meet a certain level of merit, in reality, there is a substantial deterrence to such political participation as few candidates can have the financial capability to withstand the loss of a large sum. Nevertheless, Aristotle would likely observe that Singapore’s oligarchic structure is “more aristocratic” (p. 107) because the Heads of State, once elected, “themselves elect in filling vacancies” (p. 107) in the Cabinet, and this is done according to merit.

Despite his classification of three broad categories of regimes, Aristotle acknowledges that there is no regime that is more right than another, for “those regimes which look to the common advantage are correct regimes” (p. 73). Only those that pursue the common good over narrow self-interests can allow all its citizens to “[live] well” (p. 3). Aristotle highlights the problems of a democracy that “rules with a view to the advantage of those who are poor” (p. 139) because the multitude, armed with authority, often goes about “harassing individually those who own property” (p. 139). He cites historical examples such as the democracy in Megara, where democratic leaders “confiscate[d]” the goods of the wealthy and instigated an uprising from the nobles (p. 139). Similarly, an oligarchy can lead to the resentment of the poor when the wealthy “expend their private wealth in wanton living” (p. 142) or “steal common funds” (p. 143). As a polity with a “selection from [democratic and oligarchic] arrangements” (p. 112), Singapore’s regime avoids the extremes of democracy and oligarchy, and rules to the advantage of both the multitude and the wealthy. Policies such as low personal income tax rates[12] ensure that the wealth of the rich are not unjustly appropriated for the multitude. At the same time, the regime works towards providing a materially satisfactory life for the poor through affordable public housing and Workfare income supplements. The approach of the regime is in line with Aristotle’s recommendation that regimes should not “neglect” (p. 152) the “middling element” (p. 152) in their policies as what is “held to be characteristically popular” will eventually lead to the destruction of democracies, and the same is true for oligarchies.

Aristotle observes that in a democracy, such destruction often comes about because a “popular leader” (p. 106) becomes “particularly influential” (p. 106) and implements these policies that disadvantage the wealthy. He notes that this is a result of “decrees having authority rather than laws” (p. 106) because “they bring everything before the people” (p. 106), who inadvertently favor measures that align with their own agendas. Thus, Aristotle believes that the “law should rule in all matters” (p. 106) – the sovereignty of laws that are well constructed and just will act as a safeguard against rulers who seek their “private advantage” (p. 73). Notably, in the Singapore Constitution, Article 152 enshrines the protection of Malay minority rights while Part VII establishes the Presidential Council for Minority Rights, which ensures that no laws in Singapore affect “persons of any racial or religious community”. The necessity of ruling for the common advantage without discrimination to minorities is thus enshrined in Singapore law. However, the parliamentary sovereignty that is practiced in Singapore might be a concern for Aristotle as Members of the Parliament, or popularly elected leaders, have the power to change the law. Nevertheless, the likelihood of abuse of this power for issues that affect the wellbeing of the people is low – to amend legislation regarding Part IV of the Constitution, which expounds on the Fundamental Liberties of the citizen, “a national referendum” that is supported by “not less than two-thirds” of the electorate is necessary, as stipulated in Article 5. Thus, Aristotle will likely approve of the Singapore regime because it is dedicated to the rule of the common advantage and allowing all citizens to “[live] well” (p. 3). Furthermore, regimes that rule to the advantage of all citizens equally will be less likely to be overthrown because revolutions occur when the people seek “equality” (p. 131). Thus, Singapore’s political structure indicates a potential for the long-term stability that Aristotle explores in Book 5.

From the empirical study of Singapore’s conditions and political structure today, it is clear that Aristotle’s political theory, despite being grounded in observations from 4th century BCE, is still relevant to the 21st century. Autárkeia and “living well” (p. 3) remain the aspirations of modern nations, and the regimes that they adopt to pursue this objective can still be classified with Aristotle’s political categories. This is perhaps unsurprising as Aristotle has had a profound impact on Western political thought and Singapore is a republic that follows a Western political model. Globally, Singapore is considered a success story of development from a resource-poor nation to a state of autárkeia, and it is therefore likely that Aristotle would approve of the features of its regime, as many of which correspond to Aristotle’s political recommendations.

Although there are technical differences between the political structure of the classical Greek polis and most states today, such as the positions of Heads of State, these are only to be expected as the scale of even a very small city-state like Singapore far exceeds that of the ancient polis. Aristotle’s idea of the governing body was therefore adapted to suit the expansive needs of a modern state. Furthermore, though Aristotle’s view on who should qualify as a citizen is different from that which is used today, his political theory should not be dismissed as fundamentally incompatible with our inclusion of women in the political process. In Politics, his argument for women’s subservience to men stems from his observation that “from birth” (p. 7), people “diverge” (p.7) towards “being ruled” (p. 7) and “others toward ruling” (p. 7). Aristotle’s belief in the superiority of males is based on empirical observations drawn from experiences in a deeply misogynistic society. It is possible that a modern-day Aristotle who empirically observes the equality of men and women in Singapore today will revise his views according to the societal structure of the 21st century. Ultimately, Aristotle’s Politics is not a static set of theories that can only be applied to a classical Greek polis – his long-lasting influence is a testament to their adaptability.


Aristotle. Aristotle’s Politics. Second. Translated by Carnes Lord. Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press, 2013.














Categories: Philosophy

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