The Lee Family Feud: A twist in the Singapore story

JUNE 18 — So this happened;

“The values of Lee Kuan Yew are being eroded by his own son. Our father placed our country and his people first, not his personal popularity or private agendas.

“We are very sad that we have been pushed to this. We feel hugely uncomfortable and closely monitored in our own country.

“We do not trust Hsien Loong as a brother or as a leader. We have lost confidence in him.”

The above is taken from a six-page letter endorsed by Lee Hsien Yang, and Lee Wei Ling, children of Singapore’s founding father Lee Kuan Yew and siblings of our current prime minister Lee Hsien Loong.

Basically, two of the prime minister’s siblings have spoken out rather forcefully against him and made their criticism very public.

It’s rather unusual for a prime minister to face criticism from immediate family; in Singapore where criticism of rulers is muted to say the least, this is an earthquake.

Every Singaporean grows up with the mantra that ours is a well-run country with the best of all possible leadership chosen on the basis of “meritocracy.”

Suddenly though we have voices from the very highest echelons of the elite telling us this isn’t the case.

And these junior Lee siblings were not just hangers ons; Lee Hsien Yang has served as a general in the Singapore Armed Forces and was the CEO of the state telco, Singtel. The sister, Lee Wei Ling, is a prominent neurosurgeon.

The original scathing letter was followed by a statement from Lee Hsien Yang’s son Lee Shengwu — speaking again about “abuse of power.”

It is quite clear the Lee family is at war with itself. This is highly significant because the family is synonymous with Singapore.

In fact only for 14 years in its post-independence history has Singapore not been ruled by a Lee — and even then Lee Kuan Yew was in Cabinet as Senior Minister.

The fact that Lee Hsien Yang has announced that pressure from his brother is such that he is now seeking to leave the country is a matter of genuine interest to all Singaporeans.

A view of former Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew’s Oxley Road residence in Singapore June 14, 2017. — Reuters pic
A view of former Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew’s Oxley Road residence in Singapore June 14, 2017. — Reuters pic

The heart of the sibling’s fallout though appears to be relatively straightforward. It concerns Lee Kuan Yew’s long-time residence at 38 Oxley Road and what to do with it following his death.

Our founding father moved into the home in 1945 and all his children were born there. Some of the ruling PAPs’ initial meetings took place in the colonial bungalow and it served as Lee Senior’s home through his old age.

Given its prime location, it is not without financial value but it’s clearly most important as a symbol and link to the Legacy of Lee Kuan Yew.

Because of that symbolism, our founding prime minister was very keen that it be demolished after his death — to prevent it becoming a shrine or part of a personality cult.

The final version of his will seems to state explicitly that the house is to be demolished.

All three siblings committed publicly to the demolition of the house in 2015 but the two younger siblings are now accusing the eldest of reneging on this promise.

They have accused him of wanting to keep the house for political reasons — to channel the popularity of their father.

They appear to have grown particularly enraged when informed that a Ministerial committee had been set up to determine what to do with the house — after it appeared the matter had been settled.

They believe their brother is behind the committee. Communications between eldest and younger siblings broke down over the matter and we now have public letters bringing the whole thing “live” to every Singaporean’s newsfeed.

In his defence, Lee Hsien Loong published a chronology of the various wills made by his father and expressed his belief that the final will might have been manipulated by his younger brother’s wife (it is always the wife!).

In some of the earlier versions of the will, the demolition clause was removed.

Truthfully, this is really a very standard and frankly boring family drama — no wild scandals.

This could be any middle-class family fighting over the ancestral home. Letters to lawyers, squabbles over probate, lots of blame heaped on sisters-in-law.

Nonetheless, the prime minister and his siblings shouldn’t be let off that easily.

Some of the allegations are no joke. That the prime minister has allowed his wife undue influence over the government and that he has used organs of the state to achieve his personal objectives are not claims the Singapore public should take lightly.

But the siblings too are hardly blameless. They criticise their brother and Ho Ching for trying to set themselves up as a “natural aristocracy” but they too are relying on their near royal status to ensure their complaints get the nation’s attention.

I think for most Singaporeans, the takeaway from this episode (and I am sure it is not the last) in the Lee family drama should be that one family is too enmeshed in our national fabric.

Their spats are national news and their petty feuds genuinely affects confidence in and perception of our nation.

To achieve Singapore’s true potential, we need to be about much more than a single family and we need check and balances; not simply so the right thing is done for 38 Oxley Road, but for the nation as a whole.

PS: Personally, I strongly believe 38 Oxley Road itself should remain standing as a museum or similar.

* This is the personal opinion of the columnist.

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