Few leaders are as thin-skinned as those from the founding family of Singapore. The late Lee Kuan Yew loathed his critics and turned defamation charges into a weapon of state, used to bankrupt political opposition and silence ordinary citizens who dared to gripe about Big Brother.
Criticism is thus rare. But there are exceptions, most notably cases involving the Lee family itself. This week, it appeared that the gloves have again come off with respect to a lingering dispute over the Lee family home, a bungalow near Orchard Road.
At issue is whether the late Lee Kuan Yew really wanted the home demolished after his death to avoid the prospect of it being used as a centerpiece to promote him as a personality cult. Incumbent Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, Lee Kuan Yew’s son, has been accused by his siblings of ignoring their father’s wishes for it to be torn down and clinging to the bungalow to use it to strengthen his own political power.
The latest outburst was delivered by Lee Wei Ling, a well-known neurosurgeon, and her brother Lee Hsien Yang, chairman of the Civil Aviation Authority of Singapore, who issued a statement accusing their elder brother of misusing their father’s legacy, abusing his power, and even threatening their security.
While such family squabbles are hardly unique to Singapore, the Lees have taken to social media and the internet to express their family discontent. That includes feeling “threatened” by the “misuse of his position and influence over the Singapore government and its agencies to drive his personal agenda.” Lee Hsien Yang has said that he felt compelled to leave Singapore, whose future he worries for.
“We are concerned that the system has few checks and balances to prevent the abuse of government,” they said, adding the prime minister harbored political ambitions for Li Hongyi, his 30-year-old son and former army officer.
“We feel big brother omnipresent,” they said, adding their brother was “driven by a desire for power and personal popularity” and (along with his wife Ho Ching, chief executive of the wealth fund Temasek Holdings) “want to milk” the legacy of their father “for their own political purposes.”
Lee, who was initially on vacation when the story broke earlier this week, expressed his disappointment from Scotland with his own siblings’ Facebook post: “I am deeply saddened by the unfortunate allegations that they have made. Ho Ching and I deny these allegations, especially the absurd claim that I have political ambitions for my son.” He later issued a summary of statutory declarations to the ministerial committee looking into options for the Oxley Road residence.
His brother issued several retorts to Lee’s accounts on Facebook. Meanwhile, Lee’s son, Li Hongyi, for his part, obviously unimpressed by the implications of dynastic rule, chipped in on his Facebook page, denying that he had any interest in politics.
Of course, the Lees are no different to any other family where such squabbles can and do happen. However, most of those involved in run-of-the-mill family disputes do not exert absolute control over a nation-state and this was reflected in the media response.
Where most negative stories about Singapore are deliberately ignored, this one has featured heavily across all aspects of the press and broadcast media. One long-term observer noted: “Local journalists covered minute details and spent more time on this than they would on a major event – almost filling the role of a soap opera.”
That in itself is an insight into the island nation’s political fabric, which some view as a “nanny state.”
Local journalist and human rights activist Kirsten Han told the Financial Times: “It fascinates Singaporeans that the siblings are one of a small group who can say the prime minister is grooming a dynasty – and won’t get sued.”
It’s the type of political melodrama that has more in common with the family dynasties of other countries in Southeast Asia like the Philippines, where loud public criticisms of state are the norm; a type of political culture that Singapore has sorely missed since its inception.
Indeed, seen from this perspective, the Lee family squabble may not be such a bad thing for Singapore’s politically-starved millions, who at the very least finally have their own, homegrown, must-watch, political soap opera in full production.
Luke Hunt can be followed on Twitter @lukeanthonyhunt