An extraordinary dispute within Singapore’s ruling family broke into the open on June 14. Lee Wei Ling and Lee Hsien Yang — the two younger children of the late Lee Kuan Yew — posted a message on Facebook accusing their elder brother, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, of subverting their father’s last will and testament by avoiding the demolition of the family home.
More seriously for the public interest, they accused Lee Hsien Loong of abusing his position to achieve this end and of trying to engineer a dynastic succession whereby his son Li Hongyi would enter politics as a third generation of Lees. They are particularly concerned that Hsien Loong’s personal solicitor possessed and was using documents that had been made available only to the National Heritage Board for the purposes of organizing a commemorative display.
As a result of this episode, the Lee siblings have discovered to their horror that there are no checks and balances on the power of the prime minister and that the Singaporean press is meek and timid. They seem to think that they are the first to have noticed this. So fearful are the Lee siblings of their elder brother that Lee Hsien Yang has announced his intention to flee the country.
The third generation of Lees are now involved as well. Lee Hsien Loong’s son, Li Hongyi, says he never wanted to enter politics anyway, despite his ambition being an open secret. Lee Hsien Yang’s son Li Shengwu claimed “Not only do I intend never to go into politics, I believe that it would be bad for Singapore if any third-generation Lee went into politics. The country must be bigger than one family.”
It is difficult to judge what is most significant in this episode. Insofar as long-term consequences for the governance and future of Singapore, there is substantial damage to the Lee brand — and by consequence, the Singapore brand. Lee Wei Ling, Lee Hsien Yang, and Li Shengwu do not want power for themselves, but they do want to delegitimize Lee Hsien Loong’s rule during his final 5–10 years in office and to spoil Li Hongyi’s entry into politics. His ambition is their ultimate target.
Their Facebook post was the first occasion on which there had been any word of Li Hongyi’s ambition from within the ruling elite — and it came in the form of a denunciation of dynastic ambition. In a country that brands itself as a meritocracy, such a suggestion is poisonous and — if made by anyone outside the family — would have resulted in legal action.
Furthermore, the news was delivered in such a way that it left Li Hongyi tainted by association with his father rather than his grandfather. Rightly or wrongly, the Lee Kuan Yew brand commands an extraordinarily high level of political capital — both domestically and internationally — because it is inextricably linked with the Singapore success story. No one who watched his funeral, Singapore’s 50th anniversary celebrations or the 2015 General Elections can doubt the power of his image — which, coincidentally, the Singapore government now regulates.
Instead of adding to the Lee family brand over the last 13 years, Lee Hsien Loong has been spending the social and political capital he inherited. Lee Hsien Loong’s personal brand is associated with his several apologies to the nation in 2011–13 for things going wrong in Singapore, as well as with the electoral setbacks of 2011. He clawed back ground in the 2015 General Elections only by capitalizing on his father’s image at every turn. Now it seems the Lee Hsien Loong brand is also going to be associated with a nasty family dispute and the perception that he is trying to maneuver his son into power.
Hence, Li Hongyi now has a formidable task before him if he is to pursue a career in politics. He needs to build on his association with his grandfather while distancing himself from his father — but presumably while relying on his father to provide him the entrée into the halls of power.
This is not impossible. During his time in the Army, he carefully constructed an image for himself as a gadfly who defied protocol to criticize his betters and bring about reform. But doing the same thing to his father — while simultaneously relying on his father’s patronage and protection — would be very tricky indeed. He might find it more attractive to just enter the corporate sector and make a fortune. If he does, then history will be looking at the events of the last week as the turning point at which the fate of the Lee dynasty was decided.
Michael Barr is Associate Professor at the School of History and International Relations, Flinders University. This article was first published over at East Asia Forum here and is republished with kind permission.