Is the First Family Finally Waking from Singapore’s Orwellian Nightmare?

REUTERS/Edgar Su
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Lee Hsien Loong has continued to erode civil liberties on the island. Like his father, he’s sued political opponents, journalists and dissidents. Are his siblings starting to wake up?

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It’s not every day that Singapore’s first family airs their dirty laundry in public.

The excitement triggered by this latest episode of a public feud could only be expressed by the liberal use of popcorn emoji’s and GIFs across Singaporeans’ social media platforms. Politics is a tightly-controlled game in the city-state, and such a dispute provides a rare insight (and indeed, opportunity for gossip) into the machinations and conflicts of the ruling elite.

Yet this ongoing saga has demonstrated the disconnect between those at the top from Singaporeans on the ground. While Lee Wei Ling and Lee Hsien Yang cry foul over the lack of checks and balances in the system, the misuse of political power and the control of the local mainstream media, they demonstrate no awareness of the fact that these erosions of democracy took place under the rule of the father whose legacy they so jealously guard.

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The dispute supposedly revolves around the handling of the late elder statesman’s beloved house, but Lee Wei Ling and Lee Hsien Yang have gone much further with their allegations against their elder brother, current Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong. They stated clearly that they had “lost confidence” in their brother; Lee Hsien Yang even went as far as saying that he would only reconsider his decision to leave the country if his brother was no longer in power. The siblings also made an explosive claim: that the premier and his wife Ho Ching “harbor political ambitions for their son, Li Hongyi”, an allegation with implications of nepotism, a touchy subject among the litigious political elite. (Lee Hsien Loong has denied these accusations.)

“[T]he current government is distinctly different from the government when [Lee Kuan Yew] was [Prime Minister] and subsequently [Senior Minister],” Lee Wei Ling wrote on her Facebook page in August last year.

Missing from her analysis, though, is the fact that it was Lee Kuan Yew and his government who brought the mainstream press to heel with legislation like the Newspaper and Printing Presses Act of 1974, which gives the relevant Minister the power to appoint management shareholders of newspaper companies and therefore a major say in staffing decisions (such as who to appoint as Editor-in-Chief). It was Lee Kuan Yew and his government who outlawed strikes and other collective action, dealing a blow to freedom of assembly in Singapore. It was Lee Kuan Yew, too, who had detained political opponents and dissidents without trial.

Lee Hsien Loong has also continued to erode civil liberties on the island. Like his father, he’s sued political opponents, journalists and dissidents. In recent years his government has passed laws the impact free speech and press freedom and expanded regulations regarding the use of the only space in Singapore where protest is allowed without a permit, so much so that this year’s gay rights rally will be held behind barricades, because the presence of foreigners has now been criminalized.

A documentary about Singapore’s political exiles has been denied classification for “national security” reasons, a graphic novel seen its funding withdrawn because of its non-establishment depiction of Singapore history, and a teenager jailed for his YouTube videos and Facebook posts after prosecutions that a U.S. immigration court judge has since determined amounted to political persecution.

Although Lee Wei Ling posted on Facebook about the free speech implications of legislation codifying the offence of contempt of court, there has been little coming from either her or her brother over any of the other restrictions of human rights and democratic participation in the city. Lee Hsien Yang has since described his situation in Singapore as “almost like an Orwellian nightmare,” but there’s so far been no acknowledgement that many Singaporeans have already suffered this dystopian fate. And while he remains free to choose when to leave and presumably when to return, there are Singaporeans around the world who, thanks to his father and brother’s administrations, don’t have such a luxury.

Singaporeans will continue to be fascinated by this spat as long as both sides are willing to keep at it. Things will be interesting no matter how they play out: if Lee Hsien Loong chooses to sue his siblings for their allegation of dynasty politics – as he and his father have done before, including the New York Times – it will demonstrate the exercise of power and repression that his siblings and other critics have highlighted. If he doesn’t, his brother and sister will have got away with saying the very thing no one else in Singapore would risk saying, lending credence to the claim and fixing it firmly in Singaporeans’ minds.

The lesson that should be learnt here, though, is that authoritarianism is a faithless creature – one never knows when it’ll stop working in one’s favor. Polls might show that most Singaporeans support the honoring of Lee Kuan Yew’s wishes to demolish his home, but if the Lee siblings want more support with regard to the other issues of power and control that they’ve highlighted, a little solidarity wouldn’t hurt.

Editor: Edward White

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