Singapore’s Establishment Tries to Wrest Back Control of Lee Family Feud

Why you need to know

Serious questions of misuse of power, favoritism and the role of the PM's wife remain unanswered despite Singapore’s political elite and mainstream media falling in line behind the prime minister.

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When prepping for a fight, choosing one’s arena is key. On June 14, Lee Wei Ling and Lee Hsien Yang – the two younger children of Singapore’s first prime minister, Lee Kuan Yew – chose social media. Their statement, accusing their brother of abusing his power and dishonouring their father’s wishes to demolish his home, was disseminated on Facebook. They’ve been posting almost daily ever since.

Their choice gave them the upper hand: it circumvented Singapore’s mainstream press, currently controlled by their brother Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong’s government. Their message was delivered directly to Singaporeans who were, predictably, riveted by such a public condemnation. Between viral Facebook posts and comments made to the international press, the siblings got their claims and allegations considerable air time even while big brother was still holidaying in Australia.

But Lee Hsien Loong wasn’t going to be caught on the back foot for long. As the feud drags on in its spectacularly public way, the prime minister and his government have sought to regain control of the narrative.

Although originally described by Emeritus Senior Minister Goh Chok Tong as “a family’s petty disputes”, more and more senior members of government have started to weigh in. Deputy Prime Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam, arguably the PAP’s most popular minister, published a long, friendly-sounding post on his Facebook page asking for the people’s confidence and asserting continuity between the good governance of the Lee Kuan Yew administration through to today. Senior Minister of State for Law Indranee Rajah, previously apparently unconnected to this drama, has also started dishing out her own posts, essentially reiterating Lee Hsien Loong and the government’s arguments in a neatly-packaged, Buzzfeed-esque “4 Things You Need to Know…” structure.

Details emerge, or are rehashed, with each new offering. What was in each iteration of Lee Kuan Yew’s seven wills? How long did he have to read the last will before he signed it? Did he have enough time to fully review and absorb its meaning? What is Lee Hsien Yang’s motivation for all this? Why does he want the government to commit to demolish the house now, when his sister is still living in it?

The questions and insinuations and intricacies stack up, with the mainstream news outlets dutifully giving the ministers a signal boost. In fact, news articles pop up minutes after Indranee Rajah posts on Facebook (later followed by push notifications for those with The Straits Times’ app on their phones), causing one to wonder just how coordinated these supposedly personal social media forays are.

It’s starting to feel like an information deluge. Following this feud is an exhausting exercise, and it’s easy to get distracted by the many accusations and suggestions flying all over the place. Perhaps that’s actually the desired effect, because what’s lost amid all these Facebook weigh-ins is the fact that the government has not adequately addressed the more serious allegations. In fact, Singapore’s elected officials seem to be more interested in debating a family squabble over a will – the actual “petty family dispute” portion of this saga – than addressing the issues of national importance that have been revealed.

We can count wills and debate the sincerity of clauses all we want, but ultimately the country’s prime minister is still being accused of having misused his power. His own siblings are claiming that his wife, Ho Ching, has an undue influence on national matters – and she herself confirmed that she has, on at least one occasion, arranged to do things through the Prime Minister’s Office, despite having no official role within that office. The siblings have also heavily implied that favoritism was a factor in Lucien Wong, the current Attorney-General, being appointed to that post, as he used to be Lee Hsien Loong’s personal lawyer. When government officials use their work email addresses to discuss personal matters, the line blurs uncomfortably between the public and the private. Then there’s the ministerial committee, who say that they only want to figure out Lee Kuan Yew’s thinking on the matter of 38 Oxley Road, but seem to have trouble taking his last will as his final word even though it has already been granted probate.

These are the real issues that Singaporeans need to focus on and get answers for, but aren’t forthcoming as the establishment spin machine, propped up by a compliant mainstream media, whirs into action.

It’s also uncertain how useful the July 3 parliamentary session will be in clearing up this troubling situation. Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong promised openness and a willingness to take questions from all Members of Parliament, but his main accusers – his siblings – will not be in the House to challenge him.

The prime minister also indicated that the Party Whip will be lifted so that MPs from his People’s Action Party – who form the overwhelming majority of Parliament – will be able to question him. But it’s not clear what he means by this, as the Party Whip usually only applies to voting, and not the asking of questions.

In his statement, Lee Hsien Loong referred to the making of a Ministerial Statement. The relevant section of the Standing Orders of Singapore’s Parliament states that “[a] statement may be made by a Minister in Parliament on a matter of public importance. Members may seek clarification on the statement but no debate shall be allowed thereon.”

Questions have been sent to both the Prime Minister’s Office and the People’s Action Party to find out if the prime minister will be making such a Ministerial Statement, after which no debate will be allowed, or if motions will be filed to allow for a discussion that goes beyond seeking clarification. The News Lens has not yet received a response.

It’s a stretch to imagine that PAP MPs will hold their own leaders’ feet over the fire when the allegations are so damaging, not just to Lee Hsien Loong personally, but to the government and the party as a whole. If no debate is allowed on July 3, the parliamentary session will run the risk of being interpreted as little more than political theatre, and yet another move by the establishment to yank this whole episode on to their own playing field.

Editor: Edward White

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