Family feud sullies Singapore’s clean image
A parliamentary debate on abuse of power allegations made against premier Lee Hsien Loong by his younger siblings did little to dispel rising doubts about his rule
The public feud pitting members of Singapore’s first family shows no signs of abating despite Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong’s best efforts to end the episode after a two-day debate in Parliament focused on allegations he has abused his executive power.
“Since Lee Kuan Yew’s passing, we have felt threatened by [Lee Hsien Loong’s] misuse of his position and influence over the Singapore government and its agencies to drive his personal agenda,” wrote the premier’s younger brother Lee Hsien Yang in a Facebook post published a day after a parliamentary session scathingly described by the opposition leader as “ownself defend ownself.”
Lee Hsien Yang, former chief executive of Singtel, and his older sister Lee Wei Ling, a medical professional, have held Singaporeans in thrall on social media for over two weeks as they accused their brother of misusing his position to dishonor their father – Singapore’s national founder and first prime minister Lee Kuan Yew – by preserving the late statesman’s house against his last wishes.
The siblings have also claimed that Lee’s wife Ho Ching, head of the island state’s sovereign wealth fund, Temasek, has a “pervasive” influence in government, and that organs of the state have been used against them, although they have so far declined to provide further details of the latter.
The debacle, drip-fed over numerous Facebook posts, has captured attention as a rare occurrence of a public split among the country’s most prominent family. The feud has made headlines around the world, striking a nerve with a government sensitive to any adverse impact on the nation’s carefully cultivated squeaky clean reputation.
Many MPs in their parliamentary speeches alluded to the embarrassment caused by reports in the international media, and concerns over the damage the allegations have had on Singapore’s brand.
“It is the wilful attack on the integrity of our leaders and the insidious corrosion of public faith in our institutions that I want to address,” said Emeritus Senior Minister Goh Chok Tong, a former premier, on Tuesday. “The nub of the issue for us in Parliament is integrity and trust – in the Prime Minister and our system of government. Absent these, Singapore will descend to a Third World country.”
The two-day debate saw Lee Hsien Loong supported by his long ruling People’s Action Party (PAP), with senior members expressing their confidence in his leadership in no uncertain terms.
Lee also dismissed calls from both opposition MPs and some of his own backbenchers to convene a Parliamentary Select Committee to investigate the close-to-home allegations.
“What is the basis for this? There are no specifics to the headline charge of abuse of power,” Lee Hsien Loong said. “After two days of debate, nobody has stood behind these allegations or offered any evidence, not even opposition MPs.”
“This is not a soap opera. We must all get back to work,” he added.
Deputy Prime Minister Teo Chee Hean rejected suggestions of underhand political machinations related to the setting up of a ministerial committee considering options for the late Lee Kuan Yew’s house.
Lee Wei Ling and Lee Hsien Yang have consistently labelled it a “secret committee”, alleging that it was formed to help their powerful brother build his political capital at their deceased father’s expense.
“There is nothing unusual nor mysterious about this. This is just the normal process of government doing its work, properly, calmly and objectively,” he said of the committee’s work, adding that the siblings had been informed of the committee’s terms of reference.
Other high-ranking PAP frontbenchers, meanwhile, questioned the siblings’ motivations.
“Are they whistleblowing in a noble effort to save Singapore, or waging a personal vendetta without any care for the damage done to Singapore?” asked Goh.
“From what Lee Hsien Yang and his wife are freely telling many people, it is clear that their goal is to bring Lee Hsien Loong down as [Prime Minister], regardless of the huge collateral damage suffered by the government and Singaporeans,” the former premier said.
Both Lee Wei Ling and Lee Hsien Yang posted responses on their respective Facebook pages after the conclusion of the parliamentary debate, suggesting that the row will continue regardless of their brother’s wishes.
“Our private family dispute would have remained a private family dispute, if [Prime Minister] Lee had not used government agencies and a secret ministerial committee to force his way,” Lee Hsien Yang hit back in a Facebook post. “Sadly, it is Lee Hsien Loong who has dragged the government into a personal dispute.”
Giving his ministerial statement in Parliament on Monday, Lee Hsien Loong explained his reluctance to sue his siblings – a diversion from his usual willingness to initiate costly defamation suits against opponents and critics.
“In normal circumstances, in fact, in any other imaginable circumstance but this, I would surely sue because the accusation of the abuse of power is a very grave one, however baseless it may be, and it is in fact an attack not just on me, but on the whole government,” the premier said.
“But suing my own brother and sister in court would further besmirch my parents’ names.”
“I understand [the prime minister’s] difficulty in suing his own siblings and that he is worried that he will further damage his parents’ name,” responded Low Thia Khiang, leader of the opposition Worker’s Party.
“But I cannot square with the argument that he cannot sue his brother and sister, but [the ruling party] can sue the opposition until their pants drop.”
Lee Hsien Loong ended his response to Parliament on a more emotional note on Tuesday, bringing the focus back to familial relationships as he recalled the emotions of delivering his father’s eulogy at his 2015 funeral and how he had been told as a teenager by his father to take care of his family.
“I thought we had a happy family; little did I expect that after my parents died, these tensions would erupt, with such grievous consequences,” he said. “I hope one day these passions will subside, and we can begin to reconcile.”