The #OxLeeFeud: A test of one’s commitment to the bigger picture

Political drama is rare in Singapore. Even the general elections — that little bit of political excitement we get once every five years—aren’t as intense as the public feuding between Lee Hsien Loong and his irate siblings Lee Wei Ling and Lee Hsien Yang that has exploded on Facebook this past week.

Many have tried to frame it as nothing but a “petty family dispute” that should have remained private, but the Lee family is no ordinary family. They are at the core of the elite circle in Singapore. Despite what the younger Lee siblings are saying about their father’s dislike for monuments and worship, the truth is that there’s already a personality cult built around Lee Kuan Yew. His outsized presence in Singapore isn’t just history and memory — it’s a brand upon which we tell our stories of meritocracy, elitism and deservedness. This public dispute is treating us to the reality behind the brand, and we’re seeing that this elite family is as messed up as the rest of us (if not more so!)

For a feud that the political elite keep insisting is nothing more than a private matter, it’s already involved the prime minister, the head of one of Singapore’s sovereign wealth funds, the chairman of the Civil Aviation Authority of Singapore, a senior consultant at the National Neuroscience Institute, a couple of top lawyers, one deputy prime minister, three other Cabinet ministers and the current Attorney-General (am I missing anyone out)? It’s also got three of Lee Kuan Yew’s grandsons publicly disavowing any interest in entering politics. Does anyone know of any other “petty family dispute” in Singapore like this?

It also goes far beyond an argument about what to do with Lee Kuan Yew’s house. Many of the allegations made by Lee Wei Ling and Lee Hsien Loong have significant national public interest implications.

The two are saying that their elder brother, the Prime Minister of Singapore, has misused his position of power to achieve personal goals. They have claimed that:

  1. Lee Hsien Loong, wanting to preserve 38 Oxley Road, did not challenge their father’s last will in court (their version being that he had no case, his version being that he didn’t want to make things public) but then used his position as Prime Minister to convene a “secret committee” made up of his subordinates to question the will and get his way. This committee was, according to them, kept so secret that they were not able to find out who was on the committee, even when their input was sought. (Even though Deputy Prime Minister Teo Chee Hean has since said that he was the one who convened the committee, the siblings contend that it could not have been set up without Lee Hsien Loong’s tacit approval.)
  2. Lee Hsien Loong used his position to obtain a copy of the Deed of Gift that his siblings had executed with the National Heritage Board for the donation and exhibition of items from 38 Oxley Road, rather than going through the proper channels as a private citizen. The younger Lees claim that the Deed of Gift was then passed on to his personal lawyer, Lucien Wong, “to advance his personal agenda”.
  3. Lucien Wong, a long-time corporate lawyer with no bench experience, had served as Lee Hsien Loong’s personal lawyer and has since become the Attorney-General.
  4. K Shanmugam has a conflict of interest because he advised Lee Kuan Yew and family on the demolition wish, but is now part of the internal ministerial committee/secret committee. (Shanmugam has since denied any conflict of interest.)
  5. That Lee Hsien Loong’s wife, Ho Ching, has “pervasive” influence in Singapore, despite holding no political position.
  6. That Lee Hsien Loong and Ho Ching “harbour political ambitions for their son, Li Hongyi”. (Li Hongyi has since come out to say that he isn’t interested in politics, but the accusation isn’t about what he’s interested in.)
  7. That Lee Hsien Loong can and does use the “organs of the state” to harass or threaten, including surveillance of targets (in this case, his own brother, according to said brother, who used to be CEO of one of the country’s major telecomms companies) for personal reasons.

These are allegations of abuse of power, subversion of due process, cronyism and nepotism. If true, they upend Singapore’s carefully cultivated squeaky-clean corruption-free image. And, more importantly for the people of Singapore, they reveal that the “A Team”, who have for decades presented themselves as the best option for the country, are actually using the power the electorate has bestowed upon them for their own personal goals.

Some of what Lee Wei Ling and Lee Hsien Yang have said also resonate with experiences that ordinary Singaporeans can relate to. Take, for instance, this ministerial committee. The Lee siblings were asked for their input to be taken into consideration, but were not informed as to who was in the committee. Does that sound familiar? How many of us have made applications to government agencies — be it ICA, MOM, HDB, etc. — and not known who was making the decision? How many of us have been told that “the duty officer” or “the relevant departments” are looking into the matter, with no more clarity over how our own cases are proceeding? How many of us are familiar with decisions being made in black boxes?

Even without speculation over cronyism or corruption, this lack of transparency is troubling. We’re now seeing it played out, not among mid-level bureaucrats, but at the very highest levels of government and political decision-making. This is not just the gripes of two siblings against their big brother; it points to a systemic issue with openness and transparency.

This is why I’ve followed this entire saga with such interest. This isn’t the first time concerns over transparency, conflict of interest and power have been flagged in Singapore, but it carries particular weight when it is coming from within the elite circle. It’s important, not just for Lee Wei Ling and Lee Hsien Yang, but for all Singaporeans, that these allegations are taken seriously and thoroughly investigated.

It’s why I hope Lee Wei Ling and Lee Hsien Yang keep speaking up, and not be threatened or cowed into silence. After all, they occupy positions of privilege that—whether they feel it or not — still afford them measures of protection that ordinary Singaporeans don’t have. (And if you doubt this, just compare Lee Hsien Loong’s reaction to them with what he did to Roy Ngerng.)

But the irony, my God, the irony! It would be much easier to support the Lee siblings if they weren’t so staggeringly out of touch and lacking in self-awareness.

As I wrote in a commentary for The News Lens International, the Lee siblings are now complaining about authoritarianism and its trappings — abuses of power, a compliant mainstream press, repression, etc. — with zero acknowledgement of the fact that their own father had been the one to bring about this state of affairs in modern Singapore.

“The most important point I want to put across is if PM can misuse his official power to abuse his siblings who can fight back, what else can he do to ordinary citizens,” Lee Wei Ling wrote, as if Singaporeans haven’t known for years what the powerful can do to us. As if we had never known about the detentions, the defamation suits, the broadly-worded legislation allowing for investigations and prosecutions of activists.

This afternoon, we finally saw the epitome of lacking self-awareness with this Facebook post:

Peak Irony has been achieved.

It’s an oft-quoted poem about repression and solidarity, and a very good one too. But not from Lee Wei Ling. Never from her, or any child of Lee Kuan Yew. (Unless she’s posting it from a position of regret, realising that she is the “me” that no one is left to speak for. But I doubt it.)

Lee Kuan Yew literally went for the socialists and the trade unionists (and more) in Singapore, decimating a vibrant civil society. This is his legacy, the one that his two younger children are so desperate to defend. They had shown no horror, no support, no solidarity when Singaporeans suffered under such repression. They didn’t speak out when big brother Lee Hsien Loong carried on with his father had started… until, of course, it turned around to bite them.

And that’s what makes this whole thing so infuriating. I’m glad it’s throwing up all these issues that we need to investigate and address in Singapore, but it still leaves a bad taste in my mouth because it ultimately still seems to be self-serving on all sides. There are no heroes here, no one to look up to, just a petty elite arguing pettily in Facebook posts about things not going their way. The one thing that’s abundantly clear amid all the mud-slinging and sniping is how out of touch those at the top are, and how utterly unaware they are of it.

It’s a challenge for us, then, to not give in to our personal distaste, and to keep our eyes on the bigger picture. There are questions here that we deserve answers to, no matter how frustrated we are with the source.

UPDATE: In an interview with the South China Morning Post, Lee Hsien Yang had this to say about oppression under Lee Kuan Yew vs. under Lee Hsien Loong:

Lee Hsien Yang, a former military general who later became one of Singapore’s most prominent corporate figures, also addressed the Post’s queries on why he and his sister were not as critical about their father’s strongman leadership style as they have been about their brother over the last week.
The late Lee Kuan Yew, while largely revered at home, had also faced international criticism for his authoritarian style of governing, whether in social engineering policies to re-order society or dealing with political opponents through punitive defamation suits.
Lee Hsien Yang said: “Let us not mince words. Singapore’s social compact under Lee Kuan Yew was — civil liberties may be curtailed, but in return your government will respect the rule of law and be utterly beyond reproach.”
He said this social compact was “now broken”, and accused his brother of being ready to use his “public powers to achieve his personal agenda”.

It’s hardly reassuring. In a nutshell, he seems to be saying that daddy’s repression was justified, whereas big brother’s (particularly now it is turned against him) is a bloody shame. Given how avidly they are saying that this is about upholding Lee Kuan Yew’s “values”, it seems as if what the Lee siblings might be fighting for is a simply a return to the system where the government merely oppressed regular Singaporeans (and not them).

How nice.