Singapore’s Lee Family and Nepotism

A blogger feels the wrath of the ruling family

Singapore’s ruling Lee family, apparently angered by a comment made on a Singapore-based blog Temasek Review Emeritus, has come down hard, with Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, his wife, Ho Ching, his brother Lee Hsien Yang, all demanding apologies for intimating that they have filled top government positions with family members.

Lee Kuan Yew became prime minister of Singapore in 1959 and ran the place until 1990, when he stepped down to become a senior minister and then was appointed minister mentor by his son, with many of his critics alleging he has continued to run the island republic from behind the scenes. After an interregnum from 1990 to 2004 when Goh Chok Tong held the premiership, Lee Hsien Loong took over as prime minister and has led the People’s Action Party government since.

Among other Lee family members who have held high positions in government are the elder Lee’s daughter, Lee Wee Ling, who is director of the National Neurological Institute. His other son, Lee Hsien Yang, was chief executive officer of Singapore Telecommunications from May 1995 until April 2007. He was appointed the chairman of the Civil Aviation Authority of Singapore in 2009.

Ho Ching, Hsien Loong’s wife, has run Temasek Holdings, the sovereign wealth fund controlled by the Singapore Ministry of Finance, since 2002 after serving as president and chief executive officer of the government-owned Singapore Technologies. Although she has been criticized for some disastrous investments, including one in former Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra’s Shin Corp that Fortune Magazine called a "spectacular misjudgment" as well as several others in flagging western investment banks, she has never been asked to step down.

TR Emeritus, as the blog is known, hastily took down the article, which is no longer available. Apparently written by a contributor or in response to another article, it has been described as pointing out that the elder Lee’s appointing Hsien Loong prime minister and Hsien Loong appointing his wife to head Temasek Holdings “was nothing short of ‘cronyism’ and nepotism.”

The blog has posted a full apology, saying, among other things, that “we recognize that the article meant or was understood to mean that Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong had secured, or was instrumental in securing, the appointment of his wife, Mdm Ho Ching, as the Chief Executive Officer of Temasek Holdings (Private) Limited for nepotistic motives. We admit and acknowledge that this allegation is false and completely without foundation. We unreservedly apologize to Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong for the distress and embarrassment caused to him by this allegation.”

Richard Wan, representing TR Emeritus, was unreachable. He posted a statement on the website saying he would no longer respond to questions from the press. He also asked TRE readers to “refrain from making such comments about Mdm Ho Ching with regard to her appointment in Temasek Holdings (Private) Limited. Any such allegations put up by anyone on TRE will be deleted.”

That may not have been enough. On Feb. 17, the government-controlled New Paper reported the parliament had pushed through an amendment to the Evidence Act that gives the courts the discretion to admit deleted online posts as evidence. The amendment, according to the paper, gives the courts “the discretion to consider relevant evidence by widening the admissibility of several categories. Among them are changes to the computer output evidence - which means computer printouts and sound and video recordings can be treated just like other evidence in Singapore courts.”

The paper quoted attorney Suppiah Thangaveloo of the law firm Thanga & Co, as saying the amendment would "make it easier" for the law to go after cyber felons.

Challenging the Lee family in Singapore is a formidable undertaking. By calculation of the US-based attorney and former Singaporean dissident Gopalan Nair – who was jailed for it on a visit to Singapore -- the Lees have set a world record in filing defamation suits and a second one by never losing one, although in Singapore’s notoriously pliable courts when it comes to government or Lee family actions. The family has filed charges against virtually every major publication in Asia, including the Economist, Time Magazine, the Financial Times, the International Herald Tribune, the Wall Street Journal (Asia) and its predecessor, the Asian Wall Street Journal, the now-defunct Far Eastern Economic Review and AsiaWeek, among many others. As near as can be determined, the family has never attempted to sue outside of Singapore.

In the only case on record where the family ventured out to other courts, Lee Wei Ling, the head of the Neurological Institute, attempted to bring charges in London against Simon Shorvon, the former principal investigator of a medical research project in Singapore, on allegations of professional misconduct. The London charges followed a long series of actions against Shorvon in Singapore. Witnesses told the British High Court in England that the alleged offenses by Shorvon by the Singaporeans were so minor that they weren’t worth bothering with.

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