Bitter Squabble Surfaces Among Singapore’s Lee Family

An extraordinary row has broken out among the descendants of Lee Kuan Yew, the founder of modern Singapore who died in April 2015, with two younger siblings accusing Lee Hsien Loong, the current prime minister, and his wife Ho Ching of being “driven by a desire for power and personal popularity.”

The other two are physician Lee Wei Ling and her attorney brother, Lee Hsien Yang, who on June 14 made public a six-page statement that they had lost confidence in Hsien Loong as a leader. Hsien Yang said he was leaving the country for an unknown destination for the foreseeable future.

Although the statement accuses Hsien Loong, who has been prime minister since 2004, of “misuse of his position and influence over the Singapore government to drive his personal agenda,” it appears to be a family squabble over the disposition of Lee Kuan Yew’s classic black-and-white colonial style home, which the patriarch in his will said should be demolished. Lee Hsien Loong instead is attempting to have it preserved.

“Since Lee Kuan Yew’s death, there have been changes in Singapore that do not reflect what he stood for,” the younger Lees said in their statement. “His popularity is inextricably linked to Lee Kuan Yew’s legacy.”

Instead, the younger Lees said, “We have observed that Hsien Loong and Ho Ching want to milk Lee Kuan Yew’s legacy for their own political purposes. We also believe, based on our interactions, that they harbor political ambitions for their son, Li Hongyi.”

Accusations of nepotism have long swirled around the Lee family, since Hsien Loong succeeded his father after an interregnum in which Goh Chok Tong occupied the prime ministership from 1990 to 2004. However, anybody who even hinted that Chok Tong was merely a place-warmer while Hsien Loong earned his stripes was met with lawsuits that the Lees pere et fils pursued grimly in the Singapore courts and won without exception despite the fact that the Lee family has been firmly lodged in several important crevices of the government.

For instance, Lee Wei Ling has served as director of the National Neurological Institute. Lee Hsien Yang was chief executive officer of Singapore Telecommunications from May 1995 until April 2007 and was appointed the chairman of the Civil Aviation Authority of Singapore in 2009. Ho Ching 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.

Lee Hsien Loong, in an equally extraordinary airing, took to the media in Singapore to deny that he had any designs on a political career for his son, adding that he was disappointed that the younger Lees had chosen to issue a statement that aired private family matters and, according to the Straits Times, he was “deeply saddened by the unfortunate allegations they have made.”

It isn’t the first time tensions have surfaced in the family. Last August, Lee Wei Ling charged on Facebook that the government was pushing a contempt of court law that would limit public discussion of public issues. It is the second time Wei Ling has spoken out recently. In May of 2016 she said she would no longer write for the government-controlled New Straits Times after editors censored an article she wrote saying Lee Kuan Yew would have cringed at the depth of hero worship that has surfaced in the year since his death in April 2015.

“We believe that Lee Hsien Loong and Ho Ching are motivated by a desire to inherit Lee Kuan Yew’s standing and reputation for themselves and their children,” the younger Lees said in their statement. “Whilst our father built this nation on meritocracy, Hsien Loong, whilst purporting to espouse these values, has spoken of a ‘natural aristocracy.’”

Those long have been fighting words in Singapore, where there has been a rigid insistence that Lee Hsieng Loong came to power through meritocracy. After scoring a first in mathematics at Trinity College, Cambridge, he became the Singapore Army’s youngest brigadier general and was elected to parliament at the age of 32. It is that insistence on meritocracy that has governed the People’s Action Party, which was established by the patriarch and which has led Singapore since independence.

In the long run, however, despite those comments, it is clear that this squabble boils down to a donnybrook over the elder Lee’s home at 38 Oxley Road.

“Throughout his entire life, Lee Kuan Yew’s sole focus was on Singapore and its future, they wrote. “He was a strong opponent of monuments, particularly of himself. On suggestions that monuments or ‘what’have-yous’ be made for him, he replied, “Remember Ozymandias.’ He was referring to Percy B Shelley’s sonnet about the Egyptian Pharoah with a penchant for self-aggrandizing monuments. The boast etched in a plaque below his statue commanded lesser mortals to ‘look on my works.’ Only the vastness of desert sands remains: no empire, nor monuments, no great works. Lee Kuan Yew wanted none of these honors as edifices.”

Thus, the two wrote, Kuan Yew wanted his Oxley home to be demolished on his passing. But, they said, Hsien Loong first wanted to move into the home with his wife, and ultimately to have it declared a heritage site.

That, the statement said, led to “accusations and misrepresentations” on Lee Hsien Loong’s behalf. Today, they concluded, “the values of Lee Kuan Yew are being eroded by his own son. Our father placed our country and his people first, not his personal popularity or private agendas. We are very sad that we have been pushed to this. We feel hugely uncomfortable and closely monitored in our country. We do not trust Hsien Loong as a brother or a leader. We have lost confidence in him.”

How that plays out in the debate over the ruthless attention to meritocracy in Singapore’s government should be interesting.