Lee Dynasty Squabble Shakes Singapore Politics
Prime Minister’s estranged brother in a possible bid for presidency
The bitter feud between Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong and his siblings, which broke out not long after the 2015 death of the patriarch Lee Kuan Yew, appears about to escalate into the political arena, with Lee Hsien Yang, the premier’s estranged younger brother, thinking of running for the island republic’s presidency when the term of the current president, Halimah Yacob, ends next year – amid rumors that the prime minister’s own wife could run for the same office, and that he is pushing his son to enter politics with an ambition to eventually follow him into the premiership.
The presidential election is scheduled for the third quarter of 2023. One hedge fund manager told Asia Sentinel the next three years could potentially be unstable because the 71-year-old Hsien Loong and his wife Ho Ching (pictured, above) will likely try to push their son Li Hongyi to be a future prime minister, with possible pushback from inside the ruling People’s Action Party (PAP), which is filled with people who would like to move up. The hedge fund manager said he has moved a substantial portion of his assets out of Singapore out of concern.
That may be an abundance of caution. The family squabble has thus taken on such serious dimensions that it has the potential to threaten the even running of the technocrat-dominated Singapore government, arguably the most efficient in Southeast Asia, at a time when increasing numbers of multinationals are relocating to the island to escape the Covid-19 restrictions and National Security-spawned constraints on freedom of speech in Hong Kong.
Although the Singapore presidency is largely ceremonial, with the prime minister holding the political reins, the president possesses certain executive powers such as the right to block the government from drawing down past national reserves which it didn’t accumulate and the power to approve changes to senior political appointments such as the chef justice, the attorney general and the chief executive officer (CEO) of sovereign wealth funds like Temasek Holdings. Thus, if Hsien Yang were to become president, he would have the power to frustrate the government in some respects. He was reached by email at an undisclosed location overseas but declined to comment. However, two sources told Asia Sentinel he is serious about running. He is one of the few Singaporeans who qualify for the requirements of the presidency, which include being chief executive officer (CEO) of a company with at least S$500 million (US$349 million) in shareholders' equity for at least three years. He was previously the CEO of Singapore Telecom, one of the largest Singapore-listed companies.
“As Singapore is doing so badly under Lee Hsien Loong and is adrift, many Singaporeans yearn for the good times under Lee Kuan Yew. Hsien Yang represents that, so he is very popular on the ground. That is what Lee Hsien Loong is fearful of,” a source who declined to be named told Asia Sentinel.
But another powerful person who qualifies to run, however, is Ho Ching, who was CEO of the sovereign wealth fund Temasek Holdings till October 1, 2021. Rumors that Ho Ching may run have been making the rounds for weeks, but there is no confirmation of this. An Asia Sentinel email query to the prime minister’s office remains unanswered.
If Hsien Loong’s brother were to run against Hsien Loong’s wife, it would be a continuation of the feud that broke into public view in 2017 ostensibly over the disposal of the colonial-era home of Lee Kuan Yew, modern Singapore’s founder and a towering figure throughout Asia if not the world, who ran the city-state with iron discipline. In his will and in public statements, he stipulated that the house be destroyed to prevent it from it becoming a shrine to his memory.
Given the feud among Lee senior’s children, if Hsien Yang becomes president while Hsien Loong is still prime minister, there will likely be acrimonious relations between the president and prime minister, as with two former Singapore presidents, Ong Teng Cheong and Devan Nair.
After Ong became president in 1993, he was thwarted in his attempts to obtain information on the national reserves. After stepping down as president in 1999, Ong gave an interview to the now-defunct Asiaweek magazine on March 10, 2000, where he said he felt “a bit grumpy” that the Singapore government stonewalled his attempts to gain information on the state reserves.
“Lee Hsien Loong was hugely upset by Ong Teng Cheong asking questions on the reserves,” said a source. “It must be Lee Hsien Loong’s nightmare if Hsien Yang were to be in a position to do the same. Hsien Yang has the profile and independent-mindedness that would make him a very persuasive candidate to the population who wants a check and balance on the PAP.”
On Facebook in 2017, Hsien Yang and his sister Wei Ling charged publicly that Hsien Loong and Ho Ching were attempting to shoehorn their son 35-year-old Li Hongyi into a political career with an eye to eventually becoming prime minister. Hongyi has denied, it although he is getting increasing space in Singapore media and many in the political world think it is only a matter of time before he stands for office.
The Lee family and the government have long used the malleable courts to go after their political rivals with a blizzard of lawsuits and contempt charges that have largely cowed both the opposition and the local and international press from any serious criticism. But now there is growing worry that Hsien Loong is misusing the powers of his office to invent legal means to pursue a family feud. For instance, it has reached Hongyi’s cousin Li Shengwu, the eldest son of Hsien Yang and his wife Lee Suet Fern. In 2020, Shengwu, an assistant economics professor at Harvard University in the United States, was found guilty of contempt of court and fined S$15,000 plus being ordered to pay S$8,500 for costs of proceedings and another S$8,070 for disbursements after being found guilty of contempt of court for a private Facebook post that included a link to a New York Times editorial titled “Censored In Singapore,” and a description saying: "Keep in mind, of course, that the Singapore government is very litigious and has a pliant court system."
Shengwu didn’t turn up for the hearing but paid the fine. On July 11, he posted a public statement on his Facebook page, saying he felt it was unsafe to return to the island because “there's a substantial risk that my uncle, the Prime Minister, would find an excuse to imprison me were I to return to Singapore. He likes to relitigate old disputes. My uncle has a habit of suing his critics in Singapore courts. Fortunately, the SPEECH act of 2010 makes foreign libel judgments unenforceable in the USA, unless the foreign jurisdiction has at least as much free speech protection as that guaranteed by the 1st Amendment. I now reside in Cambridge, MA, and have a green card. It's gutting to be unable to return home, and to watch from afar as Singapore slides steadily further into authoritarianism. I'm grateful for the support and sympathy from my friends and my colleagues at Harvard.”
The question of the disposal of Kuan Yew’s home also dented the career of Lee Suet Fern, a senior lawyer who was suspended from practice for 15 months by a judicial panel for misconduct in November 2020. However, the judicial panel found that there was no professional relationship between Lee Kuan Yew and her and that he had never communicated with her on his last will, and that Lee Kuan Yew was “content’ with his last will.
This all ties in with considerable gossip in Singapore that Lee Hsien Loong has no intention of retiring from his position as prime minister. At age 71, he dithered for more than two years in naming a successor before naming Lawrence Wong, currently the finance minister, as its so-called “fourth-generation” leader, first picking Heng Swee Keat, then unceremoniously discarding him and then spending months before it finally settled on Wong. The labored process exposed the party’s inner workings and raised speculation that Hsien Loong’s real goal was to find a place-holder while Hongyi is groomed to follow the interregnum and continue the Lee family dynasty, much as Hsien Loong was, that has been in de facto charge of the island over the 63 years since the British left.