Singapore Family Feud Exposes Farce of Country’s Judicial Independence

The rift within the Lee family over what to do with the grand colonial-style home of Lee Kuan Yew, the patriarch who died in March 2015 at 92, has further exposed the contradictions inherent in Singapore’s system between the appearance of rule of law via an independent judiciary and the perceptions of so many onlookers of favoritism toward the government and the Lees.

This gap may not have had significant consequences while Lee Kuan Yew’s personality towered over Singapore and carried weight around the world. But it does now, and it is providing a good deal of schadenfreude for the politicians and journalists who over the decades have been forced to knuckle under to the Lees’ version of justice.

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong’s nephew has challenged the system by openly describing the government as “litigious” and the courts as “pliant”in the middle of the increasingly ugly family dispute. For his pains, the 32-year-old Li Shengwu is to be subjected to contempt of court proceedings, according to the office of Singapore’s Attorney General Lucien Wong. Li, the son of the prime minister’s estranged younger brother Lee Hsien Yang, made the remarks from the safety of the United States, where he is a junior fellow at Harvard University.

The action rubs salt into the family wounds opened up by the June denunciation of the prime minister by Hsien Yang and his sister Wei Ling. Li Shengwu has openly supported his father and criticized government control over the media in the family brawl over whether the late Kuan Yew’s mansion should be razed, as he wanted, to keep it from becoming a shrine. Lee Hsien Loong favors preserving the magnificent black-and-white edifice.

More importantly, it goes to the heart of the pretense that the judiciary is independent when issues involving national leadership and the person of the prime minister are concerned.

It would be easy enough to justify the use of the word “litigious” given the sheer number of legal actions for contempt, libel and other matters brought against critics of the government and Lee family. These have included such seemingly innocuous statement of fact, such as whether there was a Lee “dynasty” or if the family members had won their exalted positions in a meritocracy. Foreign publications have had to pay damages on numerous occasions while opposition figures in Singapore have been bankrupted, subject to petty allegations and legal harassment.

Neither the government nor the Lee family has ever been known to lose such cases in the local courts. In the late 1980s, then-Senior District Judge Michael Khoo ruled against the government in a case brought against the late Joshua B. Jeyaretnam, at that time Singapore’s sole opposition member of parliament, accusing him of cooking his party’s books.

Khoo lost his job as a senior judge and was unceremoniously moved to the attorney general’s chambers, widely considered to be a much lower posting. When the then-Asian Wall Street Journal argued that Khoo had been unfairly removed, the government, then headed by Kuan Yew, charged that the Journal’s editorial had brought the government into disrepute and was awarded damages.

From that point forward, no Singapore judge ever made the mistake of ruling against the Lee family. A long string of charges has been filed successfully against virtually every major news organization in Asia. The contempt or libel charges have been filed against the now-defunct International Herald Tribune, the Financial Times, Time Magazine, the Economist, the now-defunct AsiaWeek and any other publication that refused to toe the Lee line. The Far Eastern Economic Review,especially under the late editor Derek Davies, was a particular target.

However, the Lees have never been known to win a case on the very rare occasions when they have taken their claims to foreign courts. An action was once initiated against the weekly Far Eastern Economic Review in Malaysia but was eventually dropped. An action by Lee against an esteemed British neurologist over claims of professional misconduct while leading research at Singapore’s National Neuroscience Institute (now headed by Lee Mei Ling) was dismissed by the High Court in London. The action appeared to be a personal vendetta of unknown origin.

The chances of defending against a contempt case based on allegations that the judiciary was “pliant” thus have stood almost no chances of success, whatever the factual evidence. They would require an admission of guilt on the part of the judiciary.

In which case, the wisest course of action might be to ignore remarks such as those posted by Li Shengwu on Facebook. But litigiousness is now in the DNA of the ruling party and it is showing up the country’s judicial system as what it is.