Facing Singapore’s first election since its founding without a member of the Lee family leading, the cracks in the People’s Action Party over the family’s feud appear to be widening, with the 65-year old party facing the official launch of a new political party by a onetime PAP stalwart.
After months of informal organizing, Tan Cheng Bok, a 79-year-old former medical practitioner, formally announced that he is forming the Progress Singapore Party to take on the PAP in the next election, expected before April 5, 2021. As an indication of the difficulty of ousting the PAP, Tan only said the fledgling party would seek to deny the government its two-thirds majority in parliament.
Although he is a near-octogenarian by any standard, Tan presents the PAP with a challenge. He is the first politician to have joined an opposition that for decades has been clearly lacking any serious gravitas. He had been a member of the PAP since 1980 after having been recruited by Lee Kuan Yew himself, rising to membership in the Central Executive Committee, the party’s highest ruling body and serving in a long string of other posts as well.
In 2011, Tan came within an ace of beating the PAP candidate Tony Tan in the presidential election, winning 34.85 percent of the votes and losing by only 0.35 percent to Tan.
There is a growing sense in Singapore that the PAP has been running on autopilot. A sense of political nervousness has also arisen, with a series of crackdowns against online publications and the passage of a “fake news” bill that has been condemned by global press associations.
The technocrats who have engineered the country’s economic miracle have also been unable to cope with weakening global conditions as the US trade war and other issues begin to bite. The Monetary Authority of Singapore announced on June 28 that it would lower the growth forecast by a full percentage point to 1.5 percent to 2.5 percent for the year, and that second-quarter growth could be even lower.
The PAP’s formidable electoral machine produced 83 seats in the most recent election to just six for the opposition Worker Party. But the party is also riven by the bitter three-year squabble in the Lee family over the disposition the patriarch’s exquisite colonial black-and-white mansion. Lee had asked that the home be destroyed after his death in March of 2013 to prevent it from becoming a shrine in his honor. His eldest son Lee Hsien Loong, the current prime minister, wants to preserve the home as a museum.
Lee Hsien Yang and Lee Wei Ling, Hsien Loong’s younger brother and sister, have been fighting with the premier since 2016 to have the home razed as Kuan Yew stipulated in his will. The discord between the siblings has grown so acrid that in April Lee Hsien Yang took the unprecedented step of donating to a crowdfunding campaign by Leong Sze Hian, a blogger whom Lee Hsien Loong is suing for defamation for merely clicking “share” on a derogatory Facebook post.
The younger Lee told Yahoo News Singapore on the day after Christmas that he had contributed to Leong’s legal fund, but didn’t say how much. Hsien Yang also met publicly in 2018 with Tan prior to his establishing the new party. The tangle of family loyalties was strained further when on Jan. 6, Lee Hsien Yang and Lee Wei Ling posted a statement on Facebook saying the attorney general’s chambers are asking the country’s Law Society for legal malpractice proceedings to be brought against Lee Suet Fern, Lee Hsien Yang’s lawyer wife, who had assisted in the drawing of the final will. The two said “500 pages” worth of documents had been filed to the Law Society. The society has the power to censure or disbar lawyers for malpractice.
For three decades, deeply unsuccessful splinter political parties have sought to break the PAP’s monopoly on power to no avail, partly out of the PAP’s – and the Lee family’s – power to ruin anyone who stands in their way. Since lawyer JB Jeyaretnam challenged the elder Lee in the 1980s and was bankrupted, jailed and brutalized, that set a pattern where fledgling opposition parties have been hounded, harassed, embarrassed and harried into oblivion.
The opposition parties haven’t been helped by the fact that they have been mostly incompetent and have dwelled on invented issues to attempt to bring down a government that has largely been competent, honest and innovative while at the same time being brutally repressive politically.
That could change. Tan, in his formal announcement last week said that “if we look around, we marvel at the vast infrastructure of office buildings, hospitals, shopping centers and more.”
But, he said, “Beneath this beautiful façade is an underlying tale of disquiet. A Reuters interview reported recently that as many as 60 percent of Singaporeans fear expressing their political opinions openly, even on the internet because this could get them in trouble with the authorities.”
Fear, he said, “is very much present. How has this affected the Singapore lifestyle? When we study the depth and extent of the fear factor, it affects so much of us. We don’t even realize how much of our behavior is altered, people fear for their jobs, their promotions, their grants, their rental premises and getting sued. Singaporeans complain in whispers.”
Emeritus Senior Minister Goh Chok Tong, who succeeded Lee Kuan Yew in power, wrote in the Sunday Straits Times on Aug. 4 that he was saddened to see how his long-time friend Tan Cheng Bock had "lost his way."
But, he said: "We are still very good friends, still go out with each other, but I will not try to influence him... I will just wish him good luck."