Singapore’s Lee Family Rift and International Consequences

The very public rift between Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong and his two siblings, Lee Wei Ling and Lee Hsien Yang, is a sharp reminder of what a small place Singapore is and how splits in the family can become fissures among a once tight-knit elite.

The core of the ruling People’s Action Party is small and family relationships and rivalries, as well as issues of policy and ambition, can be hard to contain now that the patriarch Lee Kuan Yew is no there to keep all in line. The split is opening up the can of worms of past Lee family use of local institutions to further itself.

As if to confirm the growth of fissures, at the same time as the family dispute a very public row has broken out between ex-diplomat and long-time oracle of Singaporean “Asian values” Kishore Mahbubani and another very senior ex-diplomat, over Singapore’s place in the post-LKY world. This dispute is not entirely unconnected to the family one and sees Kishore apparently aligned against the Foreign Ministry and Hsien Loong and his powerful wife, Ho Ching for being insufficiently accommodating to China’s power.

It doesn’t help that Singapore’s close relationship with the US is under strain from the erratic antics and anti-globalization rhetoric of Donald Trump.

Sharper debates can also now be predicted on economic and social policies, straining the cohesion of a PAP which has been run on Leninist lines, disciplined and secretive. This could open the way for a freer media and electoral system less biased against the opposition but at the cost of order and predictability which foreigners in particular love.

All this comes at a time when the Singapore economy, though still growing, faces increased competition as an air and sea hub and the challenge of compensating for an aging population through immigration without upsetting citizens – now only 60 percent of the population. The policy, for which LKY was as much responsible as Hsien Loong, of rapid population growth had already had to be sharply curtailed due to public outcries and a poor PAP performance in the last election. But the twin dilemmas of aging population and near static manpower productivity are very apparent as the post LKY generation reaps some of the negatives from decades of statism,

The system has been highly efficient but smothered originality and entrepreneurship, leaving Singapore reliant on foreign capital and imported labor while a large part of its own savings is invested in modestly performing assets overseas.

It does not help now that Lee Kwan Yew himself assured that his offspring should reach very senior positions, nor that he sued anyone who suggested that they were owed these for any reason other than their own achievements. He thus suppressed any discussion of the role not only of his own children but led to gossip about the prospects of his seven grandchildren and assorted nephews, nieces and cousins etc. Use of the legal system against critics of his family and of the tame judiciary, which invariably found in their favor, became commonplace.

His own children are undoubtedly academically very bright. Like their parents, the boys gained first class degrees at Cambridge University while daughter Mei Ling became a medical doctor. But many doubted whether the sons would have progressed so rapidly to the rank of Brigadier-General during their service in the army but for their parentage. Back in civilian clothes, Hsien Loong was soon a minister and being groomed for the top job. Hsien Yang became Chief Executive Officer of government-owned Singapore Telecom in 1995 at age 38.

Hsien Yang latter is believed to be the most easy-going member of the family and, according to the local gossip mills, perhaps indulged some off-piste pleasures that met with parental disapproval. He left Singtel in 2007 and for the past decade has had a number of non-executive positions but no executive ones. Currently, he is non-executive chairman of the Civil Aviation Authority of Singapore and on various boards including ANZ Bank and the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, of which Kishore Mahbubani is dean.

Daughter Wei Ling provides a rather different family aspect. Never married, she is head of the National Neuroscience Institute. That sounds both serious and innocuous enough but provides a reminder of how vicious Lee family members can be when others get in their way. It is hard not to conclude that Wei Ling used state institutions to pursue a personal vendetta of obscure origin but conducted against a professor with vastly greater credentials than her own. With a British court’s vindication of a prominent English neurologist and expert on epilepsy, Singapore’s ruling Lee family discovered that other countries don’t share the island republic’s – or the Lee family’s – idea of what is legal and proper.

An eminent neurologist and expert on Parkinson’s disease, Simon Shovorn, had been recruited in 2001 from the UK to head up research at the Neuroscience Institute aimed at making Singapore a leading location for research in this field. However, he soon fell out with Wei Ling and was sacked on grounds of serious professional misconduct involving patients’ rights. A panel appointed by the Institute alleged his “research was carried out in serious breach of ethical guidelines which are applicable in Singapore as well as internationally.”

Shovorn later said that he was never given the opportunity to know the details of the allegations or defend himself. He accepted the findings under threat of not being allowed to leave Singapore. He left and Wei Ling took over as head of the Institute. The Singapore Health Ministry did its own report which failed to criticize Shovorn but was then attacked by some of its own members. Shovorn declined to attend a Singapore Medical Council hearing on grounds of his own safety and that he could not get a fair hearing given the record of Lee family successes in the courts against journalists, politicians and indeed anyone impeding their interests or self-image.

Lee Wei Ling then pursued Shovorn to London, trying to get the UK’s General Medical Council to act against him. The Council investigated the case but found there was no substantive evidence on which to proceed. An enraged Wei Ling then went to the High Court in London which proceeded to hear from expert witnesses that if there were errors in the research program they did not amount to professional misconduct.

The Singapore claim was dismissed in language which left no doubt about the weakness of its case. Shovorn’s reputation has since been further enhanced and since 2006 he has been Professor of Clinical Neurology at University College London Wei Ling still heads the Neurological Institute in Singapore, though her reputation as a neurologist does not extend outside the city state.

At this time, the Shovorn case, as well as the numerous legal actions against critics, are a reminder of how the family has used institutions to enhance its own influence, not just that of the ruling PAP. On the three only Hsien Yang has never obviously overstepped the line between public and private life to use the institutions for personal ends.

Hsien Loong meanwhile may find an implacable foe in a sister who may have inherited some of the less attractive characteristics of LKY. The good news is that the family split is opening up memories of the past and of reaction is due after years of hero-worship of LKY and obeisance to the dynasty (which does not of course exist).