Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong apologized to the nation on Monday evening as a family feud with his younger siblings continued to play out over social media. The rare public split between members of the country’s first family has captivated Singaporeans while raising hard questions about Lee’s style of governance.
“I deeply regret that this dispute has affected Singapore’s reputation and Singaporeans’ confidence in the government,” a solemn-faced Lee Hsien Loong said in a pre-recorded video. “As your Prime Minister, I apologize to you for this. And as the eldest of the siblings, it grieves me to think of the anguish that this would have caused our parents if they were still alive.”
The dispute between the three children of Singapore’s first Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew has dominated political discussion in the city-state ever since Lee Wei Ling and Lee Hsien Yang released a public statement last Wednesday criticizing their premier brother of misusing his position of official power for personal means.
Apart from the three siblings, the feud has since drawn comments from former Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong, Deputy Prime Minister Teo Chee Hean, Minister for Law and Home Affairs K Shanmugam and Cabinet Secretary Tan Kee Yong, not to mention three of Lee Kuan Yew’s grandsons.
While the spat largely revolves around the question of whether to demolish or preserve the much-revered Lee Kuan Yew’s house at 38 Oxley Road, the younger Lee siblings have also made allegations of nepotism, cronyism and subversion of due process – serious charges against a government well-known for its low threshold of tolerance for any suggestion of impropriety.
The siblings have claimed that Lee Hsien Loong dishonored their father’s last will by attempting to preserve his former residence through a “secret committee” of ministers; that he has misused his position to obtain a “deed of gift” for the house made out to the National Heritage Board without going through proper channels; that he has installed his personal lawyer as Attorney-General; that his unelected wife, Ho Ching, exercises undue political influence; and that the first couple harbor political ambitions for their son, Li Hongyi.
Lee Hsien Yang, Lee Hsien Loong’s younger brother, has also raised concerns that he is being monitored and threatened by state agents to the degree that he has decided to leave the country in apparent self-exile.
Although many of these allegations have yet to be proven, the fact that they are coming from within Singapore’s most powerful family has drawn significant public attention and thus given them more weight.
Observers note that the Lee siblings are in a unique position to make such claims without attracting defamation suits from the famously litigious first family, though it is possible they could in future face such charges.
Lee Hsien Loong, along with his father, previously sued and won damages from the New York Times and the International Herald Tribune for mere suggestions of “dynastic politics” in Singapore.
“No one else would have the capacity to challenge [Prime Minister] Lee and survive,” said Michael Barr, associate professor of international relations at Flinders University in Australia. “The siblings don’t want power for themselves, but they clearly want to delegitimize Lee Hsien Loong’s rule during his final half-decade or decade in office. And more significantly they want to spoil Li Hongyi’s entry into politics.”
“These allegations go beyond private and personal matters, and extend to the conduct of my office and the integrity of the Government,” said Lee Hsien Loong in his national address, which notably was not a mea culpa for the abuse of power allegations.
“Much as I would like to move on, and end a most unhappy experience for Singaporeans, these baseless accusations against the government cannot be left unanswered. They must be and will be dealt with openly and refuted,” Lee said in his address.
The premier also announced in a vow of transparency that he will make a ministerial statement in Parliament on July 3, after which parliamentarians will be able to question him on is siblings’ allegations.
“I hope that this full, public airing in Parliament will dispel any doubts that have been planted and strengthen confidence in our institutions and our system of government,” he said.
Analysts say that a Parliament session dominated by Lee Hsien Loong’s own People’s Action Party (PAP) will give the beleaguered prime minister an opportunity to establish control over the situation, which has so far been led by his siblings’ free-wheeling posts on Facebook that have side-stepped the control over the mainstream media that his government usually wields.
“The parliamentary session gives the [Prime Minister] significant control as it denies his other family members a voice. He can drive the agenda and frame the issue in his own positive light,” said Stephan Ortmann, a research fellow at City University of Hong Kong. “As he is an affable person, many people will believe him.” he predicts.
Although Lee Hsien Loong framed the parliamentary session as an open method of providing Singaporeans with an honest accounting of the situation, Ortmann believes that it will more likely be an exercise in damage control for the long-ruling PAP.
“In Singapore, the PAP has created an image of near infallibility which is used as an argument why you should vote for it and not another party. If the prime minister is viewed as negatively, it hurts the party,” Ortmann said.
“I believe the MPs will ask questions that are favorable to the [Prime Minister] and suggest that he has done all he could do. Also, I believe it will suggest that this is primarily a family affair that got out of hand and now will be resolved clearly. Any questions related to governance will be dealt with as they usually do: with clear denials.”