Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong. Photo: AFP/Brendan Smialowski
Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong in a file photo. Photo: AFP/Brendan Smialowski

Lee Suet Fern, the sister-in-law of Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, has stepped down as managing partner of a global law firm based in the city-state in preparation to leave the country, while her husband Lee Hsien Yang continues to question his elder brother premier’s intentions and governance.

Although the couple have said that they are planning to leave Singapore “for the foreseeable future”, they have not yet revealed where they are going in what appears could be a leap towards self-imposed exile.

Lee Hsien Yang, formerly the chief executive officer of major telecommunications company Singtel, has said that he feels threatened by his brother’s government, indicating in an interview with Reuters that he has concerns about the monitoring of his phone calls and messages.

“I’ve used the term big brother, what do you think big brother means? Why do you think I use WhatsApp?” he told the wire agency, referring to the strongly encrypted instant messaging service.

The three children of Singapore’s first prime minister have been engaged in a public feud since the two younger siblings released a statement on Wednesday morning accusing Lee Hsien Loong of misusing his power and seeking to preserve their late national founder father’s house for his own political purposes.

In a series of Facebook posts over the next three days, Lee Wei Ling and Lee Hsien Yang claimed that their brother had been dishonest about upholding the late Lee Kuan Yew’s wishes. The elder statesman, who’s passing triggered a week of national mourning in 2015, expressed his wish for the house to be demolished upon his daughter Lee Wei Ling’s relocation or passing.

Widely respected: People pay their last respects to Singapore’s first prime minister and national founder Lee Kuan Yew on March 28, 2015. Photo: Reuters/Edgar Su

In their public statement, Lee Wei Ling and Lee Hsien Yang revealed that Minister for National Development Lawrence Wong – who had been Principal Private Secretary to Lee Hsien Loong from 2005 to 2008 – informed them that a ministerial committee had been set up to consider options for the house.

A summary of statutory declarations released by Lee Hsien Loong showed that he had made representations questioning the preparation of Lee Kuan Yew’s last will, to the ire of his siblings.

“Why does it take a committee of the highest paid ministers in the world to challenge a clause reiterating this well-known and publicly stated wish of our father? Is this not a matter for the family courts? Are our ministers now secret justices paid millions to resolve personal family disputes?” Lee Hsien Yang asked in a Facebook post.

Contested fate: Former Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew’s Oxley Road residence in Singapore on June 14, 2017. Photo: Reuters/Edgar Su

He noted in an earlier post that the prime minister had “raised no legal challenge” in the months after the reading of the will, with probate granted in October 2015. Yet the question of whether to demolish or preserve 38 Oxley Road has been a subject of open discussion in Singapore.

While a 2015 survey showed that the majority of Singaporeans polled were in favor of demolishing the house according to Lee Kuan Yew’s wishes, the fact remains that the home of modern Singapore’s most dominant figure – and the birthplace of the long-ruling People’s Action Party – holds significant value in terms of history and heritage.

Laws such as the Preservation of Monuments Act also allows the government to identify sites worthy of heritage protection.

“We have to recognize that there are various situations in which it is regarded as in the wider public interest not to give legal effect to the personal wishes of individuals, whether expressed in a will or otherwise,” said Jack Lee, assistant professor of law at the Singapore Management University.

The National Heritage Board is the agency tasked with identifying sites and making recommendations to the Minister of Culture, Community and Youth, but Jack Lee said that the convening of a ministerial committee, while not the norm, could have been done “in light of the sensitivities involved with this particular site.”

“I don’t think there is anything sinister in having a special ad hoc committee look into a particular matter, so long as there is no attempt to circumvent the normal operation of the law and take the decision-making power out of the [National Heritage Board’s] and Minister’s hands,” he said.

Insecure: Lee Hsien Yang, younger brother of Singapore’s prime minister Lee Hsien Loong, says he feels threatened by his sibling’s government. Photo: AFP/Roslan Rahman

Less addressed, though, are the Lee siblings’ allegations of abuse of power, lack of due process and repression from their powerful brother. Emeritus Senior Minister and former premier Goh Chok Tong waded into the fray on Friday night, characterizing the saga as “a family’s petty disputes.”

Apart from an initial general denial of all his siblings’ accusations – particularly one which said he and his wife had political ambitions for their son, Li Hongyi – Lee Hsien Loong’s responses have largely focused on his concerns over his father’s last will and the house’s management. His statements have expressed disappointment at his siblings’ decision to publicize “private family matters.”

The political opposition has seized on the dust-up. “The dispute between PM Lee Hsien Loong and his siblings, Dr Lee Wei Ling and Mr Lee Hsien Yang, goes far beyond private family matters. It delves into issues of national concern and good governance,” said the Singapore Democratic Party, one of the city-state’s opposition parties, in a statement.

Power couple: Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong (L) and his wife Ho Ching (R) on October 13, 2016. Photo: AFP/Sean Davey

“Both siblings have made serious accusations against the [prime minister], among which is the abuse of powers entrusted to him,” the statement said.  “Unless and until Mr Lee Hsien Loong takes decisive steps to renounce authoritarian rule and steer Singapore onto the democratic path, his remaining tenure as prime minister will be a troubled one.”

Independent analysts also acknowledged the spiraling spat’s political risk to Lee’s government.

“I think that they will try to minimize the issue as a family affair and try to avoid the other allegations… Whether it succeeds depends on how the [prime minister] deals with it,” said Stephan Ortmann, a research fellow at City University of Hong Kong. “If he seeks to diffuse it, for instance by compromising about the house, it may not have a serious long-term impact.”

“However, right now many Singaporeans appear to have lost the illusion that the Lee family is somehow something special, above ordinary people,” he added. “As this impacts the ruling discourse, it does have potential strong impact if managed poorly.”