Under fire: Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong has failed to arrest rising accusations against his rule. Photo: AFP via Ministry of Communications and Information.
Under fire: Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong has failed to arrest rising accusations against his rule. Photo: AFP via Ministry of Communications and Information.

Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong and his government may have hoped that a two-day parliamentary debate would close the chapter on a family feud that held the country in thrall for over a month. But recent developments have shown that the explosive allegations of abuse of power that surfaced during the episode won’t be so easily forgotten.

A crowd of about 400 gathered in Hong Lim Park last Saturday to protest what they saw as an unsatisfactory resolution of the allegations siblings Lee Wei Ling and Lee Hsien Yang had made against their older brother, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong. In a public statement and a series of subsequent Facebook posts, the Lee siblings accused the premier of abusing his power and using organs of the state for his personal goals.

They claimed that while their father, Singapore’s first Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew, had made his wish for his home at 38 Oxley Road to be demolished crystal clear, Lee Hsien Loong is seeking to preserve the residence and benefit from the political capital attached to the memory of the much-revered elder statesman.

These accusations and the subsequent drip-feeding of correspondence and further allegations on the siblings’ Facebook pages grabbed headlines around the world, hitting a nerve in a country particularly sensitive about its international image. The publicity and chatter generated was enough to push the beleaguered Lee Hsien Loong to submit himself and other government ministers to questioning by Members of Parliament on July 3 and 4.

Yet observers were left disappointed when the debate came to a close after two days of speeches and questions from the ruling People’s Action Party, opposition Workers’ Party and the small number of nominated members of parliament. Lee Hsien Loong, in his closing statement, declared that no evidence of abuse had been provided and that it was time to “get back to more important things that we should be working on.”

In self-defense: Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong speaks at a special sitting of parliament in Singapore July 3, 2017. Parliament House of Singapore/Handout via Reuters

“The height of absurdity came when Lee Hsien Loong declared his satisfaction that no one had actually made any accusations of wrongdoing against him,” said Michael Barr, associate professor of international relations at Flinders University in Australia. ”Well sure, that is because he chose a venue where the only people with the goods don’t have a voice, and no one in that chamber had enough data to make a charge, except maybe some people who are Lee’s allies anyway.”

The younger Lee siblings released another public statement soon after, announcing a cessation of their social media posts and their willingness to settle the issue of the house with their brother in private. This was not good enough for the assembled protesters at Hong Lim Park, however, who said that the debate had left Singaporeans with “no closure.”

Speakers at the event, standing on stage before a banner reading “Singapore belongs to Singaporeans and not to the FamiLee”, repeatedly brought up demands for accountability, including suggestions of a petition to President Tony Tan to convene a Commission of Inquiry.

Signs reading “Abuse of Power” and “Ownself Defend Ownself” – a quote from opposition leader Low Thia Khiang, who accused the government of using its parliamentary majority to clear its own name – were hung up in the park.

“I belong to the first generation [of Singaporeans] and I’m disgusted by what’s happening today,” said Govind, a retiree who told Asia Times that he was attending the protest because “too many things are happening” in the usually politically placid city-state.

Rare response: Protest organizer Gilber Goh speaks at Hong Lim park during a demonstration against Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong in Singapore July 15, 2017. Photo: Reuters/Edgar Su

“I still think that we need an independent inquiry,” said Paul Tambyah, who had run for Parliament in the 2015 general election with the Singapore Democratic Party. “It wasn’t like a hearing where you could ask questions or get answers, so it was very unsatisfactory in that sense.”

All eyes were once again directed back to the Lee family on Monday when the Attorney-General’s Chambers told the local press that they were “looking into” comments made by Lee Hsien Yang’s son, Li Shengwu.

Li, a junior fellow at Harvard University’s Society of Fellows, had shared a Wall Street Journal article on the family feud on his Facebook page, accompanied by a caption in which he described the Singapore government as “very litigious” and the court system as “pliant.”

The post was set to ‘friends only’ – which meant it was only accessible by those Li had added as friends on Facebook – but screen captures of the comment were posted on Facebook and alternative websites like Thoughts of Real Singaporeans and The Independent Singapore.

Shrill call: Low Thia Khiang, chief of the opposition Worker’s Party, has challenged the premier’s attempts to absolve himself of any wrongdoing. Photo: AFP/Roslan Rahman 

It is unclear how the Attorney-General’s Chambers could take action against Li while he is living in the United States, but the fact that his post was meant to be only for his Facebook friends also throws up interesting questions.

“One ingredient of contempt of court is proving the intention to publish the article complained of. Does publishing on FB on “friends only” privacy settings amount to an intention to publish?” said Eugene Tan, associate professor of law at the Singapore Management University.

“However, it appears that someone else made the post public. Will the law regard this person as the publisher?” In response, Li said that he was “somewhat surprised” that his post had triggered such a response from the state.

“I’m surprised that the Singapore government is so petty. Would they also like to trawl my private Facebook feed for seditious vacation photos?” he wrote on his Facebook page.

Lee Wei Ling had remained silent on Facebook since agreeing to cease posting evidence and allegations on social media, but popped up once more in defense of her nephew. “Is this not an example of ‘big Brother government’,” she wrote. “Perhaps it is a case of ‘if the hat fits, take it.’”

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