Li Shengwu delivers a eulogy to his late grandfather and Singapore national founder Lee Kuan Yew on March 29, 2015. Photo: Screen Grab/Singapore Prime Minister's Office video
Li Shengwu delivers a eulogy to his late grandfather and Singapore national founder Lee Kuan Yew on March 29, 2015. Photo: Screen Grab/Singapore Prime Minister's Office video

In the latest twist in Singapore’s spiraling first family feud, the Attorney-General’s Chambers (AGC) seeks to start contempt of court proceedings against Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong’s nephew, Li Shengwu, for a Facebook post that was allegedly critical of the judiciary.

Li shared a link to a Wall Street Journal article summing up the high-profile row over social media that has pitted his father and aunt against his uncle, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, on his Facebook page last month.

“Keep in mind, of course, that the Singapore government is very litigious and has a pliant court system. This constrains what the international media can usually report,” he wrote in his caption. The post included a link to a 2010 New York Times op-ed on the use of lawsuits as a censorship tool in the city-state.

The privacy setting on Li’s Facebook post was set to “friends only”, making it visible only to those Li has added as friends on the social media platform. But screen captures of the post later surfaced on public Facebook pages and alternative news websites like Thoughts of Real Singaporeans and The Independent Singapore.

A view of Singapore’s old Supreme Court building on May 22, 2016. Photo: iStock/Getty Images. 

In a press statement issued on Friday, the AGC revealed that it had written to Li on July 21 demanding that he remove the post from his Facebook page, as well as any other social media or documents under his control, and to issue a public apology as drafted by the AGC.

“The clear meaning of [the post] in referring to ‘a pliant court system’ is that the Singapore judiciary acts on the direction of the Singapore government, is not independent, and has ruled and will continue to rule in favor of the Singapore government in any proceedings, regardless of the merits of the case,” the AGC’s July 21 letter said.

It added that Li’s link to the New York Times opinion piece reinforced such an assertion. Li was given a compliance deadline of July 28, which was later extended to August 4, but he chose not to issue an apology as the AGC demanded.

“It is not my intent to attack the Singapore judiciary or to undermine public confidence in the administration of justice. Any criticism I made is of the Singapore government’s litigious nature, and its use of legal rules and actions to stifle the free press,” he wrote in a public response on Facebook.

Li also said that he had amended the original post to clarify his meaning, although the post remains visible only to his friends.

Li currently resides in the United States, where he is a junior fellow at Harvard University’s Society of Fellows. According to press reports, Li does not intend to return to Singapore in person to fight charges he contends are “politically motivated” and part of his uncle’s “political vendetta.”

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

Singapore’s criminal procedures allow for in absentia criminal hearings.

The AGC’s move is unlikely to improve matters between Lee Hsien Loong and his younger siblings, Lee Wei Ling, head of the National Neuroscience Institute, and Li’s father Lee Hsien Yang, former chief executive officer of national telecom company SingTel.

The three Lee siblings – children of Singapore’s first Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew – have been embroiled in a bitter feud that erupted in mid-June with a public statement in which the younger Lees accused their elder brother of abusing his power, using organs of the state for his own agenda and seeking to wrongly benefit from the legacy of their father.

The argument, largely triggered by disagreement over whether to demolish or preserve Lee Kuan Yew’s house, spiraled into a tit-for-tat social media battle that has mesmerized the nation. Premier Lee sought to clear his government of the accusations in a two-day parliamentary debate last month which was widely panned as pro-government propaganda.

Following parliament’s session, the two siblings agreed to cease posting criticism on social media, and to settle their dispute privately.

Lee Hsien Yang, Li Shengwu’s father and Singapore prime minister Lee Hsien Loong’s younger brother, at the Supreme court on April 10, 2017. Photo: AFP/Roslan Rahman

The image conscious island state, a key global banking and financial hub, is highly sensitive to any suggestion of impropriety or corruption. The government’s desire to promote the city-state as a successful, developed nation strictly governed by rule of law makes it particularly prickly towards any comment implying a lack of judicial independence.

That was evident in the contempt of court charges recently filed against Eugene Thuraisingam, a prominent lawyer, for comments he made about the execution of his former client, Muhammad Ridzuan Md Ali, despite the lawyer’s withdrawal and apology for the comments.

Others found guilty of contempt of court include British journalist and author Alan Shadrake, who served five and a half weeks in jail in 2010 for his writings on the country’s criminal justice system, and local political blogger Alex Au, who was fined in 2015 for an article that questioned the timing of court hearings on legal challenges to a law criminalizing sex between men.

Last August, Singapore’s parliament passed the Administration of Justice (Protection) Bill – which codifies contempt of court offenses, including charges of “scandalizing” the judiciary, and stipulates maximum penalties of three years in prison and possible S$100,000 (US$73,000) fines – but the bill has not yet been enacted into law.

As the law stands now, however, Prime Minister Lee’s Harvard University affiliated nephew faces potential prison time if convicted over his private Facebook musings about the state of judicial independence in Singapore.

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