Singapore’s highest court reserved judgment on Friday in the appeal of Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong’s nephew against a court order, extending a legal action that’s become a closely watch subplot in an increasingly politicized first family feud.
Li Shengwu, the son of Prime Minister Lee’s estranged brother Lee Hsien Yang, was legally challenging a court order that had allowed the Attorney General’s Chambers (AGC) to serve him papers for contempt of court in the American city of Boston, where he is currently based.
The Singapore state is seeking to commence contempt of court proceedings against Li for a friends-only Facebook post he published, in which he commented that the government is “very litigious” and has a “pliant court system.”
The post was screen-grabbed and published by numerous websites, notably none of which have been charged yet by the AGC.
The contempt of court saga comes amid a highly publicized dispute between Lee and his younger siblings, Lee Hsien Yang and Lee Wei Ling.
The three are the children of Singapore’s much-revered late statesman Lee Kuan Yew; the two younger Lees allege that the prime minister is seeking to go against their father’s wishes to preserve the family home for political mileage.
They have also accused him in public social media posts of abusing his executive power for personal gain and harboring political ambitions for his son. The prime minister has denied the charges.
Given the Lee family’s position at the apex of the city-state’s politics, it hasn’t taken long for the squabble between siblings to spread beyond disagreement over the house into more political areas.
The contempt of court case against Li and recent complaints filed by the Attorney General’s Chambers to the Law Society against Lee Hsien Yang’s lawyer wife Lee Suet Fern have been viewed by many Singaporeans as the politicized fall-out of the simmering feud between the younger siblings and their powerful brother.
For his part, Lee Hsien Yang has connected with some of his brother’s political opponents and critics.
In November, he caused a stir when he was photographed having breakfast with former People’s Action Party (PAP) parliamentarian Tan Cheng Bock. Tan, who had served in Parliament from 1980 to 2006, has since left the ruling party and was a close runner-up to the PAP’s candidate in the 2011 presidential election.
Tan announced on Friday that he has applied to establish a new political party, the Progress Singapore Party, alongside “likeminded Singaporeans”, including other former PAP cadres. He is still waiting for approval from the Register of Societies before the party can start functioning.
Lee Hsien Yang also recently contributed to the legal fund of Leong Sze Hian, a financial advisor who is being sued by the prime minister for defamation after he shared an article on Facebook that was later debunked as fake, and has repeatedly criticized what he sees as undue use of state organs to perpetuate Lee Hsien Loong’s personal agenda.
“The AGC is arguing at the Court of Appeal hearing that it can apply newly enacted rules on Shengwu retroactively,” he wrote in a Facebook post about his son’s case. “Is this the kind of government we want?”
These moves have led to speculation — and even some wistful hoping — that Lee Hsien Yang might enter politics and challenge his brother and the PAP head-on. The next general election is due to be called before early 2021, but rumors are widespread that it will be held ahead of schedule, possibly later this year.
“If he does join an opposition coalition (with Tan Cheng Bock), I think it could have a significant impact on the election, although I still think an election victory for the opposition is not likely,” Stephan Ortmann, assistant professor at the City University of Hong Kong’s Asian and international studies department, told Asia Times.
“The reason for that is the lack of a serious crisis, which could raise concerns about the ruling party. I think in comparison to Malaysia, a 1MDB-like case is missing. The discontent is simply not at the same level, which is necessary in a competitive authoritarian regime.”
That said, much of the chatter about the possibility of Lee Hsien Yang’s entry into partisan politics stems from a tendency in Singapore to conflate the idea of general politics with electoral politics.
“There is a widespread belief that if you want to make a change in Singapore, you should join a party and compete for votes. Naturally this implies that it would be best to join the ruling party to affect any change,” Ortmann says.
“The public reaction suggests a rather narrow default assumption that all politics has to be about electoral competition and partisan politics. It also views disagreement with the established PAP narrative as somehow out of the ordinary,” says political scientist Ian Chong.
“Such a view overlooks the fact that a lot of politics is about dealing with differences in a variety of ways,” he said. “It also forgets that all citizens are part of the political process so long as we are part of the polity, even the choices of agreement, silence, disassociation, or departure are ultimately political in nature.”
So, too, it appears is sibling rivalry.