A Prisoner of his Father’s Legacy


by Augustine Low

Have you seen the face of PM Lee Hsien Loong when he he talks about his late father? There is wellspring of emotion, a wistful faraway look – a look of yearning tinged with melancholy. Clearly he is still clouded by grief and anguish at the loss of his father to this day.

In a CNBC interview two months ago, PM Lee recounted the sort of advice his father would be giving him now. The interviewer followed up with: “You can hear his voice in your head?” And the reply from PM Lee: “Yes, we can imagine that.” (By “we” he was probably referring to the Cabinet although I think he spoke for himself).

It is poignant that he carries the spirit and the voice of the father with him. It is also telling. The label of “dishonourable son” memorably pinned on PM Lee by his sister Lee Wei Ling simply does not ring true. He is ever the dutiful son, he is every bit his father’s son and father’s keeper. He is consumed (paranoid even) with protecting his father’s legacy and preserving the dominance of his father’s party. This is his life’s mission, governing his thoughts and deeds.

It is perhaps his destiny and a cross that he carries: to be never released from the shackles of his father’s coattails. But I believe I am nearer the truth in saying he is bereft of the courage to break free – moral courage and political courage.

In PM Lee, we have a man who could have carried the torch from his father and gone on to recalibrate a Singapore in tune with the times. Yet he has been simply carrying on the tradition, never championing new ideals, never fashioning a more progressive Singapore. By his own reckoning, he has done well enough. Singapore is stable economically and respected internationally, and after all we we have the world’s most powerful passport. But PM Lee’s political persona has not evolved. One can imagine that confronted with a challenge, he searches for the voice of his father and that voice invariably tells him to retreat to what worked under circumstances of the past, circumstances of his father’s time.

The political ideology of PM Lee has remained stagnant; he still measures success strictly in terms of brick and mortar. At his father’s funeral service, he cited St Paul’s Cathedral in London built by Sir Christopher Wren: “Mr Lee Kuan Yew built Singapore. To those who seek Mr Lee Kuan Yew’s monument, Singaporeans can reply proudly: Look around you.” The GDP, the Marina Bay skyline, the MBS and other like shining icons that dot the country are to PM Lee parameters of success. And we can see why to him 38 Oxley Road absolutely has to be preserved as a monument to honour his father’s legacy.

Where PM Lee has been found most wanting is that he has failed to muster the will and courage to ensure that economic growth is correlated with civil and social progress, with tolerance, inclusion, and political rights and freedom, to enhance the country’s well-being. How can we be progressive as a country when the Internet and social media is suppressed and over regulated, civil society is suppressed, media freedom is restricted, racial card is played for political gain, mediocrity and cronyism are disguised as meritocracy?

Instead of leading Singapore to embrace the aspirations of a new generation, a new century, PM Lee has obsessively taken on the mantle of being his father’s son and father’s keeper. As the dutiful son, he has achieved his mission. But in doing so, he has scorned the opportunity to break free from his father’s coattails and carve out a legacy of his own. It is his loss. It is an even bigger loss for the nation.

During PM Lee’s recent visit to the United States, President Donald Trump,  at the start of his welcome speech, said “your father was a great man, he really was a great man.” PM Lee had travelled halfway across the world to be reminded that he was the son of a great man.

And so it shall be. It is his destiny – and his tragedy – that Lee Hsien Loong, a prisoner of his father’s legacy, will always be first and foremost the son of Lee Kuan Yew and then almost as an afterthought, the third Prime Minister of Singapore.

Augustine Low is a former journalist and managing director of a public relations agency.


  1. He has no fresh idea or even none on how to go forwards but looking backwards all the time and spend huge sums of money and resources to use past events to keep up the fishermen’s morale and feel good factors! Always doing more of the same to repeat past successes in this brand new world while bloating up his governing machinery and scheming to establish unfretted power……..

  2. Don’t blame or say anything. This guy’s arrival was questionable. When JBJ questioned how he got BG at 32, one mama fellow from PAP threaten to sue. Sinkies were watching and said nothing. Many even suggested wait and watch his delivery. His deliverance would justify his quick assesion. Now he has delivered. Last election showed what Sinkies think. It was reinforced in Bt Batok election. This country sadly destined to fail. Don’t blame those in power. Those blind voters sealed Singapore’s destiny. Stupid people don’t deserve smart leaders.

  3. he cannot compare to his father. during his father ruling period , Singapore prosperous alot. and there isnt much problem that the citizen face. pricing of house cars and transportation were all reasonable.

    now when the own self clear oneself minister rule, citizen life suffer over time.

    the only mistake Lky made before his death is definitely making LHL take over his position and not giving it to someone more capable .

  4. Take a trip to JB,other Neighbour countries and see Sporeans spend,eat shop…what’s Sin can do that other Asian countries cannot match at much lower costs ? Advantage and early headstart of.the 60s,70s80s we had is gone….SIA a good example facing other lower operating airlines. Govt going high tech..to move ahead,so do others sooner or later!Its a tough job..the least we can do is grumble less and come up with a better planning….

  5. We are all part of this legacy and I believe LHL have done it better than anyone could to try and uphold it. The question is not to outgrow it, but I think for any person in this world, is to be able to do his or her best. I think LHL is definitely also putting up with the best he can.

    • Interesting You find it rude and consider a vulgarity.

      U should see some other comments within this post against our prime minister re-think what is rude.

      Ur so call strong mandate is very likely nothing much but easy online comments and criticism. Don talk about vote cause apparently majority voted otherwise.

      And Maybe u wanna re considered ur time spent in all the online majong games or murder crime scene discovery games on FB to taking on leadership roles climbing ur way up grass root to work with or be a better PM for Singapore ? Otherwise all u get is a lot of majong coins and virtual rewards for solving online crime games…

      Look I’m only trying to say my believe in people trying the best they can. And Amy totally missed my point in my initial comment and started typing another one of the so call strong mandate views to remind me to put in negative comments of the prime minister.

  6. Spore’s success was due to location,location,location.
    Nothing else.

    Now in the age of non stop sailing & non stop flights,we loose the advantage.Ships do not need to stop here to replenish,flights do not have to stop here for anything.

    We chased away the all manufacturing companies by raising the costs.

    So ended up Collect taxes by bringing in more people and GIC building more shopping centres & office towers to collect rents.

    Now the offices are also running away.

    Shops can’t survive due to online competition.

    Now we’re screwed.

    LKY didn’t do anything magical.

    Spore was already a thriving city,prior to LKY’s arrival.

  7. Of course NO WAY!!!!!!! LKY built up S’pore from 3rd World to 1st, everything improved, strict rules, he gained n earned the Respect from the World. But not now, own self check own self, double standard rules….etcs. Lost Trillions n soon LOCAL BREEDS will be outsourced by Foreigners…… etcs. S’pore soon gone with the wind

  8. No prisoner, far from it. He is embracing it and exploiting it for dear life.

    It is true that his limited experience restricts him to slavishly following his old man in spite of the changed circumstances.

    But if there is a prison, it’s one that closes him to new ideas. He made it himself by surrounding himself with yes men. The dynamics of Singapore politics also dictates that solidarity of the elite is paramount. So no one within the elite, even those not having positions in government would challenge him.

    So he can live in his little bubble where the logic is that diversity is great when it comes to the presidency but the PM must be a Chinese guy despite popular opinions advancing well ahead of his strait jacketed mind.

    Let him continue living in his fantasy. His bloodline and natural aristocratic status entitles him to it.

  9. A touch premature in writing up PM LHL’s swan song…

    Augustine Low, your above skewering piece of PM Lee junior reads like a set obituary writ large in stone… but I believe it is somewhat gratuitously premature for you to do so for there is still sufficient time on his watch to right any mistaken actions/directions before the curtain is rung down — as the first instance then, let charity begin at once at home and drop the malarky charges against his very own nephew.

    As an aside here, two comparative interview vids of note conducted by BBC HARDtalk some 20 years apart between father and son by interviewers Tim Sebastian and Stephen Sackur respectively… the contrast is self-evident; a tough act to follow indeed; for the son it’ll always remain an unenviable task to live in the shadow of the legendary father.

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GhvHLpSD1nE (by Tim Sebastian in ’90s)

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YN4SuSXqnLA (by Stephen Sackur in 2017)