by Augustine Low
The public, to be fair, did not give much thought or credence to a third-generation Lee as Prime Minister. The prevailing sentiment was that it would be a bridge too far, a feat too audacious to pull off.
But now all bets are off – ever since Lee Hsien Yang and Lee Wei Ling raised the spectre of a Lee dynasty in the shape of Li Hongyi, son of PM Lee Hsien Loong and wife Ho Ching. Public speculation and conjecture has understandably gone into overdrive.
So let’s ponder the once imponderable. The starting point is that Li Hongyi is a civil servant. This is an important distinction because it signifies a clear intent to embark on a career and life of public office. And public office is after all not far removed from the higher echelon of political office.
Li Hongyi is currently Deputy Director of the Government Digital Services Data Science Division of the Government Technology Agency of Singapore, a statutory board under the Prime Minister’s Office. He has impressive credentials – a recipient of the Lee Kuan Yew Award for Mathematics and Science, the Public Service Commission Overseas Merit Scholarship, a top government scholarship, and a graduate from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the United States.
It would not be amiss to contend that Li Hongyi is not in public office to remain Deputy Director for long; his rise could be meteoric because his bosses, whoever they are, at whatever stage of his career, would find it expedient to groom and promote him.
There were denials after the allegation by blood relations Lee Hsien Yang and Lee Wei Ling (“based on our interactions”) that PM Lee and wife harboured political ambitions for their son. Li Hongyi posted on Facebook: “For what it is worth, I really have no interest in politics.” PM Lee called the allegation “absurd” – that’s it, just that one word, no definitive slaying of the allegation.
Now, contrast the terse denials with the unequivocal statement from Li Shengwu, son of Lee Hsien Yang: “Not only do I intend never to go into politics, I believe that it would be bad for Singapore if any third-generation Lee went into politics. The country must be bigger than one family.”
So we have on the one hand terse denials and on the other hand vehement, categorical rejection. More significantly, having no interest in politics is not the same as saying one would never go into politics because it would be bad for Singapore.
We only need to look at Li Hongyi’s father to sieve out a precedent. Goh Chok Tong has taken pains to emphasise many times that it was he personally who spotted the talent of Lee Hsien Loong and roped him into politics, and certainly “not at the behest of Lee Kuan Yew.”
So we have in Lee Hsien Loong someone who was persuaded to enter politics and through force of circumstance ended up being Prime Minister. To say that the exact same thing could happen with Li Hongyi is speaking to the predictability of the PAP – but is it ludicrous and out-of-character for the next Prime Minister or some other stalwart in the cabinet to eyeball the talent of Li Hongyi and make that call to him to serve Singapore at the highest level? Would Li Hongyi be self-serving enough to turn it down? And remember, it would NOT be at the behest of Lee Hsien Loong.
Again, force of circumstance and service to nation dictating that another Lee rises to be head of government. The script has been written before and we cannot rule out a new chapter in the works, the common thread being bloodline politics.
Li Hongyi is only 30 years old and we may well be jumping the gun here. But his father entered politics at the relatively young age of 32. And with the benefit of hindsight and the knowledge of how meritocracy in Singapore pans out, the once imponderable can now seem fathomable.
Li Shengwu (facing contempt of court charges and out of the country, possibly for good) is right: Singapore must be bigger than one family. But his uncle Lee Hsien Loong might have something to say about that. In time, we will know if the PAP is brazen enough to annoint Li Hongyi to perpetuate the Lee Dynasty.
Augustine Low is a former journalist and managing director of a public relations agency.