The row among the children of Singapore’s founding Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew threatens to impact the coming General Election in the Lion City. Although the People’s Action Party, which has ruled the country for 61 years, is expected to return to power, allegations against Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong by his sister Lee Wei Ling and brother Lee Hsien Yang may possibly influence votes.
Dr Lee Wei Ling fired a salvo likely to reignite her quarrel with Mr Lee Hsien Loong with her Facebook post on Sunday (June 14). Mr Lee Hsien Yang, a former corporate chieftain, shared her post on his Facebook the same day.
Dr Lee Wei Ling alleged: “On 14 Jun 2017 Yang and I made public our concerns in a Facebook post entitled ‘What has happened to Lee Kuan Yew’s Values?’ We stated that ‘We do not trust Hsien Loong as a brother or as a leader. We have lost confidence in him.’ Events since then have only served to reinforce our view.”
She did not furnish proof or details for her Facebook post, which has been shared more than 1,000 times on Facebook and drawn hundreds of comments supporting her and Mr Lee Hsien Yang.
Prime Minister Lee has denied all the allegations by his sister and brother, which they started posting on Facebook on June 14, 2017.
After Lee senior died in March 2015, the quarrel among his three children, who are all in their 60s, came out in public over the patriarch’s house in Oxley Road, where Dr Lee Wei Ling currently lives. Mr Lee Hsien Yang and Dr Lee Wei Ling accused their brother of acting improperly over their father’s wish for the house not to be preserved as a monument, which the Prime Minister denies.
The timing of Dr Lee Wei Ling’s Facebook post on June 14 is crucial, since Singapore’s General Election is expected to take place several weeks later. It is possible that Dr Lee Wei Ling and Mr Lee Hsien Yang will continue to post allegations against their brother on Facebook in the run-up to the polls and during the election period.
This can be seen in the photograph in Dr Lee Wei Ling’s Facebook post, showing her and Mr Lee Hsien Yang when they were children. In the photograph, Dr Lee Wei Ling’s arm was on her brother’s shoulder expressing her support for Mr Lee Hsien Yang, while Mr Lee Hsien Yang has his hands on his hips, in a gesture typical of a boy ready for a fight. The stern facial expressions of the siblings in the photograph show defiance. This is the picture of a pair ganging up for confrontation.
Dr Lee Wei Ling hinted she may post further allegations against Mr Lee Hsien Loong, with her unproven allegation in Facebook that unspecified events since June 2017 reinforced her and Mr Lee Hsien Yang’s lack of trust and confidence in the Prime Minister. If Dr Lee Wei Ling and Mr Lee Hsien Yang make damaging posts against their brother in future, they must know they risk libel lawsuits and being hit with Singapore’s anti-fake news law, the Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act (Pofma).
Mr Lee Hsien Loong said he has not sued his siblings for the sake of their late parents, but does not rule out doing so in future. Dr Lee Wei Ling and Mr Lee Hsien Yang must know the fate of those who lose defamation lawsuits by Singaporean leaders, from what their father did to opposition politicians like Dr Chee Soon Juan.
The quarrel within Singapore’s first family bears some similarity to an ancient Indian epic, the Mahabharata, about a great civil war within an Indian royal family between two sets of cousins, the Pandawas and Korawas.
In 1995, I acted in a play based on the Mahabharata, staged by a local drama group, Asia in Theatre, and directed by the late Singaporean dramatist William Teo.
I played Sahadeva, one of the Pandawa brothers. Ironically, Mr Lee Hsien Loong, who was then Deputy Prime Minister, watched the play. My fellow actors told me that Mr Lee Hsien Loong was moved by the play. Another minister who watched the production was Mr George Yeo, who was then Minister of Information and the Arts.
The rift among Lee Kuan Yew’s children also partly parallels a defining moment in Singapore history 201 years ago, when two sons of the late Sultan Mahmud Shah III of Johor-Riau competed for the kingdom.
When Stamford Raffles arrived in Singapore in January 1819, he supported the elder brother, Hussein Shah, against his half-brother Abdul Rahman. On Feb 6, 1819, Raffles signed a treaty with the elder brother whom the British would recognise as Sultan of Johor, in return for establishing a colonial outpost in Singapore.
Of course, one difference between this episode in Singapore history and the present quarrel is Mr Lee Hsien Yang has professed no political ambitions, beyond endorsing the opposition Progress Singapore Party.
However, if Prime Minister Lee becomes overly preoccupied in his dispute with his siblings, it may weaken his diplomacy with the United States and China. Relations between the two superpowers are worsening, like two whales fighting and churning up the region’s waters, while Prime Minister Lee is like a captain of a small ship. If he is distracted by his family squabble, he may have trouble navigating the Singapore ship through the choppy waters of Sino-US tensions.
Toh Han Shih is a Singaporean writer in Hong Kong. The opinions expressed in this article are his own.