Singapore’s Camelot has fallen and we are now truly in the post-Lee Kuan Yew era. The not too friendly public spat between the Lee siblings has unravelled a mystique that the mainstream media has carefully nurtured and worked extremely hard to embed in the Singapore psyche – that the younger Lees are an exceptional family with an unspoken legacy and “natural aristocratic” right to carry on what the senior Lee has built. This may not be now.
Through an avalanche of eulogic literature and mass media propaganda, the establishment has force-fed an image into the minds of Singaporeans of an almost idyllic family who could do no wrong and were larger than life. Perhaps even indispensable to the fate of Singapore – beyond the formidable first Prime Minister himself.
As Lee senior settled down into his nation-building role, we started to know more about his family and, in fact, they became part of our lives. We grew up with Lee Hsien Loong, Lee Wei Ling and Lee Hsien Yang.
During LKY’s lifetime, we grew up with the images of him, his wife, Kwa Geok Choo, and his children just about everywhere – in Singapore, overseas, romping around the Istana. LKY was genuinely a family loving man. And we felt for him. We saw the three children through their childhoods and younger days as they grew and became super-achieving adults, with Lee Hsien Loong finally becoming the country’s third PM. Being the “first family” notwithstanding, they appeared normal, without any hint of the venom that is now being spitted out so publicly.
(On a personal note, I was in the same officer cadet batch in SAFTI with LHL. And I found him utterly professional in the discharging of his duties. Again, as fate would have it, I was once in the same sailing course in Changi with LHY and his wife. I doubt any of them remember me.)
The first cracks in this idyllic picture first appeared in April last year when LWL and The Straits Times were at loggerheads with each other over editorial tampering and her alleged plagiarism in one of the weekly columns she had been writing for The Sunday Times. That was when, in an e-mail implying interference from Istana, she called LHL “a dishonorable son” and accused him of attempting to build a dynasty: “…if the power that be wants to build a dynasty, LKY’s daughter will not allow LKY’s name to be sullied by a dishonorable son”. She then said she would continue her writing on Facebook, more or less telling SPH to go fly a kite.
One year passed and there seemed to be a truce. And, if not idyllic, the Lee family image was still largely intact. We were able to accept a tantrum or two and differences among family members, which family does not quarrel now and then? And the issue which has persisted centred mostly on LKY’s family house at 38, Oxley Road – whether to respect the old man’s wish to demolish it, if and when his daughter vacates it.
Were it that simple. No, it was not.
The grenade that was thrown into the fray in the form of a joint Facebook statement by LWL and LHY on Wednesday has shattered the false calm – and perhaps, with it, the Lee Camelot. Goh Chok Tong described the whole thing as “a family’s petty disputes”. As I said, were it that simple or simplistic.
Serious allegations and counter-allegations have been aired. LWL and LHY both expressed fear of growing pressure from the government. LHY has called his elder brother a liar. LHL has raised “serious concerns” over the role played by LHY’s wife, Suet Fern, in the drafting of one of LKY’s wills.
These are not casual statements. Nor are they run-of-the-mill arguments of legal eagles and their clients in everyday court cases. These are words seriously thrown up, on social media with its wide and instant reach, with intent to hurt one another, by the highly competent once close children of the founding father of independent Singapore, built on a carefully laid foundation of law and order. LHL is the PM. His brother is chairman of the Civil Aviation Authority of Singapore. LWL is head of the National Neuroscience Institute.
Perhaps all this combativeness is inevitable. The three siblings are strong characters in their own right and LHL and LHY have married two women who are equally strong and may possibly have ambitions for their own children. Although Li Hongyi, LHL’s son, and Li Shengwu, LHY’s son, have said they are not interested in going into politics, who knows?
Where do we go for here? The legal fate of 38, Oxley Road may appear to have been finally and definitely sewn up, according to LHY. But its actual destiny may yet have to depend on the government and the relevant court to decide – in the interest of the larger community because of the place’s historic significance.
The siblings? Of course, nothing is impossible. They may bury their differences and get together again, with time. But I fear too much has been said for them to be ever as close as they were when their parents were alive.
It is a somewhat diminished Lee family and a diminished LKY legacy as well. We are, indeed, in a post-LKY era. Perhaps for the better. We need to break free from a hitherto stifling dominance.
Sense And Nonsense is a weekly series. Tan Bah Bah is a former senior leader writer with The Straits Times. He was also managing editor of a local magazine publishing company.