The Lees: Way beyond the Rubicon

Sense And Nonsense by Tan Bah Bah

Photo: Facebook screengrab/ Lee Hsien Loong

For the quarrelling 2G Lees, their estranged relationship was aptly defined by Lee Hsien Yang and Lee Wei Ling themselves in 2017. “He shouted at us… It was the crossing of the Rubicon. He has not spoken to us since,” the younger Lee siblings said in a joint statement published on Facebook on July 6 that year. They were referring to the state of their relationship with elder brother PM Lee Hsien Loong caused by their largely unresolved dispute over 38 Oxley Road.

For those who are unfamiliar with the Rubicon phrase, it describes Julius Caesar irrevocably committing to a course of action, making a fateful decision to cross the Rubicon River (between Italy and Gaul) in 49 BC. That started a civil war against Pompey and the Roman Senate which ultimately led to Caesar’s becoming dictator for life and to the rise of the imperial era of Rome.

After some public exchanges, the younger Lees agreed to a ceasefire which was followed in 2018 by a Parliament session (practically non-debate) on 38 Oxley Road. They said they would not discuss the issue – fate of the property, details of their father the late Lee Kuan Yew’s will –  further on social media, if no new facts were put forward.

It has been an uneasy truce since then.

For the Hsien Yang family, the pressure continues. First, there is Li Shengwu, LHY’s son and PM Lee’s nephew. The Attorney-General’s Chambers is currently undertaking contempt of court action against Li, who is an assistant professor of economics at Harvard University. The case stems from a Facebook post in July last year made by Li, which allegedly attacked Singapore’s judiciary. Li has denied doing so.

Next, there is Mrs Lee Suet Fern. The AGC has filed a complaint to the Law Society against LHY’s wife for her possible role in drafting LKY’s last will when her husband is one of the beneficiaries.

What now? The fall of Singapore’s Camelot is sad and riveting at the same time. We are vicariously experiencing the inner tensions, angst and flaws of a once idyllic First Family. Almost from the ringside. In a sense, we now are very aware that the Lees are just as human as others, right down to the younger Lees’ no-holds-barred opinion of their elder brother: “We do not trust Hsien Loong as a brother or a leader. We have lost confidence in him.”

The question is: Have Singaporeans lost confidence or will they lose confidence eventually? This is a valid question, one that PM Lee cannot easily brush aside.

I think most sensible Singaporeans will let the family work out their differences – and wish them well. If and as the dispute continues to unravel, they expect fairness and impeccable conduct in the proceedings. They will hold PM Lee to the values of the importance of family, respect for elders (and their wishes), equality and having an inclusive society, whatever the disagreements and differences. He has to be seen to be practising all these values in his dealings with his siblings.

A larger question for Singapore is: What do we think of the dispute? Who do we support or sympathise with? Do we feel PM Lee has been put in a difficult position, having to wear so many hats – as son, brother, uncle and national leader wrestling with bigger picture considerations? Can the government think beyond the obvious of merely preserving the house and do different things besides preservation, like capturing the historic building for posterity through a book, a tableaux, a 3-D film and virtual reality, if it has not already done them?

Do we feel the younger Lees have been hard done by their brother? Are they justified in painting him as a leader obsessed with power and getting his own way with everything, that he will not brook dissent, even from his own siblings? Such that every word uttered and written will be interpreted as a challenge to his authority?

The largest question of all, one which has long-term implications for Singaporeans so used to a controlled political environment dominated by the People’s Action Party, is: Are we witnessing the seeds being planted for a post-PAP era, even if ironically they have to grow from offshoots of LKY?

We do not have to have direct participation by the younger Lees in politics. They have enough goodwill from Singaporeans for them to influence developments in two ways.

One is what I think is a developing public love affair with Li Shengwu. Everytime he says something, social media goes viral. He has a following which can easily translate into political support. And no one can even remotely accuse him of having an anti-Singapore agenda. He is that bluest of true-blue Singaporean.

Second, his father Lee Hsien Yang has shown he is more than capable of making his own presence felt when he feels like it.  The Dr Tan Cheng Bock breakfast and that donation to the legal fees of blogger Leong Sze Hian to fight PM Lee’s defamation suit against him are smart chess moves.

Looks like the Lees’ Chinese New Year annual dinners will see the absence of two of LKY’s three children for a long time to come, maybe forever.

Tan Bah Bah is a former senior leader writer with The Straits Times. He was also managing editor of a local magazine publishing company.