Dr Thum Ping Tjin, historian and Research Associate at Oxford University’s Centre for Global History, discussed the ongoing Lee family feud in an interview with Reuters, last week. In his interview, Dr Thum delved into how Lee Kuan Yew’s legacy has directly contributed to the Oxley dispute unfolding today.
Dr Thum points to practices Lee Kuan Yew gleaned from his British colonial masters that have led to the political climate of Singapore today. He said that Lee Kuan Yew learnt and successfully implemented a system in Singapore that is founded on an atmosphere of fear – a climate of fear that is used to justify authoritarian measures through which one can pass “anti-democratic legislation through the form of democracy but not the substance of it.”
Dr Thum debates that this system was what Lee Kuan Yew used to expel his political opponents in Operation Coldstore and Operation Spectrum, and that this system was what helped Lee Kuan Yew consolidate full control of parliament.
According to Dr Thum, the power Lee Kuan Yew acquired and wielded through this system was what led to the “steady erosion of Singapore’s democratic freedoms and liberty, (and) more importantly the erosion of the independence of state institutions.”
This, Dr Thum argues, is the system that Lee Hsien Loong has inherited – a system where, like his father, he makes a decision in advance and only then does that decision pass through democratic consultation and legislative process where it becomes legitimised. This means that decisions are finalised by Lee Hsien Loong or his advisors, and that despite the facade of democratic deliberation, such decisions are really foregone conclusions.
“That’s what Lee Wei Ling and Lee Hsien Yang are really upset about. For many years they, of course, benefited from this system, but now the system is being used against them. A decision that Lee Hsien Loong made about the house in Oxley Road has probably been taken in advance. What has happened is that he then convened the committee to legitimise this decision to give it a veneer of parliamentary democracy in order to wash his hands clean, to keep his hands clean, to say it was done in the proper way. But its a foregone conclusion.”
Dr Thum argues that Lee Hsien Loong inherited a system that relied very heavily on the personal authority of Lee Kuan Yew and that this is what his son has inherited:
“The problem with a system where too much power is concentrated in the hands of one man, is that the interests of that one man from his own perspective becomes indistinguishable from the state’s. As long as that one man was Lee Kuan Yew, there was a very clear harmony between the man and the state but now the Lee family is 3 people and they have very different interests, very different perspectives, and so they are fighting each other.”
The historian pointed out that the battle over the legacy of Lee Kuan Yew clearly demonstrates how authority in Singapore still stems from Lee Kuan Yew – not Lee Hsien Loong.
“Lee Hsien Loong, of course, is now fighting back using the machinery of the state against them which shows just how much his personal and the national interests have blurred together. Again, this is part of Lee Kuan Yew’s legacy.
“His siblings are fighting against him with the only real weapon they have, which is to try and deprive him of the authority of Lee Kuan Yew.
“So what we have today is a very brittle system which is still reliant on the personal authority of a dead man.”
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