Li Shengwu, the grandson of Singapore’s founding Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew, is academically linked to two winners of the Nobel Prize in Economics, Paul Milgrom and Alvin Roth.
Milgrom, a professor at Stanford University, and Muriel Niederle, another economics professor at Stanford, were the two main advisors of Shengwu when he did his PhD at the US University, Shengwu confirmed to the Independent by email.
“I’m indebted to both Paul and Muriel for their mentorship and kindness,” said Shengwu, an assistant professor of economics at Harvard University.
Earlier in October, Milgrom and Robert Wilson, an emeritus professor of economics at Stanford, were declared the winners of the Nobel Prize in economics for 2020. The pair won the prestigious award for their work on auction theory, which have important implications for the allocation of scarce resources, such as governments auctioning radio frequency to telecommunication companies. Auctions involve the sale through bidding of various products including art work and online advertising.
“I’m overjoyed that Paul and Bob won the prize. They made fundamental contributions to economic theory that have changed the world for the better. They’re truth-seekers, not fame-seekers,” Shengwu added.
Paul’s latest book, “Discovering Prices”, discusses at length Shengwu’s work on “obviously strategy-proof mechanisms”. Lest the reader’s eyes glaze over the academic jargon of “obviously strategy-proof mechanisms”, Milgrom’s book explains how these ideas influenced his thinking as he designed the US Federal Communication Commission’s 2017 radio spectrum auction, which raised about US$20 billion of revenue for the US government, said the eldest son of Lee Hsien Yang, the younger son of the late Lee Kuan Yew.
Milgrom, Shengwu, Scott Duke Kominers (an associate professor at Harvard Business School) and Mohammad Akbarpour (an associate professor of economics at Stanford) are working on a paper on investment incentives and auctions.
On October 12, the New York Times quoted Roth, a co-winner of the Nobel Prize in economics in 2012, saying, “They (Milgrom and Wilson) haven’t just profoundly changed the way we understand auctions — they have changed how things are auctioned. The two of them are some of the greatest theorists living in economics today.”
Roth, a professor of economics at Stanford and emeritus professor at Harvard Business School, cited a paper by Shengwu and Akbarpour, “Credible Mechanisms”, as among the “most important or intriguing” economic research “that shaped our world” in 2018 in Quartz, an online US news platform. That paper also deals with auctions.
Lee Kuan Yew, who graduated at the top of his cohort in law from Cambridge University, placed great importance on academic achievement, according to Singaporean sources.
“That is why we now have a society that judges people by academic qualifications,” said a Singapore businesswoman who declined to be named.
Among the ranks of ministers and civil servants in the city-state are those who studied at universities on the Singapore government’s scholarships. Lee Kuan Yew’s two sons, Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong and Lee Hsien Yang, as well as his daughter Lee Wei Ling all obtained the nation’s most prestigious scholarship, the President’s Scholarship.
Given his emphasis on scholastic brilliance, if Lee Kuan Yew, who died in 2015, was alive, he would be proud of his grandson. However, Shengwu’s stellar academic achievements are clouded by a family quarrel and the Singapore authorities’ actions against him. The Singapore High Court found him guilty of contempt of court in July, over his private Facebook post in 2017 which alleged the Singapore government “is very litigious and has a pliant court system”.
On his Facebook page on August 11, Shengwu announced he would pay the S$15,000 fine plus roughly S$16,570 of legal costs and other expenses to the Attorney General’s Chambers. However, his Facebook post said, “I have never denied writing what I wrote, to my friends in a private Facebook post. I disagree that my words were illegal.”
Shengwu reiterated to the Independent, “I don’t think I have done anything illegal.”
His father Lee Hsien Yang and his aunt Lee Wei Ling have been in a public dispute on Facebook with their brother over their late father’s house since 2017. Prime Minister Lee has denied any wrongdoing.
Toh Han Shih is a Singaporean writer in Hong Kong.