The Lee family dispute is like a smouldering volcano. After a major eruption in 2017, it has settled down to a simmering state. Now and then, some lava will flow out, showing signs of seismic activity the real extent of which is hard to gauge. But Leesiblingsia – for lack of a better word – has now become one of Singaporeans’ favourite pastimes.
What would Lee Wei Ling say next? What is Li Shengwu doing? What about Li Hongyi? And what’s Lee Hsien Yang up to? For those who have been living in caves, Lee Wei Ling is the younger sister and Lee Hsien Yang the younger brother of PM Lee Hsien Loong. Shengwu is the son of LHY and Hongyi the son of LHL. The quarrel is between the 2G Lees, children of Lee Kuan Yew. LWL and LHY had been at the throats of PM Lee over the future of 38, Oxley Road, the Lee patriatrch’s family house. They want it torn down because they say that’s the wish of their father. LHL is fighting to preserve it for heritage and historical reasons and has left the final say to a panel to decide its future in the future.
Property quarrel – if it were that simple. It is not. There seems to be a political drama being slowly played out.
LHY and LWL have been accusing their elder brother of intimidation and abuse of power in the feud which PM Lee has strongly denied.
LWL has been keeping quite quiet lately. But who knows? All it takes is just one fiery Facebook posting from her and there will be multiple explosions in the media.
So far, however, it is LHY who has been whetting the public’s curiosity through what I would call a very sophisticated use of the media to make his presence felt and to make a point, something which the heavy-handed sledge hammer establishment publicists seem incapable of doing. For every policy and counter-point to every criticism or disagreement, government agencies would usually plaster every available page, screen and wall with in-your-face explanations and promises – to a degree where everything becomes a big turnoff. Huge pages of precious space in the mainstream media would also be devoted – complete with detailed pictures and boring projections – to show how caring the government is and why Singapore should bother about art in the heartlands.
Often, subtlety works better and less is more.
Just as when everyone was wondering what LHY was, up he popped in November at a breakfast in West Coast with President-would-have-been Dr Tan Cheng Bock.
They were at the West Coast Market and Food Centre at Block 726 Clementi West, which is in Dr Tan’s former Ayer Rajah constituency when he was an MP with the People’s Action Party from 1980 to 2006.
LHY said: “We were just here to have breakfast.” Dr Tan said on Facebook: “We wanted to catch up with each other as we have not met for quite a while…We had porridge and coffee with yu tiao (dough fritters). It was a good breakfast, not only the food, but (also) the sharing we had on world affairs and the current state of politics in Singapore.”
Sure. Nice. No issue. The pictures of the meeting which went viral on social media showed a very relaxed group, all smiling away. But if you had watched more closely, you could see minders in the background. These are not ordinary Singaporeans having their kopi siu tai. They are newsmakers. Whether by accident or design, their get-together in public must say something – at least about what they think of the current PAP leadership. We know what Dr Tan thinks – he fought against PAP endorsed heavyweight Dr Tony Tan in PE2011 and was cruelly denied a second chance in the last reserved-for-Malays PE. He is not happy about his former party.
So what was LHY doing having breakfast with someone who was once part of and now critic of his father’s party, knowing full well that their public appearance together would be analysed and, as one friend of mine who is close to Dr Tan said to me, “over-analysed lah”? LHY is making a point. He must sympathise with at least some elements of the opposition.
Sure enough. His next public move was breaking news material. He showed support for blogger Leong Sze Hian who is involved in a defamation suit and counter suit with PM Lee. He told the media he gave a substantial sum to Leong’s defence fund. As to the exact sum, he said: “It is not $1.” Why? “Surely it needs no explanation?”
So why is Lee Hsien Yang doing all this? I could conclude this column by repeating what he said: Surely it needs no explanation.
But I believe it does. There are many questions in the air: How far is the Lee siblings spat likely to go? What will happen to Li Shengwu who has been served with contempt of court papers by the Attorney-General’s Chambers? What is Lee Hsien Yang’s next chess move? Stay tuned.
Tan Bah Bah is a former senior leader writer with The Straits Times. He was also managing editor of a local magazine publishing company.