All the signs point to a long-drawn titanic struggle between the Lee siblings over 38 Oxley Road. The forthcoming July 3 Parliamentary sitting on the issue will take place without the presence of two of the main combatants – Lee Hsien Yang and Lee Wei Ling – and can only serve to present Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong’s clarifications about his role and the government’s attempt to explain its position and involvement. Nothing more.
In the leadup to July 3, LHY and LWL are not conceding an inch and I do not see either relenting in their attacks on their brother, sister-in-law Ho Ching and their supporters beyond the date. They have refuted every public statement made by LHL’s or the government’s side.
Examples: LWL alleged that the existence of the committee to look into options for 38, Oxley Road was disclosed only when forced – and this only after one year – despite many requests for the names of the committee from the estate of the late Lee Kuan Yew. Both DPMs Teo Chee Hean and Tharman Shanmugaratnam have said the existence of the committee was no secret.
Next, LHY accused Ho Ching of “theft and intermeddling” when she took away items belonging to LKY. He was pointing out that his sister-in-law had no right to do so. To him, it was irrelevant whatever the purpose of the removal, even though LHL’s spouse had tried to justify the good intentions behind her act. Not accepted by LHY, evidently.
Another example of the younger Lee siblings’ refusal to budge was in LHY’s angry retort – in response to Senior Minister of Law Indranee Rajah’s Facebook postings on the drafting of LKY’s will. He took issue with LHL’s using of ministers repeatedly to insinuate that the late first PM did not understand his own will.
He said PM Lee’s ministers were arguing that Lee Kuan Yew, a Cambridge-educated lawyer and sitting MP, signed his own will without knowing what was in it. LHY took offence that they were claiming that he initialed beneath the demolition clause, without understanding what it meant in plain English.
“This is an insult to a great man,” LHY said.
“Probate has been granted on Lee Kuan Yew’s will, so it is final and legally binding,” he said. The proper place for his brother to challenge his father’s will was in court.
We now have a situation where LHL has to defend himself in Parliament – against attacks on his integrity and allegations of abuse of power and explain his dilemma in dealing with not just his father’s house but also his siblings. He is wearing a number of hats – as PM, as the eldest son of LKY and as an elder brother. As PM, he is obliged and duty-bound to act in the larger interests of the nation and that well be in conflict with his other roles as son and sibling. It is a kind of a Hobson’s choice – the more he stands on the side of government and argues the case against late father’s wishes to preserve the house, the more he will be seen by his siblings to have betrayed LKY and, as collateral damage, the standing of the siblings.
The 38 Oxley Road saga is no longer just about 38 Oxley Road. It is a full-blown Lee saga played out in the openfield Facebook arena, with Singaporeans hooked onto its every twist and turn. Everything every of the siblings says – and that includes the sisters-in-law, Ho Ching and Suet Fern – is part of a closely fought battle for public legitimacy as heirs to the LKY legacy.
LKY was a great admirer of the Japanese system of elite bureaucracy where top political figures and civil servants were all part of a big happy family and where there were usually never any doubt as to their overall orientation and loyalties. The Lee dispute will now test that severely.
We are all growing up – the Lee family, the political system and the people.
The dispute will be with us for a long time. Whatever Parliament and the courts choose to do, Lee Wei Ling is going to stay in 38 Oxley Road and outlive the tenures of government leaders. LHY is unlikely to allow unchallenged any critical remark about his or wife’s conduct.
It is a fact now: Life has changed dramatically in Singapore. However distracting it may be for Lee Hsien Loong in carrying on as PM, he has to deal with that. And Singaporeans have also to deal with this hard truth, as the founding PM might say.
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.
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