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Eye on Asia: Anatomy of the Lee feud in Singapore

Eye on Asia is a new series highlighting significant stories from Asia. This week, an acrimonious family rift playing out on social media has the potential to impact Singapore’s meritocratic image.

Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong

On 14 June 2017, Dr Lee Wei Ling and Lee Hsien Yang, the younger children of late Singapore strongman Lee Kuan Yew, released a statement accusing their brother, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, of misusing state resources to resolve a longstanding family dispute.

While bad blood between the Lees has made headlines before, the latest row took an unprecedented turn as the younger siblings attacked the PM’s leadership – a rare display of dissent that may impact Singapore’s image of meritocratic and anti-corrupt governance.

Damaging allegations

The feud centres around the fate of Lee Kuan Yew’s house, which he had wanted demolished after his death. The younger children were keen to honour the wish, but the PM had reservations due to the site’s historical significance.

While all three had come to an eventual agreement, the younger siblings now accuse the PM of forming a clandestine government committee to seek a different outcome.

In a six-page salvo, the siblings said they believed the PM’s actions represented a clear abuse of power.

They also accused the PM of harbouring political aspirations for his third child, and raised questions over the appointment of his former personal lawyer as Singapore’s ninth Attorney-General.

“We are disturbed by the character, conduct, motives and leadership of our brother, Lee Hsien Loong,” said the statement. “We feel big brother omnipresent ... We do not trust Hsien Loong as a brother or as a leader. We have lost confidence in him.”

A social media feud

Singapore’s largest public dispute took place primarily on Facebook. The statement, shared in the wee hours of Wednesday on the siblings' Facebook pages, spread quickly.

Media appeared cautious to react, with the first news report emerging in Singapore some six hours after the statement’s release.

Multiple members of the family made their voices heard on the social media platform as the feud escalated.

Li Shengwu, Lee Hsien Yang’s eldest son, backed the attack on his uncle, and blamed the speed of reporting on Singapore’s lack of press freedom.

The PM denied his siblings’ allegations and expressed his disappointment over the publicising of “private family matters”; a statement which garnered much sympathy from his supporters.

His son Li Hongyi likewise took to Facebook, saying: “For what it is worth, I really have no interest in politics.”

Meritocracy under attack?

According to a political observer, the Lee feud potentially puts Singapore’s prized ideals of meritocracy in crisis.

“State ideology in Lee Kuan Yew’s Singapore was … constructed around an ideology of meritocratic excellence,” said Thomas Pepinsky, a political scientist at Cornell University, in a blog post.

“Lee Hsien Loong finds himself bound by his father’s outsized political legacy in ways that would never have been possible had (1) LHL not been LKY’s son, or (2) LKY not been such a gigantic personality in Singapore politics.

“So when the current Prime Minister Lee acts in ways that are even plausibly attributable to an anti-meritocratic preference for family favouritism, it is a crisis not just for the Prime Minister, but potentially an indictment of the system itself.”

Impact of allegations

Supporters of the PAP, Singapore

The row is unlikely to bruise the ruling party’s popularity, even as critics of the government draw hope from the open show of defiance, according to a University of Canterbury academic.

“While this family feud is unlikely to damage the PM's standing among supporters, those who are already resentful towards the government may be emboldened to now speak up and emulate the example of PM Lee's own siblings,” said Naimah Talib, from the university’s department of political science.

The saga also poses a dilemma for a leader with a history of engaging in defamation suits to respond to less serious allegations.

Talib said: “Will the PM sue his own siblings for defamation or seek to avoid further damage by characterising it as mere family squabbling?”

Whatever the answer, political observers and Singaporeans alike will be kept transfixed as the feud continues to develop.

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20 June 2017