Dynastic demolition in Singapore?

June 25, 2017

Dynastic demolition in Singapore?

by Michael Barr


Image result for The Lee Kuan Yew Family


An extraordinary dispute within Singapore’s ruling family broke into the open on 14 June. Lee Wei Ling and Lee Hsien Yang — the two younger children of the late Lee Kuan Yew — posted a message on Facebook accusing their elder brother, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, of subverting their father’s last will and testament by avoiding the demolition of the family home.

More seriously for the public interest, they accused Lee Hsien Loong of abusing his position to achieve this end and of trying to engineer a dynastic succession whereby his son Li Hongyi would enter politics as a third generation of Lees. They are particularly concerned that Hsien Loong’s personal solicitor possessed and was using documents that had been made available only to the National Heritage Board for the purposes of organising a commemorative display.

As a result of this episode, the Lee siblings have discovered to their horror that there are no checks and balances on the power of the prime minister and that the Singaporean press is meek and timid. They seem to think that they are the first to have noticed this. So fearful are the Lee siblings of their elder brother that Lee Hsien Yang has announced his intention to flee the country.

The third generation of Lees are now involved as well. Lee Hsien Loong’s son, Li Hongyi, says he never wanted to enter politics anyway, despite his ambition being an open secret. Lee Hsien Yang’s son Li Shengwu claimed ‘Not only do I intend never to go into politics, I believe that it would be bad for Singapore if any third-generation Lee went into politics. The country must be bigger than one family’.

It is difficult to judge what is most significant in this episode. Insofar as long-term consequences for the governance and future of Singapore, there is substantial damage to the Lee brand — and by consequence, the Singapore brand. Lee Wei Ling, Lee Hsien Yang and Li Shengwu do not want power for themselves, but they do want to delegitimise Lee Hsien Loong’s rule during his final 5–10 years in office and to spoil Li Hongyi’s entry into politics. His ambition is their ultimate target.

Their Facebook post was the first occasion on which there had been any word of Li Hongyi’s ambition from within the ruling elite — and it came in the form of a denunciation of dynastic ambition. In a country that brands itself as a meritocracy, such a suggestion is poisonous and — if made by anyone outside the family — would have resulted in legal action.

Furthermore, the news was delivered in such a way that it left Li Hongyi tainted by association with his father rather than his grandfather. Rightly or wrongly, the Lee Kuan Yew brand commands an extraordinarily high level of political capital — both domestically and internationally — because it is inextricably linked with the Singapore success story. No one who watched his funeral, Singapore’s 50th anniversary celebrations or the 2015 General Elections can doubt the power of his image — which, coincidentally, the Singapore government now regulates.

Instead of adding to the Lee family brand over the last 13 years, Lee Hsien Loong has been spending the social and political capital he inherited. Lee Hsien Loong’s personal brand is associated with his several apologies to the nation in 2011–13 for things going wrong in Singapore, as well as with the electoral setbacks of 2011. He clawed back ground in the 2015 General Elections only by capitalising on his father’s image at every turn. Now it seems the Lee Hsien Loong brand is also going to be associated with a nasty family dispute and the perception that he is trying to manoeuvre his son into power.

Hence, Li Hongyi now has a formidable task before him if he is to pursue a career in politics. He needs to build on his association with his grandfather while distancing himself from his father — but presumably while relying on his father to provide him the entrée into the halls of power.

This is not impossible. During his time in the Army, he carefully constructed an image for himself as a gadfly who defied protocol to criticise his betters and bring about reform. But doing the same thing to his father — while simultaneously relying on his father’s patronage and protection — would be very tricky indeed. He might find it more attractive to just enter the corporate sector and make a fortune. If he does, then history will be looking at the events of the last week as the turning point at which the fate of the Lee dynasty was decided.

Michael Barr is Associate Professor at the School of History and International Relations, Flinders University.

18 thoughts on “Dynastic demolition in Singapore?

  1. That’s what happens when you wear too many hats and think the hats are all of the same size.

    How to be a filial son to a giant of a father, an understanding elder brother to strong minded siblings, a nationalistic leader of a nation which revere your father and his enduring legacy?

    Whatever LHL does or do not do, he will be criticized. It comes with the territory.

    If he pulls the house down, his siblings might be happy, but the vociferous people of Singapore will say that he as a powerful PM gives too much personal weight to his family side of things. If he preserves the house for posterity, (which he and his government could legally do under the country’s heritage statutes which could over ride any private person’s testamentary wishes), his siblings, as they are doing now, would accuse him of not carrying out their famous dying father’s wishes and all sorts of other negative motives.

    For those critical of what he has done so far and what he would most likely do, I would like to hear what you would do in his shoes?

  2. More immediate importance is that China issued a statement criticising Lee Hsien Loong despite the fact Singapore has for decades supported China’s ruse.

    It proves China’s intentions are ambitious. It proves China wish it’s neighbours well only if it fits it’s goals. Like it or not China is not an equal balancing power to US and West. It is a dangerous relationship.

  3. @Wayne

    LHL should respect LKY’s wishes for 38 Oxley to be torn down.
    LKY’s legacy is alive in the Singapore’s meritocracy, public institutions, educational excellence and opportunities, gender equality and ethical governance. In honoring LKY, these are the elements Singapore must protect, preserve and bequeath to the next generations.

    Not some old house.

    By allowing aspersions to be cast on Singapore’s transparent governance and meritocracy, LHL is doing more damage to Singapore’s reputation than the demolition of 38 Oxley ever could.

    Strong nations are always predicated on strong family (and societal) units, and respect for one’s mother and father is often observed in strong family units. Being such a small nation, this is a lesson Singaporeans must internalize. The PM must show the way.

  4. Read my letter to editor in the Financial Times on June 23. It has been ranked the most read for three executive days. The financial folks in Hong Kong, Singapore and Malaysia love it.

  5. The late Mr Lee Kuan Yew’s Will stated: “I further declare that it is my wish and the wish of my late wife, Kwa Geok Choo, that our house at 38 Oxley Road, Singapore 238629 (“the House”) be demolished immediately after my death, or if my daughter Wei Ling, would prefer to continue living in the original house, immediately after she moves out of the House. I would ask each of my children to ensure our wishes with respect to the demolition of the House be carried out.”

    It is crystal clear that Mr Lee’s wish was to demolish the house. The Will follows with the statement: “If our children are unable to demolish the House as a result of any changes in the laws, rules or regulations binding them, it is my wish that the House never be opened to others except my children, their families and descendants.”

    Mr Lee Kuan Yew was clearly stating that if his wish (to demolish the house) was thwarted by circumstances beyond the children’s control to carry out his wish (“if our children are unable to demolish the House as a result of any changes in the laws, rules or regulations binding them”) – then “it is my wish that the House never be opened to others except my children, their families and descendants”.

    I think Mr. Lee Kuan Yew was a man with great foresight. He already foresaw that Lee Hsien Loong would undermine his and his beloved wife’s ultimate wish to demolish the house. (Maybe by the time he wrote the Will he had already attended the Cabinet meeting to discuss 38 Oxley Road; after which we were told by Lee Wei Ling that he was very angry and regretted attending that meeting because at that meeting Lee Hsien Loong and Cabinet tried to persuade him to change his mind about demolition). Hence he inserted the wish in the Will to ask that his children ENSURE demolition. I think Lee Wei Ling and Lee Hsien Yang must now be pissed off because instead of ensuring demolition Lee Hsien Loong allegedly went out to undermine his wish.

    Again from a great man who could see far into the future. He foresaw someone (not necessarily Lee Hsien Loong) gazetting the property for a Memorial so that the executors will not be able to carry out the wish for demolition. He acknowledged this possibility sadly. This is not the same as saying this is an option he considered as the outset, e.g. his wish is to do Option 1, Option 2 OR Option 3. He only wanted Option 1. But just in case Option 1 cannot be done despite each of his children trying their best endeavor to ensure that this is done, then…open the house only to his descendants only. So DEMOLITION is his only Option upfront. If each of his children, including a child (Lee Hsien Loong) who has all the persuasive powers of government, were making every endeavor to ensure demolition, then the IF clause would most likely not come into play. There lies the frustrations of the executors, I believe.

    Mr. Lee Kuan Yew was a man with great foresight. He wanted to leave behind the integrity of Singapore and not the establishment of a “Leegapore.” He didn’t want to leave behind any monument to shackle the footsteps of a forward looking Singapore. He didn’t want to be deified.

  6. Lil Dot does practice meritocracy fully – but only up to the mid-level. Anything above that, requires some modicum of nepotism in the civil and SOE service. It’s useless to B.S. anymore – Meritocracy is only up to the sergeant level, okay?

    Despite having one of the highest GDP-PPP on the planet, Lil Dottians are generally not a happy lot. Their GNHI-PPP (Gross National Happiness Index) sucks like a Giant Mekong Catfish. Even Puerto Ricans with one quarter of their wealth are happier and nicer folk.

    You see, Harry managed to somehow meld the Protestant Work Ethic, i.e Worker Bee’ism with Confucian ‘I Know Best’ and Follow the Leader stratification in all spheres of human endeavor. He was a genius and he knew very well, this would ultimately lead to the self-defeating Kiasu-Kiasi hubris. But it was necessary since Lil Dot was surrounded by archipelago of Austronesians whose primary psychopathy is Amok, not Ahok.

    Harry was extremely competitive. My dearly departed uncle, his golfing buddy, shared many anecdotes of this vanity. For instance, who would dare fault Harry from picking up the golf ball stuck in a sand trap? Yet, as an agnostic he was very spiritual – Maranatha and all that. He and the wife shared some antipathy for their eldest daughter in law, but then who doesn’t?

    Now, coming to the second generation, whom i have the pleasure of not knowing, this quarrel seems quite symptomatic of how Confucian and old world ethics express themselves. Sibling rivalry gone astray, but i tend think that the younger ones are more ‘honest’ about it, whatever their other motives. After all, LHL and HC remain very much in control.

    I do not think that Harry wanted nor deserves Deification or even Veneration – unlike our dearly departed Karpal Singh, among our very own Latuk K’ung followers. LGE and LKS too may end up in the same temple, if they are not careful.

    As for your question Wayne, Lil Dottians ought to let their hair down, and discover what ‘will of the people’ really mean. Let them be another Switzerland instead of ‘do and do, rule on rule’ sort of paroxysms. Right now, many of them are semi-barbarian in etiquette and selfish in outlook.

  7. Some observations:

    At their grandpa’s funeral both Li Hongyi (PM Lee’s son) and Li Shengwu (Lee Hsien Yang’s son) read/said their eulogies. Hongi was overwhelmed with grief and was tearing when his mother Ho Ching went up the stage to give him an handkechief to wipe away his tears – touching! Shengwu was just the opposite – more calm, composed and measured in his delivery. He needed no handkerchief.

    Hongi made a common claim that he would not enter politics. Shengwu, on the other hand said ‘Not only do I intend never to go into politics, I believe that it would be bad for Singapore if any third-generation Lee went into politics. The country must be bigger than one family’

    Some years back Ngiam Tong Dow who served as Permanent Secretary in the Prime Minister’s Office, as well as in other Ministries once said: “When you raise ministers’ salaries to the point that they’re earning millions of dollar, every minister – no matter how much he wants to turn up and tell Hsien Loong off or whatever – will hesitate when he thinks of his million-dollar salary. Even if he wants to do it, his wife will stop him”.

    Shengwu echoed similar sentiments. (Alluding to Ministers and top civil servants) he said: “it is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends upon his not understanding it!”

    Ngiam was 80+ and Shengwu only 30(?) – what a maturity in thought!

  8. There is already a memorial to LKY in the shape of the very fine
    Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy at the National University of
    Singapore. (Full disclosure – my brother is a professor there 🙂 )

    LKY’s wife probably contributed a lot to the Women’s Charter.
    She should be given more recognition for her contribution to the
    liberation of the women of Singapore from traditional forms of
    male chauvinism.

    No memorial to Goh Keng Swee in Singapore ??

  9. First of all, thanks to those who responded to my question.

    Talking about memorial, we must also remember that many great men in the past, (considered great or not of course depends on who you ask and at which point in human history and who writes that history), have had their graves hidden or kept a secret for fear of desecration by his enemies or robberies. Genghis Khan, who was responsible for perhaps millions of human deaths and sufferings, and his secret burial tomb comes immediately to mind.

    So for all of our admiration for LKY’s admitted far-sightedness, perhaps he has even greater foresight than we give him credit for?

    On the other extreme we have Qin Shi Huang Di and his terracotta warriors, (and other monumental artifacts yet to be discovered), which we now so admire with a tinted view point two millennia far removed on perhaps a different moral level from LKY’s idea of himself and his legacy. We can perhaps say that there is actually a self-effacing vanity in his humility? That his greatness went beyond any immortalization by an old ordinary though recognizably famous house, as his citizenry admirers often remind visitors that the whole of Singapore itself is a living breathing monument to him?

  10. If you folks think that this tarnishes the reputation of Harry’s Paradise ,I suspect that you really do not understand what this so called paradise of transparency and meritocracy really is.

    Maybe “understand” is wrong.

    I meant, do not really care.

    • “……from S$ 4,400 to S$ 44,000 in one generation. That is the Paradise.”

      Really ? So cash is paradise , huh ?

      Thanks but you can keep your costliest paradise to live in in, state secret economic numbers, elitism and Harry views that a certain ethnic group needs to be beaten into shape….well that last part may be soothed by lots of cash.

    • Yup, there something definitely wrong with TL’s line of thought, i.e sicko, Conrad.

      Paradise (root derived from Proto-IndoEuropean)) with a capital P:
      1. “Eden/Heaven/Intermediate place or state where souls of the righteous await resurrection and final judgment.”
      2. “A place of bliss, felicity or delight.”
      3. “72 virgins/houris”

      Nowhere, does it say $. I guess he never heard of Epicurus or understood what happiness is/was/or will be? Sad, ya.

  11. Michael Barr has spent majority of his research career on studying Mr. Lee Kuan Yew and has produced numerous articles on Mr. Lee, and yet he manages to produce the above article with so many words with little substance. The article talks about branding of Mr Lee, adding and subtracting reputation of Mr Lee. And cursorily touch on dynasty. How a professor manage to write such a vacuous article is strange. It is stranger that US-based public radio station NPR also picks up the family dispute news on the Mr. Lee family. Which family has no dispute?

  12. One only says that cash does not matter after he has the cash because then it allows him to look for whatever he is looking for in comfort.

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