Why the feud among Singapore’s elite isn’t really about Lee Kuan Yew’s house

In the spotlight.
In the spotlight.
Image: Reuters/Luong Thai Linh
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What started as a quarrel among siblings has escalated into serious questions about the independence of Singapore’s most powerful institutions.

The fight is among the children of Singapore’s first prime minister, Lee Kuan Yew, over the fate of the patriarch’s house—whether it be demolished or preserved. It pits the eldest son and Singapore’s current prime minister, Lee Hsien Loong, against his younger siblings, Lee Wei Ling and Lee Hsien Yang, who seek the demolition because it’s in their father’s will. Now questions are being posed about the integrity of the prime minister’s office and the role of Hsien Loong’s wife, Ho Ching, who also heads one of Singapore’s powerful sovereign wealth funds.

Although cabinet ministers have weighed in on the conflict, the younger Lees hadn’t given a full account of their accusations against the prime minister until Hsien Yang yesterday (June 22) leveled allegations of impropriety at his sister-in-law. Ho Ching, he said in a Facebook post, “helped herself” to Lee Kuan Yew’s personal documents while his father was gravely ill in hospital. He says Ho acted “under the auspices” of the Prime Minister’s Office by handing a number of the former prime minister’s papers to the National Heritage Board—even as the elder Lee lay in intensive care in February 2015. The documents Hsien Yang released appear to show an inventory of the papers, with Ho listed as the contact for the prime minister’s office.

The issue with that designation is Ho is not a civil servant, nor does she hold an official government post. The wealth fund she leads, Temasek, operates independently as a commercial interest whose shareholder is Singapore’s finance ministry. (The company, incorporated in 1974, owns and manages investments transferred from the government.)

A number of emerging details muddy the picture of what transpired with those documents. Local media has pointed out that Ho Ching was out of the country at the time the documents were handed over. The heritage board has said the dates on the documents were wrong due to a clerical error; they were actually handed over two months later. Hsien Yang says these details don’t change anything. In fact, he says, “it’s even more troubling,” because the papers were part of his father’s estate and the executors of that estate are he and his sister. “Unapproved removal of these items, even by a beneficiary, constitutes theft and intermeddling,” his Facebook post reads. “Ho Ching is not an executor or beneficiary to our father’s estate.”

The situation casts a harsh spotlight on the entangled relationships among Singapore’s ruling elite. It raises the possibility of abuse of power, ignoring the rule of law, and overstepping legal bounds by the people at the apex of Singapore society. That’s especially problematic because Singapore prides itself on its meritocracy, clean government, and scrupulous adherence to the law. Lee Kuan Yew himself was the chief architect of that brand.

The senior Lee had explained his son’s ascendance to the prime minister’s job as the product of Singapore’s merit-based system—not favoritism. Here he is in 2005, in his book, “The Wit and Wisdom of Lee Kuan Yew“: “We run a meritocracy. If the Lee family sets an example of nepotism, that system collapses. If I were not the prime minister, he [Lee Hsien Loong] could have become prime minister several years earlier.” In another interview, he likened Hsien Loong’s mind to a capacious computer hard drive, and said that is one of the reasons his son is the most capable to lead the country.

The prime minister will need all the computing power he can muster to explain to parliament on July 3 what has happened to those much-touted boundaries between family obligations, legal duties, and state roles. There he will address the allegations made by his siblings, and try to explain the argument over the house. He has invited lawmakers—the great majority belonging to the party he leads—to question him freely then.