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Fissures in Singapore’s first family grow sharper

WHenry Guangyao When he died in 2015, many recalled his reaction to the idea that a monument should be erected to him. “Remember Ozymandias!” Singapore’s founding prime minister once said Shelley’s sonnets about a great pharaoh were finally remembered only by a crumbling statue in the desert. Lee Kuan Yew didn’t want any monuments other than prosperous Singapore.

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He went out of his way to prevent a potential memorial even beyond his grave: the colonial-era bungalow at 38 Oxley Road, where he lived from 1945 until his death. Lee left instructions for the bulldozer. Instead, the house, which still stands, has become the focus of a bitter row between his three children. One of them, Lee Hsien Loong, has been Singapore’s prime minister since 2004; another, his daughter Lee Wei Ling, who is in poor health, lives in the house; and a third, their brother Lee Hsien Yang, was accused of perjury in the dispute was investigated and has since fled the country.

It’s no surprise that bickering has long plagued Singaporeans. It’s hard to think of a better allegory for the island nation’s power politics and economic development than the disputes within the Lee family over British-era possessions. The disagreement centered on the handling of Lee Kuan Yew’s will, the last of seven iterations. The document, signed in December 2013, was handled not by his usual lawyer, but by his daughter-in-law, Lee Hsien Yang’s wife, Li Xuefen, and her law firm. Like most of the early drafts, it contained what was known as a “demolition clause” directing the house to be demolished immediately after Lee Wei Ling’s death, or as soon as she moved out if Lee Wei Ling still wanted to live in it. Singapore’s The Founding Father must have felt strongly about this — it was a clause in his will that he wanted to make public. His eldest son, now prime minister, has described him as “unwavering” on the issue.

A family dispute over the fate of the house was made public in 2017 after Lee Hsien Yang and Lee Wei Ling issued a lengthy statement accusing their brother, the prime minister, of being “behind what was shown to the family by the government’s efforts to protect the house”. . . The rift has since widened. Lee Suet Fern was formally investigated for her role in enforcing the final will, and her bar was suspended for 15 months in 2020 — even though she was not found to be dishonest in her dealings with her father-in-law. Her husband, Lee Hsien Yang, joined the political opposition, campaigning for the smaller Progressive Party of Singapore in that year’s general election.

The couple, now in exile, were visited by two senior police officers early one morning during a trip to Singapore last June. Instead of reporting for a formal police interview as required, they rushed to the airport. The incidents were only made public in a written reply by a senior minister to parliamentary questions on the House dispute on March 2. He said the couple was under investigation for giving false evidence in the lawsuit against Li Xuefen.

Lee Hsien Yang believes the revelation was an attempt to thwart his ambitions. Singapore will hold presidential elections between June and October, and he has hinted at running. The presidency is primarily a ceremonial role, but with significant veto power. And Lee Hsien Yang has always been a plausible contender. The office serves six-year terms and rotates around Singapore’s largest ethnic minority community. This year’s election will be “open” – meaning candidates with a Chinese majority to which the Lee family belongs can run. Lee Hsien Yang has been Singtel’s chief executive for 12 years and is one of the few who can meet the stringent criteria for a private-sector candidate.

A firm believer in meritocracy and the power of heredity, Lee Kuan Yew would not be disturbed by his son taking his former position. He might even take a big shot at another son running for president, since he’s actually the opposition candidate. But that now appears unlikely to happen. This cannot be done in exile.

Even if Lee Hsien Yang runs for the election, Lee Hsien Loong, like his father, rarely loses in political battles. Lee Hsien Yang and Lee Xuefen’s son, Harvard economist Shengwu Li, acknowledged his uncle’s influence in a tweet. “Many families have vindictive relatives. My relatives happen to control a small authoritarian government.”

Read more from our Asia columnist Banyan:
New Zealand has the right to atone for its colonial crimes in the Pacific (March 2)
Keeping Up With the Tokugawas (February 23)
After suppressing critics at home, Narendra Modi takes action against foreign media (16 February)

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