The rift in Singapore’s first family is turning even worse

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WHEN LEE KUAN YEW he died in 2015, many remembered how he accepted the idea that a monument should be built for him. “Remember Ozymandias!” The founding prime minister of Singapore had said, referring to Shelley’s sonnet about a great pharaoh remembered, in the end, only by a broken statue in a desert. Lee did not want a monument other than a successful Singapore.

He tried hard, even from beyond the grave, to prevent one monument that could be set up in particular: the colonial bungalow at 38 Oxley Road off the he had lived from 1945 until his death. Lee left instructions to be destroyed. Instead, the house, which is still largely standing, has become the focus of a bitter dispute between his three children. One of them, Lee Hsien Loong, has been the prime minister of Singapore since 2004; another, daughter Lee Wei Ling, in poor health, living in the house; the third, brother Lee Hsien Yang, is being investigated for perjury about the series and has fled the country.

The squabble has gripped Singaporeans, and no wonder. It’s hard to imagine a better homage to the island state’s power politics and economic development than the Lee family feud over British-era property. The disagreement centers on the handling of the will of Lee Kuan Yew, the last of seven revolutionaries. Signed in December 2013, it was handled not by his usual lawyer but by his daughter-in-law, Lee Hsien Yang’s wife, Lee Suet Fern, and her law firm. Like most earlier versions, there was something called “the demolition clause”, stipulating that the house should be demolished either immediately after Lee’s death or, if Lee Wei Ling still wanted stay there, as soon as she would have moved out. . Singapore’s founding father must have felt strongly about this – it was the only clause in his will that he wanted to publish. His eldest son, the current prime minister, said he was “uninformed” about the matter.

In 2017 a family dispute over what happened to the house became public when Lee Hsien Yang and Lee Wei Ling issued a lengthy statement accusing their brother, the prime minister, of being “behind what was portrayed to the family as a government initiative to preserve the house”. The divide has widened ever since. Lee Suet Fern’s role in the execution of the last will was officially investigated and in 2020 she was suspended as a lawyer for 15 months – even though she was not found to have acted dishonestly when she ‘ deal with her father-in-law. Her husband, Lee Hsien Yang, joined the political opposition, campaigning for the small Singapore Progress Party in that year’s general election.

The couple, who are now in exile, were on a trip to Singapore last June when two senior police officers visited them early one morning. Instead of reporting for a formal police interview as requested, they hurried to the airport. These events were only revealed on March 2 in the chief minister’s written response to a parliamentary question about the house dispute. He said the couple were under investigation for giving false evidence in the cases against Lee Suet Fern.

Lee Hsien Yang believes that this revelation was intended to hinder his ambition. Singapore will hold a presidential election between June and October, and has blocked the run-off. The presidency is largely a ceremonial role, but it has important powers. And Lee Hsien Yang had been a plausible candidate. The office, which is held in six-year terms, is distributed around the largest ethnic communities in Singapore. This year’s contest will be “open” – meaning that candidates from the ethnic Chinese majority, to which the Lee family belongs, can stand. Lee Hsien Yang is also one of the few people who could meet the strict criteria for candidates from the private sector, having been the chief executive of Singapore Telecommunications for 12 years.

A great believer in both merit and the power of inheritance, Lee Kuan Yew would not have been disturbed that his son should be in his former position. He might even have taken another son running for president as an opposition candidate, of course. But it looks like that won’t happen now. He could not do it from exile.

Even if Lee Hsien Yang ran, Lee Hsien Loong, like his father, would lose very few political battles. The son of Lee Hsien Yang and Lee Suet Fern, Harvard economist Li Shengwu, acknowledged his uncle’s condition in a tweet. “Many families have vain relatives. My relatives just happen to control a small authoritarian government.”

Read more from Banyan, our Asia columnist:
New Zealanders are entitled to atonement for their colonial crimes in the Pacific (March 2nd)
Keeping up with the Tokugawas (February 23)
After appeasing critics at home, Narendra Modi goes after foreign media (February 16th)

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