In a country where one man’s view of the world still authors the national narrative, it is grimly appropriate that one family’s feud has bitterly divided Singapore. Dr Lee Wei Ling and Mr Lee Hsien Yang’s explosive public statement – tactically released while PM Lee Hsien Loong was on family holiday – has been brushed aside as “airing dirty laundry” by pro-PAP supporters and simultaneously held aloft by PAP detractors as evidence of PM Lee’s alleged corruption.
It is easy to dismiss this saga as family drama writ large. And to some extent, I agree that too much ink has been spilt on the fate of the late Mr Lee Kuan Yew’s home at 38 Oxley Road. It’s too far removed from the concerns of most Singaporeans, and is something for the Lee family to settle privately in court. But the accusations are not regarding the house – the house is but context surrounding what Dr Lee and Mr Lee claim to be the “misuse of (PM Lee’s) position and influence over the Singapore government and its agencies to drive his personal agenda.”
PM Lee stands accused of using his political power, vested upon him by a democratic majority to serve the public good, to resolve the personal matter of 38 Oxley Road. There are two claims in the statement that are of particular concern:
- That PM Lee used his position as Prime Minister of Singapore to obtain the Deed of Gift from Minister Lawrence Wong, then handed it to his personal lawyer for the purpose of personal gain; and
- That PM Lee supported the appointment of the current Attorney-General of Singapore, Lucien Wong, for less-than-meritocratic reasons. It was revealed that Lucien Wong was PM Lee’s personal lawyer who was appointed as A-G soon after the family dispute over 38 Oxley Road began.
On (1), the Deed of Gift was a legal document executed between Dr Lee and Mr Lee with the National Heritage Board for the “donation and public exhibition of significant items from (their) parents’ home, with a stipulation that Mr Lee Kuan Yew’s wish for the demolition of 38 Oxley Road be prominently displayed. It is alleged that PM Lee, acting as Prime Minister instead of a private citizen, tapped on Minister of National Development Lawrence Wong to obtain said Deed of Gift via political means (rather than appropriate legal channels as per a private citizen). PM Lee then allegedly passed on the Deed of Gift to personal lawyer Lucien Wong, without the knowledge of either Dr Lee and Mr Lee or the National Heritage Board.
This is a serious allegation, and if true, may constitute an abuse of power. It is effectively the same as if the Minister of Social and Family Development obtained legal documents pertaining to his own marriage without going through the proper channels as a private citizen – and then passing the documents on to his own divorce lawyer to gain an edge in the proceedings. The powers of political office should never be used to enrich the personal purse.
On (2), Dr Lee and Mr Lee claimed that soon after they donated the items to the National Heritage Board, they “soon received letters with spurious objections from Hsien Loong’s then personal lawyer, Lucien Wong. Lucien Wong was made Singapore’s Attorney-General in January 2017.” The insinuation here is that Attorney-General Lucien Wong’s appointment was made in a less-than-meritocratic manner; perhaps as a quid pro quo for the services provided to PM Lee as his personal lawyer. What may support this claim is that, at the time of appointment, Wong was the first A-G who had “no experience on the Bench, nor acted for the State in legal matters”. Moreover, while Wong is a top corporate lawyer, he had little criminal prosecutorial experience before he became A-G.
At this juncture, it is important to note that nothing concrete has yet been proven. PM Lee has denied all these allegations, particularly the “absurd claim” that he harbours political ambitions for his son. It is possible that everything which Dr Lee and Mr Lee have raised is completely baseless and defamatory. Which raises the question – why should we bother ourselves with what Dr Lee and Mr Lee have to say? Why should we give more weight to their words compared to the inane ramblings of some other private citizen?
I believe the answer lies with their previous track record of public service and their proximity to the centres of political influence in Singapore. They are familiar with government over-reach in the civil space, and are likelier to have access to insiders who can provide insight as to the (ab)use of executive power. In no way does this mean we should take their statement at face value. But we should evaluate their words with greater weight and charity, than that of the average Singaporean. It is for this same reason that former government insiders such as Philip Yeo should be taken seriously when he says that the top leaders in Singapore may be “infected with eunuch disease”, or ex-GIC Chief Economist Yeoh Lam Keong alleges that the current CPF schemes are “inadequate”. Since this controversy is quickly developing into a “he said, she said” standstill, it stands to reason that the identities of the people involved in the issue (and hence the information they are privy to) should matter.
Make no mistake, Dr Lee and Mr Lee did not wake up one day and decide to become bleeding-heart liberals because they had a guilty pang in their hearts. This statement was triggered by the 38 Oxley Road home, something that both individuals have a personal interest in. It is this selfsame interest that led to them issuing a statement against their elder brother and subsequently fleeing Singapore. In the absence of such a problem, I have no doubt that both siblings would have remained quiet. But that is how most political revelations and challenges to the status quo occur: Because of how concentrated power is and how ossified the elites are, it is when the interests of a few formerly-powerful elites come into tension with the interests of those in charge that the most explosive conflicts occur. A good example of that happening right now is former PAP MP Tan Cheng Bock’s stubborn refusal to back down from contesting for the Presidency – first at the ballot box, and later in court.
At this juncture, what is to be done? It is clear that Singapore is built on the principles of incorruptibility, governmental transparency, and the rule of law (instead of rule by law). And even if one disagrees with this, it is still important that we strive toward these ideals. But before we jump to any conclusions, one should understand that this story is still developing – what we need right now is more information and less recrimination. We need to demand of Dr Lee and Mr Lee, along with PM Lee, to provide more details as to their side of the story. In the days to come, whichever party is more forthcoming with information and less prone to character assassinating their opponents should be trusted more.
If there is some meat to the allegations (because as of now they are very unsubstantiated), then there should be an impartial inquiry conducted to ensure the impartial discharge of executive duties. At very least, justice must be seen to have been done. If the allegations turn out to be baseless – either through the failure of Dr Lee and Mr Lee to provide convincing evidence or by PM Lee revealing sound legal and evidential backing for his actions – then legal action against Dr Lee and Mr Lee for defamation could be pursued.
It is tempting to take harshly partisan sides on this issue. But when something as complex and murky as a private affair is yanked into the public realm, some temperance is sorely needed. Here is to cooler and calmer heads prevailing in the weeks ahead.