Singapore’s Lee Hsien Loong is right to choose Parliament to respond to critics – it’s what Lee Kuan Yew would have done
Robert Boxwell says the airing of a family feud over social media does not befit a government and family of Singapore’s and the Lees’ stature, and commends the prime minister for choosing to submit the facts for full public scrutiny
Don’t click “Like” if you’re sick of the airing of political disputes and celebrity family troubles on social media. The latest – incessant tweets by US President Donald Trump aside – is the Facebook attack last week on Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong by his siblings. Suddenly the one country in Asia that has seemed above it for the past half-century is embroiled in a scandal. I have no basis to wade into the arguments on either side of the Lee family feud, but I know two things for certain: social media is not the place for it; and one should never click “send” in the wee hours of the morning because you’ll probably “covfefe” it when you wake up. So, good for Lee Hsien Loong for mostly resisting the temptation to respond in kind. Instead, he said he would “refute” the “accusations” in Singapore’s Parliament on July 3, followed by a session for all MPs to “raise questions for themselves and their constituents”. It looks like a page from his father’s playbook.
In the mid-1980s, as Singapore was muddling into its first recession since independence, a few members of Parliament began criticising Lee Kuan Yew and his fellow ministers about their salaries. One told constituents on the stump that ministers made as much in a day as some of Singapore’s workers made in a month. Another noted that Lee’s monthly salary, about S$31,000 (HK$174,000), was a lot more than salaries paid to his contemporaries around Asia.
As the annual budget debate approached in March 1985, Lee prepared to address his critics openly in Parliament.
At the outset of his remarks, on a Friday afternoon, he told Singaporeans he could do one of two things: demolish “the specious arguments of [an accuser] and score debating points”; or talk about Singapore’s future. He did the latter which, in the end, effectively did the former. He came prepared with facts, delivered with the same wit and subtle mockery he used to rout the opposition before Singapore’s first election in 1959, and hold power for three decades.
“How is Singapore to preserve its most precious asset, an administration that is absolutely corruption free, a political leadership that can be subject to the closest scrutiny because it sets the highest standards?” he asked. “Just think about your future. How do you ensure that a fortuitous, purely accidental group of men who came in in 1959, and after 26 years of office … have remained stainless?”
Over the course of two hours, he noted the corruption in practically every other country in the neighbourhood, often through vignettes about little shakedowns. “Any traveller knows that from the moment you hit the airport to the time you get into a taxi ... you know the difference: whether a place works on rules or it bends rules.”
Addressing the pay issue directly, he said, “We have tried to recruit like-minded, equally committed, men. But they are of a different generation, and I am not saying that they would not have made the same sacrifices. I could still pay them on the old rates, but would I be doing the right thing by them and by the country?”
To continue to attract the best people to government, he argued, leaders had to be paid market rates. He walked the MPs through a table. The top bankers in Singapore made S$147,000 per month. The top architects, S$125,000. Lawyers, engineers, stockbrokers, doctors, were all making more than their counterparts in government. Finally, he came to car dealers. At S$32,103 per month, they, too, were making more than Lee and his fellow ministers. “So I could improve my lot by becoming a car dealer,” he deadpanned.
The “debate” was done at that point, but he wasn’t. An opposition member raised the issue of official residences. “I have an official residence… I have not regretted not using it other than for purposes of entertainment. I think I have brought up a family which has a better sense of proportion as a result of living in Oxley Road.”
And he made a point that would become famous in the West a few years later when he repeated it in an interview with a Western reporter: “I am one of the best paid and probably one of the poorest of the third world prime ministers.”
Lee Hsien Loong doesn’t strike me as a chip off the old block in a tough rhetorical sense, nor should he. Thanks to his father’s generation, he grew up in Lee Kwan Yew’s Singapore.
But his style and wit are not what the public need to see anyway. It’s how his actions stand against what he’s been accused of by his sister and brother. And he chose a forum that seems to ensure fairness and full disclosure on these issues. He’s gone so far as to “drop the party whip”, meaning even members of his own People’s Action Party are free to give him a full grilling if they desire. Bringing facts to the floor for public scrutiny, like his father did, is the best way to communicate with the people of Singapore.
The cacophony of social media, of fake news and leaks, of gossip and gotcha, are hardly contributing to thoughtful discussion in a time when the world needs it more than ever. No matter your side on the Lee family issue, it’s encouraging to see Lee Hsien Loong move his communication off the internet and into a forum befitting of a government and family of Singapore’s and the Lees’ stature. Would that other governments around the world take note.
Robert Boxwell is director of the consultancy Opera Advisors