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Lee Kuan Yew

Lee family feud could hurt Singapore PM at home ... but not in China

Public manner in which Lion City leader’s family members are handling the feud has given Beijing much food for thought

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 20 June, 2017, 9:03pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 06 July, 2017, 11:05pm

The bitter family feud over the estate of Singapore’s founding father Lee Kuan Yew will affect Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong’s credibility at home, but is unlikely to cast a shadow over his dealings with China, mainland observers and state media said on Tuesday.

Citing Confucian beliefs, experts questioned the incumbent leader’s ability to manage a nation when, as the eldest son of Lee Kuan Yew, he appears unable to settle his family dispute.

Leaders urge Lee Kuan Yew’s children to end public bickering as more accusations fly

Ju Hailong, a Southeast Asian affairs expert from Jinan University, said the saga might well hamper Lee’s political ambitions.

“This will definitely affect his political base, as ethnic Chinese hold the value that if a person cannot handle his family well then he loses the ability to run a country,” he said.

Watch: Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong’s apology over his family feud

Zhang Mingliang, another Southeast Asian affairs expert from Jinan University, agreed that the feud could undermine Lee’s image after he stressed the importance of family harmony in his Lunar New Year messages.

A commentary on a website affiliated with the State Council Information Office said on Tuesday that Lee Hsien Loong had built up his credibility by upholding the principles stressed by his father, including meritocracy and honesty.

Sons, mothers, money and memory: theories about the Lee Kuan Yew family feud

But the prime minister’s image would be affected as “even his closest family members distrust and openly accuse him”, it said.

Another commentary, published by Shanghai-based news portal Thepaper.cn, said that as public confidence in the Lee family has eroded, so too have the hopes of Li Hongyi and Li Shengwu – the sons of Lee Hsien Loong and his younger brother Lee Hsien Yang, respectively – of one day taking over the reins as leader of the city state.

Who’s who in the Lee Kuan Yew family feud

Lee Hsien Loong on Tuesday apologised to the people of Singapore for the bitter dispute between him, his sister Lee Wei Ling, 62, and Lee Hsien Yang, 59, saying that he felt “deep regret” for the public’s loss of confidence in the government, while also denying accusations made by his siblings as “baseless”.

The two siblings last week issued a public statement claiming their brother used “organs of state” to force them to renege on their father Lee Kuan Yew’s wishes that they demolish the family home after his death.

Despite the undoubted problems on the domestic front, Ju said that the Lee family feud would not affect how China regards Singapore.

What’s really making Beijing angry with Singapore?

While Beijing has expressed concern at Singapore siding with the United States on maritime disputes in the South China Sea, it has also sent officials to the city state for training on governance.

The Singapore model of clean and efficient governance is still of importance to the Chinese leadership, Ju said.

“The future development and reform of China’s political system has a lot in common with the transformation of Singapore’s political system, so Beijing can draw a lesson from it,” he said.

Zhang, however, sounded a note of caution on the matter, saying that the public nature of the dispute between the Lee siblings was in stark contrast to the traditional Eastern belief that family disagreements should not be aired in public.

Has China outgrown its need for Singapore as a role model?

The Lee siblings, like many of Singapore’s elite, were educated in the West, and are therefore more inclined to be open about things. This might have implications for the way China deals with Singapore, as Beijing prefers to keep things discreet, he said.

“After this family saga, Beijing might think more about whether to apply Eastern or Western philosophies when dealing with issues,” he said.