An open feud among the family of Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong deepened on Wednesday after the premier’s two younger siblings said they feared for their safety because they felt their elder brother was using state organs to harass them.
The premier immediately fired back, slamming his siblings for issuing a statement “publicising private family matters”. The Lees are the children of Lee Kuan Yew, Singapore’s revered founding prime minister who died aged 91 in 2015 after a political career spanning over five decades.
The two younger siblings Lee Hsien Yang and Lee Wei Ling in their online statement early Wednesday had said the harassment they were facing was so grave that “Hsien Yang feels compelled to leave Singapore”.
“Since the passing of Lee Kuan Yew, on 23 March 2015, we have felt threatened by Hsien Loong’s misuse of his position and influence over the Singapore government and its agencies to drive his personal agenda,” the two younger siblings said in a Facebook statement.
“We feel big brother omnipresent. We fear the use of the organs of state against us and Hsien Yang’s wife, Suet Fern,” they said in the six-page statement. It was titled “What has happened to Lee Kuan Yew’s values?” They added: “We feel hugely uncomfortable and closely monitored in our own country. We do not trust Hsien Loong as a brother or as a leader. We have lost confidence in him.”
Lee Wei Ling is a top neurologist, while her brother, Lee Hsien Yang, is a former military general who has held various corporate portfolios including a 12-year stint as chief executive of SingTel. He is currently chairman of the Civil Aviation Authority of Singapore.
The premier said he was “deeply saddened by the unfortunate allegations that they have made.”
“While siblings may have differences, I believe that any such differences should stay in the family...My siblings’ statement has hurt our father’s legacy,” he said.
“Since my father’s passing in March 2015, as the eldest son I have tried my best to resolve the issues among us within the family, out of respect for our parents.”
The premier also took issue with claims by his siblings that he harboured political ambitions for his son Li Hongyi, describing that assertion as “absurd”.
He added: “As my siblings know, I am presently overseas on leave with my family. I will consider this matter further after I return this weekend.”
The feuding comes almost a year after Lee Wei Ling took to Facebook in April last year to accuse her brother of abusing his power and forming a political dynasty.
Her social media comments criticising her brother after their father’s death have given rise to intense public debate about a split in the Lee family, which remains widely respected in the tiny Southeast Asian city state.
The elder Lee is widely recognised as the architect of Singapore’s meteoric rise from developing status to one of Asia’s most stable and affluent cities within one generation. He however faced criticism for his strongman style of governance during his 31 year tenure as prime minister from 1959 to 1990.
Lee Hsien Loong took over as premier from the elder Lee’s successor Goh Chok Tong in 2004.
The current premier has largely avoided sparring with his sister in public.
After her comments last year, he said was “deeply saddened”. “The accusations are completely untrue,” he said at the time.
Garry Rodan, who has written extensively about Singapore politics, said the public spat was “not necessarily indicative of an intra-elite split beyond the Lee family”.
“However, claims by Lee Wei Ling and Lee Hsien Yang can potentially be used by the People Action Party’s opponents and critics,” said Rodan, a politics professor at Murdoch University in Australia.
“Expressing fears about organs of the state being exercised against them and depicting the prime minister as an agent against meritocracy is hardly helpful for the PAP – irrespective of the veracity of such claims,” he added.
FATE OF FAMILY HOME
The two younger siblings, the executors and trustees of the elder Lee’s will, said in their statement that they felt their brother wanted to go against their father’s expressed wishes on the fate of the family home after his death.
Lee in his will had ordered it to be demolished soon after his death or after Lee Wei Ling, who had been living with her father for years, moved out. In a 2011 interview with the Straits Times, Lee said he did not want the public to “trudge through” his family home after he died. “I’ve seen other houses, Nehru’s, Shakespeare’s. They become a shambles after a while,” he said. Lee first moved into the house after his marriage to his college sweetheart Kwa Geok Choo in 1950. Kwa died in 2010 at the age of 89.
The younger siblings said that instead of following through with the will, the current premier was planning to preserve the house as that “would enhance his political capital”. They said the preservation of the colonial-era bungalow – near the Orchard Road shopping district – would allow the premier to “inherit a tangible monument to Lee Kuan Yew’s authority”.
“We are private citizens with no political ambitions. We have nothing to gain from the demolition of 38 Oxley Road [Lee Kuan Yew’s home], other than the knowledge that we have honoured our father’s last wish,” the two younger Lee siblings said.
Separately, Li Shengwu, one of Lee Hsien Yang’s sons, said on Facebook that “my immediate family has become increasingly worried about the lack of checks on abuse of power.
“The situation is now such that my parents have made plans to relocate to another country, a painful decision that they have not made lightly,” the Harvard University economics researcher wrote.
Lee Hsien Yang meanwhile told the Financial Times newspaper he had not decided where to move to.
“I have a long record of public service. It is heart-wrenching for me to leave this country. It’s not something I would do lightly, if I didn’t have reasons to do it,” he said.
Premier Lee has previously said he had “recused himself from all government decisions” involving the house, and personally wanted his father’s wishes to be honoured. In a statement issued late on Wednesday, the government reiterated this point.
Lee, who won a crushing election victory in a 2015 general election held months after his father’s death, is seen by observers as widely popular because of his convivial nature and extensive use of social media. The ruling People’s Action Party holds 83 out of 89 parliamentary seats.
In his statement on Wednesday, Lee said “I will do my utmost to continue to do right by my parents.”
“At the same time, I will continue serving Singaporeans honestly and to the best of my ability. In particular that means upholding meritocracy, which is a fundamental value of our society.”