The family feud regarding the estate of Singapore’s late founding prime minister Lee Kuan Yew is extremely damaging to Singapore.
Everyone can see this even if they do not understand all the complex details that have emerged from this sorry saga. Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong – Lee Kuan Yew’s son – recognises this only too well and has apologised to the nation for the grief it has caused. The many issues that have been raised can be confusing, from the different versions of the will to which lawyer was involved in which deed.
But here’s the thing – you do not need to understand every single part of the unfolding drama to know what really matters and is important for Singapore. In fact, you should not let the toing and froing over the details prevent you from getting to the issues of public concern.
So, what are the key issues? There are three.
First, it is a valid question to ask how involved ministers should be on this issue. The only matter that concerns the government is whether to preserve Lee Kuan Yew’s house at 38 Oxley Road – something that it has the right to do under the Preservation of Monuments Act. Any other issue, including how the late Lee Kuan Yew decided on his will and who his lawyers were, has nothing to do with the government, or with you and me, least of all a committee of ministers.
In his last will, Lee Kuan Yew, said he wanted the family bungalow demolished after his death, but his children have fallen out regarding this instruction. Lee Hsien Loong has expressed “grave concerns about the events surrounding the making of the Last Will”, and favours preserving the house. His siblings want the home demolished, and have accused the prime minister of seeking to use the home as a monument to enhance his political capital.
The government has clarified that the committee would confine itself to looking only at various options for the house while paying particular attention to respecting Lee Kuan Yew’s wishes for his house.
Deputy Prime Minister Teo Chee Hean further added that the committee wanted to get a clearer sense of Lee Kuan Yew’s thinking on the house, and wrote to all the siblings, who provided differing accounts of their father’s wishes. He pointed out that the committee’s interest in Lee Kuan Yew’s will was “confined to the light that it sheds on his wishes for the house”.
This might well have been the committee’s intention, but it now finds itself embroiled in an unwieldy dispute over Lee Kuan Yew’s actions and wishes. Was it wise or necessary for ministers to be involved in such matters as the will, which are difficult to ascertain? Should they not have confined themselves to deciding only what to do with the house – demolish, preserve or some intermediate option?
In retrospect, ministers should have stayed clear of the dispute over the will. They should have told PM Lee: As the eldest child, please resolve the matter with your siblings. Do not involve us. We expect you to solve it, hopefully amicably. Involving the government risks harming its good name and that of its ministers.
In fact, this is precisely what has happened with ministers having to defend their actions setting up the committee and explaining its remit. With fresh revelations and allegations every passing day, cabinet ministers find themselves more and more deeply involved in the saga.
Did they foresee this when they formed the committee and asked the parties involved to submit statutory declarations about the circumstance surrounding Lee Kuan Yew’s writing of his will? By adopting such an adversarial and legalistic approach at the outset, they set themselves and the government up for an ugly confrontation with the younger Lees.
It is not too late to reconsider the necessity of this ministerial committee and, in particular, its remit. Can the three Lees agree on this: Disband the committee and, as part of the agreement, cease from discussing the matter in public? They should make another attempt to resolve their disagreements privately. If they can’t, appoint a mediator acceptable to both sides.
A further possibility: Let the Founders’ Memorial Committee, which has already been formed to look into how best to commemorate Singapore’s pioneer leaders, decide on the fate of the house. Why leave out the most important decision from this group of distinguished Singaporeans who were selected to look into the building of an appropriate memorial?
The second issue of public concern is about the prime minister being accused by his siblings of all sorts of serious transgressions. They say he has misused and abused his powers, using the state to pursue his personal agenda, including spying on them. In other words, they accuse him of being corrupt. They also say he has lied and misrepresented the late Lee Kuan Yew over what he said about demolishing the house after his death.
Under normal circumstances, Prime Minister Lee would not allow these statements to go unchallenged and he would have had to sue the defamers in a court of law. If he does not, he will find it difficult to sue anyone in future even if they accuse him of the most blatant corruption and dishonesty.
But the prime minister also knows that it would be fatal for him politically to sue his own brother and sister. The fallout from it and the court case would damage him permanently. It is also a highly risky business because you have to be prepared for your character and all your actions to be closely scrutinised in court. The People’s Action Party leaders know this better than anyone because it was once their preferred method of dealing with their political opponents. Indeed, the party’s success is founded on the claim that its leaders are men of the highest integrity and that it will go to the ends of the earth to protect that reputation.
Since he will not sue, the matter has now become a full blown political battle. Lee Hsien Yang has taken to social media and the foreign press to argue his case and it is nothing less than that the Singapore system has become corrupted under his brother’s rule. In his latest interview with the South China Morning Post, he said: “Singapore’s social compact under Lee Kuan Yew was: civil liberties may be curtailed, but in return your government will respect the rule of law and be utterly beyond reproach.” He said this social compact was now broken and accused his brother of being ready to use his “public powers to achieve his personal agenda”.
That’s throwing the political gauntlet straight at the prime minister over and above 38 Oxley Road. For this political battle, unlike the decision whether to sue, the prime minister has no choice but to engage and defend his integrity and his record. It is what political leaders are elected to do and the prime minister must show what he is made of. He has now decided to do this by way of a parliamentary debate on July 3 and will lift the party whip to encourage full participation. I hope MPs take advantage of the opportunity, though, knowing how tenacious the Lees are, the infighting is unlikely to end in the House.
Singaporeans might wish this political fight did not take place. But they cannot wish it away now. Some good might come out of it if, as a result, people understand better how the country is making the transition to a post-LKY world especially in the political sphere and how the government is being run. Do Singaporeans want to know and participate in this discussion? Do they have the political maturity to do so and in a way that will ensure the country becomes stronger in the process? It will be a critical test for post-LKY Singapore.
Finally, an important issue in all this is, of course, Lee Kuan Yew’s legacy. Some people believe that, in fact, this is what it is all about. The founding Prime Minister’s legacy is important, what he stood for and how he achieved so much for Singapore. But even more important is how a people move forward, beyond the record and achievements of their past leaders.
Lee Kuan Yew himself was acutely aware of this, which was why he was against hero-worshipping and monument-building. He knew that history is too full of leaders who misuse the past for their own selfish political ends.
Singapore is at an inflexion point, with the memory of its founding leaders still fresh, but facing a brave new world under very different circumstances that will test its survival skills. It cannot break completely away from the past but neither does it want to be a prisoner of its history.
Demolish or preserve the house? You couldn’t find a better metaphor for the country and Lee Kuan Yew’s legacy.
Han Fook Kwang was the Editor of The Straits Times from 2002 to 2012. He is also a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies. This piece is republished with permission from The Straits Times
SINGAPORE GOVERNMENT RESPONDS: DECISION CANNOT BE OUTSOURCED
The Singapore government late on Tuesday responded to Han Fook Kwang’s commentary. It said the set-up of a ministerial committee was necessary to help the current government carry out its legal responsibility of making a decision on the future of 38 Oxley Road.
“Cabinet cannot outsource decision-making,” Deputy Prime Minister Teo Chee Hean said in the statement. “We still hope that differences of views on private matters can be resolved within the family,” the deputy premier said. “But ultimately, the cabinet of the day and its ministers cannot avoid taking responsibility for making the required decisions on matters where the public interest is involved, or due process is required.”