Singapore needs to move beyond the Lee family.
For 5 decades (or even 6), this island’s politics has been dominated by one political party. That political party has been dominated (after the first generation leaders had stepped aside) by the larger-than-life presence of Lee Kuan Yew. It is safe to assert that Singapore’s political culture is also one that it very much moulded by Lee Kuan Yew.
Those who love and adore LKY identify the incorruptibility of the Singapore Civil service and the ministers with the personality of LKY himself. This extends to a view of the PAP as being incorruptible, believers in the rule of law, and beyond reproach in governance.
Those who hate the man identify the authoritarianism of the PAP with his personality. In fact, apologists for the PAP style of governance argue that it is precisely the denial of civil liberties that has reaped economic success for the nation. (Whether Singaporeans had to pay this heavy price in order to achieve material progress is a separate point for debate. I choose not to engage in that debate here.)
In the play ‘Fences’ the playwright, August Wilson, has penned a great line, “You got to take the crooked with the straights. That’s what papa used to say”. (Fences has now been made into a movie with Denzel Washington playing the lead role. Excellent acting. I strongly recommend it.)
When it comes to LKY and his legacy, one has to take the crooked with the straights.
Allegations of Abuse of Power
The current saga involving the Lee siblings is an illustration of this specific problem with the system. While the Lee siblings have been going on and on about abuse of power by their brother, they seem to be wilfully closing their eyes to the fact that their father was the real Big Brother. Lee Hsien Loong and the current PAP leaders have inherited the legal mechanism of authoritarian control from LKY. To be fair to the current government, its authoritarianism is nowhere near the brand of authoritarianism practised by LKY.
There is greater space for expression of opinion today than there was in the 1980s when I was a teen or even in the 1990s. In those days, many of us were fearful of expressing political views in public. That is not the case today. Yes, you could still be sued for defamation, charged for sedition, etc. But, the current government has been very sparing in its usage of repressive instruments. In terms of the authoritarian legacy of LKY, this is definitely LKY-lite. (Part of the reason for this may well be the fact that the internet is an untameable beast and not that the PAP has relinquished some of its authoritarian DNA. That again, is another topic for discussion.)
When the Lee siblings complained about abuse of power by their brother and when we see the examples cited by them as alleged evidence of abuse, it is clear that it pales in comparison to the stuff that happened in the past. What does one make of political detentions? The detentions that incapacitated the political opposition in the 1960s. The detentions that neutered the trade unionists in the late 60s into the 70s. The 1987 detention of alleged Marxist conspirators (about which even some PAP members, including DPM Tharman, have expressed doubts).
Lee Wei Ling shared, on her Facebook page, Niemoller’s famous poem:
“First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out-
Because I was not a Socialist.
Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out-
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out-
Because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me- and there was no one left to speak for me.”
The irony of her post is certainly not lost on Singaporeans. I just hope that she spoke in truth as the person for whom nobody is coming forward to speak now as she was silent throughout the years of political repression and now has some realisation. Somehow I doubt that she meant it that way. Many on social media commented on the irony (or even possible hypocrisy). Having said that, if indeed the Lee siblings are being victimised by the state, they do deserve our support. (two wrongs don’t make a right. There’s no sense in watching in glee from the sidelines as the state machinery goes into overdrive against the duo.)
The South China Morning Post ran an article where the issue of the father’s authoritarianism was raised:
“Lee Hsien Yang, a former military general who later became one of Singapore’s most prominent corporate figures, also addressed the Post’s queries on why he and his sister were not as critical about their father’s strongman leadership style as they have been about their brother over the last week.
The late Lee Kuan Yew, while largely revered at home, had also faced international criticism for his authoritarian style of governing, whether in social engineering policies to re-order society or dealing with political opponents through punitive defamation suits
Lee Hsien Yang said: “Let us not mince words. 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”.”
It is an interesting contention by Lee Hsien Yang. He’s not opposed to his father’s authoritarian ways. He is arguing that it was part of the social compact. Citizens were willing to give up their liberties so long as the government respected the rule of law and was utterly beyond reproach. (There is a whole debate about the overlap between the rule of law and civil liberties. I’ll leave that discussion out for now. We’ll take his assertion at face value for the purpose of this post.)
It appears that the position of Lee Hsien Yang is that the current PM is abusing his authority. The usage of a ‘secretive’ ministerial committee and the obtaining of a Deed of Gift from the NHB are raised as examples of abuse of authority. In a Facebook post, LHY stated:
“Did LHL acquire the Deed of Gift in his public capacity, or his private capacity? If in his public capacity, to use this in his personal legal disputes is a clear abuse of authority. If in his private capacity, how can other private citizens go about acquiring confidential deeds of gift from the NHB?”
If this allegation is true, it can potentially be characterised as an abuse of authority. But, it would certainly be at the mild end of the spectrum. Just so that we have a point of comparison, older readers will remember the Tang Liang Hong defamation case back in 1997. Tang Liang Hong had made a police report alleging that he was afraid for his safety because of allegations made against him that he was a Chinese chauvinist. JB Jeyaratnam waved a copy of this police report at an election rally. Though neither Tang Liang Hong nor JBJ publicly disclosed the precise contents of the police report, the contents were splashed in the local media. As it turned out Goh Chock Tong obtained a copy of the police report from the police. The following is from the JBJ’s Note to the Judges of the Court of Appeal in the defamation suit:
“Mr Shanmugam claimed that a report made to the police of the commission of a crime (see section 115 of the Criminal Procedure Code) is a public document, implying thereby that any member of the public may inspect it and take a copy thereof. He says therefore there was nothing wrong in Mr Goh Chok Tong obtaining a copy.
This is not so.
A report is only a public document for the purpose of its admission in any proceedings under the Criminal Procedure Code. (See section 117 of the CPC which authorises a certified true copy admissible in court without the production of the original).
It is not the practice of the police to release to any member of the public any report to the police. However, if the person against whom the report has been made is charged in court, then the police, at the request of the person or his Solicitors and upon payment of the fees prescribed under the law, will furnish the report. Clearly this is to enable the defence to tender the report in court, if the prosecution does not.
Mr. Goh Chok Tong’s evidence in the proceedings in Suit No 244 of 1997 said that he had told the Minister for Home Affairs to send him the report immediately it was filed. The Minister for Home Affairs was not the person against whom the report was made and he therefore stands in the position of a member of the public.”
If one were to make a comparison between that 1997 incident and the current allegation of abuse of authority, the difference is stark. Though both incidents involve the obtaining of a document from a government department which was later used in a civil proceedings, there is a more innocent spin that can be placed on the Deed of Gift incident involving the NHB and the current PM.
Similarly, LHY has spoken of being subject to surveillance. LKY openly admitted to recording a law society meeting back in 1986 during a Select Committee session where Teo Soh Lung was told flat in the face by the Prime Minister:
“In the age of the tape recorder, you want to know how I am able to get a transcript of what you said?”
So, let’s not be under any illusion here. LHY is not engaged here in a battle to uphold some sacred principle of government. There is certainly more to it. It could be long standing sibling rivalry (coupled with a series of misunderstandings) or it could be about dollars and cents. Some would say, “follow the money.”
Follow the Money
If you did follow the money in this saga, LHY seems to be the person coming up short. The Oxley house is now in LHY’s name (LHL’s share has been bought off and LHL has donated the proceeds to charity.) If the property eventually gets demolished, the land could be developed or be sold to a developer. The greatest financial gain here would be for LHY given that the land is in a prime area. If the government now acquires the property and prevents the demolition of the house, LHY would have to be content with whatever compensation is made by the government. (Land acquisition has always been controversial and it involves the state acting at odds with private property rights. Some would argue that it is a form of theft. That again, is a topic for discussion on another occasion.)
Seeing it this way suggests a possible motive for the current trial by Facebook that is going on. Of course, one could place a sinister spin on LHL’s motives by saying that after striking a deal on the property with his siblings LHL may now be using the Ministerial committee to prevent the demolition of the house and possibly even procure the acquisition of the house by the state (thereby causing a loss to his brother).
There are so many ways that we can spin this story. It is a family squabble like so many other family squabbles that can happen to any of us. But, unlike other families, this family is in a very different position in relation to this nation. As I said at the start, so much of the political life of this nation has been dominated by Lee Kuan Yew. His family members are in influential positions in the public and private sectors.
The allegations raised go beyond mere allegations about LKY’s will and his true intention in relation to his estate. It is more than just about sibling rivalry. This is about our political system: what it has become and how it could be changed.
It’s Time for Political Change
The July 3rd Parliamentary debate on this saga is not going to make these allegations go away. It would be political suicide for the PM to sue his siblings. The fallout from that would be devastating for him and his party. Not doing anything or trying to explain away the allegations in Parliament is not going to help either. For so long as Lee Hsien Loong remains the Prime Minister, his siblings are going to keep throwing mud at him. I believe that the siblings’ endgame has now moved beyond 38 Oxley Rise. Considering that the bundle of allegations that they have made include assertions of dynasty building, the siblings may ultimately desire that their brother should step down from office.
Many have commented that this public feud is not healthy for Singapore. On the contrary, I believe that this is a positive development. When Lee Kuan Yew died in 2015, the post-LKY era did not arrive. We, as a society, got frozen in time. Our politicians were looking to the past to fashion the future. The PAP leaders repeatedly tried to draw links with the LKY legacy. The man was no more but his values lived on in the party. It had become an imperative that the party should draw its legitimacy from LKY and his works. (preserving the house is as much about historical heritage as it is about maintaining the political legitimacy of the PAP)
Even without attempting to look outside of the PAP, the current government does have capable individuals who can come forward and lead the nation forward boldly and with a clear vision. However, too many of them have been nurtured from within the system created by LKY that they are not able to step out from the shadows. So much of the PAP’s collective psyche is so overawed by LKY that one has to wonder if there is enough self-believe within the party’s members to creatively map a future. It is not about the lack of talent but the lack of will.
We have been in a limbo for a while now about where we want to go. As usual, in our country, the talk is about the future of the economy. Interestingly, the future economy is not going to tie in well with a model of authoritarian control. Free-spiritedness and creative thinking will be the currency of the future. There is obviously a realisation within policy circles that we need to get prepared for technological disruption. The only problem is that while everyone foresees disruption, nobody is willing to take bold steps to free up this society.
There comes a moment in a nation’s life where it must re-imagine itself. (After all a nation is an imagined community.) We have an opportunity now to take that bold step forward. To do so, the leadership of this country has to step out of the shadow of LKY. The ingredients of our early success cannot be reused over and over again. Some of that old-model authoritarianism has to go.
Right now, the most immediate, practical, and even symbolic step forward would be for the PAP leadership to accelerate its succession. If the PM, in consultation with his Party members, amicably steps down, it will be good for his soul and the soul of this nation.
As one of LKY’s grandsons said, “the country must be bigger than one family.”
The Lee family must step away from the limelight. They can settle their differences in private. For that the PM must step down. A new PM with a vision for a future should take the leadership role. It can’t be just about rehashing the tried and tested stuff. What can we do to improve our society and our political structure to ensure more openness, compassion and empathy, and to build a culture that values individual happiness and where material wealth is a means to an end? We need someone who can talk to the individual citizen and inspire a new generation to walk down the path of hope for a better future. Some sacred cows may have to be sacrificed along the way.
We can’t continue to be in an unimaginative limbo. This ship cannot continue to go on autopilot.
Some opposition supporters have suggested that Lee Hsien Yang and Lee Wei Ling should join the opposition or even form their own opposition party. I really do believe that they should stay out of it. We as a community must have the faith and self-believe that leadership and vision is not the monopoly of a single family. The LKY legacy will soon become an albatross around this society’s neck.
In the following months, members of the PAP must seriously consider leadership change. The longer this saga drags out, the more damaging it would get politically.
Food for thought:
“Like other members of the PAP old guard, I saw the creation of a solid socioeconomic base as a vitally necessary springboard for the realisation of human ends and values. At least for me, and for the others in the anti colonial movement like me, the human agenda was primary. In short, the urgent, organized, disciplined drive for economic growth and technological progress was powered by non-economic aspirations and ideals….. Modern technology and management systems would be the necessary means to advance the human agenda. Alas, we failed to foresee that human ends would come to be subverted for the greater glory of the material means, and our new Jerusalem would come to harbour a metallic soul with clanking heartbeats, behind a glittering technological facade……… What we launched as the independent republic of Singapore succeeded, as the world knows, all too well, only to discover that in the eyes of Lee Kuan Yew, means had become ends in themselves. First principles were stood on their heads. Economic growth and social progress did not serve human beings. On the contrary, the primary function of citizens was to fuel economic growth—a weird reversal of values.” – Devan Nair in the Foreword to Francis Seow’s “To Catch a Tartar”.