Singapore rocked by ruling family feud

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JONATHAN MANTHORPE: International Affairs
June 17, 2017

The family of former Singapore Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew, who died in 2015 at age 91,is embroiled in a public feud. Above, Lee in 2002, during a U.S. visit. Photo by Robert D. Ward, U.S. government, public domain

Schadenfreude is a vice usually best avoided.

The Fates are cruel. Seeing you take delight in someone else’s misfortune, they are very likely to whip the carpet out from under your life, giving secret pleasure to those who wish you ill.

But the ruling Lee family of Singapore has created for itself, at other people’s expense, such a charmed nepotistic dynasty that anyone can be forgiven for wallowing in schadenfreude and drinking deep the pleasure of seeing them come a cropper.

It is not unusual, of course, that when the patriarch of a family dynasty dies, the children and grandchildren fall to squabbling over the inheritance. That is what is happening here after the death in 2015 of Lee Kuan Yew at age 91.

A fierce public battle has broken out between Lee Kuan Yew’s eldest son, Lee Hsien Loong, who has been Singapore’s Prime Minister since 2004, and two of his siblings. On Wednesday, his sister, neurologist Lee Wei Ling, and brother attorney Lee Hsien Yang, published an extraordinary six-page diatribe against their brother. They accuse him of trying to establish his branch of the family as a political dynasty, and of using state security agencies against them.

Read the document here:

“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,” says the statement. The younger brother, lawyer Hsien Yang, says he and his wife feel compelled to leave Singapore and live elsewhere because “we fear the use of the organs of state against us.”

Lee Kuan Yew was Singapore’s founding father. He first became prime minister under British rule in 1959, survived the disastrous three-year attempt at amalgamation with Malaysia from 1963 until 1965, and remained leader of the Lion City’s government until he retired in 1990. After that and until his death, Lee in true Confucian style remained the ultimate arbiter of contentious policy questions as “Minister Mentor” to the government.

On the international stage, Lee Kuan Yew became one of the sage analysts of Asia in the last half of the 20th Century. Western leaders and their advisers were forever scuttling to Singapore to crouch at the knee of the Great Man and listen to his views on the state of the world.

Lee was equally revered at home in Singapore, a cluster of islands with no natural resources beyond the skills of its, now, nearly six million people. Over his 31 years at the helm, Lee Kuan Yew crafted Singapore into a hugely wealthy and successful state as one of the premier financial centres and trading entrepot of Asia.

The discipline required to achieve this success came at a social and political price. Lee created a political system that had elections without democracy and the rule of law without justice. All sorts of descriptions have been applied to Lee’s political and judicial creations from “guided democracy,” to “Gucci fascism.”

Lee’s People’s Action Party (PAP) has ruled Singapore forever, largely through the benefit of masterful gerrymandering, which has made it impossible for opposition parties to win more than a handful of seats. In the last election, held a few weeks after Lee’s death in 2015, the PAP won 83 out of the 89 parliamentary seats.

When opposition figures have arisen whose political skills and appeal might overcome the gerrymandering of constituencies, other means have been employed to withstand the danger. A favourite ploy has been to charge political opponents with criminal libel or slander for things they have said or published about members of the Lee family in the heat of campaigns.

The Singaporean judicial system makes a sharp distinction between civil and political justice. On civil matters, such as business and contract disputes, the courts are scrupulous in their fairness and interpretation of the law. That is one of the attractions of Singapore for international companies as an Asian base for business.

The Singaporean courts, however, take a far more intense approach when it comes to political matters, and especially when the Lee family is directly involved. The record is that the courts are withering in their verdicts and sentences imposed on anyone found to have demeaned the senior members of the Lee family. Opposition politicians have had such large financial penalties imposed on them that they inevitably go bankrupt and are thus ineligible to be candidates in elections.

The courts have been equally activist on behalf of the Lee family when foreign and international newspapers and magazines have suggested that the Singaporean courts are biddable. The courts have been just as stern when these publications have pointed to what appears to be a network of Lee family nepotism running through most of the Lion City’s main governing institutions.

The list of publications that have incurred Singapore’s judicial wrath include The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, Time Magazine, The Asian Wall Street Journal, the Economist, Asiaweek, and the Far East Economic Review. As the judgements have usually included a ban on distributing their publications in Singapore, with its large and well-healed expatriate business community, most of the media companies have swallowed hard and complied with the judgements.

Yet it often seems that Singapore is the Lee family corporate conglomerate that happens to own 63 islands and islets rather than a true nation state. When the number of Lee family members who occupy senior positions in various government departments and other institutions was pointed out to Lee Kuan Yew he always insisted that Singapore is a meritocracy and that his family members held their positions by dint of their personal qualities.

Not everyone was convinced. When Goh Chok Tong was Prime Minister after Lee Kuan Yew’s resignation in 1990, until Lee Hsien Loong took over the leadership in 2004, there was much public speculation. The usual analysis was that Goh was only keeping the Prime Minister’s seat warm while Lee Hsien Loong gained the experience to take over. If these views hit the public prints, the Lees — father and son – immediately took to the courts, which without exception upheld their outrage and imposed stinging penalties.

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong’s younger brother and sister, now stirring the family brouhaha, have held senior institutional positions. Sister Lee Wei Ling was a director of the National Neurological Institute, and her brother, Lee Hsien Yang, was chief executive officer of Singapore Telecommunications for two years until April 2007. In 2009 he was appointed chairman of the Civil Aviation Authority of Singapore.

No doubt these appointments were made on merit as, of course, was the 2002 appointment of the Prime Minister’s wife, Ho Ching, as Chief Executive Officer of Temasek Holdings, Singapore’s sovereign wealth fund, currently worth over $US200 billion. Before that, Ho Ching was president and chief executive of the government-owned Singapore Technologies.

The public record tends to applaud Ho Ching’s abilities as master of Temasek, for transforming the fund from a Singapore-focused firm into an active investor in Asia and the world. The record usually draws a veil over 2006 when Ho Ching led Temasek to buy Shin Corp, the family business of Thailand’s Prime Minister, Thaksin Shinawatra, for $US4.5 billion.

The transaction outraged many Thais, including the military, which addressed the issue after it ousted Thaksin in a coup in September that year. Quite how much Temasek lost in that deal is still unclear, but many analysts put it around the amount the fund paid for Shin Corp; $US4.5 billion.

The centre of the dispute between the Lee siblings is prosaic in comparison. On the surface, it is all about the fate of the family home, a colonial-era bungalow at 38 Oxley Road, close to Singapore’s main shopping concourse, Orchard Street. Most of the six-page statement issued by Lee Hsien Yang and Lee Wei Ling on Wednesday concerns the fate of this house.

The house was built by a Jewish merchant around the start of the 20th Century and was bought by Lee Kuan Yew soon after the Second World War. He lived there with his mother for a while, but then went to Britain to study law. When he returned to Singapore in 1950 he moved into the house with his new bride, Kwa Geok Choo. It was in the basement of the bungalow that Lee and political colleagues formed the People’s Action Party in 1954.

It has continued to be a family home, but in his last will, dated December 2013, Lee Kuan Yew left instructions that the house should be demolished after his death. Lee Kuan Yew had many faults – intellectual arrogance being a big one – but delight in the fripperies of power was not one of them. He did not want the house to become a national monument. In a book he wrote published in 2011 Lee said he didn’t want strangers to “trudge through” the family home.

In Wednesday’s statement, the two younger Lees recounted their father once saying, when asked what monuments he would like to see commemorating his contribution to Singapore, “Remember Ozymandias.”

This was a reference to the sonnet by English Romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley about the Egyptian Pharaoh, who had an inflated sense of his own importance. In the poem a traveller comes across the remains of a statue with a plaque saying:

“My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!’
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.”

The younger Lees charge that their elder brother, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, aims to preserve the family home as a national monument in order to bolster his own political stature and to prepare the ground for his own son to take over political leadership. (The son, Li Hongyi, has denied any political ambitions.)

“We believe, unfortunately, that Hsien Loong is driven by a desire for power and personal popularity,” says the statement. “His popularity is inextricably linked to Lee Kuan Yew’s legacy. His political power is drawn from his being Lee Kuan Yew’s son.”

On Thursday it became known that a government committee is working on options for the fate of the house.

Lee Kuan Yew came from a Hakka family, whose forebears came from the border region of Guangdong and Fuchien provinces in southern China. In the mid-18th century many Hakka went to Borneo after hearing reports of the discovery of alluvial gold in the rivers there.

Soon after their arrival, the Hakka, who had a well-deserved reputation as warriors, were contracted by a local rajah to fight in a dispute with one of his rivals. The Hakka’s reward for victory was the grant of a large slice of land. Here, in 1777, the Hakka established the Lanfang Republic, the first republic in Asia, which even pre-dated the United States version. The Lanfang Republic survived until 1884, when it was overrun by Dutch imperialists and is now part of Indonesia.

At the time of the Dutch onslaught, many of the Hakka fled to the British colony of Singapore, among them Lee Kuan Yew’s family.

But that’s another story.

Copyright Jonathan Manthorpe 2017


Read the family document, “What has Happened to Lee Kuan Yew’s Values,” here:

Contact Jonathan Manthorpe, including for queries about syndication/republishing:

Jonathan Manthorpe is the author of “Forbidden Nation: A History of Taiwan.” Return to his column page.



Manthorpe B&WJonathan Manthorpe is a founding columnist with Facts and Opinions and is the author of the journal’s International Affairs column. He is the author of “Forbidden Nation: A History of Taiwan,” and has been a foreign correspondent and international affairs columnist for nearly 40 years. Manthorpe’s  nomadic career began in the late 1970s as European Bureau Chief for The Toronto Star, the job that took Ernest Hemingway to Europe in the 1920s. In the mid-1980s Manthorpe became European Correspondent for Southam News. In the following years Manthorpe was sent by Southam News, the internal news agency for Canada’s largest group of metropolitan daily newspapers, to be the correspondent in Africa and then Asia. Between postings Manthorpe spent a few years based in Ottawa focusing on intelligence and military affairs, and the United Nations. Since 1998 Manthorpe has been based in Vancouver, but has travelled frequently on assignment to Asia, Europe and Latin America.


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