June 29, 2017 10:00 am JST

Singaporeans weary of prime minister's family spat

A row between Lee Hsien Loong and his siblings has people shaking their heads

MAYUKO TANI, Nikkei staff writer

Singaporean founding father Lee Kuan Yew, center, celebrates his 80th birthday in 2003. His children have become embroiled in a feud following his death in 2015. © Reuters

SINGAPORE Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong is taking to the political stage to settle an increasingly embarrassing family feud. Lee plans to address parliament on July 3 to rebut accusations by his younger brother and sister that he is abusing his power, accusations he says have tarnished the government's reputation.

On June 19, the leader apologized to the people of Singapore for the disruption caused by the family row over the will of their late father, Lee Kuan Yew, the country's first prime minister. So far, the spat has largely taken place on the Facebook, attracting much attention from locals and international media alike.

"I deeply regret that this dispute has affected Singapore's reputation and Singaporeans' confidence in the government," a somber-faced Lee said in the televised message shortly after returning from an overseas vacation. "As your prime minister, I apologize to you for this."

UNEXPECTED ANIMOSITY The family dispute came to light on June 14 when Lee Hsien Yang, the prime minister's younger brother and former CEO of Singapore Telecommunications, and sister Lee Wei Ling, former director of the National Neuroscience Institute, issued a strongly worded statement via Facebook. The younger Lees accused their brother of misusing his power to get his way. "We fear the use of the organs of state [by Hsien Loong] against us and Hsien Yang's wife, Suet Fern," the statement said. Hsien Yang even claimed he felt compelled to "leave Singapore for the foreseeable future" because of his brother. Hsien Yang and his wife were reportedly spotted at the airport in Hong Kong on June 25.

The disagreement centers on a house left by their late father. The senior Lee, who died in March 2015, had stated in his will that the house was to be demolished after his death, or immediately after Wei Ling moved out, a desire he had mentioned on various occasions. Although some in the country want to preserve the house, the younger Lees want to honor their father's request. But they claim their elder brother, with his wife Ho Ching, who is the CEO of the powerful state investment company Temasek Holdings, want to keep the house to "enhance his political capital."

The prime minister responded by saying he has "serious questions" about how the will was prepared, insinuating that his sister-in-law, a well-known lawyer, may have intervened in its preparation.

The siblings have continued to trade blows via Facebook, with no sign of a truce coming anytime soon. Many Singaporeans, unaware of what caused such distrust among the family in the first place, have started showing signs of weariness with the ongoing drama.

"Parliament is not a forum for siblings' disputes," an internet user believed to be Singaporean said in a comment on a local news website. Concerns have grown that the saga will drag on despite more pressing issues, such as the economy and the growing threat of terrorism in Southeast Asia.

Han Fook Kwang, editor-at-large of the influential newspaper The Straits Times, said, "The family feud among the Lees is extremely damaging to Singapore."

The row has invited criticism from overseas, too. "The dispute between [the prime minister] and his siblings might challenge the stability of the country and bring pressure for political reform," wrote the Global Times, the Chinese Communist Party's English-language newspaper.

But the Singaporean leader has chosen to keep the matter in the public light precisely because his siblings' allegations touch on the integrity of the government and on his conduct as prime minister. Transparency, the rule of law and political stability are the pillars that have supported the miraculous economic development the country achieved under Lee Kuan Yew's leadership. Just two years after the death of the country's founding father, the last thing the current leader wants to do is show any cracks in those core values.

"We are determined to repair the damage that has been done to Singapore," Lee promised citizens.

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