August 31, 2017 10:00 am JST

Family feud has Singaporeans questioning their leadership

The next general election could see the opposition gain traction

MAYUKO TANI, Nikkei staff writer

A view of the residence of late Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew on Oxley Road, Singapore. © Reuters

SINGAPORE In mid-June, Singaporeans woke up to Facebook posts slamming Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong. The harsh words, written by Lee's younger siblings, suddenly had the largely apolitical citizenry buzzing about politics, picking sides and asking questions about the government. Literally overnight, the next leadership change, to be held by 2021, took on far greater significance.

The family feud was sparked by a disagreement between Lee and his brother and sister over whether to demolish or keep the house where their father, Lee Kuan Yew, Singapore's first prime minister, had lived. But the clash soon bubbled over into something bigger, with the younger Lees claiming, among other things, that their brother was abusing his power.

The prime minister categorically denied the accusations and called a special session of parliament to explain that he had done nothing inappropriate. The rare public display of drama dented Singapore's image of political stability and had the world rubbernecking.

Two months on, it is still hard to assess the fallout. It is clear, however, that whichever side Singaporeans have chosen to believe, most are unhappy about the government being bogged down by a family quarrel when there are more pressing issues to address, from wobbly relations with China to terrorism in Southeast Asia.

The fact that Lee Hsien Loong did not sue his siblings for defamation "showed that the government is arbitrary when it comes to dealing with serious criticism such as this," said Stephan Ortmann, an assistant professor at City University of Hong Kong. Defamation lawsuits are commonly used by Singaporean leaders against political opponents, the media and bloggers. Ortmann said he was "pretty sure the incident has affected the people's trust in the government and the [prime minister]."

Keiko Tamura, a professor at Japan's University of Kitakyushu who specializes in international relations and Southeast Asian studies, agrees. "Going forward, Singaporeans will demand the government to make its decision-making process more transparent," she said.

While Lee and his ruling People's Action Party will probably maintain a firm grip on the government, the flap could help the opposition win more supporters. In the last general election, in 2015, Singaporeans gave the ruling party 83 of the 89 parliamentary seats available, with the remaining six seats going to the opposition Workers' Party. That is a big change from the days when the PAP controlled all the seats. With social media exposing more people to diverse viewpoints, the upcoming leadership change could see Singaporeans shift further toward the opposition if the PAP does not play its cards carefully.

the upcoming leadership change could, if not handled carefully, prompt Singaporeans to further shift away from the PAP.

The prime minister, who took the helm in 2004, has said he wants to step down soon after the next general election, due by January 2021. Singapore has had only three leaders in the past five decades, each of whom was in office for more than a decade. Voters will no doubt be looking for someone who can play the long game.

"This [longevity] is necessary because Singapore survives and prospers by being strategically nimble, adaptable and planning ahead," said Eugene Tan, an associate professor of law at Singapore Management University. A country that is looking 15-20 years ahead is not likely to pass the baton to one of the two deputy prime ministers, both of whom are in their 60s. That leaves the door open to a younger generation.

Given the public's growing concerns about the way the government operates, the bar for Lee's successor will be high. The next prime minister, said Tan, has to be clean, trusted, "less domineering and more approachable" in order to reflect the increasingly diverse views held by Singaporeans.

"Not only the leader, but the system -- the way the political system operates -- must change," said a Singaporean economist who requested anonymity.

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