Singapore's Lee family spat is ugly, but unlikely to impact PM's grip on power

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Story highlights

  • Singapore PM Lee Hsien Loong's character and leadership is being attacked by his own siblings
  • However, their claims are unlikely to affect the popular leader's reputation very much

Veteran Singaporean journalist P N Balji is the former chief editor of Singapore's Today newspaper, and currently a media consultant. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his own.

(CNN)The peace and quiet of an oasis called Singapore was shattered early on Wednesday morning as an ugly fight among members of the country's most prominent family spilled into the open, with accusations being made about the character and leadership of the prime minister and his wife.

In a statement headlined "What Has Happened To Lee Kuan Yew's Values," the island nation's founding father's younger son and daughter made chilling accusations against the elder son and current prime minister, Lee Hsien Loong.
"We are disturbed by the character, conduct, motives and leadership of Lee Hsien Loong and the role of his wife, Ho Ching. We have seen a completely different face to our brother, one that deeply troubles us," they charged.
    Their accusations went beyond the original bone of contention -- what to do with Lee Kuan Yew's bungalow -- and went into areas like Ho Ching's "pervasive influence which extends beyond her job purview." Ho Ching is the CEO of the government's investment company, Temasek Holdings. There were also allegations that the PM and his wife "harbor political ambitions for their son, Li Hongyi."
    Lee Hsien Yang leaves the Supreme court on April 10, 2017.

    Festering dispute

    The dispute over the house has festered since Lee Kuan Yew died two years ago, with accusations that the PM and his wife were against the elder Lee's wish that the property be demolished. This time round, the allegations have become sharper and more personal with the younger Lees saying the PM and his wife want to move into the house to "strengthen Hsien Loong's inherited mandate for himself and his family."
    The house in the upmarket Orchard Road area has been the subject of much debate. Lee Kuan Yew had talked about his and his wife's wish to send the bulldozers in after their deaths. "I have seen other houses, Nehru's. Shakespeare's. They became a shambles after a while," the former PM said in one interview.
    But what was left unsaid -- at least publicly -- was the house's historical and heritage value. Built more than 200 years ago by a Jewish merchant, the house was bought by Lee Kuan Yew in 1945 and was witness to many of Singapore's significant historical moments. That was the place Lee and his comrades met to discuss the formation of a political movement to fight for Singapore's independence from Britain and plot the painful separation from Malaysia.
    Shouldn't a house with so many historic memories be preserved, asked some. Others argued that the old man's wish should be granted as he had done so much for the country.

    The house remains, but the family is in tatters

    Lee Kuan Yew had fussed and feared about his country's survival and had spoken about it a number of times. He said in one interview: "No system lasts forever, that's for sure. Ten years, I don't think it will happen; 20 years I can't say; 30 years more I can't tell you..."
    But what he might never have anticipated was the crumbling of the other edifice -- the family edifice -- that he so assiduously protected.
    If the younger Lees' intention is to land a nasty political punch on Lee Hsien Loong's political standing, they are unlikely to succeed as the PM has solidified his position after his party's humiliation at the 2011 general elections. He and his party took a beating as they got a historic low of 60.1% of the popular vote.
    The house of Singapore's late founding father Lee Kuan Yew in an image from 2016.
    They went into bounce-back mode almost immediately when they announced a series of popular moves, with a left-of-center shift to subsidize older Singaporeans' healthcare bills as the icing on the cake. Unpopular policies like high immigration flows and a housing crunch were eased. The PM went further by stamping his personal mark on the healthcare package by writing personal letters to all those who were going to gain from the scheme.
    The 2015 election posters showcasing his photograph were plastered all over the country and the ruling People's Action Party bounced back by getting back 70% of the popular vote. The PM's popularity soared as he was constantly in the limelight, giving interviews, making speeches and launching major initiatives.
    With him firmly in the driver's seat and with the government's control of all the levers of power intact, the younger siblings are unlikely to achieve much even though they tried to inflict maximum reputational damage by striking at 2.30 in the morning, and at a time when the PM was on holiday.
    Lee Hsien Loong issued a brief statement refuting their charges but left open the possibility of a fuller response at a later date. "I will consider this matter further after I return this weekend," he said in a Facebook post.
    Ominous words, indeed, as Singapore braces for the next ugly chapter in the Lee family's war of attrition.