Singapore Lee Family Feud Goes Public on Facebook: QuickTake Q&A

Singapore is a small but wealthy Southeast Asian island state with a reputation for order and control. So imagine the dismay when its most famous family gets involved in a very public feud -- on Facebook. Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong and his two younger siblings are embroiled in a spat that centers on the fate of the house that belonged to their late father, the country’s first prime minister, Lee Kuan Yew. It marks a rare public display of acrimony from a family that’s been at the forefront of Singapore’s establishment since its independence in 1965 -- a family that largely kept private any discord before the elder Lee’s death in 2015.

The house at 38 Oxley Road, the residence of the late Mr Lee Kuan Yew.

Photographer: Wallace Woon/EPA

1. What’s the spat about?

It centers on 38 Oxley Road, a colonial-era bungalow near the Orchard Road shopping belt. Lee Kuan Yew lived there for most of his 91 years. His will included a wish -- one that the prime minister says appeared in early versions of the will, was removed and then added to the final will -- for the property to be demolished eventually. All three children have said they want to honor that request, but the two younger siblings have accused Prime Minister Lee of maneuvering behind the scenes to undermine their father’s instructions. They cite the existence of a ministerial committee that is considering options for the house. The prime minister denies those allegations and isn’t part of the committee.

2. Who are the protagonists?

As well as the prime minister, there’s Lee Hsien Yang, the younger brother who has held prominent roles in business including chief executive officer of Singapore Telecommunications Ltd. Among his current positions, the 60-year-old is chairman of the Civil Aviation Authority of Singapore, a board member of Rolls-Royce Holdings Plc and a special adviser to private-equity firm General Atlantic LLC. And then there’s Dr. Lee Wei Ling, his 62-year-old sister who is a senior adviser at Singapore’s National Neuroscience Institute. She currently lives in the house and Lee Kuan Yew’s instruction in his will to demolish 38 Oxley Road only kicks in after she moves out. Lee Kuan Yew was prime minister from 1959 to 1990, turning Singapore into Southeast Asia’s richest nation and running a tightly controlled state that emphasized incorruptibility and stability.

Lee Hsien Yang

Photographer: Roslan Rahman/AFP via Getty Images

3. What about keeping disputes in the family?

The family discord has simmered over the past two years but burst into full view in the early hours of June 14 with a six-page statement posted via Facebook by the younger Lees. They said they had “lost confidence” in their brother and accused him of misusing his position to advance his personal agenda and of harboring political ambitions for one of his sons. Lee Hsien Yang, the younger brother, said he plans to leave Singapore and cited his brother as the reason. Their posting prompted a Facebook tit-for-tat that brought in other members of the family as well as the prime minister.

4. What does PM Lee say?

He has strongly denied the allegations and apologized for the impact the dispute has had on Singapore’s reputation. He will address Parliament July 3 to refute the charges, and to allow lawmakers including the opposition to examine the issue and question him and his Cabinet "vigorously." The prime minister took the unusual step of lifting the party whip, meaning members of parliament can vote outside party lines. “I hope that this full, public airing in Parliament will dispel any doubts that have been planted and strengthen confidence in our institutions and our system of government," he said.

5. What’s the significance of the house?

As well as being on prime real estate, 38 Oxley Road is seen by many as a hallmark of the elder Lee’s legacy and influence, the site of critical decisions on Singapore’s future taken by the nation’s pioneer leaders. Founding members of the People’s Action Party, in power since independence, held early meetings at the house. Prime Minister Lee says he was bequeathed the property by his father and sold it to his younger brother, donating the unspecified proceeds to charity. Cushman & Wakefield estimates the current value of the house, which stands on a plot of about 12,000 square feet, or 0.3 acre, at about S$25 million, or $18 million.

6. What do we know about the committee?

Deputy Prime Minister Teo Chee Hean set up the committee and says there’s nothing secret about it, contrary to the two younger siblings’ assertion. He says it’s studying options such as demolishing the house but keeping the basement dining room where important meetings took place and establishing a heritage center. The committee, he says, needs to review the options now in case, for example, Dr. Lee chose to move out in the near future. The prime minister said in 2015 he had recused himself from all government decisions regarding the house. His views were sought by the committee in his personal capacity, and he has not been involved in discussions, according to the cabinet secretary.

7. Is anyone else involved?

It’s a family spat, so the spouses don’t escape. The younger Lee siblings have made criticisms about the prime minister’s wife, Ho Ching, 64, who is chief executive officer of the state investment firm Temasek Holdings. Lee Hsien Yang’s wife, Lee Suet Fern, 59, and her role in the final will has also been a talking point. The kids don’t get off, either. PM Lee was accused of harboring political ambitions for his son, Li Hongyi, an allegation the prime minister called "absurd.” Hongyi said in a Facebook post he has no interest in politics.

8. What impact has the spat had on Singapore politics?

None, so far. Prime Minister Lee, 65, retains broad popular support. He has signaled he doesn’t want to stay in office beyond the age of 70 and has been grooming a group of younger ministers for succession. The PAP has a strong grip on power. Months after the elder Lee died, the PAP boosted its share of the popular vote by about 10 percentage points to nearly 70 percent -- the highest since 2001 -- and secured 83 of 89 seats up for grabs.

Lee Hsien Loong following his election victory in 2015.

Photographer: Nicky Loh/Bloomberg

9. What about markets?

Again, no major reaction. The benchmark Straits Times Index of stocks fell 0.1 percent on the day the dispute became public, and the Singapore dollar rose. Song Seng Wun, an economist at CIMB Private Banking, doesn’t expect any lasting impact “so long as it is not perceived that there’s a change in government policy in the near or medium term.”

10. Could the environment change?

Eugene Tan, a political analyst and former nominated member of parliament, says that while there’s a “reservoir of trust, confidence and goodwill” in the political leadership, that can change “if the narrative of a family feud gives way to the narrative that significant national issues are at stake.” Investors should watch for how protracted the saga becomes and whether it affects the prime minister’s ability to lead the PAP, says Song of CIMB.

11. What about Singapore’s image?

As the prime minister put it, the dispute “has affected Singapore’s reputation and Singaporeans’ confidence in the government.” A poll of 100 people by the Straits Times newspaper found most want the matter resolved in private. That poll was carried out before the prime minister said he would air the matter in Parliament.

The Reference Shelf

  • A Straits Times summary of the key aspects of the dispute.
  • A Google search montage of pictures of 38 Oxley Road.
  • A Bloomberg News story on the start of the Facebook feud.
  • Bloomberg News reports on a 2016 allegation by Lee Wei Ling 
  • Another Bloomberg report on an agreement among the siblings on the house. 
  • A Bloomberg story on a dispute over Lee Kuan Yew’s interviews.

— With assistance by Andrea Tan, and Pooja Thakur Mahrotri

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