The acrimonious fight between Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong and his siblings over the disposal of Lee Kuan Yew’s iconic black-and-white colonial home has again spilled into the public arena, with the attorney general’s chambers becoming involved over the handling of the late independence leader’s will, apparently at the prime minister’s behest.
That has shocked the Singaporean public, many of whom see the decision by a public agency to involve itself in a family squabble as an inappropriate use of government power. It is eating into the aura of invincibility and incorruptibility of the Lee family and, opposition leaders say, could provide fodder for elections which are expected in 2019.
Whether it’s a coincidence or on purpose, the government has issued a blaze of defamation and other charges against bloggers and other activists in recent weeks. The latest was a conviction for activist Jolovan Wham for illegal assembly for organizing a forum on civil disobedience and social movements during which he featured a Skype conference with Joshua Wong, a Hong Kong student activist and secretary-general of the pro-democracy party Demosistō. Wham was also convicted of refusing to sign a police statement.
“The Singapore government has launched an unprecedented attack on independent media and voices in Singapore,” said Roy Yi Ling Ngerng, an activist who was once sued – successfully – for defamation by Lee Hsien Loong and who now lives in Taiwan. “Over the past few months, I have counted at least seven independent media — The Online Citizen, The Independent Singapore, States Times Review, Singapore Herald, The Coverage, New Naratif and Leong Sze Hian and seven independent journalists and bloggers who have faced various forms of political persecution in the hands of the Singapore government.”
Autumn of the Patriarch’s son?
Lee Hsien Loong is leaving the premiership at the end of the current parliamentary sitting, meaning that for the first time since the country was founded the family will no longer be the single most important public powerhouse in Singaporean politics although Hsien Loong is expected to continue to play a behind-the-scenes role as his father did after leaving the premiership in 1990 to become senior minister and then minister mentor. He died in 2015 at age 91.
As Asia Sentinel reported in August of 2017, the rift within the family has further exposed the contradictions inherent in Singapore’s system between the appearance of the rule of law via an independent judiciary and the perceptions of so many onlookers of favoritism toward the government and the Lees.
Lee Hsien Yang and Lee Wei Ling, the prime minister’s younger brother and sister, have been fighting with Lee Hsien Loong since 2016 to have the elder Lee’s magnificent home razed as he stipulated in his will. Hsien Loong wants the home preserved as a monument to the late leader.
The discord between the siblings has grown so acrid that last week Lee Hsien Yang took the unprecedented step of donating to a crowdfunding campaign by Leong Sze Hian, a blogger whom Lee Hsien Loong is suing for defamation for clicking “share” on a derogatory Facebook post. The younger Lee told Yahoo News Singapore on the day after Christmas that he had contributed to Leong’s legal fund, but didn’t say how much. Hsien Yang also met publicly in 2018 with Tan Cheng Bock, a former member of the long-ruling People’s Action Party who left the party to join the opposition.
The tangle of family loyalties was strained further when on Jan. 6, Lee Hsien Yang and Lee Wei Ling posted a statement on Facebook saying the attorney general’s chambers are asking the country’s Law Society for legal malpractice proceedings to be brought against Lee Suet Fern, Lee Hsien Yang’s lawyer wife, who had assisted in the drawing of the final will. The two said “500 pages” worth of documents had been filed to the Law Society. The society has the power to censure or disbar lawyers for malpractice.
“As far as we know, this is an unprecedented use of such legal process involving a private will,” the siblings said in their Facebook posting.
The attorney general’s chambers probe apparently pertains to whether Lee Suet Fern played a direct role in drafting the final version of the will, which was described as a conflict of interest since her husband was one of the beneficiaries according to Singaporean news media. Lee Kuan Yew publicly said he wanted the home razed because he didn’t want it turned into a shrine to his memory.
The Attorney General’s office in a Jan. 7 public statement confirmed to local media that it had referred a “case of possible professional misconduct” involving Lee Suet Fern to the Law Society – citing her role in the drafting of the will. The chambers said it first contacted Lee Suet Fern in October 2018, but the lawyer “did not answer the questions the AGC had asked.”
The attorney general’s chambers earlier also went after Lee Hsien Yang’s son, the prime minister’s nephew, who in 2017 openly described the government on Facebook as “litigious” and the courts as “pliant” in the middle of the dispute. For his pains, the 32-year-old Li Shengwu was sued for contempt of court, according to the office of Singapore’s Attorney General Lucien Wong. Li made the remarks from the safety of the United States, where he is student in economics at Harvard University. He has said he has no intention of returning to Singapore
Lee Hsien Yang and Lee Wei Ling in their Facebook posting claimed that the attorney general “has also been relentless this past one and a half years pursuing a prosecution of Li Shengwu for a private Facebook post.”
The affair has generated considerable schadenfreude among opponents of the government, who have been cowed by years of legal actions for contempt, libel and other perceived slights that have largely reduced the opposition to impotency, going back to the 1980s and the elder Lee’s use of the courts against Joshua B. Jeyaretnam, the first opposition politician to take on the government. Jeyaretnam was sued repeatedly and bankrupted and subjected to petty allegations and legal harassment. Although the Privy Court in the UK said Jeyaretnam had been unfairly prosecuted, Singaporean authorities ignored the admonition.
A long string of international publications has been sued for such seemingly innocuous statements of fact as whether there was a Lee “dynasty” or if the family members had won their exalted positions in a meritocracy. Foreign publications have had to pay damages on numerous occasions while opposition figures in Singapore have been bankrupted, subject to petty allegations and legal harassment.
Neither the government nor the Lee family has ever been known to lose such cases in the local courts. The contempt or libel charges have been filed against the now-defunct International Herald Tribune, the Financial Times, Time Magazine, the Economist, the Wall Street Journal and its Asian edition, the now-defunct AsiaWeek and any other publication that refused to toe the Lee line. The Far Eastern Economic Review, especially under the late editor Derek Davies, was a particular target.