Singapore Can Have Meritocracy or Aristocracy, But Not Both
By airing their dirty laundry, the city-state's ruling family is exposing its hypocrisy.
Singapore has long prided itself on being the smug teacher’s pet of Southeast Asia -- the richest, the most advanced, the most envied and the cleanest in terms of both its streets and its government. Ranked seventh in the world in Transparency International’s most recent Corruption Perceptions Index, this image is something that the People’s Action Party (PAP) government jealously guards.
Singapore has long prided itself on being the smug teacher’s pet of Southeast Asia — the richest, the most advanced, the most envied and the cleanest in terms of both its streets and its government. Ranked seventh in the world in Transparency International’s most recent Corruption Perceptions Index, this image is something that the People’s Action Party (PAP) government jealously guards.
But this carefully cultivated picture is now taking a battering. Singapore’s much-touted principle of meritocracy is being undermined by accusations coming from the last place anyone expected: the prime minister’s own siblings.
The figure of Lee Kuan Yew looms large over modern Singapore. As the city-state’s first prime minister from 1959 to 1990, he is often credited as the chief architect of its success. His son, Lee Hsien Loong, is Singapore’s current and third-ever prime minister. The younger Lee’s success has always seemed an expression of the state’s meritocratic values. Lee Hsien Loong was a brilliant graduate from Cambridge and Harvard who became the youngest brigadier general in the history of the Singaporean military before rapidly rising through the political rank and assuming office as the country’s premier in 2004.
Posts published on Lee Wei Ling’s Facebook page last year — including a now-deleted one that referred to her brother as a “dishonorable son” — had suggested that all was not well within the Lee family. But the feud between the siblings emerged in full force in the early hours of June 14, in a public statement from Lee Wei Ling and her brother Lee Hsien Yang that didn’t mince words. The two younger siblings accused their powerful brother of abusing his position to override their father’s wish to demolish the family home. They claimed that he hoped to capitalize on the iconic status of the Lee house and the reverence accorded to his father for his own political capital, that his wife Ho Ching’s “influence is pervasive,” and that the couple have political ambitions for their son, . They announced that they felt fear of his power. “Big brother is watching,” they wrote — and they meant it quite literally.
The allegations kept coming over the next week, with Lee Wei Ling and Lee Hsien Yang taking turns firing shots from their Facebook pages. They slammed a “secret committee” of ministers that had been convened to deliberate the handling of Lee Kuan Yew’s house, questioning the independence of a committee made up of their brother’s subordinates and claiming that it was a conflict of interest for Law and Home Affairs Minister K. Shanmugam to be part of the committee, since he had previously given them advice on the issue. They pointed out that Lee Hsien Loong’s personal lawyer, Lucien Wong, was made attorney general — an appointment that the mainstream press noted marked the first time a lawyer who had neither bench experience nor acted for the state in legal matters was given the position. They asserted that Lee Hsien Loong had also circumvented the proper channels by using his position to obtain a copy of a deed of gift they had signed with the National Heritage Board for his personal purposes.
It’s been an eye-popping experience in a country where political malfeasance is normally dealt with firmly, but intrigue is kept behind closed doors. Lee’s People’s Action Party has not only dominated the country’s politics since independence, but boasted of a zero-tolerance attitude to any suggestion of bad behavior.
The PAP government has no qualms about initiating expensive libel suits against critics. In 1999, then-Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong defended this position in an interview with Asiaweek:
“If they’ve defamed us, we have to sue them — because if we don’t, our own integrity will be suspect. We have an understanding that if a minister is defamed and he does not sue, he must leave cabinet. By defamation, I mean if somebody says the minister is on the take or is less than honest. If he does not rebut it, if he does not dare go before the court to be interrogated by the counsel for the other side, there must be some truth in it. If there is no evidence, well, why are you not suing?”
In the past week alone, the Lee siblings went far beyond saying that the prime minister was “less than honest” — they called him a liar outright. Their allegations also touched on nepotism, cronyism, the subversion of due process, and the abuse of power to monitor, threaten, and harass individuals for his own personal gain. These are statements that an average Singaporean can’t dare to utter; people and publications have been taken to court for saying far less.
Yet it would appear as if there are still perks to being a member of the Lee family, even when at war: Instead of suing his rogue siblings, Lee Hsien Loong on Tuesday night addressed the nation in a pre-recorded message, apologizing to all Singaporeans for how his family dispute had “affected Singapore’s reputation and Singaporeans’ confidence in the government.”
The prime minister has denied all the allegations, and Law and Home Affairs Minister K. Shanmugam rebuffed any suggestion of conflict, but the situation is still a sticky one for Singapore’s political elite. It has undermined the government’s consistent claims to march to the drumbeat of meritocracy, and — if the allegations turn out to be true — demonstrated a failure to live up to the standards that Lee Hsien Loong himself has set.
“Never give cause for allegations that you are misusing your position, especially your access to Ministers. That would discredit both you and the Party,” he wrote in a letter to his members of parliament after the 2015 general election. “Separate your public political position from your private, professional or business interests.”
The prominent brands of the Lee family and the PAP — intertwined in a narrative of competence, superiority, and deservedness — have helped entrench their power in the city-state. The assumption that only the PAP can properly govern Singapore is pervasive, to the point that saying the opposition aims to form a future government comes across as a threat to public order. The PAP government has not been modest in the evaluation of its own performance, even while gerrymandering election boundaries and oppressing opposition politicians. Lee Hsien Loong described the party as Singapore’s “A-team,” made up of the best and brightest, selected through a system that only sees merit.
Rather than a porous meritocracy, Singaporean hierarchy is now being made to seem a closed, elitist circle. The present saga has highlighted how closely everyone in the country’s ruling class is connected, how much power they wield among them, and how blurred the lines can be between their personal and professional relationships. All three feuding siblings occupy high positions of influence; in addition to the prime minister, Lee Hsien Yang is currently the chairman of the Civil Aviation Authority of Singapore, while sister Lee Wei Ling is a senior advisor at the National Neuroscience Institute. Ho Ching, who is both the prime minister’s wife and the head of sovereign wealth fund Temasek Holdings, is now being accused by her in-laws of having outsize influence over national matters.
Lawrence Wong, a member of the ministerial committee whose independence the siblings have questioned, used to serve as Lee Hsien Loong’s principal private secretary. Teo Chee Hean, the deputy prime minister who said he convened the ministerial committee, is the person with whom Lee Hsien Loong raised concerns over his father’s last will, and it’s not clear whether the committee was convened before or after this exchange. Emails published by Lee Wei Ling show officials — namely K. Shanmugam and Lee Kuan Yew himself — using their government email addresses to discuss personal matters.
Lee Hsien Loong has now said that he will make a ministerial statement in parliament on July 3, and urged members of parliament to “vigorously” question him and his cabinet ministers. Yet it’s unclear how such a session will be able to dispel suspicions of political patronage; Singapore’s parliament is overwhelmingly dominated by MPs from Lee’s own party. When allegations that tarnish the prime minister’s reputation will inevitably hurt the party itself, can anyone really expect PAP MPs to give their own leader a proper grilling?
Lee Wei Ling and Lee Hsien Yang’s salvos, fired from within the elite circle and plastered all over social media and the international press, have rubbed the shine right off the country’s most cherished myth. At the end of the day, it’s not just the Lee family’s dirty laundry that they’re airing: it’s Singapore’s.
Photo Credit: MOHD FYROL/AFP/Getty Images
Kirsten Han is a Singaporean freelance journalist and activist, covering politics, human rights, and social justice. Her work has been published in the Guardian, Asia Times, Southeast Asia Globe, and the Diplomat, among others. Twitter: @kixes
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