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Singapore’s first family feud over ‘big brother’

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Family feud: Lee Hsien Yang (left), Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong (centre) and Lee Wei Ling © Getty Images; Reuters

One of the sons of Singapore’s founding father Lee Kuan Yew has announced that he was leaving the country “for the foreseeable future” after he and his sister said they had lost confidence in the leadership of their brother Lee Hsien Loong, Singapore’s prime minister.

In an extraordinary public statement, Lee Hsien Yang said that he, his wife, and his sister Lee Wei Ling feared “the use of the organs of state” against them following the death of their father in 2015. “We feel big brother omnipresent,” they said.

The two siblings accused their brother Lee Hsien Loong of nurturing political ambitions for his son, Li Hongyi, who works as a consultant for a Singapore government agency.

The family rift is a rare display of public acrimony at the top of the tightly controlled city-state, where the boundaries of free speech are vigorously policed.

It also draws attention to the closely held nature of power in a society where the current prime minister is the son of the country’s first leader, while his wife Ho Ching is chief executive of the state investor Temasek.

In a response on Facebook, Singapore’s premier said: “I am deeply saddened by the unfortunate allegations that they have made. Ho Ching and I deny these allegations, especially the absurd claim that I have political ambitions for my son.”

Screenshot of Lee Hsien Yang’s Facebook page

The feud in Singapore’s first family became public last year after the prime minister’s sister accused him of abusing his political power over anniversary commemorations for the death of the elder Mr Lee.

In an escalation of that feud on Wednesday, the prime minister’s siblings said their brother had misused his position in government to drive a personal agenda.

The immediate trigger for the family clash is a dispute over their father’s house in Singapore.

Singapore’s founding father wanted the family home, a bungalow in the Orchard district, to be demolished after his death as he was averse to it becoming a monument.

[The prime minister] is protecting his own turf. Of all the people he would be in danger from in terms of protecting the brand, the danger would have to come from his own family

The prime minister’s siblings said in their statement: “Hsien Loong and his wife, Ho Ching, have opposed Lee Kuan Yew’s wish to demolish his house, even when Lee Kuan Yew was alive.

“Hsien Loong’s political power is related to being Lee Kuan Yew’s son and thus he has every incentive to preserve Lee Kuan Yew’s house to inherit his credibility.”

Mr Lee, chairman of Singapore’s Civil Aviation Authority and a former chief executive of telecoms provider Singtel, told the Financial Times: “I am not an anti-establishment, opposition figure.

“I have a long record of public service. It is heart-wrenching for me to leave this country. It’s not something I would do lightly, if I didn’t have reasons to do it.”

Mr Lee, whose wife Lee Suet-Fern is a corporate lawyer, said he had not yet decided where he would move to.

In his initial response, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said: “I will do my utmost to continue to do right by my parents. At the same time, I will continue serving Singaporeans honestly and to the best of my ability. In particular that means upholding meritocracy, which is a fundamental value of our society.

“As my siblings know, I am presently overseas on leave with my family. I will consider this matter further after I return this weekend.”

Authoritarian Singapore has long prided itself on being Southeast Asia’s most prosperous and arguably most successful post-colonial nation, and analysts are watching the divisions in the Lee family with intense interest. The late father — Lee Kuan Yew — was credited with transforming Singapore from a strategically located but resource-poor state into a thriving high-tech Asian business hub.

Screenshot of Lee Hsien Loong’s Facebook post

The prime minister’s 30 year-old son Li Hongyi studied economics and computer science at MIT on a Singapore government scholarship. He served as a platoon commander in Singapore’s armed forces for nearly six years. He played a prominent role at Mr Lee’s funeral, weeping as he delivered a heartfelt eulogy. This prompted some Singaporeans to acclaim him as a future leader for his ability to connect.

Michael Barr, associate professor of international relations at Flinders University in Adelaide, said: “This is the first time that someone inside the family — inside politics — is acknowledging that we could be looking at a third generation of Lees.”

The family dispute has become intensely vitriolic because of the growing importance of the Lee family brand in Singapore, Mr Barr added, saying that it had become closely identified with the “Singapore model” of professionalism, planning and incorruptibility in public life.

Mr Barr said: “The projection of the Lee brand onto Singapore has now become an industry. It is a brand but has to be protected.

“[The prime minister] is protecting his own turf. Of all the people he would be in danger from in terms of protecting the brand, the danger would have to come from his own family.”

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