Lees behaving badly
You might remember last week we looked at former President Sergio Osmeña and how he lived to a ripe old age, dying in 1961. Let’s return to him for a moment, because Yet his sunset years was marred by a family quarrel that went public. In 1953-54, his son, Sergio Osmeña Jr., tried to have him declared mentally incompetent in an argument over his father’s will leaving most of the estate to his wife. A man can live his life in greatness, but as Charles de Gaulle famously remarked, “old age is a shipwreck,” for everyone. And the tales of the powerful include the destruction of family harmony in the old age, or upon the death, of the family patriarch.
This is the case in Singapore, where the family of the late Lee Kwan Yew has gone public with a fight over inheritance. The cast is a mind-boggling one: all three of LKY’s children, the eldest of whom happens to be prime minister, and the other two, respected individuals in their own right. The cause of the problem is a familiar one: anger and resentment between siblings over their parent’s will. Lee Kwan Yew by all accounts, made seven wills over his long life. Most of them, including his last one, specified that his house should be demolished after his death. The problem was that two of his wills did not specify the demolition of his house, a modest bungalow near Orchard Road which he acquired in 1945, which became not only his family home, but the nerve center for the leadership of the party that has ruled Singapore since independence.
In contrast to nearly all of Southeast Asia’s founding fathers, Lee Kwan Yew was uninterested in memorializing himself. The only monument to himself he allowed during his lifetime was an institution –the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy. He seems to have genuinely opposed the idea of his home turning into some sort of national shrine after his death.
Typical of the man was how this aversion to posthumous memorials was matched by both consideration and pragmatism.
It seems he felt sorry for his neighbors who, during his long political career, could never build up their properties for security reasons. Demolishing his house would give the neighbors a big financial benefit by being able to develop their properties at last. That’s the mark of a considerate man. But there would be a financial benefit, too, for the children: one estimate pegs the value of the property at 24 million Singapore dollars. Making possible such a windfall is the mark of a pragmatic man.
Whether he liked it or not, some of LKY’s partymates felt the nation should have some say in the disposition of this historic property. Even before his death, some felt the building was historic and should be preserved. Others proposed a compromise: the upper part of the house, LKY’s family home, could be demolished. But the basement, where many historic decisions in the independence movement and afterwards, the ruling party, were made, should be preserved.
Last year, Lee Hsien Long’s spinster sister shocked Singapore when she accusedher brother of having dynastic ambitions. It’s not just in the Philippines that national leadership can ride on a wave of nostalgia. After having done badly previously, Lee Hsien Long’s party obtained 70 percent in part due to public sympathy over Lee’s loss of his father LKY. These things happen. Singaporeans would say it was a vote of confidence in the party, and not the person. Hsien Long’s sister, Lee Wei Ling thought otherwise.
The situation from her point of view goes like this. Lee Hsien Long is due to retire when he turns 70. At that point, Singapore’s ruling party would enter into its fourth generation of leadership. Lee Kwan Yew himself, belonging to the founding generation of his party, had been succeeded by Goh Chok Tong, representing the party’s second generation. Lee Hsien Long belongs to the party’s third generation. A fourth generation of party leaders would logically be next in line –but that generation doesn’t include Hsien Long’s son, Lee Hongyi, though he could enter politics as his father leaves it, paving the way for his becoming the fifth generation leader in time. That’s the dynasty theory, Singapore-style.
It’s interesting that the sister blasting the brother was itself considered unacceptable dynastic behavior by some Singaporeans. Political dynasties proliferate in all of Asia, and the Lees, whether they like it or not, are often classified by outsiders as a dynasty. Besides their prime minister brother, the Lee siblings are accomplished in their own right and prominently placed in Singaporean public and commercial life. Lee Hsien Yang was formerly CEO of Singtel, and is the chairman of the Civil Aviation Authority of Singapore as well as board and advisory roles in other firms. Their sister Lee Wei Ling is senior adviser to Singapore’s National Neuroscience Institute.
The brothers Lee are both former brigadier generals, but their wives are tough mamas too. PM Lee Hsien Long’s wife, Ho Ching, was ranked No. 30 in Forbes’ 2016 List of the world’s most powerful women. Lee Hsien Yang’s wife, Lim Suet Fern, is a formidable lawyer, managing the Singapore office of the Morgan Lewis firm, which operates in both Singapore and Hong Kong.
Now it all came together –brothers, sister, wives, children– when the drama was revived on social media on June 14. That was when Prime Minister Lee Hsien Long’s brother and sister issued a statement accusing their elder brother of using his position as Prime Minister to convene a special committee to study the matter. This, they claimed, was their elder brother’s way of trying to find a way to disobey their father’s final instructions. The battle was joined. Those opposed to demolition, including Prime Minister Lee Hsien Long, point to the penultimate –the next to the last—will, which did not specify the demolition of the house. But proponents of demolition, including the other Lee siblings, point to the final version of the will, which specified demolition and sale of the lot –adding that most versions of the will had the same provision.
The explosive statement was accompanied with Third World-style drama: Lee Hsien Yang, the PM’s brother, said he was so worried he decided he had to leave the country. Escalating revelations were made: of old man LKY facing pressure to modify his will, a struggle that involved emails between the spouses of the Lee sons, and Lee’s daughter. There were allegations of financial self-interest. How LKY’s penultimate will gave his unmarried daughter, an extra share of the estate, as well as allowing her to keep the house and live in it. The final version brought back splitting the estate three ways, equally, among the children, including demolishing the house and selling the lot, once Lee’s unmarried daughter, Lee Wei Ling, who continues to live there, decides to move out.
So far, you might think it was all a case of an old father trying to be nice to his spinster daughter, who was then maneuvered out of her extra share by her brothers. But then, spinster daughter and younger son united against elder brother, alleging, again, Third World behavior: dynasty-building, power-tripping, persecution and promoting personal, versus collective, interest. But the political angle wasn’t helped when Lee Hongyi –remember him? The grandson of LKY and son of Lee Hsien Long?– said he’s not interested in politics.
So the Singaporean rumor mill obsessed over another twist to the tale: could it all be a battle between the powerful wives? By which point the Prime Minister had issued a public apology to the Singaporean people, said he would take questions in parliament, and hinted he might sue for defamation in the style of his father.
In the end, this whole drama still remains to play out. But what it has done is clearly prove that the era of LKY is over.
What set the Lees apart was that no one could ever say any of them, individually or collectively, were incompetent, irresponsible, or corrupt. Lee Kwan Yew himself wrote in his autobiography that being the father of his son had hindered, not helped, his son’s rise to power: he would have become prime minister on his own merits years earlier.
But now, the Lees have proven they’re human, too, and where once there was only awe, for some, there is doubt. For most, there is irritation: just as the Lees took their fight to social media, in social media an anonymous letter was widely shared: keep Singapore out of your quarrel, it said. We have enough problems with China, terrorism, and the economy. Don’t shame our country, it said, ending with this truly damning line, “Your father put Singapore first and foremost above everything – you might like to do the same.”