Thinking Aloud

Oxley Road saga: Coming-of-age moment for new generation?

Tomorrow's debate can help clear the air on many issues and chart the way forward into a post-Lee Kuan Yew future

In 1996, Singapore was rocked by a sensational controversy about the Lee family.

Stories circulated about Mr Lee Kuan Yew, who was then Senior Minister, and his son Lee Hsien Loong, the Deputy Prime Minister, buying swish Orchard Road properties from developer Hotel Properties Limited (HPL) at discounts. Mr Goh Chok Tong, then Prime Minister, convened a parliamentary sitting to debate the issue.

At the sitting, we heard that each Mr Lee had bought two condos, with discounts of at least 5 per cent that were given to all buyers at that phase. They had not known they were given discounts and the HPL boss in a press conference confirmed that it was standard marketing strategy to sell units at discounts at soft launches to people connected with the business. (Mr Lee's brother Suan Yew was a HPL director).

I was then a 27-year-old political reporter. My friends and I were just beginning or hoping to get on the property bandwagon. And here were stories of government ministers buying not one, but two, multimillion-dollar properties for their children. Not only that - they got discounts.

Mr Lee responded in his inimitable style, facing the controversy head on. On complaints that ministers had an "inside track" to things, he said that whether it was his tailor, shoemaker, car salesman or maker of his Johnson and Johnson stent, every merchant he dealt with gave him an inside track. He was their "walking model" and it helped their business to have him as their customer.

He said: "I ask all of you to be honest, including Mr Chiam (See Tong). All ministers who carry weight, all MPs who are popular, you go to a hawker centre. If they gave the other customer one egg, they'll give you two. Count on it."


ST ILLUSTRATION : ADAM LEE

He added: "Let's grow up! I am what I am, and I'm here after 37 years in office because I have never taken advantage financially of my position. And for $416,000 or $417,000 to go and do something which was improper?"

That episode was a coming-of-age moment for me. I realised afresh that commercial interests will court people of influence, including politicians and public officers, who as a result will enjoy privileged access. This is the way things are.

I admired Mr Lee's candour in not denying the privileged access he and his family had. The key is not to deny privilege, but to subject it to rules, and to be above board in transactions.

So much was disclosed in those debates that the potential scandal fizzled out like a damp squib. The Lees were cleared of wrongdoing, but donated the discounts to charity anyway.

 

I started recalling the HPL debates recently, when the Lee family once again waded into controversy over family matters.

This time, it is over the house in Oxley Road that Mr Lee lived in, where he and his wife raised three children. It appears to have begun as a difference in view on whether to demolish the house or preserve it for historical reasons, given Mr Lee's status as the country's first prime minister and the house as the site of important early meetings that led to the founding of the ruling party.

By now, as the Lee siblings squabble on Facebook and through public statements over their father's legacy, the whole saga is embroiled in corruption claims, dynastic accusations, numerous wills, money, sibling rivalry and in-law issues.

With the younger brother, Mr Lee Hsien Yang, upping the ante, accusing Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong of abusing his power for personal purposes, the issues at stake have taken on a national dimension. Mr Lee Hsien Yang has also said he, his wife and his sister, Dr Lee Wei Ling, fear the use of organs of state against them.

PM Lee has decided to have a parliamentary sitting to debate the issue, especially the charges of abuse of power. This is a good forum to thrash things out. MPs from both the ruling party and opposition Workers' Party (WP) and Nominated MPs should all weigh in and grill the PM and his team over this issue.

If done with honesty and thoroughness, the whole saga can become a milestone in Singapore's political history and mark the coming of age for another young generation avidly watching this issue unfold.

The best thing that can emerge from this is that Singapore's reputation as a well-governed country devoid of corruption remains intact. And we all shrug off the Oxley Road saga the way my generation shrugged off the HPL "scandal", knowing there was no wrongdoing, but a lot of things were said that cleared the air on how politics, money and family connections work.

I hope MPs and ministers involved go beyond the Oxley Road house and address difficult issues that have arisen in the course of the debate that go beyond what to do with the house that Mr Lee built. This includes being candid about how family and professional relationships can intertwine in close-knit Singapore.

The worst that can happen is that the accusations stick, and that PM Lee and his Cabinet, and other organs of state, are indeed found to have misused their powers to advance the cause of individual interests or to coerce individuals. Then Singapore will truly start to unravel.

In between is a whole range of possible outcomes. I agree with Dr Gillian Koh from the Institute of Policy Studies, who describes the debate on this as a "national teachable moment". This is an opportunity to raise issues that are difficult but important for Singapore's future, and talk and think through them.

At its core, tomorrow's sitting will centre on Mr Lee Hsien Yang's accusation that PM Lee used his powers to prevent their parents' house from being demolished, because he wanted to preserve it for political gain.

For outsiders watching the debate, it is not clear what political gain might be obtained from preserving a house that the whole world now knows Mr Lee repeatedly said he wished demolished - whatever his final wishes were on the matter, which is the subject of some contention within the family, given his changing wills.

For non-family members, the only issue of contention is what should be done with the house, not who inherited what and who did what with what will. This is a matter for the Government to decide. Mr Lee's own wishes should be factored in but need not be the final arbiter, as national needs must matter more. Due process must be allowed its way, whatever the feelings of the Lee children.

Since PM Lee has recused himself, it is hard to see how a strong argument can be made that he has abused his power to push for demolishing the house. Unless of course he was operating behind the scenes, controlling the ministerial committee set up to consider options for Oxley Road.

This is where Deputy Prime Minister Teo Chee Hean will come in, giving a statement on this committee which he heads. He should address directly the insinuation that the committee was actually doing PM Lee's secret bidding.

I hope MPs and ministers involved go beyond the Oxley Road house and address difficult issues that have arisen in the course of the debate that go beyond what to do with the house that Mr Lee built. This includes being candid about how family and professional relationships can intertwine in close-knit Singapore.

Here is an opportunity in the highest debating forum in the land, for elected representatives to chart the future course of Singapore, by considering some existential questions for the future.

What has to change or remain, so that Singapore's clean government system and sense of cohesion survive the Founding Generation?

How can Singapore step out of the shadow of Mr Lee and the Lee family?

What checks and balances are needed and how do we institutionalise them to prevent family connections and influence from interfering with due process and good policymaking? What is needed to check a powerful executive from over-reach?

Opposition MPs have filed some questions on these matters. I hope government ministers seize the opportunity to address them honestly, the way Mr Lee did. For example, they might start by acknowledging the potential for undue influence or errant conduct in such relationships, and then explain how these are, or can be, curtailed.

Singapore cannot continue to over-rely on the "good men" model of checks and balances, believing that selecting men and women of probity is the best way to ensure a clean political system.

While it is important to set high standards for recruiting political leaders, it is also equally important to set high standards for institutionalising checks on their power once elected.

Singapore and its system of governance can emerge stronger from this bruising family warfare.

This can happen if our leaders are honest about potential risks to our political system and start an earnest dialogue about institutionalising checks and balances.

 

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on July 02, 2017, with the headline 'Oxley Road saga: Coming-of- age moment for new generation?'. Print Edition | Subscribe