Oxley Road debate clears some air, but unlikely to be last word

SINGAPORE - July 3 was the anticipated date when Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong convened a parliamentary hearing on the issues surrounding Oxley Road house .

After six hours of debate, while some light was shed by the three ministerial statements delivered by himself, Deputy Prime Minister Teo Chee Hean and National Development Minister Lawrence Wong on allegations that have surfaced, many more questions were also raised on the first day of the sitting.

So it seems unlikely that the hearing on Day 2 will be the last word on the matter.

PM Lee delved into Mr Lee Kuan Yew's wishes for the house and how he came to recuse himself from all decisions on whether the house should be demolished or preserved. This was after disagreements arose among the Lee siblings - PM Lee, sister Wei Ling and younger brother Hsien Yang - over their late father's wishes.

The two younger Lee siblings have alleged in a series of Facebook posts from June 14 that PM Lee abused his power as PM for personal ends and that they feared the use of organs of state against them.

DPM Teo spoke about the ministerial committee set up to coordinate the work of several agencies on possible plans for the house.

One aim of the committee is to set a contemporaneous record on the options considered by the government of the day on what to do with the house that Mr Lee Kuan Yew lived in much of his adult life, which hosted founding members of the ruling People's Action Party during their meetings.

 
 

Mr Wong detailed circumstances around the agreement signed by the National Heritage Board and the executors of the Lee estate over gifts the latter were providing for an exhibition on Singapore.

After two hours of ministerial speeches, I think some things were cleared up, for example on the circumstances surrounding the deed of gift with the NHB.

Minister Wong's account was detailed, and to point. So too his account of how heritage and planning agencies had already begun to explore options for the Oxley Road house - it helped clarify that it was his ministry that requested the formation of a ministerial committee to coordinate the different agencies' work.

DPM Teo's explanations repeated much of what had already been disclosed: that establishing the ministerial committee was a normal part of decision-making and there are many such committees on issues - even one on infant milk powder.

Far from being "secret" as Mr Lee Hsien Yang suggested, the committee appeared downright mundane by the time Mr Wong and DPM Teo sat down.

But many other questions have arisen. The thornier ones came from Workers' Party MPs, drawing from some allegations made by Mr Lee Hsien Yang on Facebook.

Why was it not made known earlier that the new Attorney-General Lucien Wong had a prior commercial relationship with the PM as his personal lawyer? Did PM's wife Ho Ching have a pervasive influence in the civil service that goes beyond her role as chief executive of state investment agency Temasek Holdings, as alleged by Mr Lee Hsien Yang?

Another puzzle, raised by PAP MP Murali Pillai (Bukit Batok): Why did the ministerial committee see a need to ask the Lee siblings about their father's wishes? After all, those wishes had been publicly made known in the past, and were clearly laid out in the will and probate was granted.

While many PAP MPs expressed the hope that the parliamentary debate will be thorough and help the country move on, I think it is unlikely to prove the last word on the matter.

For one thing, there is nothing to prevent the Lee siblings from firing another salvo against PM Lee and his team after this two-day debate. If this continues, it is not just PM Lee that will be under siege as their brother; his Cabinet and team will be too. No one can ignore a volley of allegations sustained over time.

It is also possible that many Singaporeans outside the house will find persuasive the argument by several Nominated MPs and opposition MPs that there should be a select committee set up to look into the issues.

NMPs Kok Heng Leun and Kuik Shiao-Yin called for a parliamentary select committee to address the allegations.

WP MP Pritam Singh (Aljunied GRC) also advocated this:

"In the event the PM eschews going to court to address these allegations of abuse of power, even as more allegations are made and left to the people's imagination to ruminate over, I'm of the view that the next best option would be for Parliament to prepare to organise a special Select Committee to look into the allegations made against the PM."

A select committee has powers to summon witnesses. Anyone who lies in evidence before such a committee can be fined or imprisoned for contempt.

Such a committee would address the allegations of abuse of power which have to be decisively addressed, says Mr Singh: "Otherwise an odour will linger, one that will have severe and significant repercussions for Singapore's reputation."

PAP ministers will counter that the Lee siblings did not substantiate their allegations and that there is no obligation for a state agency to look into unsubstantiated allegations, as Senior Minister State of Law Indranee Rajah pointed out.

While this may be true, I think the calls for a more thorough airing of the issues surrounding abuse of power and powerful family members over-stepping their lines, will continue, even after the parliament debate is over.

The curtain, alas, is not falling on this drama yet.

 

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