Three key issues in the Lee v Lee saga

The family feud among the Lees is extremely damaging to Singapore.

Everyone can see this even if they do not understand all the complex details that have emerged from this sorry saga. Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong recognises this only too well and has apologised to the nation for the grief it has caused. The many issues that have been raised can be confusing, from the different versions of the will to which lawyer was involved in which deed.

But here's the thing - you do not need to understand every single part of the unfolding drama to know what really matters and is important for Singapore. In fact, you should not let the toing and froing over the details prevent you from getting to the issues of public concern.

So, what are the key issues? There are three.

First, it is a valid question to ask how involved ministers should be on this issue. The only matter that concerns the Government is whether to preserve 38, Oxley Road, which it has the right to do under the Preservation of Monuments Act. Any other issue, including how the late Mr Lee Kuan Yew decided on his will and who his lawyers were, has nothing to do with the Government, or with you and me, least of all a committee of ministers.

The Government has clarified that the committee would confine itself to looking only at various options for the house while paying particular attention to respecting Mr Lee's wishes for his house.

Deputy Prime Minister Teo Chee Hean further added that the committee wanted to get a clearer sense of Mr Lee's thinking on the house, and wrote to all the siblings, who provided differing accounts of their father's wishes. He pointed out that the committee's interest in Mr Lee's will was "confined to the light that it sheds on his wishes for the house".

This might well have been the committee's intention, but it now finds itself embroiled in an unwieldy dispute over Mr Lee's actions and wishes. Was it wise or necessary for ministers to be involved in such matters as Mr Lee's will, which are difficult to ascertain? Should they not have confined themselves to deciding only on what to do with the house - demolish, preserve or some intermediate option?

Singapore artist Ong Kim Seng's painting of the house at 38, Oxley Road, featuring it in its original condition in the 1950s. Founding Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew's legacy is important, but even more important is how a people move forward, beyond the record and achievements of their past leaders. PHOTO: COURTESY OF ONG KIM SENG

In retrospect, ministers should have stayed clear of the dispute over the will. They should have told PM Lee: As the eldest child, please resolve the matter with your siblings. Do not involve us. We expect you to solve it, hopefully amicably. Involving the Government risks harming its good name and that of its ministers.

In fact, this is precisely what has happened with ministers having to defend their actions setting up the committee and explaining its remit. With fresh revelations and allegations every passing day, Cabinet ministers find themselves more and more deeply involved in the saga.

Did they foresee this when they formed the committee and asked the parties involved to submit statutory declarations about the circumstance surrounding Mr Lee's writing of his will? By adopting such an adversarial and legalistic approach at the outset, they set themselves and the Government up for an ugly confrontation with the younger Lees.

It is not too late to reconsider the necessity of this ministerial committee and, in particular, its remit. Can the three Lees agree on this: Disband the committee and, as part of the agreement, cease from discussing the matter in public? They should make another attempt to resolve their disagreements privately. If they can't, appoint a mediator acceptable to both sides.

A further possibility: Let the Founders' Memorial Committee, which has already been formed to look into how best to commemorate Singapore's pioneer leaders, decide on the fate of the house. Why leave out the most important decision from this group of distinguished Singaporeans who were selected to look into the building of an appropriate memorial?

The second issue of public concern is about the Prime Minister being accused by his siblings of all sorts of serious transgressions. They say he has misused and abused his powers, using the state to pursue his personal agenda, including spying on them. In other words, they accuse him of being corrupt. They also say he has lied and misrepresented the late Mr Lee over what he said about demolishing the house after his death.

Under normal circumstances, PM Lee would not allow these statements to go unchallenged and he would have had to sue the defamers in a court of law. If he does not, he will find it difficult to sue anyone in future even if they accuse him of the most blatant corruption and dishonesty.

But the PM also knows that it would be fatal for him politically to sue his own brother and sister. The fallout from it and the court case would damage him permanently. It is also a highly risky business because you have to be prepared for your character and all your actions to be closely scrutinised in court. The People's Action Party leaders know this better than anyone because it was once their preferred method of dealing with their political opponents. Indeed, the party's success is founded on the claim that its leaders are men of the highest integrity and that it will go to the ends of the earth to protect that reputation.

Since he will not sue, the matter has now become a full blown political battle. Mr Lee Hsien Yang has taken to social media and the foreign press to argue his case and it is nothing less than that the Singapore system has become corrupted under his brother's rule. In his latest interview with the South China Morning Post, he said: "Singapore's social compact under Lee Kuan Yew was - civil liberties may be curtailed, but in return your government will respect the rule of law and be utterly beyond reproach." He said this social compact was now broken and accused his brother of being ready to use his "public powers to achieve his personal agenda".

That's throwing the political gauntlet straight at the PM over and above 38, Oxley Road. For this political battle, unlike the decision whether to sue, the PM has no choice but to engage and defend his integrity and his record. It is what political leaders are elected to do and the PM must show what he is made of. He has now decided to do this by way of a parliamentary debate on July 3 and will lift the party whip to encourage full participation. I hope MPs take advantage of the opportunity, though, knowing how tenacious the Lees are, the infighting is unlikely to end in the House.

Singaporeans might wish this political fight did not take place. But they cannot wish it away now. Some good might come out of it if, as a result, people understand better how the country is making the transition to a post-LKY world especially in the political sphere and how the Government is being run. Do Singaporeans want to know and to participate in this discussion? Do they have the political maturity to do so and in a way that will ensure the country becomes stronger in the process? It will be a critical test for post-LKY Singapore.

Finally, an important issue in all this is, of course, Mr Lee's legacy. Some people believe that, in fact, this is what it is all about. The founding Prime Minister's legacy is important, what he stood for and how he achieved so much for Singapore. But even more important is how a people move forward, beyond the record and achievements of their past leaders.

Mr Lee himself was acutely aware of this, which was why he was against hero-worshipping and monument-building. He knew that history is too full of leaders who misuse the past for their own selfish political ends.

Singapore is at an inflexion point, with the memory of its founding leaders still fresh, but facing a brave new world under very different circumstances that will test its survival skills. It cannot break completely away from the past but neither does it want to be a prisoner of its history.

Demolish or preserve the house? You couldn't find a better metaphor for the country and Mr Lee's legacy.

• The writer is also a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 21, 2017, with the headline Three key issues in the Lee v Lee saga. Subscribe