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Letter from Singapore

If only Lee Kuan Yew could rise from the dead

Sunanda K Datta-Ray is a journalist and author of several books. He is an Open contributor
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Family feud in paradise

TURMOIL IN PARADISE. Paper lanterns glow red and gold. Newly set up market stalls bustle with activity. Long queues of people laden with bulging bags wait patiently for taxis outside glittering shopping malls as the raw fish salad—yee sang or yusheng—is tossed high in the air with deft chopsticks. Singaporeans call the ceremony Lo Hei—‘lo’ means mixing and ‘hei’ is up— so that the Cantonese phrase means literally ‘tossing up good fortune’. People murmur auspicious phrases for good luck as the salad settles back in the riotously colourful Lunar New Year’s eve ritual. The prayer this time, as the Year of the Dog ends and the Year of the Pig is about to start, is ‘Please don’t rock the boat. Please don’t let the Lee family’s quarrels disrupt the stability on which Singapore’s prosperity depends!’

Returning after an absence of six years, I was apprehensive about what I would find. It’s a city that changes by the second, but with the green jade here and there of an old temple or a burst of boisterous Singlish revealing an underlying continuity. ‘It’s been a long while since we last met and we will have lots to catch up,’ my old colleague, Sonny Yap, had e-mailed. Sonny’s book Men in White: The Untold Story of Singapore’s Ruling Political Party percipiently describes the inside workings of one of the world’s most successful political organisations. But I wasn’t quite prepared for a family’s rivalries threatening either the People Action Party’s (PAP) dominance, or the Lee inheritance. ‘You will be seeing a Singapore without LKY and Nathan,’ Sonny added, mentioning the two props of the years we lived here.

“Why are you Bengalis such clever chaps?” LKY—the indomitable Lee Kuan Yew—had said at our first formal meeting. It was a statement, not a question. So austere was his reputation that the scenes of mass grief and mourning when he died in 2015 took the world by surprise. The forgotten realisation that he had shaped the miracle city-state in his own image came flooding back. Even Narendra Modi is warmly remembered for attending Lee’s funeral. It rankles that China sent an inconspicuous vice-president. By Nathan, Sonny meant another pioneer, warm and generous Sellapan Ramanathan, a genial cuddly bear of a man with an incisive intellect, the republic’s sixth president (from 1999 to 2011) and the second Indian in that exalted position. Nathan, who died two years ago aged 92, was so widely respected that no one opposed him for the presidentship in 1999 or 2005.

In the many years that we were friendly, I was strictly forbidden ever to mention that his wife Urmila (Umi) Nandey might have been a Maharajkumari of Burdwan. Her father shook the Indian dust off his feet and settled down in Johor Bahru (now in Malaysia), never to look back when he lost his case to be adopted as the next Maharajadhiraja. “Why do you want to spoil our friendship?” Mrs Nathan protested when I tried once to broach the subject. “Babuji never mentioned the past and I never asked him either.” But although one of the Punjabi Burdwan raj family, Babuji was Bengali enough to disapprove of a Tamil son-in-law. “Arre, Madrassi!” he exclaimed in disgust, according to a chuckling Nathan, and withheld his consent for many years. Sadly, he didn’t live to see his Madrassi son-in-law hobnob with the captains and kings of the world, or his Umi as a gracious First Lady in the Istana, Singapore’s elegant colonial-era presidential palace.

Outwardly, Singapore is booming as never before. True, exports dipped slightly in December, but that was because of the global slowdown and tension between China and the US. Otherwise, it’s a gentler, more human and also more innovative city. The abundant kindness of strangers who stop to help me, seeing my walking stick, suggests that LKY’s social engineering wasn’t wasted. Newly installed lifts at both ends of overbridges demonstrate the public concern of LKY’s elder son and Singapore’s third and current prime minister, Lee Hsien Loong, who spoke warmly of Buddhadeb Bhattacharya, Sitaram Yechury and Chandrababu Naidu many years ago when we discussed my book Looking East to Look West: Lee Kuan Yew’s Mission India. Vertical farming is adding hugely to the agricultural potential of an island that is only 125 sq km at low tide, as Lee would joke. Park connectors make it possible to walk or cycle right round the coast. Older malls have been refurbished, new ones built. Condos with rooftop gardens sprout everywhere.

On the face of things, the dispute is over a dream: should Lee Kuan Yew’s home be demolished or preserved? But the several million Singapore dollars the bungalow would fetch just as real estate cannot be the core issue for such rich and powerful contenders

Laced into this idyll is the anguished screech of betrayed vision. Lee Hsien Loong is on one side. His two siblings—LKY’s only daughter, Lee Wei Ling, a neuroscientist of some distinction who never married, and his Stanford and Cambridge- educated younger son, Lee Hsien Yang, who was chairman of Singapore’s Civil Aviation Authority—are on the other. Behind them are Hsien Yang’s wife, Lee Suet Fern, a successful lawyer, and their 34-year-old elder son, Li Shengwu, an assistant professor of economics at Harvard University. On the face of things, the dispute is over a dream: should Lee’s home—a large colonial-style bungalow at 38 Oxley Road—be demolished or preserved? But the several million Singapore dollars the bungalow would fetch just as real estate cannot be the core issue for such rich and powerful contenders. Although the next explanation—that the dispute is over LKY’s intentions— might be a simplification, it deserves examination. Apparently, LKY wanted the house pulled down because he didn’t believe in romanticising the past. Just as independent Singapore hasn’t removed a single British statue or street sign, it has not erected a single monument either to any Singaporean leader. Time alone will tell whether differences over the house clothe the clash of more serious political ambitions and claims to LKY’s mantle. What does seem certain is that the family has fallen apart since LKY’s strong-minded wife Kwa Geok Choo, to whom he was devoted, died in 2010.

Given LKY’s restrained personal style, he may well have wanted to ensure that his house didn’t become a national temple overrun by tourists. The prime minister’s estranged brother and sister accuse him of having “misused his power… and hijacked the organs of state to pursue his personal goals” to preserve the building against their father’s willed desire. There are hints that the last of LKY’s six wills may not have been quite authentic. To the surprise of many Singaporeans, Lee Hsien Loong didn’t sue his siblings over the allegations, but did reject the charges in the course of a parliamentary debate and “deeply regret [ted] that this dispute has affected Singapore’s reputation and Singaporeans’ confidence in the government”.

Well might he do so, for his troubles don’t end there. Unheard of in Singapore, the PAP’s septuagenarian Tan Cheng Bock, a doctor and six-term member of parliament who retired from politics in 2006, is launching a new political organisation called Progress Singapore Party with the support of 11 other “like-minded Singaporeans”. They “want to build a compassionate and truly democratic Singapore where good values and people matter”, says Tan. “Freedom of choice and free speech without fear must be defended.” The Singapore Democratic Party, one of two opposition groups, says it looks forward ‘to work[ing] with him to strengthen the opposition and bring our nation one step closer to democracy’.

Lee Kuan Yew wanted his house pulled down because he didn’t believe in romanticising the past. Just as independent Singapore hasn’t removed a British statue or street sign, it has not erected a monument either to any Singaporean leader

WOULD THAT WERE all. Only the other day, Tan posted on his Facebook page a picture of himself companionably breaking bread—or chopping noodles—with the prime minister’s estranged brother. To make matters worse, they were breakfasting not at Singapore’s exclusive Tanglin Club, but at a hawker centre which is the ultimate in democracy’s ‘of the people, by the people, for the people’ ethic. Ordinary Singaporeans who live in government housing board flats (82 per cent of the population) meet, eat, drink and gossip in these unpretentious open air cafeterias left over from the unsophisticated past. This one was in Tan’s former constituency where everyone would instantly have known the man who lost to Tony Tan by a very narrow 0.34 per cent of the vote in the 2011 presidential elections. Tony Tan Keng Yam, Singapore’s seventh president, a rich and influential banker who had held the finance and defence portfolios and been deputy prime minister, was the PAP’s (and therefore, the government’s) official candidate. His family used to own the Oversea-Chinese Banking Corporation, which shifted to Calcutta during World War II.

Enter the third player: LKY’s grandson and the prime minister’s nephew, Li Shengwu. The case against him stems from a private Facebook post Li made on July 15th, 2017. Linking to a Wall Street Journal article about the much-reported family feud, the young Li wrote that ‘the Singapore government is very litigious and has a pliant court system.’ The attorney- general responded saying that ‘the highly inflammatory nature of these assertions… directly contradict Mr Lee Kuan Yew’s values and the judicial system’ and requested Li to ‘purge the contempt’ and ‘issue and post prominently a written apology’. Li retorted that his post was intended as a criticism of the Singapore government’s effect on press freedom and that the attorney-general ‘chose to escalate the dispute’.

Lee Hsien Loong is also involved in a defamation suit with a blogger, Leong Sze Hian, who claims to be a Harvard alumnus and producer of a film called, curiously enough, Hotel Mumbai. The case arose when an article that Leong shared on his Facebook page accused the prime minister of money laundering in Malaysia. When Hsien Loong went to court, Leong filed a counterclaim against him for ‘abusing the process of the court in bringing the claim ’. There’s nothing new about such litigation: any self-respecting Singaporean politician must both sue and be sued. I remember the Workers’ Party’s late leader, JB Jeyaretnam, probably the only Singaporean who could publicly stand up to LKY, flogging his law books to help pay crippling fines for libel or defamation. What makes this case interesting is the support Leong appears to receive. The prime minister’s brother openly admits he was one of the first to make a substantial contribution when Leong launched a defence fund. “Lee Hsien Yang sent me a message that he has transferred—lo and behold he is the first one to do so into my account!” Leong crowed.

The prime minister is right to worry that the family row reflects adversely on the country. The next parliamentary election is due by January 15th, 2021. Fearing erosion of the PAP’s appeal, Lee Hsien Loong might decide to bring it forward. People seem inclined to blame him for not controlling his family and preventing the quarrel from becoming so public. Singapore is engaged in a massive exercise of rediscovering the pre-colonial past. But the future is at risk. Visiting in 1946, Jawaharlal Nehru prophetically told the Ee Hoe Hean Club for Chinese millionaires, “Singapore can well become the place where Asian unity is forged, for in the future the peoples of Asia must hold together for their own good, and for the good and freedom of the world.” That glorious prospect might be in jeopardy. LKY once warned he would rise from the dead to put things right if Singapore were threatened even 40 years after his death. It hasn’t been so long, but with Kwa Geok Choo’s unifying force gone, the time may have come for him to take a hand if his offspring can’t compose their differences. Paradise is in peril as the Year of the Pig approaches.

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