Source: NYT (7/4/17)
Dispute Over Singapore Founder’s House Becomes a National Crisis
By RICHARD C. PADDOCK
SINGAPORE — Two years after his death, no memorials, statues or streets in Singapore are named after Lee Kuan Yew, who established this city-state as a modern nation and built it into a prosperous showcase for his view that limited political freedoms best suit Asian values.
Now a bitter and public family dispute over the fate of his modest house has shattered Singapore’s image as an orderly authoritarian ideal and hinted at deeper divisions about its political future.
Two of Mr. Lee’s three children have accused their elder brother, the prime minister, of abusing his power to preserve the house against their father’s wishes. The motive, they said, is to shore up his own political legitimacy and ultimately to establish a dynasty for which he is grooming his son.
These charges have transformed what on the surface is an ugly estate battle into a national crisis that has raised questions about how this island nation is governed, the basis of the governing party’s uninterrupted 58-year rule and how the country’s leaders are chosen.
And in a place where criticizing the government can land a blogger in jail, the public airing of these grievances from within the ranks of the revered founding family is nothing short of extraordinary.
“These are allegations of abuse of power, subversion of due process, cronyism and nepotism,” Kirsten Han, an activist and journalist, wrote in a popular blog. “If true, they upend Singapore’s carefully cultivated, squeaky-clean, corruption-free image.
“And, more important for the people of Singapore,” she continued, “they reveal that the ‘A Team,’ who have for decades presented themselves as the best option for the country, are actually using the power the electorate has bestowed upon them for their own personal goals.”
Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, 65, has called the accusations “baseless,” and he appeared in a high-stakes performance before a special session of Parliament on Monday and Tuesday to rebut the charges.
“When the dust has settled on this unhappy episode, people must know that the government operates transparently, impartially and properly,” he said on Monday. “That in Singapore, even Mr. Lee’s house and Mr. Lee’s wishes are subject to the rule of law.”
On Tuesday he said no evidence of abuse of power had been presented, and he characterized the controversy as a distraction. “This is not a soap opera,” he said. “We must all get back to work.”
But as much as he would like to put the whole affair behind him, the crisis shows no signs of abating.
The prime minister’s younger brother, Lee Hsien Yang, head of the Civil Aviation Authority and a former chief executive of Singtel, a global telecom company, has said he will leave the country indefinitely because he fears government retribution.
On Saturday, he posted a statement on Facebook accusing his brother of carrying out “a vast and coordinated effort” against him and his sister, Lee Wei Ling, a prominent neurologist.
Singapore’s remarkable rise from a sleepy, British-colonial backwater to a gleaming financial capital, whose banks now challenge Switzerland’sas a global destination for secret money, was due in no small part to the country’s unquestioned adherence to Lee Kuan Yew’s vision. Under his mix of one-party rule, draconian enforcement of public order and business-friendly policies, the country thrived economically and became a model for governments like China’s.
If it tended toward authoritarianism — dissent was discouraged, the government controlled the media, criticism was met with punishing defamation lawsuits and elections never changed who was in power — most Singaporeans were happy to accept limits on freedom in exchange for prosperity.
Lee Kuan Yew’s People’s Action Party has never lost its hold on power since 1959, and today it controls 83 of 89 elected seats in Parliament.
One of his last wishes was that the house where he had lived for nearly 70 years be demolished after his death. He did not want it to become a museum, he said, where visitors would “trudge through” and turn the place into “a shambles.”
The house itself, a musty five-bedroom affair at 38 Oxley Road, is not grand. More than 100 years old, it lacks a foundation, and dampness creeps up the walls. Maintenance has been deferred for decades. Walls are stained and cracked. Furnishings have not been updated in years.
A pair of urns containing the ashes of Mr. Lee and his wife sit side by side on a small shelf in the main room.
Despite the wealth created under the leadership of Mr. Lee, who was prime minister from 1959 until 1990, the house is emblematic of his modest lifestyle and a symbol of clean government.
But the home’s historical significance is undeniable. A basement room, set up with a long table and chairs, was the meeting place in the 1950s for the independence leaders who eventually rose to power, the spot where the People’s Action Party was born.
Despite this history, Mr. Lee left clear instructions in his will that the house should be torn down. The unsentimental leader doubted anyone would care, even his children.
“They have old photos to remind them of the past,” he scoffed in a 2011 interview.
He stipulated that his daughter, who took care of him in his last years, could live there as long as she wished. She is only 62, so the final disposition of the property might not come for decades.
But the issue burst into public view in mid-June when the two younger siblings issued a blistering statement titled, “What Has Happened to Lee Kuan Yew’s Values?” They questioned their brother’s “character, conduct, motives and leadership.”
They accused him of creating a secret government committee to circumvent their father’s will for his own political benefit and of misusing his position “to drive his personal agenda.”
Singaporeans are divided. Some see the value in preserving a piece of Singapore’s history, while others think that Lew Kuan Yew’s final wish should be honored. And some believe the whole affair should have been kept private.
“This is a personal family issue, and it shouldn’t be brought to the national level because it might create a bad impression around the world,” said Tan Chuan Jin, 19, an information technology student.
But just as it was difficult to separate Mr. Lee from the country he built, it is impossible to erase the politics from the house. Preserving it would provide a physical reminder not only of Mr. Lee, analysts said, but also of the current prime minister’s connection to him.
“For the ruling party, the house is a symbol of their legacy,” said Li Shengwu, Lee Hsien Yang’s son, an economist at Harvard University. “It is a symbol uniquely associated with them and gives them legitimacy.”
Questions of legitimacy and abuse of power cut to the core weakness of a one-party state.
“The people are more aware that the key issue is the abuse of political power,” Sinapan Samydorai, the director of Southeast Asian affairs at Think Center, a nonprofit policy center in Singapore, said in an email.
“There are few checks and balances to prevent such abuse,” he added. “The trust and legitimacy of the government is being eroded, and the people’s confidence in the system may slowly evaporate.”
So more than the prime minister’s reputation was on the line when he went before Parliament this week.
On the dynasty question, he said his son, Li Hongyi, had no interest in politics. And Mr. Lee denied that he wanted to preserve the house to exploit his father’s “aura.”
“If I needed such magic properties to bolster my authority even after being your P.M. for 13 years, I must be in a pretty sad state,” he said.
As for the no-longer-secret committee, he insisted that he had nothing to do with it and had recused himself from any government decisions relating to the house. The committee’s job, he said, was only to “list options for the house, so that when a decision does become necessary one day” the government would be prepared.
But his younger brother, Lee Hsien Yang, said Monday that the prime minister was using the committee to “attack the validity of our father’s final will.” Any such questions should be decided by a court, he said.
Analysts said the prime minister needed to put the issue to rest and reassure the public that Singapore’s government was fair-minded and aboveboard.
It was not clear by Tuesday whether the parliamentary sessions, which included questioning by opposition members and statements of support by the prime minister’s allies, had achieved that.
“Ultimately, Prime Minister Lee and the government have to prevail in the court of public opinion,” said Eugene Tan, an associate law professor at Singapore Management University. “They have their work cut out for them, and how they do so matters immensely to Singapore and Singaporeans.”