The Guardian has an explosive story today of a split within Singapore’s first family, the Lees. Lee Hsien Loong is Singapore’s Prime Minister, and is the son of former Prime Minister, Senior Minister, and Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew. After months of simmering tensions with his siblings Lee Wei Ling and Lee Hsien Yang, the two have come out with a damning public criticism of their brother the Prime Minister. (See mothership.sg for more, including some social media posts by Lee Hsien Yang’s son Li Shengwu.)
The story behind this is almost prosaic: a dispute over Lee Kuan Yew’s former home, which the late former Prime Minister did not want to be preserved as a memorial to himself. Hsien Loong has not followed his father’s wishes, and as a result, his siblings allege that
we believe that Hsien Loong and Ho Ching are motivated by a desire to inherit Lee Kuan Yew’s standing and reputation for themselves and their children. Whilst our father built this nation upon meritocracy, Hsien Loong, whilst purporting to espouse these values, has spoken of a “natural aristocracy”. Hsien Loong and his wife, Ho Ching, have opposed Lee Kuan Yew’s wish to demolish his house, even when Lee Kuan Yew was alive. Indeed, Hsien Loong and Ho Ching expressed plans to move with their family into the house as soon as possible after Lee Kuan Yew’s passing. This move would have strengthened Hsien Loong’s inherited mandate for himself and his family. Moreover, even if Hsien Loong did not live at 38 Oxley Road, the preservation of the house would enhance his political capital.
One might see this as just one more example of why one should not allow family dynasties to emerge in electoral regimes, for the phenomenon of regression to the mean means that outstanding parents are statistically unlikely to have outstanding children. Although that might be a good lesson to learn—see also my commentary on the Soeharto regime and the Trump administration—there is a still deeper problem that the Lee family troubles reveal.
That problem is the structural dangers of personalized politics. It actually does not matter whether Hsien Loong or his siblings are correct. A system in which the charismatic authority of deceased politician may conceivably be appropriated by his ruling child is one in which it is always possible to call into question the justice or fairness of the system itself. It is a weapon of criticism which is always available, a source of doubt which can never be erased. State ideology in Lee Kuan Yew’s Singapore was for better or for worse constructed around an ideology of meritocratic excellence. Lee Hsien Loong finds himself bound by his father’s outsized political legacy in ways that would never have been possible had (1) LHL not been LKY’s son, or (2) LKY not been such a gigantic personality in Singaporean politics. So when the current Prime Minister Lee acts in ways that are even plausibly attributable to an anti-meritocratic preference for family favoritism (as, for example, his comments about “natural aristocracy” suggested to many Singaporeans), it is not just a crisis not just for the Prime Minister, but potentially an indictment of the system itself.
The consequences will almost certainly not be regime change. But scandalous rumors and family squabbles certainly undermine Singapore’s reputation as a bastion of meritocratic excellence among the very citizens whose assent is most essential for perpetuating the political status quo.