The younger Lee siblings have declared a unilateral ceasefire, provided that “we or our father’s wish are not attacked or misrepresented”. I think not that many Singaporeans are holding their breath that the calm will hold. The ceasefire comes with the sting of even more jibes at Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong. He has welcomed the ceasefire but not before making some small jibes himself.
But before we get into all that, I want to digress to an interesting exchange in Parliament between Low Thia Khiang and Emeritus Senior Minister Goh Chok Tong – and point out its relevance to the Lee family squabble.
The Workers Party chairman and MP for Aljunied GRC said his party has given PM Lee the benefit of the doubt on allegations of abuse of power made by Lee Hsien Yang and Lee Wei Ling against their elder brother. The PM has said they were baseless. Declaring that the WP was keeping an open mind, Low said “personally I will not be convinced until the entire allegation is given a convincing or conclusive airing”.
All that was fair and square exchange – until Low hit nearer home and implied that there were double standards here. He said that when he was PM, Goh Chok Tong sued WP politician Tang Liang Hong in 1997: “Does this also show that blood is thicker than water? Own sibling cannot sue…but political opponents, sue until your pants drop?”
Goh immediately replied that Low was indulging in “political sophistry” and that Tang was not his brother anyway. The ex-PM suing Tang then had arguably not caused as much distress as if PM Lee now sues his siblings.
As I understand the phrase, political sophistry means using clever political arguments that sound convincing but are in fact false or potentially false.
If we dive deeper into all the allegations that have been floated and supposedly dispelled, all the potential political sophistry on either side of the House – and I am referring to Parliament and not necessarily 38 Oxley Road – can get a bit muddling and muddying.
To his credit, PM Lee did not shy away from trying to answer the main allegations – about the setting up of the ministerial committee, the deed of gift and nepotism. He confronted them squarely, as much as he could in the absence of his accusers in Parliament.
The third allegation may well be the sticky and tricky one. The younger Lee siblings have made allegations of nepotism – of the influence of Ho Ching and the dynastic ambitions of their elder brother. But Li Hongyi, PM Lee’s son, has already denied any interest in politics. So that was promptly dealt with.
Still, in the eyes of many Singaporeans, the role of PM Lee’s wife in Temasek Holdings requires more scrutiny and reassurance than that attempted by Lee Hsien Loong in Parliament. His clarification of what Ho Ching could or could not do as CEO appeared fairly innocuous, with the corporate protocol properly defined and, on surface, unchallengeable. In brief, PM Lee said his wife reports to Lim Boon Heng, the Chairman. As a company, Temasek Holdings answers to its shareholder, the Ministry of Finance under Heng Swee Keat, the Finance Minister. PM Lee emphasised that the CEO appointment is made by the Temasek Board and has to be confirmed by the President, who is advised by the Council of Presidential Advisers.
There is absolutely no reason to doubt the ability or integrity of Ho Ching whose job of looking after and investing the sovereign funds of Singapore is not exactly an easy one nor something that many people can do. The only problem is that she is the wife of the Prime Minister and also the daughter-in-law of the redoubtable founding father of independent Singapore. That carries a clout which may be difficult to ignore. And we will leave it at that.
And so we should fully understand the emotions of Lee Hsien Yang and Lee Wei Ling when they publicly revealed their worry about the power held by their elder brother and his family.
Meanwhile, PM Lee has already replied to his siblings’ ceasefire offer: “I note my siblings’ latest public statement. I share their wish not to carry on the dispute in public and to manage the disagreement in private. That is exactly what I have been trying to do….My siblings wanted me to call off my Ministerial Statement and the debate in Parliament, disband the Ministerial Committee, and not respond to their accusations. I could not agree to do any of that. It would have been improper and irresponsible.”
The younger Lee siblings’ latest decision not to present any more evidence on social media, nevertheless, came with very strong words about their brother: “Government agencies intervened in the middle of the night to find excuses for the Prime Minister and Ho Ching….LHL wears two faces. In public, he presents himself as an honourable son, seeking harmony in the family. In private, he uses his official powers and his subordinates to undermine Lee Kuan Yew’s wishes and attack those who speak up.”
This does not sound like a permanent ceasefire.
Sense And Nonsense is a weekly series. Tan Bah Bah is a former senior leader writer with The Straits Times. He was also managing editor of a local magazine publishing company