Feud among Singapore’s first family adds colour to election campaign

The estranged brother of Singapore’s prime minister has taken aim at the family’s dominance of the city-state’s politics on the last day of campaigning ahead of general elections on Friday.

Lee Hsien Yang, who has joined the opposition Progress Singapore party, criticised the quasi-authoritarian country’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic and the “natural aristocracy” of the People’s Action party.

The PAP has ruled Singapore since independence in 1965, including under his brother, Lee Hsien Loong, and under their late father and the nation’s first prime minister, Lee Kuan Yew, who held the office until 1990.

While Lee Hsien Yang is not running as a candidate in the election, his decision last month to join the opposition has reignited the most high-profile family feud in the country’s history. The bitter dispute, which became public in 2016, was triggered by disagreement over what to do with the former house of Lee Kuan Yew.

In a webinar late on Wednesday, Lee Hsien Yang questioned Singapore’s coronavirus measures after an outbreak in migrant worker dormitories propelled the country’s number of cases to one of the highest in the region. The city-state has reported 45,298 infections and 26 deaths.

“How did this happen when the world was heaping praise on Singapore’s handling of the pandemic?” Lee Hsien Yang said. “I wonder if the government knew what it was doing.” He cited a U-turn by the authorities on requiring the use of face masks and their decision to impose a lockdown only in April.

The government has said that introducing lockdown too early could have been counterproductive by causing fatigue among the population. Authorities have also argued they implemented preventive measures at migrant worker dormitories, including closing communal spaces and staggering meal and recreation hours.

Lee Hsien Loong, in a speech at an online rally this week, said the opposition had been “completely silent on how to tackle Covid-19”.

In his webinar, Lee Hsien Yang said winning seats in parliament was critical to debating issues, including what he called “secret salaries at Temasek”, the state-backed investment company whose chief executive was the prime minister’s wife, Ho Ching. “Our votes will decide if we continue to see the monochrome of [the] PAP’s natural aristocracy or if we address groupthink and bring in fresh ideas,” he said.

When asked for comment, Temasek pointed to a statement it issued in April saying that claims Ms Ho’s annual salary was about S$100m (US$72m) were false and that her annual pay was “neither the highest within Temasek, nor is she amongst the top five highest paid executives in Temasek”. 

After the family dispute first went public, Lee Hsien Yang announced in 2017 that he would leave the country. He said he and his sister had lost confidence in the leadership of their brother and feared “the use of the organs of state” against them. Lee Hsien Loong and his wife rejected the allegations.

Analysts expected the PAP, which has won every election since independence with at least 60 per cent of the vote, to secure another mandate. With Lee Hsien Loong indicating he would step down when he turned 70 in 2022, Heng Swee Keat, deputy prime minister and finance minister, was broadly seen as Singapore’s leader in waiting.

But the opposition aimed to deny the PAP a two-thirds majority in parliament, the minimum share of seats required to make unilateral constitutional amendments.

“There is a real risk of a parliament dominated completely by elected PAP MPs,” said Pritam Singh, secretary-general of the Workers’ party, this week. “Is that a good outcome for Singapore? I would suggest it’s not.”

The Asean Parliamentarians for Human Rights, a nongovernment organisation, said in a recent report that “structural restrictions”, including one of the world’s shortest campaigning periods and high candidate registration fees, typically put Singapore’s opposition at a disadvantage.

It said Singapore’s safety measures for running elections during the pandemic, including limitations on social gatherings, would hit the opposition hardest.

The opposition tended “to rely on some of these methods for fundraising, and have in the past been able to draw large crowds to their rallies”, the APHR said.