How a House Provoked a Feud in Singapore's Lee Family: QuickTake

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(Bloomberg) -- Singapore’s reputation for order and control took a beating last year when its most famous family became embroiled in a very public feud -- on Facebook. Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong fell out with his two younger siblings over the fate of the house that belonged to their late father, the country’s first prime minister, Lee Kuan Yew. The dispute marked a rare public display of acrimony from a family that’s been at the forefront of Singapore’s establishment since its independence in 1965 -- and that largely kept private any discord before the elder Lee’s death in 2015. Nine months after the spat erupted, a ministerial committee has produced a report on options for the future of the house. However, it has left any decision to a later government, meaning the feud may have longer to run yet.

1. What was the spat about?

It centered on 38 Oxley Road, a colonial-era bungalow near the Orchard Road shopping belt. Lee Kuan Yew lived there for most of his 91 years and his will included a wish for the property to be demolished eventually. All three children have said they want to honor that request, but the two younger siblings have accused Prime Minister Lee of maneuvering behind the scenes to undermine their father’s instructions. They cited the existence of the ministerial committee. The prime minister denies those allegations. Lee Kuan Yew was prime minister from 1959 to 1990, turning Singapore into Southeast Asia’s richest nation and running a tightly controlled state that emphasized incorruptibility and stability.

2. Who are the protagonists?

As well as the prime minister, there’s his 60-year-old brother Lee Hsien Yang, the one-time chief executive officer of Singapore Telecommunications Ltd who is now chairman of the Civil Aviation Authority of Singapore, a board member of Rolls-Royce Holdings Plc and a special adviser to private-equity firm General Atlantic LLC. And then there’s Dr. Lee Wei Ling, the middle sibling who is a senior adviser at Singapore’s National Neuroscience Institute. She currently lives in the house and Lee Kuan Yew’s instruction in his will to demolish 38 Oxley Road only kicks in after she moves out.

3. What’s the significance of the house?

As well as being on prime real estate, 38 Oxley Road is seen by many as a hallmark of the elder Lee’s legacy and influence, the site of critical decisions on Singapore’s future taken by the nation’s pioneer leaders. Founding members of the People’s Action Party, in power since independence, held early meetings at the house. Lee Kuan Yew wanted 38 Oxley Road demolished after his death to avoid the cost of preserving it and the risk that it would fall into disrepair, he told Singapore’s Straits Times in an interview published in 2011. He also felt that the house was holding back property development in the area by limiting neighbors’ ability to construct taller buildings.

4. Who owns the house?

Prime Minister Lee says he was bequeathed the property by his father and sold it to his younger brother, donating the proceeds to charity. Cushman & Wakefield last year estimated the value of the bungalow, which stands on a plot of about 12,000 square feet, or 0.3 acre, at about S$25 million, or $19 million. Property development and real estate values are big talking points in Singapore, an island where space is at a premium. PM Lee said in 2015 he had recused himself from all government decisions regarding the house.

5. Who is examining options for the house?

Deputy Prime Minister Teo Chee Hean set up the ministerial committee and -- at the height of last year’s spat -- said there was nothing secret about it, contrary to the two younger siblings’ assertion. The committee, he said, needed to review the options in case, for example, Dr. Lee chose to move out in the near future. There is a misconception that the government is seeking to make a decision now, he told parliament last year, when no decision may be necessary for another 20 to 30 years. The prime minister’s views were sought by the committee in his personal capacity, and he was not been involved in discussions, according to the cabinet secretary.

6. What did the committee conclude?

Its April 2 report laid out three options: retaining the property (as a national monument or for conservation); keeping the basement dining room, where important meetings took place, in a park or as part of a heritage center; demolishing the house for residential use or for a park or heritage center. The committee left the matter of which option to take to a future government. It also said that Lee Kuan Yew was “prepared to accept options other than demolition” provided that the house was kept in a habitable state and the family’s privacy was protected.

7. How bad did the dispute get?

The family discord had simmered for two years before bursting into full view in June with a six-page statement posted via Facebook by the younger Lees. They said they had “lost confidence” in their brother and accused him of misusing his position to advance his personal agenda and of harboring political ambitions for one of his sons. Hsien Yang, the younger brother, said he planned to leave Singapore and cited his brother as the reason. Their posting prompted a Facebook tit-for-tat that brought in other members of the family as well as the prime minister, who then felt compelled to address the allegations of abuse of power in parliament. The prime minister’s siblings kept up a steady stream of Facebook posts over weeks, in response to statements made by Lee and his government on their allegations.

8. What did PM Lee say?

He apologized last year for the impact he said the dispute has had on Singapore’s reputation. In a two-day parliamentary debate in July, he said the dispute could dent public confidence in the government if it continued and that suing his siblings would only further besmirch their parents’ names. Lee added that the debate has not produced any evidence to back allegations of abuse of power leveled at him by his siblings, and calls to set up a commission of inquiry into his conduct lack basis as there are "no specifics to the headline charge of abuse of power".

9. Did the siblings resolve their differences?

Hardly. On July 6 -- this time in a 7-page statement released via Facebook after their brother spoke in parliament -- Wei Ling and Hsien Yang said they will “cease presenting further evidence on social media, provided that we and our father’s wish are not attacked or misrepresented.” But Hsien Yang posted in October that PM Lee “has made no attempt to reach out to us to resolve matters in private.” Wei Ling then reacted to the April report on the house’s future by posting “it would require unbelievable lack of intelligence or determined denial to not understand what Pa & Ma so unambiguously wanted. It seems to me my big brother & his committee have achieved that distinction with amazing ease.”

10. What impact has the spat had on Singapore politics?

Very little, on the surface. PM Lee, 66, retains broad popular support. He has signaled he doesn’t want to stay in office beyond the age of 70 and has been grooming a group of younger ministers for succession. The PAP has a strong grip on power. Months after the elder Lee died, the PAP boosted its share of the popular vote by about 10 percentage points to nearly 70 percent -- the highest since 2001 -- and secured 83 of 89 seats up for grabs.

The Reference Shelf

  • The April 2018 ministerial report on options for the house.
  • A Straits Times summary of parliament proceedings about the dispute
  • A Straits Times summary of the key aspects of the dispute.
  • A Google search montage of pictures of 38 Oxley Road.
  • A Bloomberg News story on the start of the Facebook feud.ing 
  • Another Bloomberg report on an agreement among the siblings on the house. 
  • A Bloomberg story on a dispute over Lee Kuan Yew’s interviews.

©2018 Bloomberg L.P.

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