COMMENT: An elephant in the room lurks in the Lee family feud

P N Balji
Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong speaking on the second day of parliamentary debates into allegations of abuse of power arising from the Lee family feud Photo: TV screen shot

It is good that that Lee Wei Ling and Lee Hsien Yang want a truce. It is not good that they have repeated the allegations and made new accusations against their older brother and Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong. That is not how wounds are healed.

The three-week old Lee family fight has split the country five ways: one group is fed up with all that has been going on, another is arguing that dirty laundry should not be aired in public, two are taking sides and a smaller group does not want to take a stand as the full truths are not out yet.

The two-day Parliamentary session earlier this week was extraordinary, with PM Lee standing before MPs and responding to serious charges of abuse of power, nepotism and conflict of interest from his own siblings. PM Lee walked a tightrope trying to balance between family and country, and hoped to seek closure. That was not to be as the accusers were not there to reply to or reject arguments made. It left a sour taste in every Singaporean’s mouth.

A total of 35 Ministers and Members of Parliament spent 11 hours over two days in Parliament, some making pointed remarks, some others praising PM Lee and yet others saying that the House of Singapore was more important than 38 Oxley Road.

We saw opposition leader Low Thia Khiang at his vintage best, saying that he is giving the benefit of doubt to the PM but keeping an open mind. PAP MP Rahayu Mahzam raised the bar when she said the PM’s statutory declaration on how the late Lee Kuan Yew’s will was signed may come across as a back-door approach to challenging the will. And of course, how not to mention ESM Goh Chok Tong’s comment directed at the siblings that they were trying to bring the PM down?

As a tense House debated the allegations, every one ignored the lurking elephant in the room. The issue of conflict of interest loomed large yet no one talked about it.

This is not something new, having surfaced time and again since 1984, when Hsien Loong was brought into politics by Goh.  He made quick progress and 20 years later became PM.

Those who have worked with Hsien Loong, including a former civil servant friend of mine, will vouch for his talent and capacity to zero in on issues and come up with solutions quickly. “He saw things which we never saw,” said the friend. But there was hardly a public debate that he is Lee Kuan Yew’s son and that they sat in the same Cabinet room when the older Lee was still PM.

Then came Ho Ching’s appointment as the CEO of Temasek Holdings in 2002 and the whole issue of conflict of interest had to be revisited. What made the appointment even more of a talking point was that Hsien Loong was not only her husband but her boss. He was Finance Minister then and technically she had to report to him.

Goh Chok Tong became the artificial firewall to separate the two when it came to reporting procedures. It was said at that time that she was the best person for the job but no evidence was provided to show the type of candidates who were interviewed for the job and why they did not make it.

It looks like such appointments have become more frequent with foreigners being given top jobs here trying to find jobs for their spouses, and if they are unsuccessful, then being given places in organisations and institutions they run. I was shocked when an American boss introduced his wife to me and said without even batting an eyelid, “She works here.”  Would he have done it back home in his country, I wonder.

The Workers’ Party is not beyond reproach.  The town council mess they have got into is mainly as a result of giving the contract to run the council to their own people.

Sometimes the lines get so blurred that conflict of interest situations are not so clear but appear later.

Lee Suet Fern, Hsien Yang’s wife, is a board director of the National Heritage Board and offered to help with a deal to get items from the Oxley Road house and donate them for an exhibition on the country’s founding fathers in 2015. NHB did not spot the potential for a conflict of interest, and realised a little later that it was being dragged into the private family dispute and told her to recuse herself from discussion on the issue.

Again, Lucien Wong’s appointment as Attorney-General has raised similar concerns. He was 63 and was replacing a person who had reached retirement age at 60. Then news came out that he acted for PM Lee in the family fight. The PM said he had informed the Cabinet and the President about it but was that enough? People who know Wong say that he is the right man for the job but as lawyer Jeanette Chong-Aruldoss said in a Facebook post, “It can’t be said that Lucien is the only man who qualifies for the job of AG.”

The PM and his team need to hit the pause button and ask themselves if a firm line should be drawn on such future appointments to prevent any talk of conflict of interest cropping up. If any person with a possible conflict of interest is not ruled out, it is highly likely that another highly charged situation will confront the country down the road. Like what we have been bedevilled with in the last three weeks.

P N Balji is a veteran Singaporean journalist who was formerly chief editor of Today, as well as an editor at The New Paper. He is currently a media consultant. The views expressed are his own.

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