Just a year after founding prime minister Lee Kuan Yew’s death, cracks are beginning to emerge in Singapore’s image as a society where dissent is buried by an authoritarian government and a subservient media.
In an ironic twist, the latest developments center on Lee’s elder son, Lee Hsien Loong, who now heads that government as prime minister, and the media, in the form of the dominant, pro-government Singapore Press Holdings, which publishes the flagship Straits Times.
The late patriarch’s daughter, prominent neurologist Lee Wei Ling, accused her brother in a Facebook post Sunday of having “no qualms abusing his power to [have] a commemoration just one year after Lee Kuan Yew died ([lest] we forget).
“Let’s be real, last year’s event was so vivid, no one will forget it in one [year]. But if the power that be wants to establish a dynasty, LKY’s daughter will not allow LKY’s name to be sullied by a dishonorable son.”
The death of LKY, a familiar abbreviation for Lee Sr., on March 23 last year prompted a spontaneous outpouring of emotion among mourning Singaporeans.
Hsien Loong told The Wall Street Journal in an interview published at the end of last month that he had no doubt his father’s death had an impact on voters in the general election held Sept. 11, earlier than expected and in which the government put up a better showing than expected.
The nationwide commemoration last month of the anniversary of her father’s death prompted Wei Ling — who has written a popular weekly column for a decade for the Sunday Times (the Sunday edition of the Straits Times) — to lament that “Lee Kuan Yew would have cringed at the hero worship just one year after his death.”
In her article, she contrasted China’s hasty response to the death of Mao Zedong with how Britain waited 50 years before undertaking a pomp and ceremony-filled commemoration last year of Winston Churchill’s death.
Lee Sr. was known for his abhorrence of a Mao-like cult of personality, and Wei Ling insisted soon after their father’s death that their parents had wanted their longtime home at 38 Oxley Road demolished rather than turned into a museum, as some proposed.
It wasn’t until December that Hsien Loong joined his sister and younger brother, Hsien Yang, in calling for the house to be demolished and half its value donated to charity.
Editors at the Straits Times wanted to delete parts of Wei Ling’s latest column. She subsequently decided to withdraw it and published it in full on her Facebook page.
On April 1, she announced that, after a decade as a columnist for the Sunday Times, she would no longer be writing for it, saying the editors were denying her the freedom of speech.
The editors denied censorship, saying her columns required a great deal of editing to get them into publishable shape.
One said Wei Ling had plagiarized several paragraphs of her unpublished column, those relating to Mao and Churchill, and that was why they had been deleted.
Netizens commented that any editor doing his job would have found a way to paraphrase or attribute those paragraphs instead of slashing them and accusing the writer he was editing of plagiarism after the fact.
On Sunday, Wei Ling fought back, publishing on Facebook the entire exchange of emails with Straits Times editors relating to the anti-hero-worship column.
It was in one of her emails that she accused her brother of abuse of power.
The post was taken down after about three hours.
Nonetheless, the prime minister responded on his Facebook page later in the day, saying: “I am deeply saddened by my sister Dr Lee Wei Ling’s claim that I have abused my power to commemorate the one-year anniversary of Mr Lee Kuan Yew’s passing in order to establish a dynasty. The accusations are completely untrue.
“The first anniversary of a person’s passing is a significant moment to remember him and reflect on what he meant to us. The more so with Mr Lee Kuan Yew. The Cabinet had discussed how we should mark the occasion. My advice was that we should leave it to ground-up efforts. Groups should keep their observances in proportion, and focused on the future …
“The idea that I should wish to establish a dynasty makes even less sense. Meritocracy is a fundamental value of our society, and neither I, the PAP, nor the Singapore public would tolerate any such attempt.”
Meanwhile, Ho Ching, the prime minister’s wife and chief executive of Singapore sovereign wealth fund Temasek Holdings, posted on Facebook a photo of a monkey extending its middle finger, further fueling speculation of a family feud.
Hsien Loong and his father were never hesitant to take to court anyone, in Singapore or abroad, who they perceived made false and damaging statements about them.
Perhaps the prime minister has finally found a critic he cannot sue.
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