27 May 2019
With social media becoming increasingly important in shaping public opinion, Singapore's Lee Hsien Loong may have no choice but adjust to changing times. Photo: Bloomberg.
With social media becoming increasingly important in shaping public opinion, Singapore's Lee Hsien Loong may have no choice but adjust to changing times. Photo: Bloomberg.

How social media is changing Singapore politics

Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong offered a public apology last week for an embarrassing feud between him and his siblings over family matters, including the future of their late father’s home in central Singapore.

The spat is centered on the house at 38 Oxley Road, the residence of Lee Kuan Yew, Singapore’s founding father and the city-state’s former leader who had said in his will that he would like the property to be demolished after his death.

Premier Lee was accused by his two younger siblings of not honoring their father’s wishes and wanting to preserve the house.

The siblings accused the PM of misusing his power and trying to milk their father’s legacy for political gains.

However, Lee strongly denied all allegations and explained in a video that he was bequeathed the property by his father and he tried to transfer the house to his younger sister for a nominal price of S$1. However, his suggestion was rejected by his siblings.

As private family matters blew into public domain and developed into a soap opera, Lee apologized to Singapore’s citizens.

“I deeply regret that this dispute has affected Singapore’s reputation and Singaporeans’ confidence in the government. As your Prime Minister, I apologize to you for this,” Lee said in a video statement.

“As the eldest of the siblings, it grieves me to think of the anguish that this would have caused our parents if they were still alive,” Lee said in the statement.

Also, Lee said he will allow all lawmakers, including the opposition, to examine the issue pertaining to his father’s house, and question the PM during a parliament session on July 3.

“I urge all MPs, including the non-PAP MPs, to examine the issues thoroughly and question me and my Cabinet colleagues vigorously. I hope that this full, public airing in parliament will dispel any doubts that have been planted and strengthen confidence in our institutions and our system of government.”

PAP refers to the People’s Action Party, the ruling party in Singapore. 

Premier Lee has taken an unusual step of lifting the party whip, allowing all lawmakers to engage in free vote. The unprecedented move is a sign that he fears the family feud, if it is not handled properly, could raise questions about governance in the city-state.

Singapore traditionally imposes tight control on free speech, and all media outlets are directly or indirectly controlled by the government. The restrictive approach has been largely successful over the years. Negative publicity against the government simply won’t get covered by the mainstream media.

However, Premier Lee’s two siblings posted a six-page statement on their Facebook accounts, outlining their grievances against their brother. The spat has been widely discussed on social media and also drew wide coverage in international press. The younger Lees smartly utilized Facebook to get around the government control over mainstream media in Singapore.

As a result, the PM is left with two options, either shutting down Facebook in the city-state or just facing the music.

Competing with Hong Kong for the global financial hub status, Singapore will risk hurting its economy and image if it blocks access to Facebook or other social media. So, that’s not a good option.

This could, in fact, be just the beginning. Life for Premier Lee and other top officials may never be the same in the era of social media.

This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on June 23

Translation by Julie Zhu with additional reporting

[Chinese version 中文版]

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Hong Kong Economic Journal columnist

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