Is Lee Hsien Yang’s departure from Singapore permanent?

It was announced on Thursday that Lee Hsien Yang (LHY), estranged younger brother to current Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong (LHL) would be stepping down as chairman of the Civil Aviation Authority of Singapore (CAAS). Although the Ministry of Transport was quick to pay tribute to the younger Lee’s contribution to the aviation industry in Singapore, one cannot help but wonder if his self imposed exile has now become permanent and if so, why so.

Circa 12 months ago, Singaporeans were transfixed as a very public drama played out within the ruling family of Singapore. The spat which erupted over the fate of the late Mr Lee Kuan Yew’s (LKY) house in Oxley Road led to a very tumultuous public exchange of accusations between the Prime Minister and his siblings which in turn led to LHY leaving the country for Hong Kong in the second half of 2017. In his statement, LHY had alluded to the fact that he was “forced” to leave Singapore as He felt “persecuted”. Fast forward nearly a year, it would appear that LHY is still in Hong Kong and with news of him stepping down as chairman of CAAS, this move would seem to be of a permanent nature.

It would appear that apart from LHY upping sticks, his son Lee Shengwu has also been made to feel unwelcome in the country of his birth. Lee Wei Ling, sister of LHY and LHL has also alluded to feeling unsafe in Singapore when she said in an open statement that they felt “big brother omnipresent” and that they feared “the use of the organs of state against” them.

Despite attempts to dismiss this as a family feud, the Lee family dispute has highlighted some glaringly worrying issues.

Firstly, it has questioned the use of state organs and misuse of personal power. Despite these accusations directly from the most powerful and connected family in Singapore, these accusations were never publicly investigated or followed up. No one even seemed particularly alarmed or concerned. The mainstream media never questioned it and nor did the judiciary.

There is also that issue of “contempt of court” by Lee Shengwu. He has been accused of contempt of court for posting a Facebook post where he had  observed that the judiciary in Singapore was “pliant”, an allegation that he robustly denies. This raises the second question of what constitutes “contempt”. Is the definition of  “contempt” so vague that it can potentially capture anything that the government doesn’t like? Can it be too easily misused as a tool of suppression?

Thirdly, there is also the difference in the way Shengwu and Roy Ngerng were treated over the same alleged offence. While I don’t personally think either are guilty of anything, I don’t think that there should be any difference in the way both these cases are handled.

Lastly and most concerning is the allusion to the creation of a dynasty in Singapore. Singapore is supposed to be a democratic country built on the principles of fairness, equality and meritocracy. The creation of a political dynasty whereby one family remains the power base indefinitely would go against every grain of the pledge school children in Singapore recite every day.

In large part, the Lee saga had been allowed to die down after the initial fiery exchanges between the siblings. Based on the chronology of events, one could speculate that LHY has been “encouraged” to leave in order to facilitate such a “die down” of events. With LHY gone, LWL would lose an ally and thereby become isolated thereby further facilitating the “dying down” of public spats.

What is very clear from LHY’s step down is that despite an ending of public reports on the spat, it is very far from being really over.

None of the issues that this family saga brought on were ever satisfactorily answered and LHY’s announcement is a timely reminder that there are still unanswered questions which the government need to account for.