Will Singapore see a contest for its head of state between the prestigious Lees in the upcoming Presidential Election 2023 as a continuation of the family dispute?
Asian publication, Asia Sentinel in a report on Monday, wrote that Mr Lee Hsien Yang (LHY), younger son of late Lee Kuan Yew (LKY) is “serious about running” for the presidency — according to two sources. However, Mr LHY declined to comment in response to its email query.
At the same time, Asian Sentinel also reports about a rumour regarding a possibility of Ho Ching, former CEO of the sovereign wealth fund Temasek Holdings and spouse of the Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong (LHL), running for presidency. But it notes that there has been no confirmation was obtained about the rumour or response from the Singapore Prime Minister’s Office (PMO).
As most would know by now, late Lee Kuan Yew — founding Prime Minister of Singapore and person being touted to be creating one of the most efficient and capable government in the world, has his three children fighting on two fronts, following his passing in 2015.
What started off as a private dispute between LHL and his two other siblings, Dr Lee Weiling and LHY over the iconic property at 38 Oxley Road, escalated after Ministers in Singapore Parliament were brought in to form a ministerial committee to dispute the last will of late LKY. This in turn, forced the two siblings to issue a public statement that resulted in LHL having to call a parliament session to explain the situation and clear himself of all accusation with overwhelming support of his party, People’s Action Party (PAP).
The family dispute is much worse than one would suppose when you consider how LHY’s son, Li Shengwu was prosecuted over a private Facebook post for Contempt of Court and his wife, Lee Suet Fern being suspended over her alleged involvement in handling the last will of LKY. Both actions were initiated by the Attorney-General’s Chambers which is headed by LHL’s former lawyer, Lucien Wong — Mr Wong was just reappointed to his position as Attorney General at the age of 69.
TOC understands that the families of LHL and LHY have not met since 2015.
If LHY is indeed serious about contesting the upcoming PE, PAP must be shaking in its boots because historical figures show that voters would favour a non-PAP affiliated contestant. PAP knows it from the first election with former President Ong Teng Cheong and how this holds true with former President Tony Tan winning his contestant, Dr Tan Cheng Bock, a former PAP Member of Parliament (MP) by a mere 0.35% or 7,382 votes, even in a four corner fight during the PE2011.
In fact, one can say that PAP was so concerned about the near loss that they amended the constitution after PE2011 such that Dr Tan Cheng Bock couldn’t stand as a candidate a second time, which coined the term, “Tan Cheng Block”.
Prior to PE2017, PAP introduced a reserved election for minorities such that — according to them — Singapore will have a Malay President again since its first president Encik Yusof Ishak. On top of this, the candidates from the private sector must be at least CEOs of companies with S$500 million or more of shareholders’ equity for at least three years. Previously, the amount was set at S$100 million or more of paid up capital.
Both requirements essentially denied Dr Tan Cheng Bock’s second attempt at the PE.
LHY is one of the very few individuals in Singapore who can qualify to stand in the upcoming PE due to the amendments made by PAP following PE2011.
He was previously the CEO of Singapore Telecommunications Ltd, Chairman of Civil Aviation Authority of Singapore and Chairman of Fraser and Neave Ltd, making his credentials undisputedly qualified to contest as a candidate.
Asia Sentinel quoted a source saying, “As Singapore is doing so badly under Lee Hsien Loong and is adrift, many Singaporeans yearn for the good times under Lee Kuan Yew. Hsien Yang represents that, so he is very popular on the ground. That is what Lee Hsien Loong is fearful of,”
The next PE has to be held by September 2023 as the maximum term for a President under Singapore constitution is six years.
While PAP has not given any indication as to who is its preferred candidate, it has been practice for its past preferred candidates to announce their intention to stand one or two months before the election. Like Mdm Halimah Yaccob announced her decision to contest in early August 2017 to contest in September 2017 or Dr Tony Tan who announced in June 2011 to stand in August 2011.
George Yeo, former PAP Minister who qualifies with his public and private portfolios have been speculated to be a candidate for the upcoming PE but he has said that he will not run for President. Even when PAP’s preferred candidate is not publicly announced, the candidate should already has been selected by now.
For example, Minister Chan Chun Sing accidentally referred to Mdm Halimah Yacob, then Speaker of Parliament as “Mdm President” twice in his addresses during the debate on Presidential Election (Amendment) Bill in Parliament back in Feb 2017 even before she stepped down from her position as MP and announced her intention to stand as President.
Mistake by the part of the Minister? More like freudian slip.
TOC too has heard rumours about Ho Ching possibly being fielded as PAP’s preferred candidate for the upcoming PE. Such rumours may be spurred by her qualification and stepping down as CEO of Temasek in October last year and the absence of any possible candidate from PAP. But as Asian Sentinel pointed out, there is no way of confirming this rumour other than waiting for Ho Ching to make the announcement herself.
Would Ho Ching want to contest? We don’t know since no one asked her yet, but despite not being a politician, Ho Ching has been aggressively commenting on public policies on her Facebook. In fact, some public policies in Singapore such as that during the COVID pandemic would seem to have been influenced by her public comments. Given her age of 69, it would too late to enter as a politician but it would be just right to assume the role of President, if she has the desire to gain influence and status beyond the cooperate image that she developed over the years.
Of course, LHL would have to step down as Prime Minister if Ho Ching really decides to stand and that is probably where Lawrence Wong comes into the picture.
You may ask, what’s so important about the appointment for PAP since the position is largely ceremonial, especially since the President has to act on the advice of the Cabinet led by the Prime Minister?
Well, the President can choose not to approve changes to senior political appointments such as the Chief Justice, the Attorney General and the Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of sovereign wealth funds like Temasek Holdings. For example, not approving the reappointment of Lucien Wong as Attorney for the reason of him being way past the age of retirement at the age of 69.
Another thing that a President could do is to speak publicly about issues, such as what Ong Teng Cheong did back in 1999 where he spoke of how he had been informed by the Accountant-General that it would take “52 man-years” to produce the value of the full list of physical assets of the Government. This can result in huge embarrassment for the ruling party even if the government can still do things without the consent of the President.
In the case of LHY, if he does stand and win in the upcoming PE, there should be more than enough closets for him to open especially in light of what his family has gone through in the past couple of years.
And if LHY should win and get appointed as President, it will be the first time that LHY be meeting LHL face to face since they departed on bad terms.