OPINION | PM Lee must prioritize managing Sino-US hostility over family disputes
Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong should focus on navigating his country through the stormy sea of hostility between the US and China. He should not spend too much effort on the lesser quarrel over the house of his father, Singapore’s first Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew.
On March 20 and 22, there was debate in Singapore Parliament on matters related to Prime Minister Lee’s younger brother Lee Hsien Yang and Hsien Yang’s wife Lee Suet Fern. Hsien Yang, a former corporate chief, and Suet Fern, a corporate lawyer, are living outside their country while under investigation by Singapore police for suspected deceitful behaviour related to the late Lee Kuan Yew’s will. This is a continuation of the feud which broke into public in 2017, when Hsien Yang and his sister Lee Wei Ling published allegations on Facebook against their brother over their father’s house in Oxley Road. Prime Minister Lee has denied their allegations.
A metaphorical vision has come to my mind. I have pictured Hsien Loong, Hsien Yang, Wei Ling and Suet Fern as little children squabbling in a village (which the Malays call a kampong) which represents Singapore, like an illustration by the Malaysian cartoonist Lat. In the background, there loomed two towering dinosaurs, symbolizing the US and China, snarling malevolently at each other like a scene in a Godzilla movie. Instead of getting mired in this family squabble, Prime Minister Lee should look to the larger danger of the potential clash of the titans.
Tensions between the US and China have risen to a stage where war between them over Taiwan has become a real possibility. As a Singaporean, I dread the consequences for my country should war break out.
If these two superpowers go to war, it will have a devastating impact on Singapore and the world, since the US and China are the world’s largest and second largest economy respectively. Singapore is highly dependent economically on both countries. With the close cooperation between the Singapore Armed Forces and US forces as well as the presence of many mainland Chinese in my country, any conflict between the US and China may spill over to Singapore. Singaporean soldiers are stationed in Taiwan and risk getting caught in the crossfire should the US and China exchange fire over the Taiwan Strait.
Geopolitics and history
There is a geopolitical reason that the dispute over the Lee patriarch’s house is potentially unhealthy for Singapore. A partial parallel is provided in history. In the early 19th century before the arrival of the British, Singapore was controlled by the Sultan of Johor. In 1811, Sultan Mahmud Shah III of Johor died. The eldest son, Hussein, was away from Johor at the time, so the younger son, Abdul Rahman, took advantage of his absence and ascended the throne. In November 1818, Abdul Rahman signed a treaty with Holland which expanded Dutch control of the Straits of Malacca. When Stamford Raffles, an official of the British East India Company, arrived in Singapore in January 1819, he could not get approval to set up a British trading post in Singapore from Abdul Rahman, who was allied with the Dutch. So Raffles brought Hussein to Singapore and declared him Sultan of Johor. On February 6, 1819, Raffles signed a treaty with Sultan Hussein and the local chieftain (Temenggong), which paved the way for Britain’s colonization of Singapore. Amidst competition between Holland and Britain, Raffles used the rivalry between the two royal brothers to obtain Singapore for the British. Exploiting local rivalries was a playbook of European empires to gain territory.
There are similarities between this bit of history and Singapore today. The death of the Sultan of Johor sparked a dispute between his two sons over who would succeed him. After Singapore’s founding Prime Minister died on March 23, 2015, a public feud broke out between his sons. The Straits of Malacca was a strategic point of contention between Holland and Britain during the Raffles’ time and is so presently between the US and China.
Of course, there are differences between the previous situation and now. The two sons of the late Sultan competed for the throne, but the two sons of the late Lee are not contending for leadership of the nation. Although Hsien Yang is reportedly considering running for the largely ceremonial post of president, he has no political aspirations.
In the early 19th century, the British backed one royal brother against another brother supported by the Dutch. However, the notion of the US supporting one Lee brother against another Lee brother backed by China is outlandish and will not happen. Prime Minister Lee is not a vassal of the US or China, while Hsien Yang is not a tool of any foreign power.
Nevertheless, if Prime Minister Lee’s energy is sapped by his family conflict, Washington and Beijing might possibly perceive him as a weakened leader. A strong and united leadership will better maintain Singapore’s stance of not choosing between the two superpowers.
Moreover, the dispute among the Lees previously attracted the interest of China. In June 2017, Chinese state media and netizens seized on the feud between Prime Minister Lee and his siblings to criticise Singapore’s leadership, Today reported on June 16, 2017. A commentary in the Global Times, a nationalistic Chinese newspaper, on June 15, 2017 claimed, “The attack launched on Lee Hsien Loong by his two siblings to some extent represents the dissatisfactions of the liberals and opposition parties against the ‘central interest group’ built up by Lee Hsien Loong, which may lead to the outburst of conflicts in Singapore.”
On June 17, 2017, another Chinese state-owned newspaper, China Daily, ran an article with a headline that was unfriendly towards Prime Minister Lee. The headline said, “Singapore PM fans flame of family feud.”
Chinese newspapers make statements on major issues only with Beijing’s consent. In my opinion, the above articles by the Global Times and China Daily deviated from China’s policy of not interfering in other nations’ affairs. If the dispute over the Oxley house escalates, Chinese state media may possibly comment on this matter again, which will be wrong in my opinion. With the US and China contesting for influence in the Straits of Malacca and Singapore as the Dutch and British did two centuries ago, it is better for Singapore’s leader not to be distracted by family problems.
If Prime Minister Lee can successfully navigate Singapore through the fraught Sino-US tensions, he can remain in office for a while, but no more than two years.
On July 27, a Today article quoted Prime Minister Lee saying, “I had expressed the hope that I would be able to hand over by the time I celebrate my 70th birthday. But I do not determine the path of the Covid-19 pandemic, and it will also depend on how events unfold.”
“And all I can say is, I will see this through. And I’ll hand over in good shape as soon as possible to the next team, and into good hands,” he added.
Prime Minister Lee is now 71 and the COVID1-9 pandemic is largely over. So he should not serve many more years.
However, if managing US-China hostility proves too much for him, Prime Minister Lee should retire honourably sometime this year and not contest in the next general elections. A lesson for him is provided by the late Lyndon Johnson, who announced he would not continue as US President in a speech on March 31, 1968. At that time, Johnson was deeply unpopular with Americans because thousands of American soldiers were dying in the Vietnam war.
In that televised speech, Johnson said, “With America’s sons in the fields far away, with America’s future under challenge right here at home, with our hopes and the world’s hopes for peace in the balance every day, I do not believe that I should devote an hour or a day of my time to any personal partisan causes or to any duties other than the awesome duties of this office–the Presidency of your country. Accordingly, I shall not seek, and I will not accept, the nomination of my party for another term as your President.”
Instead of getting absorbed in family issues and partisan politics, Prime Minister Lee should, like Johnson, devote himself to “the awesome duties of this office”.
Toh Han Shih is chief analyst of Headland Intelligence, a Hong Kong risk consulting firm. The opinions expressed in this article are his own. /TISG
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