Time for the famiLEE to end the public spectacle

Apr 10, 2016 05.36PM |

by Bertha Henson

THE trouble with writing about the LWL saga is that you have to keep updating your work. I have already said Dr Lee Wei Ling will give as good as she gets, and that has certainly turned out right. Unfortunately. Then there is another problem. How she seems to have trouble with deciding if she should or should not post anything. So the latest post, available for several hours earlier today, has been taken down but not before online media got hold of it.

What started as a simple rant about how The Straits Times (ST) wouldn’t publish her column has been given a different dimension: She says that the “powers that be’’, which control the media here and whom she has now identified as her brother, the Prime Minister, were behind the censorship/editing of her column criticising the events that commemorated Mr Lee Kuan Yew’s death anniversary.

Included in the (now deleted) exchange of emails between her and her former ST editors which she had made public was this: “The powers that be commands SPH [Singapore Press Holdings], and no one in SPH dares to stand up to the powers that be to say, ‘you cannot abuse your power’. I will do so. I and HL are at odds on a matter of principle. HL has no qualms abusing his power to hv a commemoration just one year after LKY died, ‘least we forget’. Let’s be real, last year’s event was so vivid, no one will forget it in one yr. 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 saga is getting uglier and uglier. Going by what she has said, PM Lee is intent on creating a Lee dynasty (who is the next Lee in line anyway?), connived with others to do a grand commemoration of their father’s  death and had told ST not to publish her column.

Oh dear.

You can expect this coming from someone who is anti-Establishment and who calls the PM all sorts of unsavoury names, but his sister? What is the PM going to do now? Sue her for defamation? I’m not sure that you can take someone to court for statements such as “abuse of power’’, or lawyers would be very busy defending the reputations of this, that or the other politician. She didn’t call him a thief, liar or corrupt – which can be proved or disproved. She used the word dishonourable – which can be viewed as even worse than the above labels except that it is difficult to reach a consensus on what is honourable or not.

What had at first looked like a simple case of an upset writer who had her column rejected has grown so many heads and tentacles that you would have trouble deciding where the body is.

Here’s a breakdown of issues, chronologically:


a) A freedom of speech issue: ST didn’t want to publish her column because it was not complimentary of the “hero worship’’ that accompanied his death anniversary. She was denied her freedom of speech.

b) A stand-by-my-father issue: Her father was not against freedom of speech. And contrary to perceptions that he was angry about the publication of the book, OB Markers, by veteran journalist Cheong Yip Seng, he merely shrugged if off. It was Mr Janadas Devan, the Chief Government Information Officer, who kicked up a fuss about Mr Cheong’s “sly’’ move to get the late Mr Lee to endorse his book.

c) A censorship versus editing issue: She says “censor’’ and talks of how ST editors were consistent in wanting some of her messages edited out. She called them “timid’’ and alluded to a hgher power pulling the strings. ST says “editing’’, as did Mr Janadas, who used to edit her work which he described as “sailing through a fog’’.

d) A transparency issue: She showed what the editors wanted cut out – some background on the different ways China and Britain commemorated the deaths of their own leaders. China held its commemoration for Mao Tse tung one year after his death while the British did so for Winston Churchill 50 years later. Again, she made references to “powers that be’’.

e) A plagiarism issue: ST responds by disclosing that the said paragraphs it had objected to had been plagiarised, that is, a cut-and-paste job from websites, one of which was the Guardian. She says she did not do it intentionally and this should be weighed against the thrust of her message as a daughter who wanted to honour her late father’s memory.

It started out interesting and even entertaining. It’s always fun to watch the Establishment, in the form of Dr Lee and The Straits Times, bash each other. (The question on people’s minds: Why didn’t she tell her brother that she thought the activities were over the top?)

It was quite fun too to see Mr Janadas and Dr Lee argue although we still don’t know who it was who was angry at Mr Cheong’s book – the late Mr Lee or the euphemistic “powers that be’’. (Question: Why didn’t she ask her brother if he really scolded Mr Cheong for the book instead of relying on the words of a “party’’ insider?)

Then it got ugly when she started leveling in at editors, calling them timid, even though she had been writing for ST for 10 years.

It got even more muddled when she started posting longer (unedited) articles on Facebook, because the writing was, well, muddled if not muddy or foggy. (Question: The “powers that be’’ is a term for – gasp – her brother?)

When the plagiarism charge was thrown at her, it signaled that she knew nothing of the rigours of writing for a newspaper – or her editors were too nice to tell her. And when she starts defending her unintentional plagiarism (my editors never told me!) you wonder about how her previous columns were edited/censored. (Question: What is her brother saying to all this after all this time?)

Then she seemed to have hit on a brainwave. She decides to  release private email correspondence, which included what she had said about her brother. The Internet was all agog for several hours. Then it seems that she changed her mind. (You never know with Dr Lee; she might post it again.)

It’s all getting out of hand. Doubtless, the G’s detractors will have a field day pointing out that she was saying what they had always known – that a Lee dynasty was being created and the ST is the PM’s court jester who does his bidding.

Are we going to see another round of responses, this time from the Prime Minister to deny abuse of power? Mr Lee is in a difficult spot. Those activities she criticised were “ground up’’ initiatives. Even if he felt the same way about his father’s memory as his sister, should he, as Prime Minister, tell people to refrain from doing what they wanted? Wouldn’t that be using or abusing his power to tamp down spontaneous action from the grassroots? Unless, of course, Dr Lee comes out to say that he was behind all that too. I cannot see the PM being as Machiavellan as his sister makes him out to be.

Some people think Dr Lee is merely grieving and unable to get over the loss of her father even after a year. So those critical of her current bout of laundry-airing should cut her some slack. Perhaps some quack somewhere will see this as merely sibling rivalry.

Personally, I don’t think the PM should stay silent while his sister rants and tears his character to shreds. But I also don’t know what he should say, given that he is a son, a brother and the country’s Prime Minister. Which hat should he put on? Maybe this famiLEE should do what most families would do: hold a family conference and discuss with Dr Lee whether what she is up to in the public space is good for her, her brother – and the memory of their father. I am tempted to say the fruits of the discussion should be kept within the family. But this is not just any family. Perhaps, we will see some clean linen being presented and not more dirty laundry.

PS. Can someone please tell Dr Lee she should think first before pressing post? Because the Internet is an unforgiving publisher; your mistakes are captured forever even after you hit “delete”.

Featured image of Newspaper grape purple by Flickr user Jon S CC BY 2.0

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