by Bertha Henson
THAT was a masterly response from Madam Ho Ching! Read her post and you can see an Asian aunty tidying up after pampered children. You can see her with a broom and a dustpan carrying out the dutiful daughter-in-law responsibilities – or being a “dogsbody’’, as she put it rather old-fashionedly.
This image hardly tallies with the Lee siblings’ first description of her as a power hungry matriarch with too much influence over civil servants. She was, they said, the opposite of their mother, the late Madam Kwa Geok Choo.
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“Singapore has no such thing as the wife of the prime minister being a ‘first lady,’” they said in a joint statement released on June 14, 2017. “During those many years, his [Lee Kuan Yew’s] wife (our mother) consistently avoided the limelight, remaining his stalwart supporter and advisor in private. She lived discreetly, and set a high bar for the conduct of a prime minister’s wife. She would never instruct Permanent Secretaries or senior civil servants. The contrast between her and Ho Ching could not be more stark. While Ho Ching holds no elected or official position in government, her influence is pervasive, and extends well beyond her job purview.”
So far, the Lees have only brought up one example which they think is unwarranted intervention on her part and that is regarding the removal of items from the house. She was painted as the wicked daughter-in-law who removed items from the house even as the late Mr Lee was lying in hospital. “She had no business doing this when LKY was in ICU and it is deeply troubling that someone can represent the PMO despite holding no official position,” said Mr Lee Hsien Yang.
Then there was a mix-up over dates, which seems entirely to be the fault of the National Heritage Board. She only did so after Mr Lee’s funeral. Undeterred, Mr Lee Hsien Yang then calls her a thief. “This is even more troubling. By LKY’s will, the estate’s residual items, such as personal documents, fall under the absolute discretion of the executors Wei Ling and myself. Unapproved removal of these items, even by a beneficiary, constitutes both theft and intermeddling.’’
The incident looks clearly like a domestic saga among family members. Why should it concern the rest of us? It should, only insofar as the siblings clarify or justify their earlier statements on Madam Ho exceeding her role as Prime Minister’s wife. What sort of leeway should the spouse of a minister have with civil servants?
If she does direct civil servants to do something, should they do so? Is it implicit that what she wants is also what the Prime Minister wants?
She doesn’t have to say she is Mrs Lee Hsien Loong. People know. What is the bet that the ordinary person knows that Madam Kwa Geok Choo is Mrs Lee Kuan Yew?
Of course, this might be jumping the gun. It may well be that Madam Ho never tried to influence G agencies and that Lee siblings are talking nonsense. In Madam Ho’s case, it is imperative that she stays out of matters that are not under her purview given that her connection with Temasek Holdings already lays the Prime Minister open to charges of nepotism. After 15 years at the helm of this powerful entity, it has become a non-issue. She is a smart, capable woman in her own right. So let it remain that way.
As a contrasting case, the United States (US) has “a longstanding tradition of public service by First Ladies”. But even in the US, former First Lady Mrs Hillary Clinton was served with two lawsuits for leading a highly-secretive health-care reform task force, which counted government staff among its members. The American public seemed to shun a powerful First Lady whose public service was shrouded in secrecy.
Here in Singapore, Madam Kwa Geok Choo was well aware of her role as a staunch supporter of her husband. She once said: “I walk two steps behind my husband like a good Asian wife.”
Spouses and family members of leaders should be careful about keeping out of governance matters. There’s no problem rooting for your spouse or the political party he belongs to but it’s quite another to use them as leverage to get anyone to do anything, however pure the intentions.
G ministers here have a Code of Conduct last revised in 2005, which draws a line between the personal and the professional. It states that a minister must “scrupulously avoid any actual or apparent conflict of interest between his office and his private financial interests”. This may arise “from the exercise of powers or influence in a way that benefits or may be seen to benefit private interests held; or from using special knowledge acquired in the course of his activities as Minister to bring benefit or avoid loss in relation to his private financial interests”. It extends to: Ministers must not “use official information that comes to him… for his own private profit or the profit of any family member or associate”.
Perhaps the code should include some guidance for family members. Unlike in other countries, we’ve never had a problem with family members abusing their privileged position, we should keep it that way. Madam Ho is not the First Lady, but she must be Caesar’s wife.
The famiLEE affair has been brewing for a while now. Read our past articles on the issue:
- FamiLEE saga: That internal ministerial committee should go (Jun 21)
- FamiLEE saga: Will parliament session end saga? (Jun 20)
- FamiLEE saga: Some leeway should be given (Jun 19)
- FamiLEE saga: 10 things from the academic paper “When I’m dead, demolish it”. (Jun 18)
- FamiLEE saga: Who’s involved (Jun 17)
- FamiLEE saga: Is a grant of probate really final? (Jun 17)
- FamiLEE saga: Somebody should just sue (Jun 17)
- FamiLEE saga: PM Lee’s version of events (Jun 16)
- FamiLEE saga: Let a third party tell all (Jun 16)
- FamiLEE saga: The past three days (Jun 16)
- FamiLEE saga: How Lee Suet Fern got LWL her inheritance, according to leaked emails (Jun 15)
- FamiLEE saga: Singaporeans react with confusion, humour and CSI skills (Jun 15)
- FamiLEE saga: From 38 Oxley Road to 1 Parliament Place, not just a family affair (Jun 15)
- FamiLEE saga: Headlines around the world (Jun 15)
- FamiLEE saga: Now about that mysterious ministerial committee (Jun 15)
- Not just a famiLEE affair (Jun 14)
- Third generation Lee weighs in (Jun 14)
- “We do not trust Hsien Loong as a brother or as a leader. We have lost confidence in him.” (Jun 14)
- Mystery deepens over secret tapes of Lee Kuan Yew (Sep 30, 2016)
- Time for the famiLEE to end the public spectacle (Apr 10, 2016)
- Dr Lee Wei Ling gagged? (Apr 2, 2016)
Featured image from TMG file.
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