by Bertha Henson
SOME 20 years ago, the Lee family found themselves in a quandary, except that they closed ranks then. It had to do with corruption – whether they knew that the apartments they bought from local developer Hotel Properties Ltd. (HPL) came with a hefty discount.
Singapore was surprised when the issue was sprung in Parliament in 1996 with the then Prime Minister (PM) Goh Chok Tong saying that he had launched investigations into rumours regarding the purchases. Both then Senior Minister Lee Kuan Yew and then Deputy Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong gave statements in Parliament. People were surprised because they thought the rumours were just that: rumours with no clear originating source. Plus, those were the days when social media wasn’t around to amplify them.
PM Goh said he had found nothing improper, that the Lees did not ask for nor even knew of the discounts, which had since been given to charity. There was a three-day debate in Parliament.
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Now, Prime Minister (PM) Lee Hsien Loong has told Singapore that he would make a statement in Parliament on July 3 refuting allegations that had been made by his siblings over the past few days. A wan-looking Mr Lee had himself video-taped with a message for the people.
It was a masterly job. He apologised; he said he had tried to keep it private. His parents would be anguished to see what’s been happening, he said. There were hints of frustration and embarrassment in his message which culminated in a fierce declaration to “repair the damage that had been done to Singapore”. This is the first time in a very long time that a prime minister has resorted to doing the equivalent of breaking into a broadcast news cycle to speak to the masses. It shows that he recognised the urgency of responding to the confusion that has taken hold of Singapore over the past few days.
So far, the Prime Minister has commented three times since Mr Lee Hsien Yang and Dr Lee Wei Ling launched their campaign in the wee hours of June 14. The siblings said their aim was to tell about how their eldest brother was running roughshod over them because he wanted his way over their father’s will, especially over the Oxley Road house. PM Lee, who was holidaying abroad, responded with a post denying the allegations made by the two Lees. He concluded the post saying: “As my siblings know, I am presently overseas on leave with my family. I will consider this matter further after I return this weekend.”
He wasn’t allowed to holiday in peace, however, because his siblings went on to speak to media, made public private correspondence and other aspects of the squabble surfaced, such as PM Lee’s public and private utterances about their father’s wish for the Oxley Road house.
In turn, PM Lee launched a bombshell in the form of a summary of a statutory declaration he made to what the siblings described as a “secret ministerial committee’’. Most intriguing were his doubts that proper procedures had been followed in the drafting of the final will – not just about the demolition clause but also about share portions among the three siblings. Mrs Lee Suet Fern, who was involved/not involved (depending on who you believe) in the last will, became the new focus of attention.
Singaporeans watched all this, puzzled, bemused, and also upset. Some will say it is unseemly for such an illustrious family to bicker so openly over their father’s desires. They would rather close their ears. Others will wonder about whether PM Lee is as power-hungry as his siblings make him out to be. They would want evidence or a firm rebuttal. All, however, know that the dispute is damaging Singapore’s reputation and trust in the government, as PM Lee himself recognises.
Will the parliamentary session put the matter to rest? PM Lee has said that the People’s Action Party (PAP) whip will be lifted. This will be one of those rare occasions when PAP Members of Parliament (MPs) are allowed to speak their minds and vote their hearts. In previous occasions, the whip was lifted to acknowledge that MPs had their own religious beliefs to take into account, such as over abortion and the Human Organ transplant act, or where the legislation might affect their own work as MPs, such as the introduction of nominated MPs.
Doubtless, PM Lee doesn’t want it said that the PAP MPs were merely toeing the party line with soft questions. He has given them permission to speak and it will be for them to act as representatives, not of the party but of the people. He encouraged the non-PAP MPs to speak up too.
It will be an interesting debate not least because the PM seems to be encouraging a parliamentary inquiry into his words and actions, with himself as sole respondent. It will be tough for MPs to take his side given that people will watch for partisan comments and draw what conclusions they will. If, however, there is a sticking point about using parliament as a forum, it is about how comments are ‘privileged’, that is, no one can be sued for what they say in it.
Will a ‘full public airing’ dispel doubts about the political system here? MPs and political observers believe that it will allow the G to publicly address the serious allegations of abuse of power that have been made by the Lee siblings. Notably, Finance Minister Heng Swee Keat hopes that this will “dispel doubts, and strengthen confidence in our institutions and system of government”, reported ST.
In the HPL case, Parliamentary hearings successfully quelled public disquiet. The then Nominated MP Walter Woon remarked positively that the debate proved: “That you do not have to give favours to civil servants or politicians, because it is not accepted; and that if there was any impropriety, no matter how high up, it will be rooted out and stamped on.”
Even the opposition MPs reportedly agreed that the discounts were not illegal. The then Singapore Democratic Party MP Ling How Doong said it loud and clear: “I am not taking part in the debate because there is no impropriety. There is no necessity to have this matter brought to Parliament.”
Mr Lee Kuan Yew even framed the occasion into a demonstration of the effectiveness of Singapore’s system of checks and balances: “I take pride and satisfaction that the question of my two purchases and those of the Deputy Prime Minister, my son, has been subjected to, and not exempted from, scrutiny… It is most important that Singapore remain a place where no one is above scrutiny, that any question of integrity of a minister, however senior, that he has gained benefits either through influence or corrupt practices, be investigated”
In the previous case, there was a gatekeeper, which was PM Goh. So, there was someone who could say he had the matter scrutinised, draw a line and declare it closed. There was also no one who could put up a meaningful challenge on the matter, since the allegations were “rumours’’ without a source. In this case, we have two high-profile individuals who do not mince their words.
A parliamentary session will not be as definitive as a court case because it cannot make judgments of guilt or innocence. Perhaps, the debate will be framed in the form of a motion which MPs can vote for or against or abstain, especially since the PAP whip is lifted.
It’s not likely though that matter will end with talk in Parliament. Some action will still need to be taken, like what to do about the house.
The famiLEE affair has been brewing for a while now. Read our past articles on the issue:
- 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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