It was something one would not have expected in a place like Singapore, with its technocratic, business-like, and sometimes cold exterior. But, one day in early July, while visiting Singapore, I sat mesmerized before a television broadcast of an ongoing session in the Singaporean parliament. Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong was telling his colleagues how awkward and sad he felt about having to take up a tangled “family matter” before a session of parliament.
The matter, which had erupted on Facebook, concerns his differences with his two younger siblings over what to do with the ancestral home that their late father, former prime minister Lee Kuan Yew, had left behind. The PM’s brother, Lee Hsien Yang, and sister, Dr. Lee Wei Ling, wanted the house demolished in accordance with their father’s last will.
The modest, late-19th-century, two-story structure with the red-tiled roof on 38 Oxley Road, just off busy Orchard Road, was where the nation’s founding father and his wife lived from 1950 until his death in 2015. It was where they raised their three children. It was also where the People’s Action Party, which has governed Singapore since it became independent, was founded. Many PAP meetings were held in its basement dining room, and one can assume that countless historic caucuses that decided the future of the nation took place in this house. In short, it is a home that had become a public monument because of the role it played in the nation’s history.
But, Lee Kuan Yew would probably not be the extraordinary person that he was if he did not think differently on such matters. A few years before he died, he met with the government’s chief ministers to explain why he wanted the house demolished after his death. He was a towering figure in his nation’s history, but the last thing he wanted was for his people to build a personality cult around him. He wished for his people not to be sentimental about “relics frozen in time,” or to rest on past achievements, but to build on these successes by working hard. He was a practical man until his death. The ministers told him they would like to preserve the house, and, according to their account, he seemed inclined to heed their request.
The matter could have been settled quietly within the family but, unable to find a common ground since their father’s death, the younger siblings decided to go public to express their disaffection. Using their Facebook accounts, they accused their brother, PM Lee, of abusing his power as a government official by manipulating state agencies to overturn their father’s explicit wish, and to harass them.
It was a very serious charge, by all accounts. PM Lee, in his role as elder brother, refused to respond by trading public accusations with his siblings, or, worse, by taking them to court. But, as the Prime Minister, confronted with allegations of wrongdoing by his own relatives, he could not just ignore the accusations. In his view, a very private matter had regrettably assumed public import. He felt he was being attacked no longer just as a brother, but also as the leader of the government. In the end, he felt compelled to give his version of what happened if only to show that at no point did he harness public power to pursue a personal objective.
That was the entire purpose of the two-day parliamentary session that I had the privilege to watch. Other ministers spoke in order to reiterate their trust and confidence in their leader and to plead with the protagonists to rise above their private selves, and not tarnish the great memory of the nation’s father by dwelling on an issue that has distracted the whole nation.
As a sociologist with a specific interest in the complex interweaving of various forms of communication — in this instance, that of family relations and the intimacy that permeates them, on one hand, and that of politics and statecraft and the formal norms that undergird them, on the other — I was filled with wonder and endless questions.
How is it possible for a man with a tenacious vision like Lee Kuan Yew to succeed in keeping together a small nation in the periphery of Malaysia and Indonesia, and transforming it into one of the world’s wealthiest and most orderly societies, and yet seem unable to ensure unity and harmony within his own family?
What was he like as a family man? While he seemed to have carefully groomed each of his three children to assume responsible roles in Singapore — Lee Hsien Yang is a Cambridge and Stanford graduate and was for many years CEO of SingTel, Lee Wei Ling is a neurosurgeon and head of the National Neuroscience Institute, and, of course, Lee Hsien Loong is prime minister — one wonders how often he was able to talk to them, especially after he stepped down from office. What would he have said to his children if he were alive today?
It’s difficult to say. A parent can only do so much. Clearly, Lee Kuan Yew was a complex man, but there was a side of him that is not very well known. He adored his wife, his intellectual partner and equal for all the 63 years they were married. Here’s an account by the writer Judith Tan of a rare visit to 38 Oxley Road: “[W]e could hear him in the adjoining room reading to his wife, Madam Kwa Geok Choo. She had become bed-ridden after a series of strokes. Mr. Lee, known for his fiery speeches, spoke in a gentle voice as he read to her from The Sunday Times. She was not able to answer him but, without fail, he read to the love of his life every single day—alternating between news, her favorite poems and novels—for 18 months until her death in October 2010.”