Dear reader, yesterday I published a piece on Oxley mostly for a foreign audience.
During my research, my conversations with numerous people threw up lots of fascinating insights into personal motivations, characters, the way Singaporean institutions work with each other, the way power is deployed, and so on. Much of the juicier, hearsay stuff should probably be saved for coffeeshop talk, but here are a few issues—separate from the ones I address in the piece—worth pondering:
Let’s not talk about it? First, the most worrying thing. If Singapore ever faces a serious corruption problem at the top, we now know there are many Singaporeans who won’t bother. A corrupt leader may simply be able to waltz off with the family jewels.
Think about it. The prime minister’s own siblings had accused him of abuse of power. Instead of simply being curious about the incident, never mind calling for an investigation, many Singaporeans shot the messengers—please don’t air your dirty laundry in public.
Worse, there were suggestions that Singaporeans shouldn’t talk about this because it damages our country’s reputation. People were more concerned about face than abuse of power. Let’s just sweep everything under the carpet, now. That’s the mature way to deal with problems.
The Old Man. Shouldn’t LKY shoulder at least a bit of the blame? For somebody so decisive in life, he has proved frustratingly ambiguous in death. He flip-flopped over including the demolition clause in his will. He gave each kid an equal share of his estate; but, knowing that they disagreed over the fate of the Oxley Road house, he gave the property to Lee Hsien Loong but placed his demolition desire, legally, in the hands of the executors, Lee Hsien Yang and Lee Wei Ling, the only one to live there. Settle your differences, he seems to have been saying.
The Old Man, clearly, was never able to reconcile his two competing morals: on the one hand, shunning iconoclasm (destroy the house), and on the other, realising that the state’s interests must always supersede the individual’s (let the government decide).
I suspect, given what we now know about his squabbling children, that he may not have died in peace. Which is sad.
On a related note is LKY’s fabled belief in simple living. It’s all quite ironic, isn’t it? This was a man who inspired a country of materialists. So while the rest of us have been upgrading our shoes, phones and TVs every chance we get, the founder was still chilling in his midcentury wooden chair. And now we want to preserve it all.1
Sarojini Naidu, a poet and political activist, once joked that it cost India a fortune to keep Gandhi in poverty. She was referring to, among other things, the fact that while he travelled in third-class in his homespun dhotis, lots of money had to be spent on buying up tickets to clear up the cabin and ensure his security.
Observing the fracas over 38 Oxley Road, one wonders if we might one day say the same about LKY’s simple living—that it ended up costing us a fortune.
The squabbling children. With Hsien Loong, his motivations seem fairly clear. The house offers a physical link to his father, from whom he derives much legitimacy. It is fairly well accepted that if Hsien Loong were not his father’s son, there are others in the party, including George Yeo and Tharman, who might have posed a bigger challenge. (That said, let’s acknowledge that Hsien Loong was born with a challenge, with shoes to fill, beyond our wildest.)
Now there is one part of this argument which is about shrines, history and remembrance: “this is where Hsien Loong grew up and learned from Daddy”. Akin to the CCP’s legitimacy from Mao.
There is another part of it which is purely Chinese superstition, feng shui type stuff. This has been mentioned to me on several occasions. Destroy the house, so it goes, and you sap him of power.
Hsien Loong seemed to be addressing this second part in parliament: “Regarding the house, and how its continued existence enhances my aura as PM, if I needed such magic properties to bolster my standing, even after being your PM for 13 years, I must be in a pretty sad state.”
Either way, there is little doubt in my mind that it is in Hsien Loong’s political self-interest—whether he knows it or not—to keep the house.
With his siblings it is less clear. Let me first discount money. They are independently wealthy, even before accounting for their equal share of LKY’s estate.
My first inkling is to believe the siblings re: their motivations—purely about filial piety, fulfilling their father’s wish.
But there is something odd about the whole thing: if they are so committed to their father’s wishes, why do they also ignore his caveat?
Recall, this is the demolition clause in the seventh and final will:
“I further declare that it is my wish, and the wish of my late wife, KWA GEOK CHOO, that our house at 38 Oxley Road, Singapore 238629 (“the House”) be demolished immediately after my death or, if my daughter, Wei Ling, would prefer to continue living in the original house, immediately after she moves out of the House.”
“If our children are unable to demolish the house as a result of any changes in the law, rules or regulations binding them, it is my wish that the House never be opened to others except my children, their families and descendants.”
Wei Ling and Hsien Yang have consistently emphasised the first half of this clause and often neglected the second. In response to Hsien Loong’s claim that LKY contemplated preservation and other options, they said:
“Having backup plans to deal with a bad event does not mean that one desires or accepts that the event should happen. If someone says, ‘If my books catch fire, please call my insurance company’, he has not thereby accepted that his books should be burned.”
This response seems reasonable. Yet why not just be open about the insurance plan?
All three siblings’ respective intentions are still unclear—this is the sense I get from most Singaporeans I speak with.
Finally, a few words on Ho Ching. We have a decent sense of her feelings towards her in-laws. When Wei Ling first accused Hsien Loong of dynastic ambitions in April 2016, Ho Ching’s Facebook page appeared to have a simple response: a photograph of a monkey with a middle finger. She then apologised online, saying it was an innocent, electronic mistake from a “Twitter Newbie”—the same one careful enough to manage S$275bn of our money.
We now know that she took a six-month sabbatical in 2015 from Temasek partly to “help sort out Lee family affairs”. This involved visiting 38 Oxley Road and removing items, and passing them onto NHB (what Hsien Yang calls “theft”). And that she represented the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO), where she holds no position, when she did. Was there nobody else at PMO who could do the job?
And finally, we now also know that she was present in parliament on July 3rd, the only non-parliamentarian in the house. Parliamentarians greeted her as they entered. They saw her as they spoke. As family she has a right to be there, of course, but is not a regular visitor. I am also told she was present in the coffee room where parliamentarians rest, eat and drink between sessions—the only non-parliamentarian seen there.
All highly unusual.
Conflicts of interest. The existence of these conflicts is not in itself cause for excessive concern. Even in large democracies like Japan and the US many conflicts exist. What is more important are two things: first, whether the conflicts are made public so they can be managed; and second, whether the conflicts have a material impact on the running of that particular agency/ministry/unit.
In Singapore, we seem to do OK with the second half of it, judging by commonly-used metrics of institutional effectiveness and so on. Note there are some clear examples where conflicts may have had a material impact.
For instance, there are still a lot of unanswered questions over why the Singapore public did not sooner find out about the Hepatitis C outbreak at SGH (part of SingHealth) beginning April 2015. The conspiracy theory has to do with the General Elections later in September that year. News of the outbreak was released only in October, soon after the PAP’s thumping victory in the election. And here there is a clear conflict of interest: Ivy Ng, the SingHealth CEO, is married to Ng Eng Hen, a minister. Hopefully we one day have a proper, independent investigation into this.
Still, if we set aside cases like the above, for the most part, one might conclude that conflicts of interest do not have a material impact on the running of particular agencies/ministries/units.
However, we seem to do quite badly on the first measure: whether the conflicts are made public so they can be managed.
And the Oxley saga has shone a light on this confusing web. Let’s just consider one person, Lucien Wong, Singapore’s attorney-general (AG). Some eyebrows were raised earlier this year upon his appointment because, at 63, he is older than the usual appointees; and also because Wong, a corporate lawyer, is the first AG in Singapore’s history without prior Bench or AG Chamber experience.
Wong is a former colleague of K Shanmugam, our law minister. He is also the former personal lawyer of Lee Hsien Loong–a fact we only found out because of the Oxley case. Note that by all accounts, Wong is a great lawyer (albeit one who needs more hand-holding compared to previous AGs).
But here are just two possible conflicts. First, Wong represented Hsien Loong in his personal battles with his siblings before becoming AG. And his siblings, representing LKY’s estate, have ongoing legal battles with the government, represented by the AG’s office, which Wong now heads. Of course, Wong will recuse himself from cases where he is conflicted. But it is still his office.
Second, if there are indeed grounds for the government to investigate the prime minister’s possible abuse of power, Wong’s office is responsible for pressing charges.
In parliament, with regards to his relationship to Wong, Hsien Loong said that everybody who needed to know knew—including president Tony Tan and the Law Society.
The question is: should these numerous conflicts of interest be transparent to the public?
Soft authoritarianism. This saga, for me, really exposes the difficulties Hsien Loong faces in striking a balance between conservative and liberal impulses. If he were as iron-fisted as his father, the case would probably have been settled behind closed doors; and his brother would not have had the time to slowly pack his bags while mulling over a relocation destination, even as he continued his drip-feed of attacks on Facebook.
In almost every aspect of this case, from the ministerial committee, to the narrative that the government has tried to sell (“LKY did actually contemplate something else”), one observes a leadership unsure how to balance these competing impulses, forced on the back foot by accusations that LKY would have easily dealt with.
All this is despite the fact that since GE2015 the government has become more centralised and repressive, according to most observers, journalists and civil society folk.
In short, as Hsien Loong pivots to cultivate a brand of leadership far less draconian than his father’s, he sometimes finds himself caught between the shade of authoritarianism and the sunlight of liberal democracy.
Demolish or conserve? Finally, my own view on the house if I had a vote on the matter: we should preserve/conserve it.
Much as I disagree with some of the PAP’s illiberal policies, it will go down as one of the twentieth century’s most successful political parties. And Lee Kuan Yew is the only leader to have guided a country from pre-independence to “the first world”.
Now one might argue that his Singapore is “first world” only economically but not in any other aspect. Fine. Still, no mean feat—both, what Singapore has achieved; and his ability to wield power for so long.
One line of argument is that since Singapore has no qualms destroying other potential heritage sites, such as the old National Library, so we should also treat 38 Oxley Road with the same indifference.
This is cutting off the nose to spite the face. There is so little in this country that reminds us of our past; when a confluence of factors, however self-interested, presents us with an opportunity, we should take it.
Others say they feel nothing towards a house they have known only through photos. Maybe I am just a political junkie, but I would love to see the place where it all went down, where Goh Keng Swee, S Rajaratnam, Toh Chin Chye, LKY and others met, the room that they always left, much to Mrs Lee’s consternation, “stinking of cigarettes”.
It was, in so many ways, a different time.
1 An economist might argue that, despite the appearance of mass consumerism, consumption’s actual share of GDP is relatively low in Singapore vis-a-vis other developed countries. A discussion that would, inevitably, have to touch on income inequality. But now we’re getting overly technical…