Singapore has been a bulwark of stability and open government in the oft-volatile Asia-Pacific region. In a part of the world plagued by issues with civil liberties, corruption, and political instability, Singapore’s history of stability and rapid advancement have led it to be one of the key “Asian Tiger” economies. However, recent instability within the ‘First Family’ has revealed concerning cracks in the city-state’s façade of constancy.


For an in-depth, bespoke briefing on this or any other geopolitical topic, consider Encylopedia Geopolitica’s intelligence consulting services.


Lee Kuan Yew, Singapore’s first Prime Minister, has left a legacy on the city-state so distinct that its Public Policy school was named after him. In a time of political and social upheaval within the Asia Pacific region, Lee guided an ousted territory into a political and economic power that punches dramatically above its weight. His influence extended beyond Singapore’s borders and made Singapore a pillar of stability in an unstable region. The source of this stability can be attributed to the outsized presence that Lee  (one of the longest serving Prime Ministers in history) and his political party, the People’s Action Party, had on the domestic and international affairs of Singapore.

While the elder Lee’s tenure as Prime Minister was not without its share of criticism, notably regarding the abuse of power and lack of civil liberties, the criticism was overshadowed by Singapore’s rapid development under his leadership. Even with the advent of social media, strict anti-sedition laws have kept open criticism of the political system at a minimum. However, a family row over the first Prime Minister’s home has created a ripple in Singapore’s well-ordered society.

His eldest son, Lee Hsien Loong is only the third Prime Minister in Singapore’s history and was in office during his father’s passing. The mourning in Singapore was universal, and his family showed a united front while in the public eye. However, not long after the mourning period that cracks in the family’s united façade began to appear. The focal point of the conflict being a family conflict over what to do with a house formerly owned by Lee. While many families become embroiled in conflict over inheritance and passing, it has metastasized into a national debate about abuse of power and corruption in a country that has a reputation of strict sterility, being previously described as ‘Disneyland with the Death Penalty.’

The argument stems from the final disposition of Lee Kuan Yew’s home on 38 Oxley Road. During Singapore’s early days the area was home to plantations but following the rapid development the neighborhood has become home to condominiums and high rises near a busy shopping district. While Lee was alive, ordinances were emplaced to protect the security of his home, with window blinds not to be opened facing the property and cars being stopped and questioned if they drove past more than twice. One of the drafts of his will stated that after his death his daughter would be able to stay in the house for as long as she wished but once she decided to vacate the near century old house, it should be demolished. Lee did not want his home to impede progress but more importantly did not want visitors to ‘trudge through’ and leave the home ‘in shambles.’ The elder Lee even went so far as to go before Parliament to make his wishes known.

However, the will has gone through numerous revisions and the row between Lee Kuan Yew’s family members has now spilled into the public eye. While all three of his children are equal trustees and executors for his estate, there have been allegations raised by his daughter, Lee Wei Ling, and his youngest son, Lee Hsien Yang of procedural misconduct by their oldest brother, the current Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, and that he has been using 38 Oxley Road as a political touchstone to further his power. The younger siblings have gone so far as to post a joint declaration declaring that the Prime Minister is unfit for his position and has abused his office to further his personal political agenda. In this declaration, damning allegations are made that Lee Hsien Loong and his wife want to establish a political legacy by positioning their son, Li Hongyi to take a role in government, undermining the value of the very meritocracy that Lee Kuan Yew promoted.

Further compounding the quarrel are statements that have been made on both Lee Wei Ling and Lee Hsien Yang’s respective Facebook pages. The family argument has sparked accusations followed by counter accusations, and reduced the ordinarily staid and ordered Singapore into reality show style theatrics. Lee Hsien Loong has refused to speak to his siblings directly, instead relying on lawyers to engage in talks as well as banning them from family gatherings. While family feuds can become acrimonious, its public nature has kept Singaporean eyeballs on what would normally be a closed-door family squabble and raised questions on the legacy of Lew Kuan Yew and whether the Lee family’s prominence in public office is one based on merit or whether it’s a darker, more authoritarian bent.

In addition to the reality show-style infighting, the Singaporean public has engaged in uncharacteristic protests decrying the ‘FAMI-LEE’; a political meme born out of the frustration that the Lee family has become synonymous with Singaporean leadership. The mere fact that a public protest over this issue occurred in the normally sedate Singapore may show signs that the carefully planned and orchestrated society is suffering some cracks in their system.

The political future of Singapore seems to be reaching a crossroads, with the Lee family’s prominence being questioned both from within and without. The dominance of the People’s Action Party, the party that Lee Kuan Yew founded, in Singaporean politics remains to be seen. The recent controversy over ‘reserved elections,’ a poll for the office of President limited only to ethnic Malay candidates, has raised further issues on fairness in Singaporean politics. The internal issues being raised in the city-state means that the influence it once wielded in foreign affairs has been blunted at a time when the Asia-Pacific region desperately searches for stable and reliable bastions.


Charlie Song is former U.S. Army Infantry NCO and Officer turned geopolitical risk expert in the private sector, with a focus on the Asia Pacific region, the Korean peninsula and U.S. government affairs. 

For an in-depth, bespoke briefing on this or any other geopolitical topic, consider Encylopedia Geopolitica’s intelligence consulting services.


Photo credit: Dem Romero

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