THE estranged brother of Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong made waves when he joined the opposition Singapore Progress Party last month.
While he stopped short of contesting in the July 10 polls, Lee Hsien Yang’s political foray signifies a shift in the family’s public squabble – from the feud over the house of their father and founding premier Lee Kuan Yew, to governance under the ruling People’s Action Party led by his elder brother.
The feud has spilled over into other conflicts involving the younger Lee’s wife and son. Lee Hsien Yang’s wife is in a legal tussle over accusations that she mishandled the will, and his son – an assistant professor of economics at Harvard University – is at risk of being fined for scandalising the Singaporean judiciary through comments posted on a private Facebook post.
With polling due on Friday, analysts expect the PAP to win a majority once again, extending its 55-year grip on power since Singapore’s independence in 1965, although there are no opinion polls allowed during the election period.
In his first full-length media interview done over email, Lee Hsien Yang explains why he’s chosen to speak out now against the system his father helped create; whether he is a voice for the people or has a hidden agenda; and whether there’s a chance of the siblings reconciling.
> Some voters have commented that you’re railing against the same system of governance and policies and other issues such as elitism that the late Mr Lee had a hand in building and developing. What do you say to that?
> Why only speak up about the system now when you’ve been silent about it in the past decades? Do you regret not speaking up before?
The PAP used to be their voice. Today, it seems to be blind and deaf to the anger and frustrations of the people. Especially so among those with lower incomes.
The oppression and inequality of income and opportunities for Singaporeans has increased. The PAP government seems unduly focused on looking after the interests of the elite. It is time for a change.
> How do you feel going up against the PAP, co-founded and built up by your late father?
The PAP of today is no longer the party of my father. It has lost its way. My father founded the party when he was the voice of trade unions and seafarers. It started out as a champion of the underdog. And he always put the interests of Singaporeans and the country first.
Today, many see the PAP as having lost touch with the ground. My father has done much for Singapore and we continue to reap the benefits. Along with other Singaporeans, I am deeply grateful to him.
To some extent, I hope to bring back some of those original values and priorities of putting our country and our people first, especially those who are less privileged. My father recognised that the day would come when the PAP would not retain power. His concerns for the future was not the perpetuation of the PAP. It was for the future of Singapore.
> Why did you choose to join the Progress Singapore Party (PSP), which is newer, instead of the more established Workers’ Party (WP)?
I share the PSP vision for a more compassionate and progressive Singapore. Dr Tan Cheng Bock (party leader) inspired me to join the PSP. He has the conscience and the courage that I wish all MPs had. He has built around him a team, some of whom I already knew, who are smart and sensible, full of passion and compassion for their fellow Singaporeans.
> Why did you choose to keep your cards close to your chest till the last second on Nomination Day?
No party confirms their line-ups till Nomination Day. Other major parties (PAP, WP and SDP) only showed their hands on Nomination Day. The PSP had indicated the candidates and the areas they were contesting earlier and I was not on that list.
The message that Singapore doesn’t need another Lee has won over many people. Singapore wants different.
> Why not contest? Are you not willing to commit or take the risk?
In the last few years, so many Singaporeans from all walks of life have asked me to stand for political office. There are many reasons for this. Central to that has been the concern for their own future and that of their children. There is anger and frustrations that the PAP no longer listens or cares. That they do not have any real voice in Parliament.
Singapore does not need another Lee in political office. Empirical evidence has shown that dynastic politics is bad for a country. It undermines meritocracy. I have continued to walk the ground. I meet and listen to my fellow Singaporeans and I continue to learn about their concerns and issues. And within the confines of very draconian regulations in Singapore, I hope to give voice to some of these. Besides that, I share ideas and support parties I believe in. I am trying to be a catalyst for change.
> PAP Leaders like former premier Goh Chok Tong have said that people who want to talk about politics should enter the ring. Why choose to sit on the sidelines? You claimed that the PAP "has lost its way”, so why not make a difference?
I believe I am making a difference by speaking up. Every voter has the right to criticise and share their thoughts. Do they have to stand for office just to exercise their right to speak?
PAP leaders may prefer voters like silent sheep. It is a false narrative to say that one can only talk about politics if one stands for election. Politics is not just for those who seek political office. It is for every citizen. It is our right and our duty. We have every right to be involved as it impacts our daily lives, it shapes our future.
We all need to be part of that political discourse and we can all make a difference in different ways. For some it is through standing for political office, for others it is speaking up and sharing ideas and views. It could be by asking questions, by supporting causes one believes in, or just by having a conversation on political issues that matter with friends and families.
> Is your political foray and speaking out against the government because of the family feud?
My sister and I do not need a political platform to respond to attacks by our brother.
Being a good citizen, being politically aware and involved, is always a continuing process.
Every citizen needs to continue to discuss the issues facing our country and seek transparency and accountability in government.
First, Singapore needs fairer elections. There are many aspects of this including constantly changing electoral boundaries that are only disclosed just before an election. However, one of the top priorities should be an independent media and more freedom for people to say what they think.
It’s incredible that a party that has been in power since independence is so sensitive to criticism. Singapore retains a political system, where the incumbent can just decide when to call an election.
This time, we have a Covid-19 election, with the odds even more heavily stacked against the opposition parties. Rules were only made known at the last minute. Rallies are not possible so engagement with communities are limited.
There are also laws that make it incredibly difficult to criticise the government, or share alternative opinions and views. The PAP government maintains tight controls on the media. Even on the internet, the threat of a POFMA (Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act), already repeatedly used against the opposition in this election, has a very chilling effect. There have also been threats of prosecutions for instance using laws on racial harmony.
> Do you think that the opposition can and should form a coalition like those in other countries like Malaysia to have better success? What’s stopping them?
Like in Malaysia, this is a journey and this election has demonstrated first steps – there are only two three-cornered fights this time, notwithstanding more seats and the entry of a large new party.
> What’s your assessment of the opposition’s chances in this coming election given that party leaders have voiced it’ll be a tougher fight?
This Covid election is a very difficult one for the alternative parties. The rules do not allow rallies and limit contact or visibility. And ever more oppressive rules on communication and outreach are in play.. Still, there is an undercurrent of real anger and frustration. I hope it is enough to make Singaporeans vote fearlessly.
> Do you think that the family feud has hurt the country’s reputation?
What reflects badly on a country’s reputation are matters like heavy-handed censorship and laws which restrict public assemblies and freedom of speech. What reflects well is the well-being of its people, when there is more equality in incomes and in opportunities, when there is space for everyone to thrive. The focus right now needs to stay on issues that will decide this election.
What is really exciting is the quality among the alternative candidates. People are feeling the positive energy and responding well to the courage and diversity candidates in alternative parties. That is really the question that people should be asking themselves: Do you want more of the same for another five years?
My family is strong and very supportive of my determination to speak up in this election, to bring attention to the issues that are affecting Singaporeans’ lives. I hope more independent minded individuals will also speak up for what they believe in.
Singapore is my country. It was with a heavy heart that I felt compelled after my father’s passing to leave. I am rarely in Singapore but am here on the request of many to be on the ground at this critical time.
At this time, my focus is to help Singapore and our people. — Bloomberg
See also: Singaporeans gear up for the polls
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