Singapore PM’s brother sees ‘real anger’ brewing before election

Hsien Yang’s political foray signifies a shift in the family’s public squabble


Analysts expect the PAP to win a majority once again, extending its 55-year grip on power since Singapore’s independence in 1965

THE estranged brother of Prime Minister (PM) Lee Hsien Loong made waves when he joined the Opposition Progress Singapore Party last month.

While he stopped short of contesting the July 10 poll, 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 PM Lee Kuan Yew, to governance under the ruling People’s Action Party (PAP)-led by his elder brother.

The feud has spilled over into other conflicts involving the younger Lee’s wife and son. 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 the 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.

Hsien Loong previously said that his brother is entitled to speak like anybody else, and the public will “assess which ones are worth listening to, which ones make sense”. The election will see all 93 seats contested by at least two parties for just the second time.

In his first full-length media interview done over email, 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 Kuan Yew had a hand in building and developing?

My father was a product of his time. The world has moved on and so has Singapore. There are elements of what he has put in that may no longer serve the country today. My father was not perfect, but I love my father, and like many, I am grateful for what he has done for Singapore. We need to grow and evolve — as individuals, and as a nation.

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?

Every generation evolves and as we grow as a nation, our needs change. I have changed, too. So many from all walks of life have come forth to speak to me in the past few years. I have heard so much of their suffering and struggles. 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 have 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 Singapore Democratic Party) 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.

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 the 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 Singa- pore, 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.

What’s preventing the Opposition from making inroads? What are the gaps or flaws they have?

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 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 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 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. Bloomberg