People walk past 38 Oxley Road in Singapore (Simon Roughneen)

RTEradio – radio story here, 21.40 in.

People walk past 38 Oxley Road in Singapore (Simon Roughneen)
People walk past 38 Oxley Road in Singapore (Simon Roughneen)

SINGAPORE – A swimming pool maintenance company van was parked on the street outside No. 38, and, over the next twenty minutes or so, a couple more cars rolled by, along with two pairs of pedestrians, one mother imploring her four or five year old to keep off the road.

The mundane comings and goings on Oxley Road gave scant indication that on the street sits a bungalow that has caused a rare and unprecedented public feud among Singapore’s first family

38 Oxley Road, a prime location close to Singapore’s financial and shopping centre, was the home of the late Lee Kuan Yew, the city-state’s founding father and one of 20th century Asia’s most influential political leaders.

Lee Kuan Yew’s son, Lee Hsien Loong, is the current Prime Minister. He has been attacked by his siblings for allegedly refusing to honour the father’s wish that 38 Oxley Road be leveled after his death.

In June the prime minister’s brother and sister launched a late night social media ambush lambasting their elder brother, who they accused of using the house as historical and emotional collateral to burnish his own rule.

More damagingly, the prime minister’s aim, they said, was to ensure the succession of son, enshrining a Lee Kuan Yew spawned hereditary dynasty at the top of Singaporean politics.

Such accusations echo the type of nepotism charges that have, over the years, seen the litigious Singaporean leaders bring to heel major international news outlets such as The Wall Street Journal, Bloomberg, Financial Times, International Herald Tribune, The Economist and Time, which have all lost or settled defamation suits filed by the local politicians.

The prime minister has declined exhortations by his party colleagues to sue his siblings, but for Singapore — a wealthy trade and investment entrepot where information is tightly controlled by the government — the internecine affray was unprecedented.

Initially appearing unsure how to react, Singapore’s media soon began reporting the dispute, which three weeks later led to a couple days’ debate in parliament — an institution dominated by the ruling People’s Action Party.

Addressing what is no doubt an emotive personal issue, the prime minister cried in parliament, not only responding to his siblings’ criticisms but recalling the passing of his father Lee Kuan Yew just over two years ago.

But one of the accusers, the prime minister’s brother Lee Hsien Yang quickly posted a rejoinder on his Facebook page, saying the prime minster “made convoluted, ultimately false claims about Lee Kuan Yew’s wishes.”

But Singapore’s opposition parties seem unable or unwilling to capitalize on what in other democracies would be a political open goal.

Emails sent to the Workers Party, historically the main opposition group, asking the party’s views on the Lee family dispute, went unanswered.

“As usual they are afraid of their own shadows, and they also recognise – I think correctly – that the Lee brand has enough cachet that it would be counterproductive to launch a serious attack,” said Michael Barr, Professor of International Relations at Australia’s Flinders University and a long time watcher of Singaporean politics.

The short term impact of the family dispute has been to in fact to consolidate the prime minister’s control.

“Cabinet rallied behind him like a troupe of chorus girls. It was a bit embarrassing to watch, but it confirmed Lee’s absolute command of the heights of power,” Barr said.

And the opposition’s unwillingness or inability to capitalize means that the Lee family breakdown is unlikely to shake the status quo.

According to Lee Morgenbesser, an international relations lecturer at Flinders University who specializes in the politics of Asia’s authoritarian governments, “the PAP’s dominance is tied to good governance and socioeconomic development, whereas the Oxley Road dispute is a family issue inexplicably played out on the stage of national politics.”

The Lee brand was consolidated over the decades as Singapore became one of the world’s wealthiest countries, now having the ninth highest income per capita in the world according to the latest estimates published by the International Monetary Fund in April.

Singapore’s stability and reputation for clean governance marked it out in a region where much bigger resource-rich countries have fluctuated from dictatorship to democracy and have struggled to shed reputations for corruption and red tape that have deterred investment.

Despite being a tiny island country with around 5.6 million people crowded onto an area that is smaller geographically than Co. Louth, Singapore’s economy is substantially bigger than Ireland’s.

That brand too has been recently burnished by the passing of its lodestar. When Lee Kuan Yew died in 2015, the country went into mourning, and the commemorations fed into what was a predictable landslide win for the PAP and Lee Hsien Loong later that year.

The outcome, according to Singaporean academic Terence Choong, writing shortly after the election, suggested “that a stronger and more credible opposition is not important to most Singaporeans” — so long as the country remains prosperous.

The same year, 2015, marked a half century of independence — Singapore was initially part of the what is now Malaysia, but quickly broke away, and the effect of that nostalgia along with the passing of the country’s iconic leader Lee Kuan Yew, helped his son burnish his control of government.

And with Singapore ideally positioned on maritime trade routes between the Straits of Malacca and the South China it should continue to do well out of high growth rates across Asia — in giants such as China and India and in smaller neighbours such as Indonesia and the Philippines.

In that case, the expectation is that a public attuned to high standards of living is unlikely to linger too long on what is after all a family row.

“ I suspect the issue will fade away from public view,” said Lee Morgenbesser.

For World Report, this is Simon Roughneen in Singapore

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