Lee Kuan Yew (C) and his family celebrate his 80th birthday in Singapore, September 16, 2003. From (L-R) daughter-in-law Lee Suet Fern, son Lee Hsien Yang, Chief Justice Tong Pung How, daughter Lee Wei Ling, Lee, wife Kwa Geok Choo, son Lee Hsien Loong, daughter-in-law Ho Ching and granddaughter Li Xiuqi. REUTERS/David Loh/File Photo(reuters_tickers)
By Fathin Ungku and Aradhana Aravindan
SINGAPORE (Reuters) - The very public airing of a family feud between Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong and his two siblings has led to an outpouring of responses online, including from those concerned about its impact on global perceptions of the island state.
Bombshell accusations through press releases and Facebook postings are unusual in Singapore, a country that usually keeps such matters behind closed doors and media freedom within carefully controlled boundaries. And as this comes from within the family of modern Singapore's founding father, Lee Kuan Yew, who was prime minister for three decades, it has gained plenty of attention.
The first salvo came from the prime minister's younger brother and sister, Lee Hsien Yang and Lee Wei Ling, who said on Wednesday they had lost confidence in Lee Hsien Loong and feared that the state's organs would be used against them. Lee Hsien Yang said he and his wife, lawyer Lee Suet Fern, would be leaving Singapore because they felt closely monitored and threatened.
The prime minister denied the allegations, and said he was very disappointed that they have chosen to publicise private family matters. Then late on Thursday, he hit back, saying there are "deeply troubling circumstances" over how Lee Kuan Yew's will was drawn up and asking what role Lee Suet Fern, had played.
There has been plenty of additional back and forth, accusation and denial over the past couple of days.
Many on social media website Facebook flooded it with requests for the family to settle the matter out of the public eye.
"It's a personal family matter which should have been settled privately. Not good for Singapore's reputation to air these personal family affairs publicly," Facebook user Selene Zhuo commented on one post from the prime minister.
Another Facebook user Douglas Ho said, "The repercussions are very detrimental to Singapore. This is far beyond a family squabble."
A few used it as an opportunity to criticise the way the government has run Singapore for many years.
"The siblings, in openly attacking their brother, claim to be protecting their father's legacy against Lee Hsien Loong’s authoritarian ways, with apparently zero awareness that the system they now fear actually is their father's legacy," journalist and activist Kirsten Han posted on Facebook.
Supporters of the prime minister asked him to take care of his health and expressed their faith in him. Lee, 65, had a health scare, stumbling at a podium during a speech last August, though doctors subsequently said there were no serious concerns.
"Pls do not let this affect your health, PM Lee.It's a trivial family matter which happens to lots of families. You are still our caring & loving PM," said Vanessa YC on Facebook.
Some, though, were less understanding.
"When ur siblings cannot trust you, how can we?" asked Facebook user SV Khanthan.
Analysts said it was too early to gauge the dispute's impact on the ruling People's Action Party (PAP). The next general election does not have to be held before April 2021.
"Thus far, the matter is confined to PM Lee and, to a much smaller extent, the government. The party is not yet on the radar screen," said Eugene Tan, associate professor of law at the Singapore Management University.
The heart of the dispute is about whether to demolish the house that Lee Kuan Yew lived in for most of his life at 38 Oxley Road, near the Orchard Road shopping district, capturing the attention of property-obsessed Singaporeans. Lee died in 2015.
"Do I care if 38 Oxley Road is demolished? No, because it doesn't affect the citizens," Facebook user Ethan Lee Yong Sheng posted.
"Do I care if Sungei Market was forced to cease operations? Yes, because a lot of elderly rely on that as their only source of income," the poster added, referring to a flea market that is due to shut next month to make way for future residential development.
(Reporting by Aradhana Aravindan; Editing by Martin Howell)