The spectre of a Lee dynasty is casting a long shadow over Singaporean politics

The city-state's first family has become embroiled in a bitter fight over Lee Kuan Yew’s legacy, and the prime minister’s son, Li Hongyi, has been pegged as next in line for the throne

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August 1, 2017
The spectre of a Lee dynasty is casting a long shadow over Singaporean politics
Singapore prime minister Lee Hsien Loong pictured during a ceremony at the Istana Presidential Palace in Singapore, 05 July 2017. Photo: EPA/Wallace Woon

Who is he?
The second son of Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong and his wife Ho Ching – the latter being CEO of Singapore’s $196 billion sovereign wealth fund – 30-year-old Li Hongyi is deputy director of the Government Digital Services Data Science Division of the Government Technology Agency of Singapore. A graduate of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), which he attended on a top government scholarship, Hongyi completed a two-year stint at Google before returning to the city≠state to continue his rise through Singapore’s civil service.

Why is he in the news?
In a rare public falling out among Singapore’s first family, the prime minister’s brother and sister released a six-page statement condemning Hsien Loong’s alleged bid to twist their father’s political legacy to his own ends – and those of his children. In addition to accusations of abusing his authority as prime minister and stifling dissent in the press, the letter claimed Hsien Loong harbours political ambitions for his son Hongyi – a claim that, if true, could see a third generation of the Lee dynasty take control of the city-state.

Illustration by Antiochus Omissi

Are the accusations true?
Not according to his parents – or, for that matter, Hongyi himself. “For what it is worth, I really have no interest in politics,” he posted to Facebook in response to the statement from his aunt and uncle. Other observers are less convinced. Michael Barr, associate professor of international relations at Australia’s Flinders University, said that parallels between the rise of Hsien Loong and his son were clear. “All of his activities, including the controversy he raised while still in the army, are effective CV building,” he told the Financial Times

What’s the controversy?
While serving his compulsory military service, then-army second lieutenant Hongyi sent a stinging rebuke of one of his less-commendable colleagues directly to the minister of defence – as well as hundreds of other military officials. While the act, which earned Hongyi a swift reprimand from the Singapore Armed Forces, was deemed by many to be little more than the spoiled whining of a rich kid leaning on his family name, the controversy has also been read as an attempt to be seen as a man not bound by bureaucracy, but by principle.

Would Singaporeans accept another Prime Minister Lee?
Gillian Koh, deputy director at the Institute of Policy Studies at Singapore’s Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, said that the public had little appetite for dynastic politics. “I am not sure Singaporean voters would support [a third Lee prime minister],” she said. “Many do subscribe to Lee Kuan Yew’s philosophy that Singapore must be run on merit and performance, not on bloodline – and there will be many who can play the part.”

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