New Naratif translates The Initium’s interview (paywall) with Li Shengwu in full, with minor edits, additional commentary and notes by New Naratif. Our thanks to The Initum for permission to republish this article.
The fiery feud between members of Singapore’s first family has spread its flame to its third generation. What happened to Lee Kuan Yew’s spiritual values and political legacy?
By Li Jiajia, a Boston-based correspondent
In June 2017, a very public quarrel erupted between Lee Kuan Yew’s three children over the future of 38 Oxley Road—the family house of Lee Kuan Yew, first Prime Minister of Singapore. This sparked great controversy. For nearly a month, the siblings and members of Singapore’s first family engaged in a battle of words online, exposing the family feud to spectators around the world.
The family row later spread to the third generation. Li Shengwu, the nephew of Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong and son of Lee Hsien Yang, the PM’s younger brother, was drawn in. Li is a junior economics research fellow at Harvard University. In July 2017, while in Singapore for his summer holidays, Li posted a Wall Street Journal article on his Facebook page, and commented that the article was a good summary of the dispute. He also linked to a New York Times article on censorship and the use of defamation laws in Singapore to censor the foreign press, commenting that “the Singapore Government is very litigious and has a pliant court system”.
[Note 1: To clarify the chronology: the “pliant” comment, with a link to the Wall Street Journal article, was posted on 15 July. The New York Times article was linked on 5 August.]
In response, the Attorney-General’s Chambers (AGC) initiated proceedings for contempt of court against him. Li left Singapore for the United States sooner than planned because he thought he might be detained by the authorities over the issue.
At the beginning of the new semester, I met this young man on the Harvard campus, far away from Singapore, separated from his home by the Pacific Ocean. Catching a glimpse of him from a distance, he looked thin and rather bashful. He smiled when he saw me, gave me a courteous and a warm greeting, and gracefully gestured, “What do you want to drink? I’m buying.” It reminded me his grandfather’s most interesting nickname—“the best bloody English gentleman east of Suez”.
[Note 2: George Brown, British Foreign Secretary (1966-68) memorably called Lee Kuan Yew “the best bloody English gentleman east of Suez”, not just because Lee spoke and behaved like an English gentleman, but because Lee was a close collaborator with the British in perpetuating the British military presence and Western economic neocolonialism in Asia against his fellow Asians. Brown’s comment is a classic British backhanded compliment, praising Lee while contemptuously tearing him down. It calls to mind Zhou En-Lai’s equivalent dismissal of Lee as a “banana—yellow of skin, white underneath”, implying that Lee was inauthentically Asian, or worse, a “running dog” traitor to his fellow former colonised peoples. The context of the paragraph above, however, suggest that the correspondent is unaware of this context and is merely praising Li’s manners.]
Although he appeared calm, Li has obviously been under great pressure of late. “I certainly can’t go back to Singapore anytime soon, but it doesn’t matter,” he said, “After all, I am not the only one that can’t return to his homeland. It is no big deal.”
[Note 3: Li is referring to Singapore’s numerous political exiles, including Ho Juan Thai, Ang Swee Chai, Tan Wah Piow, Mr & Mrs Tan Hee Kim, Chan Sun Wing, Mr & Mrs He Jin, and Juliet Chin, among many others. Many others have passed away in exile, including most recently Francis Seow, Wong Soon Fong, and Liu Bo. Some of the exiles were interviewed in Tan Pin Pin’s documentary, To Singapore With Love. For a member of the Singapore’s first family to join their ranks is ironic, yet this fits in with Li’s argument that Singapore is being set up for a familial succession. Monarchies have long ensured a smooth monarchical succession by eliminating other possible claimants to the throne and potential threats . We have seen this most recently in Saudi Arabia.]
“I cannot apologise for a crime I did not commit”
Li posted on Facebook, “the Singapore Government is very litigious and has a pliant court system”. It was a private post meant only for friends, not for public viewing and republication.
However, the Singapore AGC issued a warning letter to Li, describing the post as “an egregious and baseless attack” on the Singapore judiciary and stating that it constituted contempt of court. It demanded he apologise and delete the posts. Under the Protection of Justice (Administration) Act passed by the Singapore Parliament last year, anyone who “maliciously attacks the judiciary” may be sentenced to imprisonment of not more than three years or a fine of not more than S$100,000.
[Note 4: A public campaign last year—which included New Naratif co-founders Kirsten Han and Dr PJ Thum— warned that the Protection of Justice (Administration) Bill was so vague that, if passed into law, it could effectively criminalise any comment, including legitimate comment, on any court case. While Law Minister K Shanmugam denied the new law would be used to suppress freedom of expression, the PAP government has a long history of repurposing laws ostensibly aimed at a legitimate problem for political purposes. Examples include the Internal Security Act, the Vandalism Act, and the Maintenance of Religious Harmony Act. However, the correspondent is probably unaware that the Administration of Justice (Protection) Act had passed Parliament but was not yet in force at the time of Li’s alleged offence. The AGC is probably proceeding based on the old case law.]
Li refused to abide by the AGC’s demands.
After returning to Cambridge, Massachusetts, on 4 August, Li posted his reply to the AGC on Facebook, explaining that his previous post had been taken out of context. In his five-page letter to the AGC, he clarified that he had no intention of attacking the judicial system in Singapore nor undermining public confidence in the administration of justice. He explained that the reference to “a pliant court system” and the attached media article on censorship did not mean that he supported all of the contents. He argued that he did not say or impute that the Singapore judiciary acts on the direction of the Singapore government, or that it is not independent, or that it will continue to rule in favour of the Singapore government in any proceedings regardless of the merits of each individual case.
Although he did not delete the post and apology as required by the AGC, Li wrote that in order to avoid any misunderstanding of his original private post, he had amended the post to clarify its meaning.
But this explanation and response did not convince the AGC. The AGC filed an application in the High Court for leave to commence proceedings against Li Shengwu for “contempt of court in connection with the publication of a Facebook article.” In mid-November, the first pre-trial conference was held. Li has appointed a lawyer in Singapore to act on his behalf during the case.
When I asked him why he did not delete the post and apologise as required by the AGC to avoid potential judicial trouble, Li Shengwu looked indifferent yet determined. “I cannot apologise for a crime I did not commit,” he said.
[Note 5: He is echoing Singapore’s longest political prisoner, Chia Thye Poh. Chia was detained without trial in 1966 under the Internal Security Act (ISA), and the ISA restrictions were not lifted until 1998. He was told that if he signed a document renouncing violence he would be released, but he refused. He later explained, “to renounce violence is to imply you advocated violence before. If I had signed that statement, I would not have lived in peace.”]
“Why are you not going back to defend yourself?” I asked him.
“If there’s a grey area, I might go back and defend myself. But it’s a simple and clear case, so I’ll just let my lawyer act for me.”
“The country must be bigger than one family”
In June 2017, Li and his cousin Li Hongyi, the son of Lee Hsien Loong, both took the initiative to intervene in the dispute between their fathers and aunt Lee Wei Ling. This intervention of the third generation of the Lee family became one of the most heavily discussed scenes of the affair.
“Abuse of power and to further their political ambitions for their son Li Hongyi” were key accusations made by Lee Hsien Yang and Lee Wei Ling against Lee Hsien Loong and his wife Ho Ching. Soon after that, Li Hongyi posted on Facebook: “For what it is worth, I really have no interest in politics.”
His cousin Li stated even more determinedly: “I believe that it would be bad for Singapore if any third-generation Lee went into politics. The country must be bigger than one family.”
Li Shengwu, born in 1985, and Li Hongyi, who is two years younger, were once very close. The two high flying post-’85 boys worked hard in the United States and were close for many years. After studying economics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Li Hongyi worked as a product manager at Google Inc. in Silicon Valley, California. At that time, Li Shengwu was studying economics at Stanford University in California. He remembers that the two got along well on the west coast. At the time, the two families also often met and had a harmonious relationship.
“We are no longer on speaking terms,” said Li Shengwu with a wry smile, “But he is still among my Facebook friends. I did not delete any friends from my Facebook.”
“A politician inevitably has to lie. I do not want to lie about my beliefs, therefore I would not be a competent politician”
Li Hongyi was awarded a scholarship to study in the United States when he was young. The scholarship was provided by the Singapore Government’s Public Service Commission. In 2013, he returned to Singapore to work for Govtech. Li Shengwu shares his aunt and father’s fears—he believes that his uncle is indeed paving the way for Li Hongyi to enter politics, and Li Hongyi’s attitude is very vague. “He said that he has no interest in politics, but my uncle Lee Hsien Loong also said that when he was in his 20s. These words are easily retractable.”
“So what about you? You also said that you’re not interested in politics. You won’t change your mind?” I asked.
“No, I’d be a very bad politician if I participated in politics. I totally don’t fit,” Li said seriously. “I believe I can be a first-rate economist and my second love is mathematics. That’s where my passions lie. ”
“Why? If you don’t go into politics, how would you know?”
“A politician inevitably has to lie. I do not want to lie about my beliefs, therefore I would not be a competent politician,” Li replied, smiling.
“Singapore no longer needs a leader from the Lee family”
In the first family dispute, although Lee Kuan Yew’s home provided the trigger, the core of the dispute revolved around Lee Kuan Yew’s spiritual values and political legacy. Opposed to personal worship and deification, Lee Kuan Yew objected to statues and monuments during his lifetime. He emphasised that, in order to prevent the house from being treated as a sacred place for worship, he wished it demolished after his death.
One of the main accusations made by Lee Hsien Yang and Lee Wei Ling against their elder brother is that Lee Hsien Loong violated their father’s wish to have the house demolished after their father’s death, as he wants to preserve the house for his own political benefit.
When Lee Kuan Yew passed away in 2015, Li, then aged 30, received widespread public accolades for the eulogy he delivered at the funeral. His speech, which focused on personal worship and political legacy, has over 650,000 views on YouTube.
Li Shengwu’s eulogy for his grandfather (Singapore Prime Minister’s Office/YouTube)
Two quotes stand out:
“What is an institution? It is a way of doing things that outlive the one who builds it.”
“A strong institution is robust, it is persistent. It does not depend precariously on individual personalities. It places the rule of law above the rule of man. And that is the sacrifice for being a builder of institutions.”
Li Shengwu does not conceal his beliefs. He feels that the current Singapore government is still using the aura of his grandfather to enhance its political capital. “I think Singaporeans and Singapore government should not always mention Lee Kuan Yew. The system is more important.”
“If you really think that Singapore has problems with governance and you care about the future of your country, why not participate in politics? You can either join an opposition party or even set up your own opposition party to fight for your beliefs. Actions speak louder than words, ” I ask again.
“Singapore does not need a Lee to lead anymore, on either side of the camp,” Li replied. “Like the United States. Hillary was certainly better than Trump, but Americans don’t need another Clinton.”
“To build institutions is to cede power—is to create a system that will not forever rely on you”
After finishing his secondary education, Lee Hsien Yang, Li’s father, was awarded the President’s Scholarship and the Singapore Armed Forces Overseas Scholarship to study at the University of Cambridge in the UK, and graduated from Trinity College, Cambridge with a double first in engineering. He served in the Singapore Armed Forces after graduation and held the rank of Brigadier-General. He later served as CEO of Singtel and is currently Chairman of the Singapore Civil Aviation Authority. Lim Suet Fern, his wife, is the daughter of economist Lim Chong Yah, a graduate of the University of Oxford, who has been highly influential over Singapore’s economic policies. Suet Fern received her first-class Honours Degree from the University of Cambridge. She joined the global law firm Morgan Lewis Bockius LLP as its partner in Singapore, and is a practicing barrister.
Growing up in this elite family, Li lived up to expectations. His name comes from the classic poem, Shi Jing, and means to follow the way of Zhou Wu Wang, the first emperor of the Zhou dynasty.
[Note 6: King Zhou (reigned 1046–1043 BC) is famous for overthrowing the Shang dynasty. Little else is known about him. If Li were to follow the way of Zhou, he would have to overthrow the current ruling house of Singapore. It is not known if Li is aware of this irony. Yet it would be fitting: in general, the great heroes of the civilisations of Asia are men who overthrew the previous government and established their own. This is in direct contradiction with Lee Kuan Yew’s “Asian values” discourse which argued that Asians had a preference for social harmony, and loyalty and respect towards figures of authority.]
Like his grandparents and parents, he too studied in England. In 2009, he graduated from the University of Oxford as the valedictorian of his course. Representing the University of Oxford debate team, he won best debater in several international competitions.
The media reported at that time: “He is the third Singaporean to win the honour of Best Debater, and even his father, Lee Hsien Yang, said that he had given up trying to argue with him many years ago”.
Li completed his Master’s degree in politics and economics from the Cambridge University in 2011, then left the UK to pursue a doctorate at Stanford University in California, USA. He went over to Massachusetts after his graduation from Stanford to begin work as a junior economics research fellow at Harvard.
“If nothing else happens, I will become an assistant professor next year and I will progress gradually along the tenure track,” said Li Shengwu. “I chose not to apply for a Singapore government scholarship, so now there is no bond to return to Singapore.”
[Note 7: For a discussion on the failings and inherent biases of the Singapore Armed Forces Scholarship, please see “Singapore’s Paper Generals“.]
In June, after publicly accusing his elder brother Lee Hsien Loong of abuse of public power and fearful of being monitored, his mother and father moved to Hong Kong. Li said he was not worried about missing his parents nor about being unable to return to Singapore in the short term. “I left Singapore to study in the United Kingdom and the United States when I was a teenager. It’s been 12 years. I am already used to it.”
I asked him if he was afraid of being prosecuted by the AGC. He replied matter-of-factly, “Fear is pointless. They have prosecuted me. I’ll face it.”
“Does it affect your work and life at all?”
“It doesn’t matter. I’ve put all my time and energy into academia,” he said. “I’ve just finished writing a paper and I feel very fulfilled.”
[Note 8: Li Shengwu’s academic papers can be found on his website.]
By this time, it was evening. Li stood up to leave, apologising, “I have to go back and cook.”
I was surprised and joked that I thought he would drive a luxury car and live a comfortable life with servants.
“There’s no one here who knows my family and identity, and I’ve always taken care of myself. My cooking is very simple, only chicken with rice,” he laughs. “Not complicated at all.”
He opened up a black umbrella, and quickly disappeared into the rainy campus.
“To build institutions is to cede power—is to create a system that will not forever rely on you.”
Trapped in the whirlpool, this is perhaps this young man’s most sincere belief about his grandfather.
If you enjoyed this article and would like to join our movement to create space for research, conversation, and action in Southeast Asia, please join New Naratif as a member—it’s just US$52/year (US$1/week)!