The rich and modern metropolis of Singapore is frequently described as an “economic miracle”.
When Lee Kuan Yew, the principal architect and first prime minister of the wealthy island state, died in 2015, over a million Singaporean residents turned out to honour his memory and his accomplishments – not the least of was the creation of an effective and largely incorrupt government and civil service, which proved a huge magnet to foreign investors.
But with economic pressures increasing amid a growing appetite for greater democracy, Lee Kuan Yew’s complex legacy is coming under scrutiny.
That scrutiny has been given an extra edge over the past few months because of a bitter family dispute between Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong and his two younger siblings about what should happen to the house in which Lee spent most of his life.
This week, a ministerial committee laid out a range of options for the Oxley Road property. But Lee’s younger children insist their father was unwavering about wanting the house demolished after his death.
Li Shengwu, who works as an economist at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts, is the son of Lee Hsien Loong’s younger brother, Lee Hsien Yang. Three years after his grandfather’s death, Li talks to People & Power about the family feud, Singapore politics and LKY’s legacy.
Al Jazeera: Singaporeans first got wind of the family dispute when your father put up a Facebook post titled, “What has happened to Lee Kuan Yew’s values?”. What were your grandfather’s values?
Li Shengwu: You know, it [Singapore] is not sort of robustly democratic, right? There’s not great political competition, but at the very least there’s got to be competent excellence, there’s got to be rule of law, and there’s got to be very strict separation of the personal and the public. I think the worry is that this is being eroded quite substantially.
Al Jazeera: Your grandfather didn’t really believe in political competition.
Li Shengwu: I think the fair thing to say is that he believed in political competition as a very last resort. He didn’t want a model where there were multiple parties, where the parties took turns governing.
But there should be elections – if genuinely everything is going wrong then people should throw one set of politicians out. And that threat … should serve to discipline the party and keep it from abusing power.
I think the question is whether or not that’s a sustainable model. And in particular one worries if the very strong control of the present Singapore, the current legislative supermajority, allows for constitutional changes. All of these things very substantially mute the effects of electoral competition.
Al Jazeera: In your eulogy to your grandfather you spoke about the rule of law and about your grandfather’s desire not to have monuments to him. Was it because you believed that certain things would happen?
Li Shengwu: Having political legitimacy relate strongly to a brand name kind of inevitably mixes the personal and the public. The things I said in my eulogy come from a belief that there was a path for Singapore, there was a story for Singapore that says this is about a set of institutions and about abiding by the rule of law, and this isn’t about the cult of one man. At the time I gave the eulogy, I believed that was true. And I hope very much in the future that it will turn out to be true. But I’m less sure of that than I was back in 2015.
My grandfather had a vision for how Singapore politics should be without him. And part of that vision was that we shouldn't build shrines to him.
Al Jazeera: This is the tension that is quite hard to resolve, isn’t it? Because your grandfather was such a personality.
Li Shengwu: A lot of the stories Singapore tells itself is wrapped up with my grandfather and a lot of the stories the world has about Singapore is wrapped up with him. And that’s difficult. There’s a version of Singapore, sort of projecting 10, 20 years out, right? There’s a version of Singapore that says this is like a monarchy. You hand it on in the family with brief transitions in between. And there’s a version of Singapore that says my grandfather did a lot to build a modern society, and if you build the foundations of a society right, it shouldn’t depend on the continuance of one family line.
Those two visions are certainly in tension. And they are in tension in the stories that Singapore tells itself. That there is at once clearly immense respect for my grandfather among many people in Singapore, and there is a wish to believe that my grandfather is technocratic and not the province of personality politics and not the province of political dynasties. These stories are hard to make work together.
Al Jazeera: Your grandfather’s story featured a lot during the 2015 elections. The ruling PAP party won a landslide victory, and there seems to be this belief that since then because they had that landslide victory, they have the mandate to do whatever they like.
Li Shengwu: I worry a lot about this. I don’t feel like the last election was fought on policies. I think a lot of the last election seems to have been a vote of gratitude for what my grandfather did, rather than a vote of confidence for what the party will do or plans to do.
I don't feel like the last election was fought on policies. I think a lot of the last election seems to have been a vote of gratitude for what my grandfather did, rather than a vote of confidence for what the party will do or plans to do.
Al Jazeera: Would you be saying this if the feud hadn’t erupted?
Li Shengwu: I have been saying this to lots of my friends in private for a long time. I did a lot of competitive debating at university. I’ve had a lot of lively discussions about how governments work, and what it would mean for them to function well.
In the counterfactual where the feud hadn’t erupted and I was reasonably confident in the ruling party and in the fact that it was performing well, for the most part, I think I would have remained quite quiet because I think it’s valuable in Singapore that there be a transition away from the family brand name.
Al Jazeera: Why did your father and aunt decide to go public over the fate of your grandfather’s house?
Li Shengwu: My grandfather didn’t ask much of them. But he did ask that they made sure that this wish was respected, and he was incredibly explicit about this. He said it on TV. He said it in writing. He said it over and over again.
The sort of choice that my father and aunt faced was that if they were going to keep quiet, it seemed reasonably foreseeable that the government was going to disregard my grandfather’s last wish.
But more than that that there was seemingly a desire to rewrite history about what that last wish was. There is a wish to claim somehow that my grandfather changed his mind, in the teeth of all the evidence. And I think that there was a point where my father and my aunt decided they wouldn’t be able to live with themselves if they’d kept quiet about this.
Al Jazeera: Does it feel as if they’re milking his legacy while ignoring his last wish?
Li Shengwu: My grandfather had a vision for how Singapore politics should be without him. And part of that vision was that we shouldn’t build shrines to him. That we shouldn’t be that kind of country.
One of the things that’s remarkable to me is that the government has wanted to frame this as a narrative about what my grandfather wishes to be done with his own private property. And although that is part of the problem, the bigger part of the problem is whether they think that he was … whether or not he was making a wise decision about the building of shrines and monuments to him.
And it just seems remarkable to me that the things he said about that just don’t seem to be absorbed in the way the modern party sort of goes about referencing him. He gets quoted at every corner. There’s a continual attempt to harken back to his legacy, and I can’t help but think that, surely, he would have wanted the party to fail or succeed on its own merits or on its own policies without having to constantly remind everybody of its special connection to him.
Al Jazeera: Is there a contradiction between having that kind of vision, and letting his own son go into politics?
Li Shengwu: I think a lot of parents have blind spots for their children. Every parent wants to believe that their child is very special. And especially to be trusted. And if you had something that you cared a lot about, it is not unreasonable for you to believe – truly or falsely – that your child might be a good caretaker of that. This is something that happens in a lot of businesses, right? There are a lot of family businesses that keep being family businesses long after they should have become publicly listed companies.
I’m not sure why my grandfather chose his own son and was willing to have his own son go into politics and be prime minister. But all I can say is that … if there’s one person in the world you’re going to overestimate, it’s your own child. And so this is not an inhuman error.
I'm not sure why my grandfather ... was willing to have his own son go into politics and be prime minister. But all I can say is that ... if there's one person in the world you're going to overestimate, it's your own child.
Al Jazeera: Your father and aunt said that Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong and his wife Ho Ching have political ambitions for their son, your cousin Hongyi. Do you think he wants a political career?
Li Shengwu: If he doesn’t want it, all he has to do is publicly say that he doesn’t intend to do it.
Al Jazeera: He has said that he has no interest in politics.
Li Shengwu: The thing about not being interested is that it’s cheap not to be interested. You can remain uninterested until you become interested. I can’t read my cousin’s mind. All I can say is that if he didn’t want to be in politics, he could have said things a lot more clearly and in a way that would be at least a little bit difficult to walk back.
Al Jazeera: Are you interested in politics?
Li Shengwu: No. I think there’s an issue of principle and there’s an issue of personality. I think any involvement by me in Singapore politics would have the fairly toxic effect of helping to tip Singapore into the kind of country where it matters whether or not you’re a Clinton or a Gandhi. Where you know legitimacy is fought out not because of what you did, not because of what you will do, but because of who you are.
And it seems that there’s no way that that works out well. But also, just as a matter of personality, I really, really dislike managing people. I really can’t work with having subordinates. It makes me feel incredibly awkward.
Al Jazeera: Do you worry about the possible dismantling of your grandfather’s legacy?
Li Shengwu: Yes, I worry a lot. So, there are two histories we could be telling ourselves 20 years from now. There’s a history that says that my grandfather… made a great contribution to Singapore’s development – helped make it become a modern society, with sort of professional, unimpeachable government, where policies are assessed on their merits and politicians are assessed on their performance. And his legacy would be unlike many models of independence leaders, who were big personalities, that he would have managed to create good institutions that would outlast him.
And there is a model, 20 years from now, where we look back on Singapore and say, “This is just one more country where it had a good leader (and there are lots of early independence leaders who did great things for their country) and it’s still circling the orbit of what used to be.”
Al Jazeera: And if that were to happen, would it be because of the system he did set up?
Li Shengwu: This is difficult. It’s certainly true that at various points in Singapore’s early development, an argument was made that Singapore isn’t ready for these kinds of political liberties, open contestation and so on. “It’s not ready yet” is the argument that I think my grandfather and a lot of his contemporaries made.
Singapore is now, by reasonable per capita measures, as rich as any country in the world could be. If it’s not ready now, it’s never going to be ready.
Al Jazeera: What do you think will be a good outcome during the next elections?
Li Shengwu: I don’t know. But, I think that it would be better if the modern PAP felt the heat a bit and didn’t feel like they can rule with impunity. Certainly, I would worry if they got another legislative supermajority because I am not confident in the way they’ve been using that power recently.
Robust political systems don’t work on the people at the top sort of being magically and luckily of goodwill and character. They work because they place a set of incentives that make governments behave well. And I would like the next elections in Singapore to reflect strong incentives in that direction.