“THIS IS NOT A KOREAN DRAMA SHOW!”

Workers’ Party leader Low Thia Khiang made the above comment during his speech at the highly-anticipated 3 July Parliament session. And it was just as well it wasn’t k-drama, or the series would have tanked due to pacing, plotting and general lack of good-looking characters (what can I say, I wasn’t sitting on the side facing Selfie Baey).

It was meant to be a big day; Lee Hsien Loong promised. In a heartfelt apology to the nation (which he repeated again today), he said he would address all concerns regarding abuse of power that had been triggered by his siblings’ serious allegations. He promised that the Party Whip would be lifted, which got many people excited because it isn’t all that common for the Party Whip to be lifted in Singapore.

Then we got into the House today, and he said:

“I have told the PAP MPs that I am lifting the Party Whip. Strictly speaking, there is no Whip to lift, since no vote will be taken.”

He went on to explain that he said it to indicate his expectation that all Members of Parliament — including those from his own party — subject him to a “robust questioning”.

Both he and Deputy Prime Minister Teo Chee Hean made ministerial statements about the Lee family feud and the ministerial committee that so irked Lee Wei Ling and Lee Hsien Yang. Much of what they said were reiterations of statements and comments that had been made previously, so I won’t go into them too much; you can read their statements for yourself here and here.

There were some pretty good points made and important questions asked throughout the afternoon, but the running theme of today’s parliamentary session was #AsianEmotionalBlackmail.

Lee Hsien Loong began the trend himself, with this explanation of why, despite promising us that the same rules apply to everyone, he would sue anyone who made allegations against him except his own siblings:

Many people have asked me why I am not taking legal action, to challenge the will, or sue for defamation, or take some other legal action to put a stop to this and clear my name. These are valid questions. I took advice and considered my options very carefully. I believe I have a strong case. In normal circumstances, in fact, in any other imaginable circumstance than this, I would sue immediately because the accusation of the abuse of power is a very grave one, however baseless it may be and it is in fact an attack not just on me, but on the integrity of the whole Government. But, suing my own brother and sister in court would further besmirch our parents’ names.

Suing opposition politicians, media publications, bloggers = protecting your integrity and reputation

Suing your siblings = #ShameUponTheFamily

Many of the speeches that followed contained plenty of hand-wringing over how heartbroken, sad and angry Mr Lee Kuan Yew would be if he only saw Singapore now, with everyone gawping at his children brawling on Facebook. There were plenty of references to Singapore’s reputation or brand, as built by LKY. Many MPs seemed bereft at the thought of our “founding father” looking down on us disapprovingly, feeling the ache in his spirit-heart, because we’d collectively let him down by turning his precious Singapore into an international laughing stock. It was totally like the time the Chinese teacher showed my primary four class her medical certificate and told us that it was our fault for giving her high blood pressure and making her ill. #AsianEmotionalBlackmail

(And speaking of “international” — what of the “screaming headlines” in the international press making us look bad? More #ShameUponTheFamily!)

Despite Lee Hsien Loong’s best efforts, some MPs failed to get the memo about “vigorous” questioning, and simply gave speeches to defend the prime minister and the government.

Sun Xueling, for example, responded to Leader of the Opposition Low Thia Khiang’s speech by saying that she could see how “the prime minister is being wronged and how he is exercising forbearance”. She pooh-poohed concerns over the independence of the ministerial committee from the prime minister —

“I think that would be akin to saying that the Health Minister should not have family members using Singapore’s health services or that the Minister of National Development should not buy a house,” she said in a comment that, frankly, left me stun like vegetable.

Janil Puthucheary, too, made a valiant effort to #StandWithLHL, defending Parliament as an appropriate arena to deal with the Lee family feud after MPs like Pritam Singh from the Workers’ Party suggested that a parliamentary debate — devoid of the participation of Lee Wei Ling and Lee Hsien Yang — would not be able to put the matter to rest. Puthucheary declared that Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong had set the bar “very very high” when it came to good conduct in avoiding conflicts of interest, and urging the rest of the House to “end this saga now” by expressing satisfaction with what they had heard from the government.

Interspersed between the many reminders of Lee Kuan Yew’s legacy and the need for us to honour it — more #AsianEmotionalBlackmail, yay! — were, finally, good questions from MPs and NMPs like Zaqy Mohamad, Louis Ng, Sylvia Lim, Pritam Singh, Kok Heng Leun, etc. Here are some of the key ones (not verbatim):

  • Why did Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong not challenge the will in court?
  • Since probate was granted, why is the ministerial committee not taking Lee Kuan Yew’s last will at face value — does the committee not accept the will as an expression of his last wishes?
  • Why was there a need for the ministerial committee, which is not mentioned as part of the usual process in either the Preservation of Monuments Act or the Planning Act?
  • Why have a ministerial committee now, when the decision is likely only to be made by a future government, by which point things (such as the family’s thoughts on the matter) could have changed?
  • Under what circumstances are ministerial committees created to consider heritage issues? Have ministerial committees been convened to consider other buildings of potential heritage value, such as the old National Library?
  • What official role does Ho Ching have, to be able to be identified as a point of contact for the Prime Minister’s Office?
  • Can a Parliamentary Select Committee be convened to investigate the allegations of abuse of power publicly (they can also call on Lee Wei Ling, Lee Hsien Yang and all others involved/implicated for public testimony)?
  • How long had Lucien Wong been Lee Hsien Loong’s personal lawyer before his appointment as Attorney-General? Was the president aware of this connection and conflict of interest before he appointed Lucien Wong to the role? Why was this connection with the prime minister not disclosed at the time of his appointment?

To all the MPs — whether PAP or not — who got these great questions into the Hansard:

With so many MPs queuing up to make speeches, the session went on, and on, and on. I was determined to stick it out for the entire thing, but at about 6:40pm I started to hear this soft, high-pitched whimpering sound, which I eventually worked out was coming from me. I don’t think I missed that much, though, because the session came to a close not too long after, to be continued tomorrow.

There was some sycophancy, as expected, but I was glad to see good questions put out there. Lee Wei Ling’s already posted on Facebook, though, so anyone wishing that a parliamentary session is going to put an end to this social media spectacle is going to be sadly disappointed. It also remains to be seen what the answers and responses from Lee Hsien Loong and his government will be like, because anyone who’s observed parliamentary questions before (from any country, to be fair, and not just Singapore) will know that good questions don’t necessary lead to good answers.

And one more thing…

This #OxLeeFeud has put us in a weird position, where many usual critics of politicians’ penchant for defamation lawsuits are now suggesting that Lee Hsien Loong sue his rogue siblings.

It makes sense if one’s approaching it from the “I’m merely pointing out the ridiculous double standards here” angle (and okay, let’s stop pretending to be mature and all admit that Lee Hsien Loong taking his siblings to court for defamation would be a massive popcorn moment for Singapore), but do we really want to be perpetuating this litigious culture?

I haven’t fully decided how to feel about it just yet. Sure, it seems unfair that people like Roy Ngerng and J B Jeyaretnam were forced to pay tons in damages while Lee Wei Ling and Lee Hsien Yang are getting away with it despite having made waaaaay more serious allegations, but at the same time, it’s good that Lee Hsien Loong is publicly addressing these accusations without resorting to scary lawsuits that affect free speech in Singapore. Surely we should be encouraging such responses, and pushing for ways to make them more thorough, transparent and accountable, rather than calling for more legal action?


3 July 2017: The #OxLeeFeud in Parliament was originally published in The Spuddings Blog on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.