SINGAPORE (Reuters) - At the end of an extraordinary two-day parliamentary debate on Tuesday, Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong declared that it had found no evidence that he had abused his power in a dispute with his siblings over their late father’s house.
“Even the opposition is not accusing the government of abuse of power,” Lee said in an emotional speech, his voice quavering and eyes tearing up as he rued the breakdown in relations with his brother and sister.
Since mid-June, Singaporeans have been riveted by a public battle between the heirs of Lee Kuan Yew, Singapore’s long-serving first prime minister who died in March 2015, over whether to demolish the old family home or let the government decide whether it should become a heritage site.
Before his death, Lee had made it public that he wanted the humbly furnished home near the bustling Orchard Road shopping district to be demolished rather than turned into some kind of museum.
He stated that in his last will, part of which was released by the prime minister’s younger brother last month. But the prime minister has said there were “deeply troubling circumstances” over how the will was drawn up.
The prime minister’s brother and sister, Lee Hsien Yang and Lee Wei Ling, accuse him of being disingenuous and abusing his power by using a government committee to look at options for the house.
They both want the house to be demolished once Lee Wei Ling ceases to live there, in accordance with their father’s will.
The prime minister, who recused himself from the committee, has said that while he personally favours honouring his father’s wishes the government should ultimately decide what should be done.
It was the accusations of abuse of power that prompted Lee to call a special sitting of parliament to “clear the air” over an issue that some people say has tarnished Singapore’s image.
He removed the Party Whip allowing lawmakers from the ruling People’s Action Party (PAP) to question their own cabinet regardless of the party line. The PAP controls 83 of the 89 elected seats in parliament.
Lee reiterated that he was against suing his brother and sister, Lee Hsien Yang and Lee Wei Ling, for defamation. Such action, he said, would risk dragging out the affair and further damage his parents’ name.
“This is not a soap opera,” Lee said at the end of his concluding speech. “We must all get back to work.”
During the debate, Goh Chok Tong, who ran the country for 14 years after Lee Kuan Yew’s stepped aside in 1990, defended the prime minister’s character, and voiced understanding over his reluctance to sue his own kin.
“The dispute over 38 Oxley Road is only a fig leaf for the deep cracks within the family, cracks which perhaps started decades ago. What is the agenda of PM’s accusers?” said Goh.
“From what Lee Hsien Yang and his wife are freely telling many others, it is clear that their goal is to bring Lee Hsien Loong down as PM, regardless of the huge collateral damage suffered by the government and Singaporeans,” said Goh, who holds the honorary title Emeritus Senior Minister.
Lee Hsien Yang has said he and his wife, lawyer Lee Suet Fern, would be leaving Singapore because they felt closely monitored and hugely unwelcome.
Earlier on Tuesday, Lee Hsien Yang took aim at the prime minister’s statement to parliament at the outset of the debate.
“LHL (Lee Hsien Loong) has made convoluted, ultimately false claims about Lee Kuan Yew’s wishes. LHL is trying to suggest that because LKY signed some renovation plans in early 2012, he was open to preservation of the house,” Lee Hsien Yang said in a posting on Facebook.
Prime Minister Lee addressed that accusation in parliament.
“The simple answer is that I did not deceive my father... my father’s primary wish on the house had always been clear - he always wanted it knocked down,” he said.
“Where my siblings and I differ is on whether my father was prepared to consider alternatives should demolition not be possible.”
Writing by Simon Cameron-Moore; Editing by Robert Birsel and Neil Fullick