Notes on Singapore’s Oxley Road scandal

Notes on Singapore’s Oxley Road scandal


Number 38, Oxley Road appears to be a fairly unassuming, stuccoed, gated residence in Singapore’s central River Valley area.

However the old colonial bungalow’s political capital has soared in recent weeks as it has become the centre of a convoluted and heated debate surrounding Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong.

Since the middle of June, PM Lee has been mired in a series of allegations and rebuttals, aimed at him by his own siblings, in a very public spat over family property rights.

Lee’s brother and sister initially took to Facebook to accuse PM Lee of blocking their father’s wish to demolish the property at 38, Oxley Road. They also alleged that PM Lee had abused his power by hijacking organs of state and forming a ministerial committee to preserve the house.

The younger siblings, Dr Lee and Mr Lee Hsien Yang, are joint executors and trustees of the estate of their father, Mr Lee Kuan Yew, who died on March 23, 2015, at the age of 91. He also happened to be Singapore’s founding Prime Minister, who served from 1959 to 1990.

The family feud was then dragged into Parliament, with a two-day debate on the matter.

However the public airing of the prime-ministerial family’s dirty laundry points towards a deeper crisis surrounding the legitimacy of the island nation’s government.

The debacle brings to the surface questions surrounding the uninterrupted 58-year rule of the ruling party, the People’s Action Party, its family dynasty of PMs, and their use, or possible abuse, of ministerial power.

As PM Lee’s siblings put it: “It is impossible for Members of Parliament to effectively question PM Lee, when his party controls almost all the seats in the house.”

In a July letter to the New York Times, Singapore’s Ambassador to the United States, Ashok Kumar Mirpuri, rebutted as “absurd” the publication’s assertions that the debacle signified a larger “national crisis in Singapore”. However, many Singaporeans have been taking to social media and satirical news outlets to register their own, differing, thoughts on the scandal.

Barbed satirical memes also abound, many playing on the Singlish saying “to act like it’s your grandfather’s road” – normally aimed at road hogs – meaning to act like one has ancestral rights to drive how one pleases. One satirical film trailer, dubbed Dear Papa, goes a step further to dramatise the debacle in the style of a melodramatic Korean family saga.

In addition to the heated online debate, and satirical outpour, up to 400 Singaporeans gathered at Singapore’s Speaker Corner this July to demand a government inquiry into prime-ministerial abuse of power, with the slogan Singapore is for Singaporeans and not the FamiLee.

With the Lee family now promising to take the feud off social media, and out of Parliament, the historic bungalow may now retire from public view. Hopefully the flourishing of satire and public debate is a more permanent feature, in a nation with a government that is not used to laughing at itself.

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