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Singapore PM Lee’s estranged brother weighs presidential run

FILE PHOTO:  Lee Hsien Yang, the son of the late Lee Kuan Yew and the younger brother of Singapore Prime Minister, Lee Hsien Loong, joins the Progress Singapore Party (PSP) walkabout, led by party chief, Dr Tan Cheng Bock on June 24, 2020 in Singapore. Today, Lee Hsien Yang has formally joined the PSP, an opposition party to 'compete' against his brother in the forthcoming election after a long standing family feud between the two brothers about their late father's house. On June 23, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong has called for the General Election to be held on July 10 to seek a fresh mandate amid the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic. As of June 23, the total number of COVID-19 cases in the country stands at 42,432.  (Photo by Suhaimi Abdullah/Getty Images)

By Philip J. Heijmans

(Bloomberg) — The estranged younger brother of Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong is considering a run for the largely ceremonial role of president this year, a sign that an ongoing family feud could start to overshadow the city-state’s politics.

Lee Hsien Yang, 65, spoke about his plans to Bloomberg News after the government revealed an ongoing police investigation against him and his wife over the handling of the last will of his father Lee Kuan Yew, who founded modern Singapore.

“There is a view that depending on who they float, if I were to run they would be in serious trouble and could lose,” Lee Hsien Yang said by phone, referring to the ruling People’s Action Party headed by his brother. “A lot of people have come to me. They really want me to run. It’s something I would consider.”

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The Prime Minister’s Office didn’t immediately comment. The government has said the police investigation was an opportunity for Lee Hsien Yang and his wife Lee Suet Fern to vindicate themselves and their refusal to participate raises questions.

A former chief executive of Singtel, Lee Hsien Yang has lived in self-imposed exile in Europe for months along with his wife. He declined to say where they were residing. With the ongoing probe, Lee Hsien Yang said he was unsure “what the chances are that I will return to Singapore in the foreseeable future.”

While the prime minister runs the government in Singapore, the presidency holds some powers such as the right to veto spending bills or government requests to draw on past reserves, which was done to help shore up the budget during the pandemic. The president also must sign off on civil service appointments.

Although candidates for the presidential race are supposed to be non-partisan under Singapore’s constitution, the current president was a former senior official of the PAP, which has ruled Singapore since independence in 1965. The vote will give an indicator of the national mood ahead of a general election that must be called by November 2025, with the PAP seeking to win over younger voters facing rising living costs after suffering its worst-ever showing in the 2020 election.

The next national vote will also likely mark the end of Lee Hsien Loong’s roughly two decades in power. Deputy Prime Minister Lawrence Wong has been tapped to take the reins after another deputy, Heng Swee Keat, stepped aside as heir apparent in April 2021.

Discord among the Lee siblings has simmered for years since the patriarch’s death in 2015. It largely centres on whether a colonial-era bungalow near the glitzy shopping district where Lee Kuan Yew lived for most of his 91 years should be demolished.

Lee Hsien Loong, 71, has in the past expressed disappointment that his younger brother and sister Lee Wei Ling have publicised private family matters.

Lee Hsien Yang’s path to presidency will be difficult. He has to meet requirements set by the Presidential Elections Committee, which is stacked mostly with government officials, in order to qualify as a candidate. Critics have said in the past the committee has too much discretionary power to decide whether candidates are fit to run.

His wife Lee Suet Fern was suspended for 15 months from practicing law in 2020. She said at the time she disagreed with the punishment for professional misconduct in her handling of the will. Their son Li Sheng Wu was fined the same year for a private Facebook post that criticised the government over its handling of the matter.

This is not the first time Lee Hsien Yang has mulled running for public office. In 2020, he joined the opposition Progress Singapore Party and briefly flirted with the idea of competing against his brother in elections in what critics called a stunt to raise the profile of the opposition. Lee Hsien Yang said in a Facebook post then that he backed down as “Singapore doesn’t need another Lee.”

He was still front and centre of his party’s election campaign that yielded no outright electoral victories though a rule that mandates opposition representation in parliament awarded it two non-constituency seats. The PAP by contrast won 89% of the seats up for grabs but it was the worst showing for the ruling party as the opposition Workers’ Party made significant headway.

©2023 Bloomberg L.P.