Singapore’s prime minister said he would not take legal action over claims by his siblings that he had abused his power in a dispute over their father’s legacy, in a departure for a governing elite that has routinely used the threat of libel action to stifle free speech.
Lee Hsien Loong on Monday said he would have sued under normal circumstances but feared that legal action in this case would “further besmirch my parents’ names”.
The prime minister, who described the siblings’ claims as “baseless” and added that they had damaged Singapore’s reputation, warned that no other critic would escape court.
“I believe I have a strong case. In normal circumstances, in fact, in any other imaginable circumstance than this, I would have sued immediately,” Mr Lee said.
Human rights groups say Singapore’s leaders regularly use defamation laws to stifle freedom of expression and muzzle opposition politicians.
The prime minister spoke in parliament on Monday in an effort to settle a bitter family dispute at the apex of tightly-controlled Singapore.
The public battle between the children of Singapore’s founding father Lee Kuan Yew has focused attention on the closely held nature of power in the city-state.
Members of the Lee family have secured some of the highest positions in political and corporate life in Singapore.
Mr Lee said in parliament: “As your prime minister, I deeply regret that this has happened and apologise to Singaporeans for this. As a son, I am pained at the anguish this strife would have caused my parents to feel if they were still alive.”
Lee Kuan Yew, who was prime minister from 1959 to 1990, is credited with transforming Singapore from an imperial trading outpost into one of Asia’s major financial centres.
Under his leadership Singapore became the most prosperous nation in Southeast Asia while keeping the door closed on free speech and political competition.
The People’s Action party founded by Mr Lee has governed the country for five unbroken decades but has recently faced public discontent over migration, high housing prices and overcrowding on public transport.
The Lee family argument takes place as Singapore comes under pressure from the swift rise of China, coupled with uncertainty over US strategy in Asia.
Singapore’s foreign policy elite are publicly quarrelling over how to handle this challenge, with Kishore Mahbubani, a former Singapore diplomat, writing at the weekend that the city-state must act more humbly now that it no longer has a formidable leader who commands the world’s respect. “We are now in the post-Lee Kuan Yew era,” Mr Mahbubani wrote in the Straits Times.
The trigger for the Lee family dispute is the fate of the family home, a bungalow in the Orchard Road district that Singapore’s founding prime minister wanted demolished after his death.
The prime minister’s younger brother Lee Hsien Yang and sister Lee Wei Ling claim he has failed to honour their father’s wishes.
“Hsien Loong’s political power is related to being Lee Kuan Yew’s son and thus he has every incentive to preserve Lee Kuan Yew’s house to inherit his credibility,” the siblings said in a statement released on Facebook last month.
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