Exclusive: Lee Kuan Yew's grandson left Singapore because friends feared he would be detained

CAMBRIDGE, Massachusetts (Reuters) - A grandson of Lee Kuan Yew, Singapore’s late founding father and ruler for more than three decades, said he left the city state in July after friends expressed concerns he might be detained by the authorities in a contempt of court case.

Li Shengwu, nephew of Singapore's prime minister, who faces contempt of court proceedings in his homeland as he studies economics at Harvard University, is seen in Cambridge, Massachusetts, U.S. on August 12, 2017. Picture taken on August 12, 2017. REUTERS/Tim McLaughlin

“In Singapore, it is possible that one can be detained and interrogated for some time without a lawyer,” said Li Shengwu, whose uncle is the nation’s current Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, in an interview with Reuters. “My friends had warned me that they were concerned for my safety if I remained in Singapore.”

Li declined to identify his friends or disclose if they had specific information. Reuters has no independent evidence that Li Shengwu faced any threats to his safety.

The Prime Minister’s Press Secretary Chang Li Lin said it was “not accurate” to make points about detention and interrogation. “This is a well-established legal process. Clear laws and procedures apply to all cases of contempt, including this case involving Mr Li,” Chang said. “The courts will decide on the merits of the case.”

Li departed from the city-state on July 23 to return to the United States, more than a week sooner than he planned. Two days earlier, the attorney general’s chambers in Singapore had sent him a letter demanding he issue an apology and purge a July 15 Facebook post in which he had said that “the Singapore government is very litigious and has a pliant court system.”

In that letter, Senior State Counsel Francis Ng said the post was “an egregious and baseless attack” on the Singapore legal system. He asked Li to sign a declaration that he had made false allegations, was in contempt of the judiciary, and to apologize unreservedly.

On Aug 4, the attorney general’s chambers began contempt of court proceedings against Li in Singapore’s High Court. This followed Li’s decision not to remove the post or apologize.


Li’s troubles are related to a family feud that has erupted between Lee Kuan Yew’s three children over the fate of Lee’s house. The dispute has been simmering since Lee Kuan Yew died in 2015 but exploded into public view this summer in a highly unusual display of discord at the top of a country that usually keeps such matters behind closed doors.

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Li’s father, Lee Hsien Yang, and his aunt Lee Wei Ling have accused their older brother, the prime minister, of opposing their father’s wish as stated in his will to have the house demolished. They say that he wanted to turn it into a monument. The two siblings have also claimed that “the organs of the state” have been used against them in the dispute, though they have not produced specific evidence to back this up.

Li, 32, said he had been in Singapore to attend a friend’s birthday celebrations but missed those because of his sudden departure for Cambridge, Massachusetts, where he is a junior fellow at Harvard University. Li said in a previous interview earlier this month that he has no intention of returning to Singapore and would defend himself with legal representation in the city state.

The prime minister has previously said he is not involved in the current decision-making over the future of the house, and has denied there has been any abuse of state power.

A spokesperson for the attorney-general’s chambers declined to comment because the case is already before the court.

During the interview at his office on the Harvard campus, where he is doing post-doctoral work in economic theory and behavioral economics, Li questioned whether the People’s Action Party, which has ruled Singapore since 1959 and received almost 70 percent of the vote in the 2015 election, has too much control.

He called for more room for “healthy, loyal dissent” in Singapore. “I worry that Singapore’s ruling party tries too hard to maintain a monopoly on credibility,” said Li.


Li, who discloses in an online resume that he has a PhD in Economics from Stanford University and a Master of Philosophy degree from the University of Oxford, said his grandfather’s wish to tear down the house, a humbly furnished house near the Orchard shopping district, was to ensure that it did not become iconic and feed into a cult of personality.

Press Secretary Chang said the PAP forms the democratically elected government and that anyone dissatisfied with its performance can contest elections and try to convince voters they can do better as opposition parties regularly do.

And she said here was “no cult of LKY”, referring to the founder’s initials.

“Singaporeans are grateful to Mr Lee and the other founding leaders, and wish to honour their memory. That is natural and healthy,” she said.

While growing up, Li said his grandfather’s home was a regular gathering place for his family. Sunday lunch together was a regular fixture.

“There was a table for the adults and the children would read books or play games,” he said. “I saw my uncle and my cousins a lot growing up. I’d say we all got along well as late as three or four years ago ... The tragedy of this is that this is not what my grandfather would have wanted.”

Reporting by Tim McLaughlin; Edited by Martin Howell