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The feud among Singapore's ruling family

SCOTT DETROW, HOST:

It's been eight years since Singapore's founding father Lee Kuan Yew died. Ever since, his children have been fighting over the family home, and it's a conflict that shows no signs of ending. And it's also one that has exposed the cracks in Singapore's carefully crafted democratic narrative. NPR's Emily Feng reports.

EMILY FENG, BYLINE: Singapore's founding father, Lee Kuan Yew, was clear about what he wanted to see happen to his house, located on a leafy street of the Southeast Asian city-state.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

LEE KUAN YEW: I told the cabinet, when I'm dead, demolish it. I have seen other houses - Nehru's, Shakespeare - and it's a shambles after a while.

FENG: Lee also wrote this in his will before his death in 2015. One of the proponents of knocking the colonial-style house down, per the will, is the father of Shengwu Li. The younger Li is now an economics professor at Harvard. However, he says his uncle is opposed to tearing the house down.

SHENGWU LI: But, you know, my uncle being the prime minister of Singapore, he has other ways to get his way.

FENG: That uncle, Lee Hsien Loong, has been prime minister since 2004. His office referred NPR to a 2017 statement, in which he states his belief is his father was open to renovating the property for his sister to live in. And that has meant this family feud over a house has become a matter of national concern.

LI: There's this, you know, hidden ministerial committee that's meant to try to figure out what my grandfather really wanted - really, really wanted about his house.

FENG: This year, Shengwu Li's parents fled the country after the state opened a new perjury investigation into them over the house dispute. Shengwu Li himself left in a hurry in 2017 after penning a private Facebook post accusing the Singaporean state of using lawsuits to silence critics.

LI: It used to be illegal in Britain to say mean things about judges. So there's this old colonial-era law called scandalizing the judiciary, which is a special kind of contempt of court. And the government, you know, through the attorney general's chambers, maintains that I have scandalized the judiciary.

FENG: Li was fined and disqualified three years later from running for public office by the attorney general's office, which is run by his uncle's former personal lawyer. Michael Barr is an associate professor at Flinders University in Australia who has written multiple books on Singaporean history and politics. He says this is a highly personal instance of Singapore's ruling party using the levers of power to quash any opposition. What makes this saga different is they're going after their own this time over a piece of property.

MICHAEL BARR: You've got what looks like an imperial struggle, a struggle in a royal family. It's the struggle for the Lee brand.

FENG: And in the process, the struggle has exposed the far darker side, the authoritarian law-and-order governance model under Singapore's center-right ruling People's Action Party, or PAP, which Lee Kuan Yew co-founded.

KIRSTEN HAN: The power dynamics are extremely skewed. When Singapore became a sovereign state in 1965, they were the government, and they've never lost an election since.

FENG: This is Kirsten Han, a writer and activist in Singapore. She says the utter dominance of the PAP under Lee Kuan Yew and now under his son Lee Hsien Loong means...

HAN: There is no real, like, independent mechanism to investigate allegations of abuse of power, which the younger siblings have made. And so a lot of it is kind of just at the mercy of what the ruling party wants.

FENG: Singapore's prime minister has denied this, saying in a statement sent to NPR, everyone is equal before the law. Shengwu Li disagrees.

LI: Systems of sort of benevolent authoritarianism are fundamentally very fragile things. They depend on the forbearance of whoever wields power to not wield that power for petty and personal purposes.

FENG: It's been a painful reckoning for the younger Li.

LI: You know, obviously, when you're a teenager in Singapore very closely associated to the regime, you live a bit in a bubble. I've had to come to a reckoning with how much blood is in the ledger. And that's hard - right? - because obviously, you know, I loved my grandfather and I thought very well of him.

FENG: He says it's taken years for him to accept that just as the prosperity of modern Singapore is part of his grandfather's legacy, so, too, is the city-state's lack of political checks and balances.

Emily Feng, NPR News, Taipei. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Emily Feng is NPR's Beijing correspondent.