And yet, if all that we took away from this were juicy titbits of palace intrigue, we would have failed as a society.
The knock-down, drag-out fight provided glimpses of the inner workings of the government that ordinary Singaporeans have long whispered but not dared to publicly utter. For keen observers of Singapore's politics, these revelations were just confirmations of their worst suspicions about the way Mr Lee Hsien Loong and colleagues run the business of Singapore.
Take, for example, the part played by the PM's wife, Ms Ho Ching. Her designation as “contact representative” for the Prime Minister's Office (PMO) to retrieve, without permission, the late Lee Kuan Yew's possessions at 38 Oxley Road was, according to Mr Lee Hsien Yang, “deeply troubling” because Ms Ho held no official position in the Office.
Ms Ho admitted that, indeed, she had “arranged to do so through the PMO” (posted as a comment in Lee Hsien Tang's FB post here). Was she authorised to act on behalf of the PMO? If yes, who gave that authorisation? Or did she simply assume the role by virtue of her being the PM's wife? What does the PM say about this? Importantly, what are the rules governing non-officers who claim authority on behalf of the PMO?
This matter should make Singaporeans sit up and pay attention. More than Ms Ho pleading her case as the dutiful, if somewhat meddlesome, daughter-in-law, her behaviour speaks to a far bigger and much more serious issue of conflict of interest. As Dr Lee Wei Ling and Mr Lee Hsien Yang point out: “While Ho Ching holds no elected or official position in government, her influence is pervasive, and extends well beyond her job purview.”
This, of course, has huge implications for her role as chief executive of Temasek Holdings, a sovereign wealth fund wholly owned by the Ministry of Finance (MOF). PM Lee tried to defuse this mother-of-all conflict of interest by explaining that as CEO, his wife reports to Temasek's Board and “answers to its shareholder, the Ministry of Finance”.
The elephant in the room is, of course, that the MOF ultimately reports to the PM. How this assuages concerns of conflict of interest is anyone's guess.
Another contentious issue that arose from the Lee altercation is the appointment of Mr Lucien Wong as Attorney-General (AG). Unbeknownst to the public, Mr Wong was PM Lee's personal lawyer before his appointment to public office.
When the appointment was first announced in November 2016, the political chatter was that Mr Wong, having no experience in criminal law or legal work at the State level, was singularly unsuited for the position of top prosecutor and government legal adviser in the country.
Even more puzzling: Mr Wong was given the position at age 63 when his predecessor, Mr V K Rajah, was retired at 60.
The mystery would not have been cleared up had it not been for the Oxley explosion. The public was not told that Mr Wong was Mr Lee Hsien Loong's lawyer until the PM's siblings brought the matter to the fore.
It is such kind of non-transparent, behind-the-scenes happenings that have led many Singaporeans to be suspicious of the PAP's motives. The party has, through anti-democratic machinations, maintained its continuous armlock on the nation for more than half-a-century. As a result, the lines between party and state, private and public resources have been blurred, if not altogether erased. Ministers feel entitled not just to their positions but also their more-than-princely salaries. By the way, the salary amounts are kept secret – an arrangement that would not be countenanced in any democratic society.
Non-transparency and good governance are, in the best of times, sworn enemies. Given the looming socio-economic challenges, good and effective governance is what is required if we are going to have any chance of surmounting these obstacles and forging ahead.
In addressing the public's ire during the Lee dispute, DPM Tharman Shanmugaratnam tried his darnedest to put on a sunny spin. “Have confidence, folks,” he reassured. In what? To have confidence, one needs trust. To have trust, one needs transparency – an asset that is in dangerously short supply in Singapore.
The saga over Oxley has thrown up some important revelations. But it's not what we know that should scare us – it's what we still don't.