Our sibling rivalry is not kept alive by obvious insults or slamming of doors at home. Between us, you’d never hear terms like “fucker” or “moron” escape our lips, although we (or at least, I) have thought it far too many times. We’d also never use insults like “lazy”, “stupid”, or “selfish”.
Those of us truly experienced in the art of war know that the most effective way to hit our opponents where it hurts is through being subtle and specific.
For example, directly calling your sibling “lazy” is not going to stick. Instead, say that their habit of staying in bed till 11AM on weekends, and not making an effort to dress up and go out, is the single reason their boyfriend broke up with them. It is crucial to target what they feel most self-conscious about.
And the only way to know these things is to have lived under the same roof since birth.
Just like the Lee siblings, the stars in a never-ending drama that nobody asked for.
Many of us don’t see the big deal, beyond feeling embarrassed or enjoying the schadenfreude in seeing the Lees fall apart at the seams. We assume this is merely a ‘normal’ family squabble. But such deep-seated sibling rivalry often illuminates possible unresolved childhood pain.
What also makes the most powerful family feud in Singapore relatable is observing the obvious and far-reaching effects that family upbringing, especially rivalry from young, can have on the rest of our lives.
Understanding the importance of sibling rivalry helps us better analyse where the feud is headed, and if it will ever end.
In particular, the language used is pointed, but not vulgar. Forget being kind, sibling rivalry is necessarily personal.
For instance, I often call my 25-year-old sister spineless, because she doesn’t refuse our parents’ overprotective behaviour when they treat her like she’s 5.
Similarly, in Dr Lee Wei Ling’s recent Facebook post, she reiterates that the late Mr Lee Kuan Yew would have “absolutely” wanted the house demolished. She adds, “It would require unbelievable lack of intelligence or determined denial to not understand what Pa & Ma so unambiguously wanted. It seems to me my big brother & his committee have achieved that distinction with amazing ease.”
Essentially, our Prime Minister’s sister called him out for being stupid, and living in denial.
To the uninitiated (i.e. those without siblings), this feels either unnecessary or like it’s totally normal.
For those who know better, however, we realise it’s not so much about what she says, but how and why she chooses to use the exact words: “unbelievable lack of intelligence or determined denial”.
Siblings are privy to our psyche; some wounds are only meant to be cut by them.
Through her post, Dr Lee appears to emphasise that her brother is a shameful and disgraceful son, who has disappointed their father by knowingly failing to carry out the one role that he was literally born into: being a son.
Having grown up together, Dr Lee sees her older brother following in his father’s footsteps—and his shadow—more clearly than anyone else. Her responses to 38 Oxley are likely fuelled by her knowledge of what PM Lee loves and hates, revealing layers of curious animosity between the siblings that we’re left to unpack on our own.
No doubt, many Singaporeans also measure PM Lee against Lee Kuan Yew’s accomplishments.
I’m not a diehard fan of PM Lee. But knowing that nothing he does could match up to building an entire country from scratch, even I feel sorry for the man. For all the credit we’ve given the late Lee Kuan Yew for having great foresight, perhaps his biggest oversight was not realising that letting his eldest son enter politics had the potential to tear his family apart.
If you have always been held to an impossible bar, and are constantly judged for not being able to reach it, you would feel inferior too.
Not least if you have a sibling who seems to find a morbid joy in reminding you.
Ultimately, the only way to truly step out from the shadow of one’s family history is to be your own person. We have to make decisions that are our own; that aren’t defined by what our family wants but by what we desire for ourselves. To forge his own legacy, PM Lee has decided to keep the house.
We might think that this is about ensuring the PAP’s political legacy, but it’s not. He’s simply rebelling against his father’s wishes.
Knowing all this, his sister still calls him a “dishonourable son”.
It is the kind of insult that only a sibling can wield, knowing full well how deeply it can cut.
In this context, it likely also reinforces whatever deep-seated anxieties our PM might have with regards to knowing that he will never live up to his father’s legacy.
If I said to my friends the things I say to my sister, I would probably lose them. Yet I am comfortable being candid (and occasionally cruel) with my sister precisely because I know what makes her tick.
After having to fight for our parents’ attention, being forced to share space and belongings, and being compared to one another all our lives, we inevitably learn how to use our siblings’ weaknesses to our advantage.
At its core, the Lee sibling rivalry is still about wanting to be worthy of their parents’ attention. They may be well into being grandparents, but they revert to being 10-year-olds clamouring for validation when this rivalry rears its ugly head.
I used to think that Dr Lee uses “Pa” and “Ma” so often in her writing because she wants to appear as the child who cares most about her parents.
On the contrary, the words “Pa” and “Ma” aren’t just about painting herself in a good light, they are also meant to indirectly insult PM Lee. Consistently using these words in public statements implies that anyone who does not do so, mainly her own elder brother, does not love their father as much as she does.
To have this love called into question, especially by a sibling who is supposed to be on his side, must surely hurt.
On top of family pressure, PM Lee also faces the unspoken, gargantuan pressure of Asian culture, where being the oldest son means having to lead the family.
Having his sister question his ability as a son, instead of a politician, might expose a deeper insecurity—that perhaps he’d never be capable enough for his strict father.
Above all, I can empathise with having one’s vulnerabilities laid bare, especially by a sibling who only does it so they can push the knife in further. As someone who despises being sheltered, my sister once said that I wasn’t as independent as I thought I was, because our parents were still giving us an allowance. My sister had accurately identified my sensitive spot and hit it with full force, causing me to lash out. I retorted that at least I was more of my own person than she would ever be.
As my colleague Rachel aptly sums up, “Must play the parents card then it will affect me.”
As for what this undercurrent of basic sibling rivalry means for the future of 38 Oxley, it’s safe to assume that without their father around anymore, the younger Lee siblings are left to contend for approval and validation from the public.
It’s no coincidence that this is also the same public who PM Lee hopes to win over.
Sibling rivalry, from the petty to the kind that severs ties, is always consequential. Now that the Lees have aired their dirty laundry, we can never return to the days when our government was supposedly ‘clean’.
To me, that’s absolutely fine and expected.
As I learnt from fighting with my sister over whose turn it was to wash the clothes, bleach only works for stains that are easy to remove.