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Lee Wei Ling looks like a man, and Lee Hsien Yang looks like an evil genius.

This is what we think to ourselves every time we see their mugs. Unfortunately for them, their eldest brother is blessed with the one thing they weren’t born with: a kind face.

We like to think we are above making snap judgements based on how someone looks, but let’s not kid ourselves. We are superficial assholes who often can’t be bothered to carefully analyse political arguments. The gut instinct is to support someone we feel we can trust.

With PM Lee, it’s not just about the jump shots and ‘Photo by me’ pictures posted online. It’s all this, plus the fact that he has the right face. In politics, this is invaluable. When he looks sincere, we actually believe that he is.

This was played up in a video he filmed after returning from his leave, where we saw him haggard, apologetic, and reassuring. He could easily have written a statement. But his PR team probably understood the importance of both seeing the horse’s mouth and hearing from it.

On the other hand, his siblings have always been private individuals who, until now, have been largely mysterious figures. We don’t feel like we know them, much less trust them.

And sadly for Lee Wei Ling, she has never been one to bother about her looks. Whether we like it or not, this makes all the difference.

In politics, pleasant facial features are the reason certain politicians consistently do well in elections, even those with a lacklustre track record.

Over a phone call with Jo Ching, founder and trainer of Destiny Asia Global Consultancy, I discover the science behind physiognomy, or face reading. This assesses a person’s character or personality based on their appearance, with particular attention on the face.

Jo quickly debunks the myth that his profession is bogus and superficial. His company regularly conducts face reading courses for senior level executives and CEOs.

“My students are usually highly educated. They need scientific proof that face reading can be taken seriously, so I always provide case studies to justify what I say. When they see consistency through examples, they start to believe in this science,” he says.

For starters, people who are born with “approachable and trustworthy” faces include MP Teo Ser Luck and Education Minister Ng Chee Meng. Asian actors Andy Lau and Jackie Chan, as well as Mediacorp actress Xiangyun, also fit the bill.

Naturally kind and pleasant faces
He explains that there are certain qualities that immediately contribute to a ‘look of trust’: “The bigger the eyes, the more they reveal. People with smaller eyes are deemed to be shadier. They’re not necessarily bad, but give off the impression that they’re quieter, more calculative, and like to keep things in their heart.”

Beyond the eyes, a person’s natural eyebrows are also important. “Eyebrows that extend beyond the length of one’s eyes reveal a sentimental and compassionate person. Shorter and sparser brows tend to depict someone who doesn’t focus much on the emotive part of things. Basically, they cut the crap,” he says.

Now compare the Lee brothers.

It’s completely logical to find yourself rooting for Lee Hsien Loong despite your skepticism. And if you feel that Lee Hsien Yang looks shifty even though he seems perfectly rational, there’s a science behind that uneasy feeling.

The Lee brothers have distinctly different facial features.
That said, the brothers are hardly the most controversial of the sibling trio. Even before Lee Wei Ling released her infamous public statement about her elder brother, The Straits Times once declared she had submitted plagiarised articles to the paper. She also regularly insists that she wants to honour her father’s wishes.

From her public statements to ST forum letters, she prides herself on being heard for her intellect. She may not even be aware of her handicap, and probably thinks articles like this one are frivolous and inconsequential.

As a celebrated neurologist, none of this stuff matters. But when you are trying to win over the public, she ignores this to her detriment. Together with her erratic behaviour on social media, it’s not hard to look at her as the socially awkward loser who always got the best grades in class.

We’re impressed by her, yet we don’t really want to be her friend.

The hard truth is, people expect women who appear in public to be warm. It’s a crucial part of why people don’t take her as seriously as she wants to be, even though her arguments may be valid.

However, I’m surprised when the only thing Jo highlights about Lee Wei Ling are her anti-helix ears, which are similar to Asian actor Leon Lai’s.

He shares that people with these ears are usually rebellious by nature: “These people tend to be critical and won’t listen to surface level things. They will counter and challenge you, and are typically stubborn and non-conformist.”

Lee Wei Ling shares her most pronounced facial feature with Leon Lai.
Furthermore, smiles deeply influence one’s popularity in politics – common knowledge that PM Lee milks to his advantage. Like former US president Barack Obama, the man looks amicable even when he’s not smiling.

Smiles are also signs of auspiciousness, especially when the corners of one’s mouth lift upwards, and help establish rapport with the people.

Nowhere is this political advantage more obvious than when the PM changes his Facebook profile picture. Every picture change garners him nauseating comments like “your smile is radiant,” “it makes me happy to see you smile,” and “a beautiful smile comes from a beautiful heart.”

It’s tempting to dismiss this as boot-licking, but what this behaviour reveals is that Singaporeans are only human. We are all too willing to surrender to the subconscious bias that a pleasant face equals a pleasant person.

Lee Hsien Loong's secret weapon
Jo adds: “When you smile with teeth, you are able to connect straight away with people. This is seen as a sign of submission, which is a good thing when you’re a public servant. Genuine smiles also produce laugh lines or crow’s feet on the outer corners of the eyes.”

For people like Lee Wei Ling and Lee Hsien Yang, who are not media trained to deal with the politics of facial appearances, they can look terrible in comparison. Basically, they suffer from the political equivalent of Resting Bitch Face.

In contrast, people like Ho Ching, according to Jo, possess a “meaty chin” which reflects their “down to earth” nature.

“She has a nutritive face structure, similar to the Sheng Siong boss. These people also tend to take good care of their subordinates. If there’s anything they feel they can learn from you, no matter your status, they will approach you directly.”

I suppose one is even more likely to escape public condemnation relatively unscathed when you’re perceived to be a kind and humble old lady. A week after she was accused by Lee Hsien Yang of removing the late Lee Kuan Yew’s personal belongings from 38 Oxley Road, the public seems to have willingly swept the accusation under the rug.

Ho Ching shares similar facial features with Sheng Siong's CEO.
So the takeaway here is this: Singaporeans will continue to accept PM Lee’s leadership despite the Oxley Road screwup. The government appeals to our most fundamental instinct – we don’t always need to know that our politicians can be trusted, we just need to feel like they can be.

They understand the only victory that matters is who wins public sentiment, no matter the verdict from the Ministerial Committee. Otherwise, why would Lee Hsien Loong apologise or talk about lifting the party whip? Neither of these really mean anything, but they make you feel like something is actually being done.

It’s all thanks to the face, man.

For Lee Wei Ling and Lee Hsien Yang, this means that they had better produce something far more damning and substantial than a spat over a house, if they truly want to accuse their kind-faced, politically savvy elder brother of abusing his power.

Mostly though, the dispute has allowed Singaporeans to savour the lesson that the privileged Lee siblings are now learning: life is unfair. All you can do is play the hell out of the cards you’re dealt.

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