The saga of the fall of Singapore’s Camelot will not end with the Court of Three Judges’ decision to suspend Lee Suet Fern from practising law for 15 months after finding her guilty of misconduct over her handling of the late Lee Kuan Yew’s last will. It will have repercussions far beyond the issue of 38 Oxley Road and the legal wrangles arising out of the Lee siblings’ dispute.
Some Singaporeans may still be struggling to come to terms with the fact that members of the country’s most prominent and once idyllic and model family have been hammers and tongs with one another, not just in the courts but also in the political and social media arena. How will all this play out? I don’t know. What I know is that the court of public opinion may have its own findings – short-term and long-term – which are separate from the C3J’s.
But let’s quickly discuss the C3J’s main findings first.
At the risk of over-simplifying things and to put it in layman language, here was what the court said: Lee Suet Fern was guilty of misconduct unbefitting an advocate and solicitor over the handling of the last will of the senior Lee. She appeared more focused on what her husband, Lee Hsien Yang, wanted to do, that is, getting the will signed in haste, in complete disregard for the interests of her father-in-law.
But the court did not find her guilt of grossly improper conduct arising out of an implied retainer or solicitor-client relationship between her and the late Lee – because he apparently did not regard her as his lawyer.
As there is no appeal against the decision, Lee Suet Fern will not be able to practise. Her not unexpected reaction: “I disagree with this decision. There was no basis for this case to have even been initiated.
“This was a private will. Mr Lee knew what he wanted. He got what he wanted.
“The Court of Three did not find that he was of unsound mind or that he was not in control. He made the decision to revert to his landmark 2011 will following discussions with his lawyer Kwa Kim Li before I was tasked to find a witness.
“Anyone can revoke their own will while they are alive. If this will was not what Lee Kuan Yew wanted, he could easily have made another, as he had done several times before.”
She added that neither Lee Kuan Yew nor his beneficiaries or Kwa had ever lodged any complaint.
“This case arose from a complaint years later by the Attorney-General’s Chambers. (Prime Minister and elder brother of Hsien Yang) Lee Hsien Loong made extensive submissions, but did not present himself as a witness and was not subject to cross-examination,” she said.
Sadly, it does not look like the dust is settling down anytime soon in the crumbling debris of the Lee family as we know them before Lee Wei Ling fired her first shot just after her father had passed away in 2015. From apparent dissatisfaction over the tampering of her columns in The Straits Times, the real dispute turned into one over the fate of 38 Oxley Road. She and Hsien Yang wanted it to be torn down to accommodate the wishes of their parents, LKY and their late mother Kwa Geok Choo. This was debated in Parliament. To quote Wikipedia: “In 2018, the then DPM Teo Chee Hean, chairman of a four-member ministerial committee, said that the panel did not make any recommendations as no decision is required at this point, since Wei Ling is still living in the house. He added that the decision will be made by the future government. The panel offered three options – to gazette and preserve 38 Oxley Road as a national monument, to demolish all but the dining room (which was a meeting area for the People’s Action Party’s founders) and convert the dining area to a viewing gallery, or integrate it to a research or heritage centre, or to demolish and redevelop 38 Oxley Road completely for residential or state uses.”
The C3J’s findings may have just further stoked the fire for more drama to come.
Apart from Lee Suet Fern’s reaction through Hsien Yang’s Facebook (with an angry preface from her husband), their son, Li Shengwu, who is now an assistant professor of economics at the Harvard University, has made this fiery statement in his own Facebook account: “Lee Hsien Loong has no shame about using state resources to settle grudges against relatives. He should resign now, rather than continuing to undermine the rule of law in Singapore.” Li himself has been fined $15,000 for a Facebook posting adjudged to be in contempt of court. He has paid the fine to “buy peace of mind” but refused to admit guilt.
The Court of Three has ordered that my wife be suspended from practice for 15 months, notwithstanding that it found that…
Lee Hsien Yang has been actively involved in supporting the Progress Singapore Party from its inception right up to GE2020. I would venture to say one of the factors behind the Opposition’s relative success across the board in the last election may have owed a bit to the sight of a Lee Kuan Yew son stomping the ground against his brother.
It clearly showed the dismantling of a once dominant party (PAP) which is still desperately clinging on to the legacy of its founding mentor to shore up its standing. That legacy has been somewhat in question because of the Lee squabbles. It is hard to eulogise his achievements and use them as inspiration against the backdrop of his family members tearing one another apart so publicly and so bitterly.
The legacy will be affected more and more as the dispute spills over to the political arena and to future generations of the Lee family. The trigger point – fate of 38 Oxley Road – is still not quite settled yet.
Tan Bah Bah, consulting editor of TheIndependent.Sg, is a former senior leader writer with The Straits Times. He was also managing editor of a local magazine publishing company.