Why Singapore’s Lee Family Feud Isn’t Just a Private Siblings’ Squabble

Author: Kirsten Han
Published:

Almost three years after Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong’s younger siblings publicly fell out with their brother on Facebook, the family feud continues to fester under the surface, occasionally rearing its head in the local news cycle.

In its latest development, a disciplinary tribunal has found that Lee Suet Fern, a lawyer and wife of the premier’s brother, Lee Hsien Yang, had misled Lee Kuan Yew—Singapore’s first prime minister—into signing his last will. The penalty is not yet clear, but she could be facing suspension, or even disbarment.

While this doesn’t deviate from the competing narratives that have been presented to the public since 2017, it does propel the feud back into the spotlight, pointing to the lasting tensions, anger, and splits within Singapore’s “top” family. Many might be observing with the curious, yet detached, interest of a soap opera fan watching the plot twists unfold, but this whole saga has a relevance to Singapore and Singaporeans that goes far beyond one family’s quarrel.

The Lee family feud: a recap

Things first exploded into the public consciousness in June 2017 when Lee Hsien Yang and his sister Lee Wei Ling took to Facebook to publish a news release and accompanying statement asking “what has happened to Lee Kuan Yew’s values” in today’s Singapore. 

“We have seen a completely different face to our brother Hsien Loong, one that deeply troubles us,” they wrote. “Since the passing of Lee Kuan Yew, on 23 March 2015, we have felt threatened by Hsien Loong’s misuse of his position and influence over the Singapore government to drive his personal agenda. We are concerned that the system has few checks and balances to prevent the abuse of government. We feel big brother omnipresent.”

At the centre of their anger was the matter of the family home on 38 Oxley Road. Both Lee Kuan Yew and his wife Kwa Geok Choo (who passed away in 2010) had publicly stated that, if their daughter no longer wished to live in the house, it should be demolished upon their death. The younger siblings pointed to their father’s last will as proof that he’d stood firm on this point until his dying day, but accused the prime minister of wanting to subvert Lee Kuan Yew’s wishes and preserve the house for political mileage.

For a country that has seen little genuine political competition or drama, it was a jaw-dropping move that immediately became the hottest topic of discussion.

Lee Kuan Yew - New Naratif
Lee Kuan Yew’s death in 2015 led to a week of national mourning and tributes from both within and without Singapore. diyben / Shutterstock.com

What followed was a back-and-forth largely played out on Facebook, with accusations flying in multiple directions, other People’s Action Party members wading into the fray, and a muddling series of details about email exchanges and accounts of how Lee Kuan Yew had had multiple versions of his will.

Some points, however, stand out. The siblings point to the fact that Lee Kuan Yew’s last will had been granted probate—officially recognising the document as the final wishes of the deceased, and empowering its executors to carry out its instructions—in October 2015, with no objection from Lee Hsien Loong. But a ministerial committee was later quietly convened, involving then-Deputy Prime Minister Teo Chee Hean, Minister for Culture, Community, and Youth Grace Fu, Minister for Law K Shanmugam, and Minister for National Development Lawrence Wong. It was to this committee that Lee Hsien Loong submitted a statutory declaration questioning the legitimacy of Lee Kuan Yew’s will. The existence of this ministerial committee led the younger siblings to accuse their brother of abusing his position—and roping in his ministers—to circumvent due process and advance his agenda.

The public feuding was brought to a close after a two-day session in which the prime minister and others on the committee made ministerial statements and took questions from other parliamentarians (most of whom, given the make-up of Singapore’s Parliament, were from Lee Hsien Loong’s own People’s Action Party). Lee Hsien Yang and Lee Wei Ling fell silent on Facebook after agreeing to take the disagreement offline—but relationships were far from mended.

Other members of the family have also made headlines. In August 2017, the Attorney-General’s Chambers (AGC) commenced contempt of court proceedings against Lee Hsien Yang and Lee Suet Fern’s son, Li Shengwu, for comments that he’d made in a friends-only Facebook post—in which he’d sent an article about the feud and made comments about the government and the court system—that had been screencapped and circulated by persons still unknown. Li most recently announced this year that he will no longer be participating in the contempt proceedings, after the AGC not only sought to strike out parts of his defence affidavit, but also demanded they be sealed from public view. (This drew a particularly strident response from the AGC.)

Last January, five years after the fact, the AGC filed a complaint of possible professional misconduct against Lee Suet Fern to the Law Society. They argued that it was improper for Lee Suet Fern to have prepared her father-in-law’s last will, since her husband was a beneficiary. It was in response to this complaint that a two-man disciplinary tribunal was convened. After closed-door hearings, the tribunal released its findings last week.

What do the tribunal’s findings mean?

Based on news reports and public statements, Lee Suet Fern and Lee Hsien Yang’s position on the matter was that Lee Suet Fern had merely, in accordance with Lee Kuan Yew’s instructions, put one paragraph of text into legal language, then forwarded a draft of that will on so that Lee Kuan Yew could sign it as soon as possible. In this scenario, Lee Suet Fern hadn’t been acting as a lawyer, but merely a family member running an errand since Lee Kuan Yew’s regular lawyer, Kwa Kim Li, had not been available at the time.

The disciplinary tribunal’s report, though, stated that she had “managed every aspect of the process”, and absolutely did not mince their words: “Having procured the last will through… improper means, [Lee Suet Fern and Lee Hsien Yang] then fabricated a series of lies and inaccuracies, to perpetuate the falsehoods that Ms Kwa Kim Li had been involved in the last will, and hide their own role in getting [Lee Kuan Yew] to sign the last will and their wrongdoings.”

The tribunal also found that Lee Kuan Yew, who had been in his 90s, had been old and frail, suggesting that he had been misled by his younger son and daughter-in-law. Lee Suet Fern’s legal team, which included former Attorney General Walter Woon, had rubbished this argument when it was made by the prosecution. “The alternative which the Law Society is putting forward is that Mr Lee Kuan Yew, a very brilliant lawyer and world statesman, did not understand his own will despite reading it several times,” Woon had stated. 

The tribunal’s findings strengthen Lee Hsien Loong’s narrative, casting a shadow of doubt over Lee Kuan Yew’s final wishes before his death in March 2015. In response, Lee Wei Ling has blasted the report against her sister-in-law, describing it as a “travesty” and “another attempt to rewrite history” to forward her powerful brother’s agenda, harking back to earlier accusations of Lee Hsien Loong abusing his power. She also pointed out that her father had drafted and executed a codicil to his will on his own two weeks after Lee Suet Fern’s involvement, rebutting claims that her father might not have been of sound enough mind to have a firm grasp on matters. Lee Suet Fern has also stated that she disagrees with the findings and “will fight this strongly when it is heard in open court”.

What’s really at stake is whether governmental power and resources are being misused in the course of pushing the one favoured narrative over another.

Ultimately, this decision doesn’t make much material difference to the house at 38 Oxley Road at this present moment. Lee Wei Ling is still living there, and even Lee Kuan Yew had wanted the house left for his daughter as long as she chose to remain. A report released by the ministerial committee that had generated so much controversy also stated that there was “no need to make a decision on the Property now.” 

The difference it does make, though, is to the Lee family members’ tug-of-war over the narrative, which is the real crux of the disagreement, even more than the house itself. Singaporean laws allow the government to legally preserve the house regardless of Lee Kuan Yew’s wishes—it is, after all, not unreasonable to argue that the home of Singapore’s first prime minister, in which the People’s Action Party was first formed, is a structure of historical value. If the government went down that path, there would be little space for Lee Hsien Loong’s younger siblings to argue. What’s really at stake, then, is whether governmental power and resources are being misused in the course of pushing one favoured narrative over another.

A private matter, or of public interest?

After years of public and private jostling over a house that isn’t even in any immediate danger from any action, it’s not surprising that many are tired of this never-ending saga. Common complaints revolve around how this private squabble is embarrassing Singapore as a whole, particularly when it results in headlines in the international press, or how so many resources are being expended on a single family’s drama. Many Singaporeans see everyone involved as fundamentally self-interested: Lee Hsien Loong might be seeking political capital, but Lee Hsien Yang and Lee Wei Ling aren’t champions for Singaporean democracy either. In this light, the feud over 38 Oxley Road is just a tedious story of a rich, privileged family, blown out of proportion.

But it’s impossible to ignore that the Lee family aren’t just any rich, privileged family. They are the rich, privileged family. In both life and death, Lee Kuan Yew holds an outsized place in Singaporean history and politics—his name and legacy still confer a huge amount of credibility and political legitimacy, which is why current PAP politicians continue to invoke him in public comments.

Lee Hsien Yang and Tan Cheng Bock - New Naratif
Since the family feud entered the public consciousness, Lee Hsien Yang has also shown support to critics of the ruling party, as well as opposition politicians. Progress Singapore Party's Facebook page

This isn’t a scenario in which a rich litigious family hires fancy lawyers to rip each other apart in court. This is a fight that has already sucked government ministers and public agencies into its vortex. The recent legal cases involving Li Shengwu and Lee Suet Fern haven’t been fought in civil court; they’ve played out as prosecutions before the High Court and a disciplinary tribunal appointed by the chief justice himself, with involvement from the Attorney-General’s Chambers. He might have recused himself from Lee Suet Fern’s case, but it’s also been pointed out that the current attorney-general, Lucien Wong, used to be Lee Hsien Loong’s personal lawyer, and had advised him on the Oxley Road matter (the government has since insisted that there’s no conflict of interest). The Lee siblings have also alleged that instruments of the state have been weaponised by Lee Hsien Loong for his own personal gain; Lee Hsien Yang told the press that he is particular about using encrypted messaging, implying that he believes he’s under surveillance. 

While Lee Hsien Loong and his fellow ministers took questions in Parliament in July 2017, it was immediately pointed out by opposition parliamentarians that such a session was an inadequate substitute to an independent, transparent inquiry into the matter. On top of Parliament being overwhelmingly dominated by PAP members—who could be seen as having a vested interest in clearing their leader of any wrongdoing—the siblings weren’t even able to present their own case and ask questions of their own. It was a classic case of what has come to be known in Singapore as “ownself check ownself” (a practice in which the same party has oversight over its own work).

All of this makes the matter far bigger than just a domestic affair for the Lees. It carries serious implications for Singaporeans too, posing questions about governance, due process, and power to which citizens still don’t have satisfactory answers.

 

Kirsten Han

Kirsten Han is Editor-in-Chief of New Naratif, and a Singaporean journalist whose work often revolves around the themes of social justice, human rights, politics and democracy. Her bylines have appeared in publications like The Guardian, Foreign Policy, Asia Times and Waging Nonviolence. As an activist, Kirsten has advocated for an end to the death penalty in Singapore, and is a founding member of abolitionist group We Believe in Second Chances. Reach her at kirsten.han@newnaratif.com.

Now that you're here, we have a favour to ask...

Join our movement for a better Southeast Asia

New Naratif is a movement for democracy, freedom of information, and freedom of speech in Southeast Asia (see our manifesto). Our articles report on issues that are often overlooked or suppressed by the mainstream media in Southeast Asia. We are rely on our members for their support. Every cent of your membership fee goes to supporting our research, journalism, and community organisation activities. Your support enables us to be editorially independent and to conduct hard hitting independent research and journalism. It allows us to give a voice to the powerless and to hold the powerful accountable. Our members are active participants in our movement, helping us to create content and informing us about important issues, which shapes our coverage and content. Join our movement and let us, together, build a better Southeast Asia. Please subscribe to New Naratif—it’s just US$52/year (US$1/week) or US$5/month—and it only takes a minute. If you’d like to learn more, and read more articles, please start here! Thank you!