Cautious Singapore Court Threads Needle in Lee Family Spat

Three-member panel discipline’s Hsien Yang’s wife, but not too much

The 15-month suspension from practicing law of the late Lee Kuan Yew’s daughter-in-law late last week over the disposal of the late premier’s black-and-white colonial home is a distressing example of the family’s use of the legal system to settle scores in what ought to have been a private matter, critics say, and is deeply embarrassing for Singapore’s judiciary.

A lawyer, Lee Suet Fern in December of 2013 witnessed Kuan Yew’s apparent decision to revert to a 2011 will ordering the disposition of his properties and assets before he died on March 23, 2015 at age 91. At issue is the disposal of the five-bedroom colonial style mansion at 38 Oxley Road that Kuan Yew moved into in 1945, and whether Suet Fern influenced the decision. Lee, who ruled Singapore for three decades as prime minister, said publicly that he wanted the home torn down following his death to keep it from becoming a shrine to him as the founder of modern Singapore.

In all, Lee Kuan Yew signed six different wills, with varying instructions on bequeathals to the children. Each of the first four stipulated that the house be demolished. That clause was removed in the fifth and didn’t appear in the sixth, which bequeathed the home itself to Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong. In an action witnessed later by Suet Fern, however, he indicated a desire to revert to the 2011 will, which removed daughter Lee Wei Ling’s right to stay in the home until her death.

What to do with the home has shredded relations between Hsien Loong, 68, Kuan Yew’s eldest son, and his two siblings, Lee Hsien Yang, 63, a top Singapore corporate executive, and his sister, Lee Wei Ling, a 65-year-old neurosurgeon.

The dispute, which has played itself out on Facebook and other social media for more than three years, has shocked the Singaporean public with its virulence, percolating down into the third generation, with grandson Li Shengwu, an associate Harvard economics professor, accusing the prime minister of having “no shame about using state resources to settle grudges against relatives” and calling for him to resign immediately. Shengwu was fined S$15,000 in January for insulting the judiciary in the affair.

In July of 2017, Lee Hsien Loong was forced to take to the floor of parliament to deny allegations of abuse of power by his siblings and to complain that their accusations were damaging Singapore’s national reputation. Certainly, the case has considerably tarnished Singapore’s jealously-guarded if somewhat specious image of itself as having an independent court system. It is an image that is considerably at odds with reality, the Lee family and the government having used the courts to bring an unbroken successful series of libel and contempt of court suits against political opponents, critics, local bloggers and a long list of international publications. While before the Lees could maintain it was a bristling sense of propriety that sparked the legal actions, now there is widespread concern that the prime minister is inappropriately using the power of his office to involve a public agency in a family squabble.

The current case culminated in February when a two-person Law Society tribunal charged that Lee Suet Fern had deceived a presumably befuddled elder Lee into changing his will to order the disposal of the house. She and her husband say she had nothing to do with the writing of the will, that it was simply a reversion to the 2011 document.

Certainly, Lee Kuan Yew maintained his mental acuity almost up until his death, as noted in the judgment by two witnesses who testified that Lee “appeared frail and his speech was slurred, but his mind was certainly lucid – he asked us who drafted the will and specifically instructed us to date the will today. [The Testator] read through every line of the will and was comfortable to sign and initial every page, which he did in our presence.”

Thousands of pages of documents have been filed in Singapore courts over the issue. Lee Wei Ling, the third sibling, called the Law Society disciplinary tribunal’s action against Lee Suet Fern “a travesty,” and described herself as “appalled and disgusted” by reports that “seek to character assassinate my brother and his wife.”

In a 98-page judgment written on November 20 but issued last week, the three-member panel in its final judgment imposed a suspension that is far lighter than the lifetime disbarment sought by the two-member Singapore law society disciplinary tribunal, which could be construed as an indication that the court was attempting to find a middle path between an attempt to drive Suet Fern out of her profession and a belief that she had done nothing wrong.

The final judgment, for instance, also found that no solicitor-client relationship between Kuan Yew and Suet Fern. That significantly weakens the disciplinary tribunal's case against Suet Fern. The judgment also pointed out that the elder Lee didn’t object to the wording of his final will in the year and some months remaining to him, also weakening the tribunal’s argument against her.

In effect, the decision to suspend her ability to practice law rested on the fact that “Upon being told that the Testator wished to revert to the First Will, the Respondent was well aware that she was in a position of potential conflict as her husband had been a significant beneficiary under that will.”

In effect, according to the three-judge panel, Suet Fern apparently should have recused herself rather than getting involved in the matter. As the law society panel alleged, Suet Fern “focused primarily on what her husband wanted done”, and “worked together with Mr Lee Hsien Yang, with a singular purpose, of getting [the Testator] to execute the Last Will quickly.”

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