Lee Family Feud in Singapore Could Mean PM’s Brother’s Arrest
Government confirms sibling, wife under investigation for alleged lies in house case
In an extraordinary escalation of the bitter feud wracking Singapore’s ruling Lee family, the city-state’s police have confirmed they are investigating Prime Minister Lee Hien Loong’s own brother and his wife over allegedly giving false evidence in the wrangle over the fate of the patriarch Lee Kuan Yew’s colonial home, opening the couple to the possibility of arrest.
The 65-year-old Lee Hsien Yang, formerly one of Singapore’s most prominent businessmen and a former army brigadier general, and his wife, lawyer Lee Suet Fern, left the country last year for the UK, saying they feared arrest and accusing the prime minister of vindictiveness. The couple’s son, Li Shengwu, a Harvard University economist, has said he is afraid to come back to the country for fear of arrest.
Police officials told local media they started investigations against the couple following a referral in October 2021. The two refused an invitation to interview and later left the country.
“This is unbecoming of our country,” a Singaporean who declined to be named commented.
Ironically, the police action against Lee Hsien Yang and his wife occurred while the Singapore government plans to hold celebrations of the 100th anniversary of his father’s birth later this year.
On March 3, Bertha Henson, a former editor of the Straits Times (Singapore’s main newspaper), said on her Facebook: “Do we really want to celebrate LKY’s 100th birth anniversary given all this wrangling going on? Not appropriate methinks. He needs to rest in peace. In any case, I doubt he would have wanted a celebration, just like I don’t doubt he wanted his own house demolished.”
In parliament on March 2, Senior Minister and Coordinating Minister for National Security Teo Chee Hean in a written answer to a query, said the two are being investigated for allegedly of giving false evidence in judicial proceedings over Kuan Yew’s will, which stipulated that the home be demolished because Kuan Yew, the founder of modern Singapore and a towering international figure, didn’t want it turned into a shrine to him. Lee senior died in 2015.
Attempts to reach the couple were unsuccessful at publication time. However, Hsien Yang posted on Facebook on March 2 that “The persecution of my family by the Singapore Authorities continues unabated. In June 2017, my sister Wei Ling and I said ‘We do not trust Hsien Loong as a brother or as a leader. We have lost confidence in him.’ We said we feared the use of organs of the state against us and my family.”
In July and August 2017, “they prosecuted my son Shengwu, an economist at Harvard. After a drawn-out three-year court case, the Singapore courts convicted him for ‘scandalizing’ the judiciary. In 2020, they prosecuted my wife over LKY’s 2013 will. I was the real target. The relentless attacks continue.”
The possibility of arrest if Hsien Yang were to return would also block him from an avowed intention to run for the presidency of Singapore when the current president’s term ends later this year. Individuals under criminal indictment are barred from running for office.
There is growing behind-the-scenes concern within factions of the ruling People’s Action Party over the affair as an embarrassment to the 71-year-old prime minister, who is open to charges of inappropriately using the power of the government in the feud although Hsien Loong said in 2017 that he had recused himself from all government decisions relating to the property.
Nonetheless, critics say the rift within the family has exposed the contradictions inherent in Singapore’s system between the appearance of the rule of law via an independent judiciary and the perceptions of so many onlookers of favoritism toward the government and the Lees.
The squabble came into the open in 2017 when it was reported that the prime minister wanted to preserve the eight-bedroom, two-story bungalow, the birthplace of the PAP, which has ruled Singapore since its inception. Lee Hsien Yang and Lee Wei Ling insisted that the elder Lee’s wishes be followed, and that the house be destroyed. Hsien Loong said his father had changed his mind but that Lee Suet Fern misled the old man in the execution of the will. She argued that she had almost nothing to do with the will and subsequent revisions, beyond having someone from her law firm arrange for a witnessing.
Nonetheless, in 2020 at the request of the attorney general, the country’s Law Society brought legal malpractice proceedings against Lee Suet Fern. She was ultimately suspended from practice for 15 months after she was found guilty of misconduct over the handling of the will, with Chief Justice Sundaresh Menon finding that she was acted in a manner "unbefitting an advocate and solicitor."
On March 2, Teo cited the judges' judgment in saying: "Mrs Lee 'focused primarily on what her husband wanted done', and 'worked together with Mr Lee Hsien Yang, with a singular purpose, of getting Mr Lee Kuan Yew to execute the last will quickly'.
"Mr Lee Kuan Yew 'ended up signing a document which was in fact not that which he had indicated he wished to sign'."
There has been considerable collateral damage from the case, with Terry Xu, the editor of a relatively innocuous website called The Online Citizen effectively being driven from the country and ordered to pay the prime minister S$210,000 (US$156,283) over a 2019 article that dealt with the feud. The article reproduced allegedly defamatory statements by Lee Hsien Yang and Lee Wei Ling.
But instead of suing his brother and sister for the comments, Lee chose to take on the Online Citizen and its editor. Xu in September 2022 moved his operation to Taiwan, joining Roy Ngerng, another Singaporean critic who was forced to leave the country after being sued for tangling with the government over the returns on government investment funds.
Teo’s statements on March 2 could also put “Jom,” a new independent digital publication started last year, in government sights. The portal’s co-editor and founder, Sudhir Vadaketh, last year wrote an ebook describing the controversy over the house. Teo alleged that the book contained falsehoods, which could give the government an excuse to close down Jom. In a phone conversation, Vadaketh said he wasn’t worried.
In response to Teo’s allegations against the ebook, Vadaketh said in an article, “Teo has said that this book is an attempt to “to rewrite the facts.” But every single fact in the book is from the Supreme Court documents. I have not introduced any new facts.”
“Most importantly, there is the e-mail from Lee Wei Ling, the only child living with LKY, at 10.06 pm, Dec 16th 2013, the night before he signed his final will, saying: “Papa says go back to 2011 will.” (The so-called First Will, including the clause. See pages 35 and 70 of my book.),” Vadaketh added.
“Singaporeans can ask themselves why Teo has chosen to ignore LWL’s words. Though the answer may not be obvious. It still isn’t clear to me why this house seems to matter so much to a few,” Vadaketh said.
The affair has thus generated considerable schadenfreude among opponents of the government, who have been cowed by years of legal actions for contempt, libel and other actions perceived slights that have largely reduced the opposition to impotence, going back to the 1980s and the elder Lee’s use of the courts against Joshua B. Jeyaretnam, the first opposition politician to take on the government. Jeyaretnam was sued repeatedly and bankrupted and subjected to petty allegations and legal harassment. Although the Privy Court in the UK said Jeyaretnam had been unfairly prosecuted, Singaporean authorities ignored the admonition.
A long string of international publications has been sued for such seemingly innocuous statements of fact as whether there was a Lee “dynasty” or if the family members had won their exalted positions in a meritocracy. Foreign publications have had to pay damages on numerous occasions while opposition figures in Singapore have been bankrupted, subject to petty allegations and legal harassment. Neither the government nor the Lee family has ever been known to lose such cases in the local courts.