Lee Sister-in-law Latest Victim in Singapore’s Bitter Family Feud

Attorney Lee Suet Fern accused of being “deceitful”

The acrimonious fight between Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong and his siblings over the disposal of Lee Kuan Yew's iconic black-and-white colonial home has taken a new and even more bitter turn, with Lee Suet Fern, Kuan Yew’s daughter-in-law and the wife of the prime minister’s brother, facing possible disbarment and fine over her handling of the late prime minister’s will.  

In a report released last week, a two-person tribunal described Lee, the wife of Lee Hsien Yang, as guilty of gross professional misconduct. The court labeled her a "deceitful witness, who tailored her evidence to portray herself as an innocent victim who had been maligned." The tribunal described Lee Hsien Yang as "equally deceitful," saying he lied to the public and the tribunal in his bid to deceive the late prime minister.

“Clearly, if you go back to June 2017, my sister and I said we feared the organs of the state would be used against us,” Lee Hsien Yang said in a telephone interview. “You can see what has happened.” He declined to go deeply into specifics out of concern that action could be taken against him.

What has happened is that three generations of the family are involved from both sides, indulging in an extraordinary bout of name-calling and legal action that is threatening the legitimacy of the Singapore legal system and shaking the foundations of the People’s Action Party, which has dominated politics since before the country’s departure from British rule in 1963.  

At the center of the dispute is the magnificent five-bedroom colonial-style mansion at 38 Oxley Road that Kuan Yew moved into in 1945, and from which he ruled Singapore for three decades as prime minister. In his public statements, he said he wanted the home torn down following his death to keep it from becoming a shrine to him as the founder of modern Singapore. Lee Hsien Loong maintains his father wanted the home preserved.

The tribunal charged that Lee Suet Fern had deceived Lee, who died in 2015 at 91 of pneumonia, 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 a 2011 document.

The Lees, Singapore’s first family and by far the most powerful in the city-state, have been locked in the squabble since 2016 over the disposal, which has shocked the Singaporean public with its virulence. Thousands of pages of documents have been filed in Singapore courts over the issue.

To PAP fears, the dispute has entered the political arena, with Hsien Yang, the powerful former chief executive officer of Singapore Telecom, chairman of the Civil Aviation Authority of Singapore and a prominent businessman, quitting the ruling People’s Action Party and joining the insurgent Progress Singapore Party headed by a former PAP stalwart, Tan Cheng Bock. Hsien Yang has also donated funds for the defense of a blogger that the prime minister is suing. The new party is expected to contest the next election. 

The feud has continued to spread throughout the family, with Lee Wei Ling, a physician and the third sibling, calling the disciplinary tribunal’s action against Lee Suet Fern as “a travesty,” and describing herself as “appalled and disgusted” by reports that “seek to character assassinate my brother and his wife.”

It has devolved down even further, to Kuan Yew’s grandson, Li Shengwu, an economics professor at Harvard University in the United States, indicating he would probably not return to Singapore after being sued for defamation by the Attorney General for statements made “scandalizing the judiciary.” Shengwu in 2017 described the government on Facebook as “litigious” and the courts as “pliant” in the middle of the dispute.

He probably will be found guilty, meaning he could be arrested if he returns to the city. That, as one analyst pointed out, would rule him out as a potential future prime minister, continuing the Lee reign. That could leave Li Hongyi, Prime Minister Lee’s son, to continue the dynasty. 

There is growing concern that the prime minister is inappropriately using the power of his office to involve a public agency in a family squabble. It is eating into the aura of invincibility and incorruptibility of the Lee family and further exposing 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.

While the judicial system in most civil and criminal cases is considered to be among the fairest in Asia, the Lee family and other members of the power elite have used the courts incessantly to shut down debate and cow the opposition. 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.

 Amnesty International, in a February 16 statement, accused the government of using its “Protection of Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Bill, passed last October, repeatedly to target critics and political opponents. At least six POFMA directives have been issued this year, according to Amnesty International.  

“When Singapore’s draconian fake news law was passed, Amnesty and others warned of its potential to be abused by the Singapore government and its notoriously litigious ruling party,” said Nicholas Bequelin, Amnesty International’s Director for East and South-East Asia and the Pacific.

Lee Hsien Loong is leaving the premiership at the end of the current parliamentary sitting, meaning that for the first time since the country was founded the family will no longer be the single most important public powerhouse in Singaporean politics. An election must be held at the latest in 2021 but many expect it earlier as the economy flags. The government on February 16 cut its 2020 growth and exports forecasts as the coronavirus outbreak cut into economic activity. The prime minister said Friday that a recession is possible.  

Hsien Loong is likely to continue to play a behind-the-scenes role as his father did after leaving the premiership in 1990 to become senior minister and then minister mentor. Despite the efforts of the Lee family to mentor a talented new generation of politician technocrats to run the country after they are gone, there are few at this point who stand out.