New Chapter in Bitter Lee Family Dispute in Singapore
Lee Kuan Yew was clear about his will: daughter and daughter-in-law’s counsel
By: Toh Han Shih
Lawyer Lee Suet Fern, who has found herself a target in an acrimonious dispute over the handling of the colonial home of modern Singapore’s late founder Lee Kuan Yew, has issued a detailed defense through her counsel of her role in the execution of the elder Lee’s will.
Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong has been feuding for months over the disposal of the home, at 38 Oxley Road, with his brother Lee Hsien Yang and sister Lee Wei Ling, who say the late premier wanted the home torn down to keep it from being turned into a shrine for the late statesman’s memory. Lee Suet Fern is married to Lee Hsien Yang, a prominent Singapore businessman.
The matter landed before a disciplinary tribunal of the Singapore Law Society that found Lee Suet Fern had misled Lee, who died in 2015 at 91, into changing his will, which included a clause on demolishing the house. Lee Suet Fern’s counsel argued she played only a minor role in the writing of the will and that the final will was largely a reversion to the first will in 2011.
The Lees, Singapore’s first family, have been locked in the squabble since 2016 over the house, which has shocked the Singaporean public with its virulence and threatens to shake the foundations of the People’s Action Party, which has governed the city since 1959 and independent Singapore since 1965.
In a public statement on June 14, 2017, Lee Hsien Yang and Lee Wei Ling said, “We feel big brother omnipresent. We fear the use of the organs of state against us and Hsien Yang's wife, Suet Fern. The situation is such that Hsien Yang feels compelled to leave Singapore.”
Thousands of pages of documents have been filed in the closed-door disciplinary tribunal over the issue. On February 23, the Singapore Straits Times, which is normally pro-government, ran three full pages of articles which were fairly damning of Lee Suet Fern and her husband over her role in the patriarch’s will.
To the tribunal’s accusation that she had allegedly tricked the ailing former prime minister into changing his mind over his will, Suet Fern’s lawyers answered that Lee was “of sound mind and in full command of his faculties when he executed the December 2013 will. He was a man of sharp intellect who knew exactly what he wanted.”
“It is clear that Mr. Lee Kuan Yew knew exactly what he wanted:” which was to revert substantially to the first version of his will in August 2011, in which he bequeathed equal shares of his estate to all his three children, said Suet Fern’s lawyers, Kenneth Tan, a Singapore senior counsel, and Walter Woon, a former Singapore attorney general and senior counsel.
Suet Fern is disputing the Singapore Law Society’s finding that she was guilty of grossly improper professional conduct over the will. The Law Society’s disciplinary tribunal report, dated February 18, accused her of being a “deceitful witness who tailored her evidence to portray herself as an innocent victim who had been maligned.” The report also accused Lee Hsien Yang of being “equally deceitful.”
“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,” according to Suet Fern’s counsel.
The disciplinary tribunal report alleged that on December 16, 2013, Lee Suet Fern and Lee Hsien Yang “persuaded” Lee Kuan Yew “(then a 90-year old man in poor health, who had recently been hospitalized for several weeks, with serious medical conditions) to sign a new will without his usual lawyer to advise him. They cut off that lawyer from communications with Mr. Lee on the last will, and rushed through the execution of the last will, in her absence.”
Lee Kuan Yew’s lawyer was Kwa Kim Li, a niece of his late wife Kwa Geok Choo. Kwa is managing partner of Lee and Lee, a law firm founded by Lee Kuan Yew and his wife.
The disciplinary tribunal, which consisted of two lawyers, deemed Lee Suet Fern’s actions sufficiently serious that the case will be decided by the Court of Three Judges, Singapore’s highest disciplinary body to deal with lawyers' misconduct. The court is provisionally scheduled to hear the case in August. If found guilty, Suet Fern could face a fine, suspension or disbarment.
At no time during the remaining 15 months of his life did Lee Kuan Yew indicate that the will which Lee Suet Fern helped draft in December 2013 did not represent his intentions, nor did Kwa raise any objection to that will, argued the defense counsel.
On December 16, 2013, according to their defense, while Kwa was abroad, Lee Kuan Yew emailed Lee Hsien Yang saying, “OK. Do not wait for Kim Li. Engross and I will sign it before a solicitor in Fern’s office or from any other office.”
Lee Wei Ling, a doctor, wrote on her Facebook on February 28, “LKY told me himself that he wanted to revert to his 2011 will and was merely wanting a witness. He wanted very prompt follow up and was indifferent where the lawyer came from.”
On December 17, 2013, Lee Kuan Yew executed his last will, having read and initialed every page.
On the same day, Elizabeth Kong, a lawyer of Stamford Law Corporation (founded by Lee Suet Fern), told Suet Fern that she could see Lee Kuan Yew was “getting very frail. He was slurring in his speech so it was difficult to understand what he was saying. But he is definitely still very lucid…. [Lee Kuan Yew] read through every single line and was comfortable to sign,” said the disciplinary tribunal report.
Also on December 17, 2013, Lee Suet Fern informed Kwa by email that Lee Kuan Yew had executed his final will. A copy of the executed will was sent to Kwa on Lee Kuan Yew’s instructions on the same day.
If Lee Suet Fern and her husband meant to cut Kwa out of the preparation of the last will, there was no reason to send her a copy of the will before execution nor tell her after the event that it had been done, Lee Suet Fern’s counsel argued. Kwa did not reply to questions emailed to her.
On 2 January 2, 2014, Lee Kuan Yew personally drafted a codicil to his will.
“After signing his final will in 2013, Lee Kuan Yew independently drafted and executed an amendment to the will (a codicil) which referenced the final will. Of course, he knew exactly what he was doing,” said Lee Wei Ling on her Facebook on March 2.
The disciplinary tribunal report stated, “It is not in dispute that some differences between the penultimate will (which Lee Suet Fern was involved in) and the last will were not brought to Mr. Lee’s attention.”
Lee Suet Fern did not alert Kuan Yew to all the differences between what the patriarch had earlier wanted and what the final will provided for, the report alleged. Her lawyers played down the differences as minor.
The differences include the absence of a gift-over clause in the final will, where the share of inheritance would pass from an heir to his offspring should the heir die. An addition in the final will is a clause giving Lee Wei Ling the right to live in her father’s house as long as she wishes and instructions for the demolition of that house after she moves out.
The Law Society disciplinary tribunal found Lee Suet Fern was Lee Kuan Yew’s lawyer while his final will was prepared on December 16, 2013 and executed on December 17, 2013. Its report alleged she “managed every aspect of the process” over these two days. Lee Suet Fern’s counsel argued their client was not Lee Kuan Yew’s lawyer and her role in the will was minor.
The Law Society did not reply to questions emailed to it. Tan Chee Meng, a lawyer acting for the Law Society, declined to comment.
Since 2017, Lee Wei Ling and Lee Hsien Yang have been conducting a campaign on Facebook alleging impropriety by their brother. Prime Minister Lee has denied all wrongdoing.
Toh Han Shih is a Singaporean writer in Hong Kong.