The recently concluded libel hearing of Online Citizen chief editor Terry Xu, which is to be adjudicated next year, has left Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong in a deeply embarrassing position and saddled the Singapore High Court with the unappetizing decision of either exonerating Xu on the evidence, demonstrating judicial independence, or siding with Lee.
Under cross examination, the case devolved not so much into the question of whether Xu had libeled Lee but rather into an extension of the widely reported feud between Lee Hsien Loong and his siblings, former corporate chief Lee Hsien Yang (shown above with his brother) and physician Lee Wei Ling, over the disposition of their late father’s historic colonial mansion.
It emerged, for instance, that Kuan Yew, the founder of modern Singapore, believed his eldest son opposed his wishes for the demolition of his house. Kuan Yew, revered by many Singaporeans, wanted the mansion torn down to prevent its conversion to a monument, while Hsien Loong’s siblings have accused him of wanting to turn the home into a shrine against the patriarch’s wishes, which the prime minister denies.
While the case against Xu and the Online Citizen appears to be yet another Lee family defamation suit, if the prime minister were to lose, it would be a powerful setback for the family and the government, which has never lost a court case against political enemies or the press for at least four decades.
The defamation suit involves an article published in the Online Citizen on August 15 last year titled “PM Lee’s wife, Ho Ching weirdly shares article on cutting ties with family members” from whom the PM and his wife had become estranged. The article reproduced allegedly defamatory statements by Lee Hsien Yang and Lee Wei Ling over their late father’s house on 38 Oxley Road.
Instead of suing his brother and sister for the comments, Lee chose to take on the Online Citizen and editor Xu. But from the testimony and months of email exchanges, news stories and other legal actions, it was abundantly clear that, as the story indicated, the family were fiercely at loggerheads.
The Lee family’s unbroken history of winning libel suits has now been threatened by the case, especially after a court last month suspended Lee Hsien Yang’s wife Lee Suet Fern from practicing law for 15 months for her part in handling the patriarch’s will. The suspension has been regarded by some Singaporeans as an attempt by the prime minister to bully his siblings through state resources.
Lim Tean, the lawyer defending Xu during the cross-examination of Prime Minister Lee on December 1, cited an August 11, 2011 email exchange in which Lee Wei Ling asked her father to “call the shots” over the disposal of the home, but the elder Lee complained that “I cannot call the shots. Loong as PM has the final word” and not the cabinet, as Hsien Loong testified in the libel case.
Wei Ling’s email to her father was copied to Hsien Loong and Kwa Kim Li, a niece of Lee Kuan Yew’s late wife Kwa Geok Choo and a lawyer who was involved in drafting six versions of Lee Kuan Yew’s will in 2011 and 2012. Kwa Kim Li is the head of Lee and Lee, the Singapore law firm founded in 1955 by Lee Kuan Yew and his wife.
According to sources at the hearing, the judge hearing the case, Audrey Lim, asked Prime Minister Lee, “So Mr. Lee, do you have the final word?”
He replied, “That is what my father said, but I had explained to him what I would have to do if I were the decision-maker. In other words, I really didn’t have freedom of action.”
On December 3 according to sources at the hearing, Lim Tean, the founding leader of a local opposition party People’s Voice, crossed-examined Kwa, who admitted that an email from her to Lee Kuan Yew on October 2, 2012 at 6.19 PM contained her handwritten notes. On that email, Kwa wrote, “Loong has free rein” and “He can handle Cabinet”. She clarified “Loong” and “He” referred to Lee Hsien Loong.
Lee Hsien Loong’s statements were at odds with what his father had said. Prime Minister Lee said his ministers wanted the house preserved, while he recused himself from this issue.
Lee Kuan Yew and Prime Minister Lee attended a meeting with members of his son’s cabinet on July 21, 2011, as Asia Sentinel reported. At that meeting, the elder Lee had said he wanted his house demolished sometime after he died, but all the ministers present except Prime Minister Lee opposed demolition, Lee Hsien Loong told the court. “I did not say anything because I was conflicted. I was his son.”
After that meeting on July 21, 2011, Lee Kuan Yew had a new will drafted by Kwa Kim Li on August 20 that year, which removed Lee Hsien Loong and his wife Ho Ching as executors of the will, as Asia Sentinel reported.
Lim asked Prime Minister Lee, “Your father was stating the obvious, isn’t it? You call the shots, Mr Lee. It is not your ministers, it is not your Cabinet as you would like us to believe?”
Lee replied, “Your Honor, this is a shorthand. He says I call the shots. I am the prime minister. I have a view. If I say my father would like the house knocked down the ministers will consider it. Finally, it is not possible for me to go against the ministers….”
Lim asked Prime Minister Lee, “Your siblings are correct, aren't they, when they say that you wanted to keep the house to inherit Lee Kuan Yew's credibility?”
Lee replied, “I think that is rubbish.”
He added, “I have been prime minister for 16 years and if I still depend on living in a particular house in order to exude a magic aura and overawe and impress the population, I think I am in a very sad state and Singapore would be in a very sad state.”
“His impression was that he knew what the Cabinet ministers' views were and he knew what was very likely to be the outcome if it went to Cabinet which is that it would be gazetted [preserved], which I think was an accurate view,” Prime Minister Lee told the court on December 1.
Lim cited an email on September 6, 2012 at 12.50 AM from Lee Kuan Yew to Lee Wei Ling and Kwa, which said, “Although it has been gazetted as a heritage house, it is still mine as owner.”
Prime Minister Lee admitted that based on that email, Lee Kuan Yew believed his house had been gazetted. He added it was “a possible interpretation” that as late as November 30, 2013, his father thought the house was gazetted.
In September 2012, Kwa searched at least twice for the nonexistent gazette of the house but could not find it, she testified on December 3. This raises the question as to whether she conducted the search because Lee Kuan Yew believed the house was gazetted.
Lim asked Lee Hsien Loong whether he had deceived his father that the house was gazetted, which Lee denied as “totally untrue”.
With testimony completed, the high court is to deliver its written judgment sometime in the new year.