SINGAPORE — Lawyer Lee Suet Fern has been found guilty by a Disciplinary Tribunal of grossly improper professional conduct in her handling of late founding prime minister Lee Kuan Yew’s final will, reported The Straits Times on Sunday (23 February).
The two-man tribunal appointed by Chief Justice Sundaresh Menon, comprising Senior Counsel Sarjit Singh Gill and lawyer Leon Yee Kee Shian, found all charges against Suet Fern “proven beyond reasonable doubt”, in its 206-page report released last week.
It called Suet Fern – who is married to Lee Kuan Yew’s youngest child Lee Hsien Yang – a “deceitful witness, who tailored her evidence to portray herself as an innocent victim who had been maligned”. The tribunal added that the conduct of Hsien Yang, who testified as a witness, was “equally deceitful”.
"Mr Lee (Kuan Yew), who was very frail and in poor health, was misled by the very people whom he trusted: his son Lee Hsien Yang and daughter-in-law,” said the tribunal’s report on the case.
Suet Fern will now be referred to the Court of Three Judges, the highest disciplinary body that deals with lawyers' misconduct. The 61-year-old may face a fine, suspension or even be disbarred.
The tribunal’s finding is the latest chapter in the long-running dispute over the fate of the Lees’ former family home at 38 Oxley Road. The ongoing saga has seen Hsien Yang, his sister Wei Ling and their eldest brother Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, embroiled in a public row.
Disciplinary Tribunal report a ‘travesty’
In response to media queries, Suet Fern said, “I disagree with the Disciplinary Tribunal’s report and will fight this strongly when it is heard in open court.”
She added, “Any member of the public can obtain the entire record of the closed-door proceedings of the Tribunal from the Law Society. I urge the public to look at these and come to their own independent conclusions.”
Separately, in a Facebook post on Sunday, Lee Wei Ling decried the tribunal’s report as a “travesty”.
“This all is yet another attempt to rewrite history following on from the secret ministerial committee looking into Lee Kuan Yew’s Will and wishes for 38 Oxley Road. My father knew full well what he was doing. He was clear in his decision for the Will,” said Lee.
“I continue to be ashamed at Hsien Loong’s disrespect for his father’s dying wish.”
She added, “I am appalled and disgusted by the The Sunday Times reports that seek to character assassinate my brother and his wife.”
‘An unsavoury tale’
Last January, the Attorney-General’s Chambers (AGC) referred Suet Fern to the Law Society for her alleged role in preparing Lee Kuan Yew’s will. AGC said that this had placed her in a position of conflict and was a breach of the rules governing the conduct of lawyers because her husband was a beneficiary of the will, which was signed on 17 December 2013.
Two charges were then laid against her by the tribunal. First, as her father-in-law's retainer, she had failed to advance his interest, unaffected by her own interest and/or that of her husband. This was because she prepared and arranged for the execution of the will, which gave Hsien Yang a third of the estate.
Secondly, as retainer, Suet Fern breached rules by acting on the one-third share and failing to advise Lee to be independently advised on the "significant gift".
The couple have consistently denied that Suet Fern acted as the late Lee’s lawyer.
But the tribunal said it was “quite clear (Suet Fern) was represented to Mr Lee as the lawyer responsible for the last (and not first) will”. It concluded that the facts showed an “unsavoury tale” of how Hsien Yang and Suet Fern persuaded an ailing 90-year-old Lee to sign a new will without legal advice from his usual lawyer.
“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,” the report said.
Contrary to her denials that she was acting as Lee’s lawyer, and that she was only helping as a family member, daughter-in-law and an “obedient wife”, Suet Fern took over as the lawyer to prepare the last will and advise Lee.
She “misled Mr Lee on the terms of the last will”, asserting that he was persuaded to sign the last will in a matter of 16 hours. A draft of it was sent to him at 7.08pm on 16 December, 2013. He signed it at 11.10am the next day.
Suet Fern, said the tribunal, “gave the briefest of advice to Mr Lee, and did not alert Mr Lee to all the differences between what Mr Lee had earlier wanted and what the last will actually provided for”.
The tribunal also had harsh words for Hsien Yang, stating that, “he tried to hide how he and his wife had misled his own father, Mr Lee, on the last will”.
“He had no qualms about making up evidence as he went along. We found him to be cynical about telling the truth,” the report said.
The demolition clause
In the tribunal’s hearings last July, Suet Fern testified in her own defence while Hsien Yang appeared as a witness. Other witnesses called included lawyer Bernard Lui from Suet Fern’s firm Stamford Law.
Lui and his colleague Elizabeth Kong went to 38 Oxley Road on the morning of 17 December 2013. In a span of 15 minutes, they met Lee Kuan Yew and the last will was executed.
At the heart of the matter was a clause in Lee’s will stating that 38 Oxley Road was to be demolished upon his death but only after Wei Ling had moved out. This was in earlier versions of the will but later deleted. The final will reinstated the demolition clause, as well as equal shares of Lee's estate to all three of his offspring.
A total of six wills had been drafted earlier, with Kwa Kim Li acting as his lawyer.
During the hearings, the Law Society's lawyers, Senior Counsel Tan Chee Meng, Koh Swee Yen and Eugene Oh, argued there was an implied retainer between Suet Fern and the late Lee. They also asserted that Lee was not advised on how the last will differed from the sixth or penultimate will done in 2012.
In its report, the tribunal noted that the couple did not explain why the first will was chosen when it had been superseded five times.
"The respondent and Mr Lee Hsien Yang say that Mr Lee decided this himself. We only have their word for this — and, in this case, on many aspects where there was other evidence, it was clear that both of them were lying, and had acted dishonestly," the tribunal said in its report.
‘Lee Kuan Yew knew exactly what he wanted’
Suet Fern was represented by Senior Counsels Kenneth Tan and Walter Woon, lawyer Abraham Vergis and two others from Providence Law.
The mother of three denied being Lee’s lawyer and rejected the assertion of an implied retainer. She also argued that if she was in a position of conflict of interest, her father-in-law was fully aware and chose to proceed.
In submissions to the tribunal, Woon described the Law Society’s argument – that Suet Fern and Hsien Yang deliberately cut Kwa Kim Li out and got Lee to execute his last will in her absence, and misleading him as to its contents – as being “totally implausible”.
Woon, a former Attorney-General, pointed out that if the couple had meant to cut Kwa out, “there was no reason to send her a copy of the draft Will before execution nor to tell her after the event that it had been done.
“If there were any irregularities, they would have been exposed practically immediately,” said Woon.
He added that the December 2013 will merely “re-affirmed” the equal division of his estate made by Lee in his original 2011 will, which reflected the agreement among the siblings. In addition, Suet Fern became aware that Lee originally had given Wei Ling an extra one-seventh share in the penultimate will only several months after his death.
Therefore, there could not have been a breach of duty on her part.
Furthermore, Woon asserted, “The Tribunal is being invited to make a finding that Mr Lee did not understand his own Will despite reading and re-reading it not just once but several times.”
“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.”
He also noted that there has been no suggestion by the Law Society that Lee was not in full command of his faculties at the time he executed his will in December 2013. There has also been no allegation that Suet Fern had influenced Lee by “undue influence or unconscionable conduct”
“Anyone who has ever had dealings with Mr Lee Kuan Yew would find the very idea utterly laughable. Mr Lee Kuan Yew was a dominating character of sharp intellect who knew exactly what he wanted and was accustomed to having his instructions carried out without delay,” said Woon.
This story has been updated to include Lee Suet Fern’s comments on the disciplinary tribunal’s ruling.