COMMENT - FamiLEE saga: Where’s the consistency?

The Oxley Road house seen in 2017. (File photo: Reuters/Edgar Su)

I am beginning to like this word “optics”. It can stand for so many things, like different perspectives, varying points of view, how things can play out in the public eye or in someone else’s eye. So I’ll just say the “optics” surrounding the latest twist in the Lee family saga is making me cross-eyed, weary and teary.

For those with blurry memories, the FamiLEE saga has to do with a public quarrel that blew up in the middle of 2017 between Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong and his two younger siblings, Hsien Yang and Wei Ling, over the demolition/preservation of the Oxley Road house that their father left them on his death.

There were allegations and counter-allegations, acrimonious emails and Facebook postings and an a two-day airing of the Lee laundry in Parliament. The issue in a nutshell: PM Lee said his late father was open to the idea of preserving the house; his siblings said he was dead set on demolishing it.

Of course, that’s a very condensed version I’ve given above. The FamiLEE saga (as was the tag given to a series of reports in old The Middle Ground website) was a lot more colourful and even conspiratorial, with words such as “secret committee” and “abuse of power” thrown in. Many big names were dragged into the picture, including Mr Lucien Wong, the current Attorney-General who was then PM’s personal lawyer.

Singapore was transfixed by the sight of members of the first family at each other’s throats.

As for the fate of the house, the upshot was that the G came up with three scenarios for its future, each with some kind of preservation value to it, last April. This, it said, was for a future Government to decide once Dr Lee Wei Ling no longer lives in it. I wrote about this here.

I believe most people thought the saga had ended with the PM having the last word in Parliament in July that year. He wouldn’t sue his siblings, he said, even though they had defamed him. He also hoped that the acrimony wouldn’t be passed down to the next generation.

To quote him: “Little did I expect that after my parents died, these tensions would erupt, with such grievous consequences and after so many years I would be unable to fulfil the role which my father had hoped I would. So I hope one day, these passions will subside, and we can begin to reconcile. At the very least, I hope that my siblings will not visit their resentments and grievances with one generation upon the next generation and further, that they do not transmit their enmities and feuds to our children.”

But alas, it was not to be. In the same month, Mr Lee Hsien Yang’s son, Li Shengwu, found himself the subject of contempt of court charges because of a private Facebook post he had written. Then came application and counter-applications on whether the AGC could actually serve a summons on someone who made the statement outside Singapore. The Administration of Justice Act which codifies contempt of court laws, says yes. But the Act wasn’t in place then. It was activated a few months later, in October.

In September last year, Mr Li, 33, an economics professor in Harvard University, won the right to appeal the AGC’s decision. The question at hand: Whether the Act could be applied retroactively.

So, yup, we haven’t even got to the door of the court yet to discuss the substance of his posting. If the door is opened, we’ll have yet another round of FamiLEE saga although I’m quite sure the AGC will do its level best to keep it to what Mr Li said in his posting.

Now, the AGC has turned its sights on the wife of Mr Lee Hsien Yang, calling on the Law Society to investigate Ms Lee Suet Fern for professional misconduct. This has to do with the role she played in getting the late Mr Lee to sign his last will, which included the now-infamous demolition clause. During the 2017 saga, PM Lee made public a statutory declaration in which he described the “suspicious circumstances” surrounding the drafting of his father’s final will. This, even though a grant of probate certifying its validity was issued in October 2015, just months after Mr Lee’s death.

Now we all know Ms Lee had some part in it, but the question then was more about whether she had exercised “undue influence” on her father-in-law, thereby making the will invalid.

There was also the suggestion from PM Lee that his brother and wife had contrived to deprive their sister of a bigger share of the house, even as the demolition clause was re-inserted. PM Lee had said that even Dr Lee had misgivings over the couple’s role, which Dr Lee has denied vehemently, releasing correspondence to show that her sister-in-law had tried to be helpful. (Read this and this)

The AGC made clear that it wasn’t the validity of the will that was being questioned now, but the professional conduct of Ms Lee. There is a one-liner about how the younger Mr Lee got a bigger share of the estate as a result. You can read the statement here.

The AGC wants some direct answers from the Lee couple on whether Ms Lee, a lawyer in private practice, was involved in the drafting of the will in some way or other. And whether Mr Lee had lied when he said it was drafted by Lee & Lee lawyer Kwa Kim Lee. Ms Kwa has denied this.

The AGC said it had no response to its queries.

I checked the files. Mr Lee Hsien Yang did say this in a Facebook post on June 16 that year: “Stamford Law did not draft any will for LKY. The will was drafted by Kwa Kim Li of Lee & Lee. Paragraph 7 of the Will was drafted at LKY’s direction, and put into language by Lee Suet Fern, his daughter in law and when he was satisfied he asked Kim Li to insert into his will.”

Later, he also said this: “My father’s Final Will of December 2013 was a reversion to his 2011 will on his express instructions. The 2011 will was drafted by Ms Kwa Kim Li of Lee & Lee.”

On Monday (7 January), he said this on his FB page, adding Law and Home Affairs Minister K Shanmugam into the mix: “This was his re-signing of his 2011 will in which Minister Shanmugam was involved.” He also said that the facts had been made known for years and that the AGC had some correspondence that should be released. (Brace yourself.)

As someone who followed the saga closely, I am also confused about who did what when and where. There were seven wills involved and plenty of characters. You can read about them here. The conclusion that I came to then was that the demolition clause was in an older will, drafted by Ms Kwa, taken out and then inserted without her knowledge. And that Ms Lee played a part in getting the house retained for Dr Lee.

Allegations of professional misconduct had surfaced then, but not in a big way. So it does seem odd that the AGC started asking questions only in October last year.

It intoned: “The Legal Profession (Professional Conduct) Rules (‘Professional Conduct Rules’) requires that lawyers do not place themselves in a position of conflict. Where a person intends to make a significant gift by will to any member of the lawyer’s family, the lawyer must not act for the person and must advise him to obtain independent advice in respect of the gift. This rule applies even if the lawyer is related to the person making the gift.”

(The last line makes me wonder if Ms Kwa, a niece of the late Mrs Lee Kuan Yew, should have been drafting wills for her elderly relative all these years! )

If the saga hasn’t made you cross-eyed yet, good for you.

But it’s also making me weary and teary for a few reasons.

There are too many questions surrounding the accusations against the Lee son-and- mother. In Mr Li’s contempt of court case, it does seem like arbitrary prosecution, given that some people have said a lot worse things about the judiciary in much more public forums that aren’t set to “private”. Opposition politician Kenneth Jeyaretnam, for example, had actually asked to be sued.

That July, the authorities acted almost immediately against Mr Li. In this new allegation of professional misconduct, they really took their time. (Maybe it’s because the complaint is 500 pages long?)

There’s no consistency in this narrative.

Then there is the role of AG Wong, who “recused” himself from the case and left it to his deputy Lionel Yee to handle. I know a lot has been said about separating the professional from the personal and how honourable people would be able to draw this line. But I happen to think that the AGC is too important an institution to have any blemish, even a perceived one. Mr Wong’s talent and ability should be weighed against the public perception of the independence of the institution. He seems more of a liability than an asset to me.

If the AGC (I mean the institution) really wants to be consistent, it should have levelled charges of criminal defamation against the Lee siblings. Just because the PM doesn’t want to take up a civil defamation doesn’t mean that the AGC cannot act independently. Right?

After all, the accusations of impropriety and abuse of power by the PM’s own siblings who are both respected members of the Establishment are far more damaging to the G than remarks of a failed election candidate published in The Online Citizen.

Where’s the consistency?

That’s why I am getting weary and teary. I can’t see anything clearly anymore. The optics are so bad.

By the way, here’s a list of reports and columns on the saga that The Middle Ground published. Start from the bottom. Not boring. Promise.

  1. FamiLEE saga: Who’s involved (Jun 17)

  2. FamiLEE saga: Is a grant of probate really final? (Jun 17)

  3. FamiLEE saga: Somebody should just sue (Jun 17)

  4. FamiLEE saga: PM Lee’s version of events (Jun 16)

  5. FamiLEE saga: Let a third party tell all (Jun 16)

  6. FamiLEE saga: The past three days (Jun 16)

  7. FamiLEE saga: How Lee Suet Fern got LWL her inheritance, according to leaked emails (Jun 15)

  8. FamiLEE saga: Singaporeans react with confusion, humour and CSI skills (Jun 15)

  9. FamiLEE saga: From 38 Oxley Road to 1 Parliament Place, not just a family affair (Jun 15)

  10. FamiLEE saga: Headlines around the world (Jun 15)

  11. FamiLEE saga: Now about that mysterious ministerial committee (Jun 15)

  12. Not just a famiLEE affair (Jun 14)

  13. Third generation Lee weighs in (Jun 14)

  14. “We do not trust Hsien Loong as a brother or as a leader. We have lost confidence in him.” (Jun 14)