WATCH: Lee Suet Fern speaks about her family being in the spotlight and on her son coming out about his sexuality.
SINGAPORE — Over tea at the St Regis hotel recently, Lee Suet Fern, 62, was animated as she recalled the birth of her eldest son Shengwu in 1985, and the reaction of her in-laws Lee Kuan Yew, Singapore’s first Prime Minister, and his wife Kwa Geok Choo.
“They're very traditional. They wanted a male grandson, and this was the male grandson they were waiting for. My mother-in-law clucked with pleasure,” said the mother of three with a laugh. She is married to the late couple’s youngest child Hsien Yang, 63.
“Shengwu's birth was the biggest event for them on a personal level. Mama was thrilled, Papa was thrilled, they were deliciously, deliriously happy. It meant a lot to them. It felt to them like a first, although my brother-in-law did have a son with his first wife.”
It was a rare moment for Suet Fern, a prominent corporate lawyer: speaking on the record about her personal life. A self-confessed shy and reserved person, she told Yahoo News Singapore that she has steered clear of discussing her family in interviews over the years.
Notwithstanding her desire for privacy, she has found herself under the media glare in recent months, and over family matters too. Censured by a Disciplinary Tribunal (DT) for grossly improper professional conduct in her handling of the late Lee’s final will, Suet Fern is currently awaiting the result of an appeal to the Court of Three Judges, the highest disciplinary body that deals with lawyers' misconduct, against the verdict.
Judgement has been reserved in the case. If Suet Fern were to lose the appeal, she may face a fine, suspension or even be disbarred.
It is the latest twist in the long-running Lee saga, which first erupted in June 2017 when Hsien Yang and his sister Wei Ling, 65, went public with their dispute over the fate of the old family home at 38 Oxley Road, accusing their older brother, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, 68, of abusing the organs of state for his own benefit.
“I suppose one always hopes that there will be fairness and justice,” said Suet Fern about her ongoing appeal. She also alluded to the “wonderfully supportive” members of the legal fraternity who have reached out to her.
A lifelong connection to the Lees
Over three meetings with this writer in August and September, Suet Fern was candid, yet measured, in her responses. At times, her tone was playful, almost girlish, especially when the conversation turned to her time at Cambridge University in the late 1970s and her early romance with Hsien Yang. At other times, she took lengthy pauses before answering, tiptoeing delicately around potential minefields.
The eldest child of prominent economist Professor Lim Chong Yah and schoolteacher See Nah Nah, Suet Fern was born in Singapore but spent much of her childhood in Oxford and Petaling Jaya. Her connection to the Lees started from a young age – her father gave tuition to first Hsien Loong, then Hsien Yang, for their A-levels.
She and her future husband attended elite schools – Raffles Girls School and Catholic High School respectively – before they became contemporaries at National Junior College, where she was a debater and he an athlete and national swimmer.
It was while studying at Cambridge, where they both graduated with double firsts, that the couple grew closer. Asked how the romance began, she joked that it was partly due to the very small number of women at the university then. “Yang was one of many young men who turned up at my door,” added Suet Fern with a laugh.
“I joke that he didn't have much choice, there were so few girls in Cambridge in the 70s. He jokes that I fell for him, largely because he cooked so well for me. He also claims that he was persistent enough that, over time, the others just gradually fell away.”
Hsien Yang would also cycle back and forth between Trinity College, where he read engineering science, and Girton College, to see her. “It was a long cycle, quite often in the typical English rain. When my classes were over, he’d offer to cycle me back to Girton, which was a little outside Cambridge city, and then he’d cycle back to town, and then if we were going out in the evening, he would cycle up again.”
Parental pressure and an ‘impersonal’ wedding
The couple were married in July 1981, when Suet Fern was 23 and her husband just a year older. She said, “I think that we married young, perhaps as a result of some amount of parental pressure.”
It happened quickly too: days after she took her final law exams and returned home, they were married, first in a small ceremony at Barker Road Methodist Church, then in a large reception at the Istana afterwards. She recalled an “impersonal” wedding where she “shook hands with hundreds of people I did not know”.
The bridal car was a little Honda Civic, Hsien Yang’s first car. There was no one to do her makeup or hair, but she did put on lipstick that she had bought at a Boots store before leaving England. They did not take studio photographs. Afterwards, when it was all done, Hsien Yang cooked her a steak for dinner.
Asked if she had second thoughts about marrying into such a prominent family, Suet Fern said, “I was young, I was in love, and I thought, then as I think now, that Yang's a really special individual. I never married the family, I married him.”
Hsien Yang was a President’s Scholar and a Singapore Armed Forces scholar who rose to the rank of Brigadier-General in the army before going on to the corporate world. “I loved him in uniform. I thought he was so handsome. I used to think, oh my goodness, what a heartthrob,” she said with a giggle.
Asked about her relationship with her in-laws, she replied, “Before I was married, my father-in-law and mother-in-law were incredibly courteous and very gracious.”
After a long pause, Suet Fern added, “They were lovely.”
‘Frightened’ of Mrs Lee
As the youngest member of the family, and one who married the youngest Lee child, she was lowest in the pecking order. And she did not count on how “fierce, old-fashioned and imperious” her newly acquired mother-in-law would be.
The couple initially lived in Cairnhill Mansions, above Hsien Loong and his first wife Wong Ming Yang. But because Hsien Yang was often away for military training, “I did feel a little isolated and unprotected. I confided that in Yang, that when I first got married, she (her mother-in-law) was quite frightening. Yang just gave me every assurance that it was him that I married and not his mother, and that he would always put me first.”
According to Suet Fern, Wong’s death in October 1982, attributed to a heart attack, was a turning point in her relationship with her mother-in-law. “Thereafter, she was much more reserved and reticent and more careful.”
Nonetheless, the late Mrs Lee was never short of advice on how to raise her children in later years. “I was often ticked off by her (but) not in a terrible way. And when I had my first two sons, this was her typical refrain, ‘You know Fern, you must raise your children like the queen. Leave others to raise your children, and inspect them every day at tea time.’”
Mrs Lee also disapproved of breastfeeding, to the extent that Suet Fern would hide the fact that she was nursing her babies. “She would say, ‘Yang's fully bottle fed and he turned out all right, leave them to maids and a bottle.’”
Defining herself outside of the family
Suet Fern was called to the Bar in 1982. In his 2017 memoirs “Life Journey of a Singaporean Professor”, her father wrote, “The chief examiner, a high court judge, confided in me that she was by far the best student of the class.”
She has since won multiple accolades and awards. In 2000, she founded Stamford Law Corporation, which went on to become the sixth largest law firm in Singapore. In 2015, it merged with Morgan, Lewis & Bockius LLP, one of the world’s top five law firms. Morgan Lewis operates in Singapore through Morgan Lewis Stamford LLC, where she is a director. Suet Fern is also a partner at Morgan Lewis.
“I felt that I needed to be my own person. And I eventually decided I would step out, and I wouldn't work for the government in any way, or at any government agency, or even at Lee & Lee,” she said, adding that for years, she did not even keep a family photo in her office. “I would be a very dutiful daughter-in-law, because I loved my husband. And because I love him, it's the right thing to do to be good to his family. Beyond that, I didn't particularly want, desire, any outside connection.”
Friends and former colleagues attest to her commitment to her work. New York-based corporate lawyer Shawn Desker, 46, worked under Suet Fern for two years at the start of his career, and remembers her as a boss who led by example and never raised her voice. “She is very often the smartest person in the room, but she really thinks she is not a big deal. She went out of her way to make people feel comfortable.”
Eduardo Ramos-Gomez, a 64-year-old partner at Duane Morris & Selvam LLP, also expressed surprise that she was doing an interview on her family, given her private nature. The former Mexican ambassador to Singapore, who has known the couple since 1998, added, “I have known very few people with as much integrity as Hsien Yang and Suet Fern. It is hard to think of them without the other, notwithstanding that they are very independent.”
Fittingly, Suet Fern said she had “huge support” from her husband in her career. “It takes a special man to allow his wife to work all night in the office. And he often put up with a house not being perfect, and he never complained.”
As she struggled with the demands of work and home with her first two children, he stepped up to help, despite not knowing how to change a nappy at first. She recounted with a laugh, “He did an awful job and he kept saying, ‘Be patient with me. I'm a Lee. I need to learn this’. And he got better and better.”
The family patriarch
“I was very scared of him,” recalled Suet Fern of her late father-in-law. “In those days, I think everyone was terrified of him, more so me.”
Conversations with him were always centred on how his grandsons were doing, particularly their academic performance in Chinese. For a period, when Suet Fern was losing weight due to work and family stress, he would constantly enquire after her weight, even getting her to weigh herself whenever she came to Oxley Road.
Nevertheless, for a family that did not celebrate birthdays, Suet Fern began a tradition of celebrating the late Lees’ birthdays at her home. “Yang would typically cook, and I used to think his father was such a so-and-so,” she said with a laugh. “Poor Yang is in the kitchen, and I'd bring the food out, birthday dinner, and my father-in-law would say, ‘Oh, this is not very well done, send it back to be redone.’”
But the occasions brought out the softer side of her father-in-law, who enjoyed his food served in what he considered an old-fashioned formal setting, with candles, flowers and table service. He would also drop hints to Suet Fern as to what he wanted to be served, such as beef or chocolate cake, while bringing wine or a small gift to the dinner.
“He would always grumble that the children were rather noisy. But I think he liked having them around, and I do think he often felt it was his chance to let his hair down and he loved the bustle of the family.”
A loving couple
Asked about her in-laws’ famous devotion to each other, Suet Fern remembers a happy marriage founded on a very traditional relationship. “For ever so long, Papa was very fierce at home. He expected everything to be perfect. And not uncommonly, he would tick off my mother-in-law, even in front of me. She never answered back to him.”
But after the first of Mrs Lee’s debilitating strokes in 2008 that eventually left her bedridden, the elder Lee took care of her, cutting her food to make it easier to eat, and helping and guiding her. “I love that he was good to her. I have so many good memories from that time about how good he was to her.”
On one occasion, when Mrs Lee wanted to show Suet Fern a new lipstick, she summoned her husband to fetch it. “I said, No, no, Mama, I can get the lipstick. And she turned around and said, ‘No, let him do it’. And she said to me, ‘Maaanja!’ (Malay for ‘I want to be spoilt’)”
When he turned up with the lipstick, she chastised him for bringing the wrong one. “And so he'd go back, and she’d shout at him, ‘Don't mess up my lipsticks.’”
Mrs Lee died in 2010, followed by the death of her husband in 2015.
The Lee saga
Before Hsien Yang and Wei Ling went public with their dispute with their older brother in 2017, Suet Fern was well aware of the tensions that had been building within the broader Lee family. “I didn't wake up like everybody else and was absolutely surprised.”
Her son, Shengwu, a 35-year-old Harvard academic, was recently fined $15,000 for scandalising contempt of court, over the contents of a private Facebook post from 2017. Insisting that he did not admit guilt, Li said he decided to pay the fine in order to “buy some peace and quiet”.
The couple have two other sons: Huanwu, 34, who works for a Washington-based tech company; and Shaowu, 25, who recently graduated from Carnegie Mellon University.
Nonetheless, she said her family has emerged “better and stronger” from the Lee saga and she expressed pride in how her sons have responded to it with maturity and thoughtfulness.
“We're closer than we've ever been before. And I'm incredibly proud of my husband and my sons, in different ways. I love that our sons have stood by their father and me throughout.
“I've learned that they are strong, very wise, mature and thoughtful, have better insights on Singapore and the world than I would have ever imagined. We have come to deeply value their perspectives.”
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