TOC defamation suit: PM Lee Hsien Loong says he has no final say over 38 Oxley Road house

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(PHOTO: Yahoo News Singapore/Wee Teck Hian)
PM Lee arriving at the Supreme Court to testify on 30 November. (PHOTO: Yahoo News Singapore/Wee Teck Hian)

SINGAPORE - Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong on Tuesday (1 December) rejected the suggestion that he had the final say on the fate of the 38 Oxley Road property.

The property, which previously belonged to the late Lee Kuan Yew, has been at the centre of a dispute between Lee and his siblings after their father’s death.

During the second day of his defamation suit against The Online Citizen's chief editor Terry Xu on Tuesday, PM Lee said under cross examination of Xu's lawyer Lim Tean that the issue is not straightforward as he was the late Lee's son and the prime minister at the same time.

Lee finished his cross examination on Tuesday morning and was released from the stand. Xu, 38, testified in the afternoon.

Xu is seeking to argue before Justice Audrey Lim that TOC’s article was not defamatory, or justify that what was stated in the article was true. The article published on TOC’s website and Facebook page on 15 August last year is titled “PM Lee’s wife, Ho Ching weirdly shares article on cutting ties with family members”.

During his cross examination, Lim had suggested to Lee that he was the most powerful man in Singapore politically and that his father had been aware of his purported ability to sway the Cabinet's decision not to demolish the house.

The court had earlier heard that during a Cabinet meeting with the late Lee on 21 July 2011, the ministers present had expressed their objection to demolishing the house. Lee chaired the meeting but did not express his view as he felt “conflicted”.

Lim told Lee, “I find it a strange argument that your father wished to have the house knocked down because he did not want it to stand as monument to him...(the family could also) redevelop property to sub units for own use…I do not see how the public can pass any adverse comment.

“Surely as the prime minister of this country you would want to do everything possible to fulfil that wish, would you not?”

In reply, Lee said, “As his son, yes. As the prime minister I have to put aside family consideration, which is why I recused myself from this matter which the government will (take). Is it wrong to do so in your view?”

His question prompted Lim to tell Lee not to ask any questions. He then followed up with the question, “Are you telling us that you could not override your ministers?”

Lee replied, “Are you telling me it is right thing for me to override ministers as prime minister?”

Senior Counsel Davinder Singh, Lee’s lawyer, interjected to say his client’s answer was no.

Responding to Lim’s statement that Lee “called the shots”, Lee replied, “We have gone over this many times. I act as prime minister, I put aside family considerations.”

Lee said he had sworn an oath to carry out his duties as prime minister and that if he were to breach them to carry out his father’s wishes, he would “do ill” to Singapore. He added that if he were to recuse himself, and the ministers agreed with the late Lee to demolish the house, he would go along with the decision.

Reading out emails from the late Lee addressed to his family members, Lim highlighted that the former prime minister had said, “I cannot call the shots. Loong as the Prime Minister has the final word.”

Lim added, “Your father stated you call the shots, not your ministers, not your Cabinet as you would like us to believe.”

In reply, Lee said that the ministers would consider his view but that it was not possible for him to go against the Cabinet. Lee added that he had explained the matter to his father, who acknowledged the issue.

Lim continued, “The reality is you as prime minister are the most powerful person in this country politically. You had the final word...not editors, not the Cabinet, not the public.”

Lee replied, “That is what my father said but I explained to him what I had to do if I were the decision maker. In other words, I really did not have freedom of action.”

Lim then suggested to Lee that it was “convenient” for him to blame external pressure when in reality Lee had the authority. Lee said, “I reject that totally and I have explained why.”

The lawyer then said, “Your siblings are correct when they said you wanted to keep house to inherit Lee Kuan Yew’s credibility”, to which Lee said, “I think that is rubbish”.

Lim suggested that Lee resided at his father’s house to remind the public of his father, to which PM replied “Maybe for the better, maybe for the worse.” In response, Lim asked, “Are you saying Singaporeans have a terrible impression of your father?”

Lee replied, “Singaporeans know me, I have been in politics since 1984 for 36 years, as a prime minister for 16 years. If I still depend on living in a house to exude a magic aura and impress the population, I think I am in a very sad state and Singapore will be in a sad state.”

PM misled LKY about Oxley Road being gazetted: Lim Tean

The late Lee had made six wills between August 2011 and November 2012. The demolition clause was removed from the fifth will and the sixth will. He made a final and seventh will in December 2013, which contained the demolition clause.

Lim also argued that between 27 December 2011 and 6 September 2012, the late Lee had been misled into thinking that 38 Oxley Road had been gazetted. This was the reason the late Lee thought it was futile for him to maintain the demolition clause in his will, and hence he removed it in his fifth will, which was produced on 4 October 2012, Lim added.

To back his arguments, Lim pointed to an email from the late Lee to his personal lawyer Kwa Kim Li on 6 September 2012, with the late Lee stating that even though the house had been gazetted as a heritage house, it still belonged to him. This email indicated the late Lee had the impression that the house had been gazetted, the lawyer argued.

Lee agreed with Lim based on the email. However, he added that he had not discussed the matter with his father as he thought it was settled. He only came to know of this particular email chain after his father’s death.

Lim then argued that Lee was the only person other than the ministers in the Cabinet meeting who had been speaking to his father about gazetting 38 Oxley Road but Lee denied doing so.

The prime minister said the issue is political in nature, not legal. He added, “Whether or not it is tenable for him to redevelop the house even if it’s not gazetted in the face of public demand that it be preserved and kept as heritage site. Nothing turned on whether it was gazetted or not. My objection was a political one on the house and that was the basis of Mr Lee’s decision.

“So the issue is not whether or not you can legally knock it down and the government can prevent it. The issue is whether it was tenable politically to insist on knocking it down and redeveloping for private property even if the government allows it.”

Lee then said, “This wild extrapolation that because my father appeared to have believed in 2012 that the house is gazetted, therefore I must have told him, is absurd.”

Lim said, “You were the only person your father would have believed on the subject of gazetting...and he would have believed what you told him.”

Lee replied, “I never discussed it with him, perhaps if I did, I would have persuaded him that he was mistaken in (his) view.”

Lim said, “I am suggesting to you that he formed a view on gazetting, on popularity of gazetting, which was wrong and which came from you and led him to change his will in October 2012.”

The suggestion was “totally untrue”, Lee said.

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