Singapore’s new year opened with a dramatic new installment of the Lee family feud, an unresolved tussle among national founder Lee Kuan Yew’s children that has once again leaked into the public domain over social media.
Lee Wei Ling, the younger sister of incumbent Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, wrote on Facebook on Sunday that the Attorney General’s Chambers (AGC) had filed a “complaint of misconduct” against her brother Lee Hsien Yang’s lawyer wife, Lee Suet Fern.
According to an AGC statement issued today (January 7), Lee Suet Fern stands accused of “potential professional misconduct” for her alleged involvement in the preparation of late Lee’s last will and testament.
In 2017, Lee Wei Ling and Lee Hsien Yang publicly accused their older brother of abusing his power and making political hay out of their deceased father’s legacy. Lee Kuan Yew, Singapore’s first prime minister who died in 2015, still looms large in the public imagination after decades of strongman rule.
Previous rounds of recriminations disseminated over Facebook culminated in a parliamentary session in July 2017 at which Lee Hsien Loong insisted that his siblings’ claims of abuse of power were “baseless.”
“It pains me that this episode has put both [the Lee family and nation] under a cloud, and done damage to Singapore. I hope one day I will be able to resolve the unhappiness within the family,” he said at the time.
Following the session, his younger brother and sister said they would stop publicly posting evidence against him, and would work instead to settle their dispute in private. A year-and-a-half later, however, it’s now apparent that the intra-sibling misgivings have not been resolved.
At the heart of the unresolved dispute is the handling of the late Lee’s house at 38 Oxley Road. While Lee had previously stated on record that he wanted the house demolished, the younger Lee siblings claim that their powerful older brother is now keen to preserve it to “enhance his political capital.”
The People’s Action Party, the elder Lee’s party that has ruled the island nation consecutively since independence, held its early meetings in the residence and it is thus arguably of historical importance.
The younger siblings also earlier expressed misgivings over a ministerial committee set up to consider potential options for the house, claiming that it was an inappropriate way to work around a will that had already been granted probate.
While avoiding judgment on the will’s validity, the AGC’s complaint points to legal profession conduct rules that bar lawyers from acting on behalf of anyone’s will when the said lawyer’s relatives are beneficiaries.
The complaint also aims to highlight Lee Suet Fern’s role to the Law Society of Singapore, which oversees standards of conduct within the island state’s legal profession.
The Attorney General’s complaint will next go before a disciplinary tribunal, at which Lee can argue her case or even file an appeal if the decision goes against her.
Lee Suet Fern’s now contested involvement in preparing Lee’s will was first raised during the family spat in 2017. At the time, Lee Hsien Yang said that his wife’s firm was not involved in drafting his father’s will.
Instead, Lee Suet Fern had put into language one paragraph, upon Lee Kuan Yew’s instruction, which he then asked his usual lawyer, Kwa Kim Li, to insert into the document, Lee Hsien Yang claimed.
The AGC’s latest action will further add to the perception that Lee Hsien Yang and his family are facing repercussions for their criticism of his brother Lee Hsien Loong and his PAP-led government. When they first went public in June 2017, the siblings said they “fear[ed] the use of the organs of the state against us and Hsien Yang’s wife, Suet Fern.”
While the AGC says that it has a “statutory duty to deal with misconduct by lawyers”, the move has prompted Singaporeans to ask online why the state is getting involved in what is a private dispute between the late Lee’s children.
“In this particular matter, AGC’s action will be perceived as having a particularly sharp edge in light of the Lee family dispute,” says Eugene Tan, associate professor of law at the Singapore Management University.
The AGC’s complaint comes while it also pursues contempt of court charges against Li Shengwu, Lee Hsien Yang and Lee Suet Fern’s son.
Li, an assistant professor of economics at Harvard University, has been charged for a private Facebook post where he shared a link to a news article on the Lee family feud with an added comment that said the government is “very litigious” and has a “pliant court system.”
The family split can now even be seen along more political lines. Lee Hsien Yang recently expressed support for Leong Sze Hian, a financial advisor and former president of human rights group Maruah, who the prime minister is personally suing for defamation.
Leong had shared an article on Facebook alleging that Lee Hsien Loong was a key investigation target in Malaysia’s ongoing 1MDB scandal. Although the post had gone viral, Leong is so far the only person being sued by Lee for defamation.
When Leong announced that he would countersue the prime minister for allegedly abusing court process, Lee Hsien Yang acknowledged that he was a donor to Leong’s legal fund.
In rekindling the feud, Lee Wei Ling took issue with the timing and motivation of the AGC’s complaint. Even though Lee Suet Fern’s involvement in the will was first raised in 2017, no complaint was filed at that time.
“Lee Kuan Yew, a highly regarded lawyer, never complained about his will. No beneficiary has complained to the Law Society, not even [Lee] Hsien Loong who was advised by Lucien Wong (previously his personal lawyer [and] now [Attorney General]),” Lee Wei Ling wrote on January 6.
“Why therefore this new attack on our father’s will? Why is this being initiated now, and by the AGC, after all this time? Our view is that this action is wholly without merit.”
Attorney General Lucien Wong was appointed to his position in January 2017, having previously served as Lee Hsien Loong’s personal lawyer. The AGC said in its statement that Wong has recused himself in the case, apparently to avoid any conflict of interest.