SINGAPORE – When the fifth anniversary of the death of Singapore’s founding prime minister Lee Kuan Yew was observed earlier this year, his estranged children mourned apart. An acrimonious dispute among the siblings that began over the fate of their late father’s estate has not yet been put to rest and has since taken on political dimensions.

Related legal proceedings are set to be heard in 2021, including a defamation case brought by the late Lee’s eldest son, incumbent Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, 68, against a local news editor who repeated an allegation made by his younger brother Lee Hsien Yang and sister Lee Wei Ling, neither of whom the premier has sued directly. 

With the prime minister now expected to retain power and push back a leadership transition that was set to happen by 2022 in order to see the nation through the Covid-19 crisis, it remains to be seen how a bitter family feud could play out in the final years of Lee’s litigious rule.

Unprecedented public sparring between members of Singapore’s first family began in earnest in 2017 when the premier’s siblings accused him of abusing his executive powers to impede their efforts to demolish the family bungalow, a five-bedroom residence at 38 Oxley Road, as their elder statesmen father had wanted and stipulated in his will. 

The Lee siblings alleged that their elder brother, who has served as prime minister since 2004, sought to preserve the house to further his own political capital. Moreover, they accused him of using “the organs of state” against them and grooming his son Li Hongyi to take up a future political role, allegations that the premier has adamantly denied.

Political leaders in the wealthy city-state typically seek to protect their reputation through legal channels when serious accusations are leveled against them. Addressing the matter in Parliament, Lee said in 2017 that he refrained from suing his siblings to prevent his family name from being further besmirched, though he has vowed to take legal action if necessary.

Lee Hsien Yang on the campaign trail earlier this year. Photo: Nile Bowie/Asia Times

The prime minister’s siblings have continued to criticize their brother and raise governance-related accusations over social media. In June, Lee Hsien Yang, 63, officially joined the Progress Singapore Party (PSP), an electorally untested opposition party launched in 2019 to challenge the ruling People’s Action Party’s (PAP) six-decade grip on power.

Casting himself as “a catalyst for change,” the younger Lee, a Cambridge and Stanford University graduate and former SingTel chief executive officer, denounced “dynastic politics” and opted not to stand as a candidate in the city-state’s July general election because, in his words, “Singapore does not need another Lee.”

The PAP ultimately prevailed at the polls, though its overall vote share dropped to 61.24%, its second-lowest showing on record. Lee Hsien Yang denies that that personal issues with his elder brother influenced his decision to join politics, though the optics of Lee Kuan Yew’s sons on opposing political sides plainly signaled a house divided.

The daughter-in-law and grandson of Singapore’s founding father have landed in legal trouble since the elder statesman’s passing. Lee Hsien Yang’s wife, Lee Suet Fern, 62, an international corporate lawyer, was found guilty of misconduct in preparing and executing Lee Kuan Yew’s final will in November by a Supreme Court disciplinary body.

The Court of Three Judges ruled that the prime minister’s sister-in-law be suspended from legal practice for 15 months for having misled the late Lee, a Cambridge-trained lawyer, into signing a new will at the urgent behest of her husband, one of its beneficiaries, without the advice of his usual lawyer who had prepared all six of his previous wills.

According to the written judgment, which cannot be appealed, Lee Suet Fern’s “divided loyalties” presented a “potential conflict of interest” despite her having no solicitor-client relationship with her late father-in-law, a fact for which she was acquitted of charges of grossly improper conduct in the discharge of her professional duties.

The court found her guilty of lesser alternative charges of misconduct unbefitting a solicitor and advocate and ruled that, as a result of her involvement, Lee Kuan Yew had “ended up signing a document which was in fact not that which he had indicated he wished to sign”, although noting that the potential harm caused “could have been far more severe.”

His seventh and final will signed in December 2013 reintroduced a clause central to a long-running public feud between the siblings requesting that his 38 Oxley Road residence be demolished. The judges also accepted that the late Lee had previously changed his will several times and was ultimately content with the final version he signed.  

A view of former Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew’s 38 Oxley Road residence in Singapore June 14, 2017. Photo: AFP

In a statement, Lee Suet Fern said she disagreed with the court’s findings and asserted that there was “no basis” for the case to have been initiated. “This was a private will,” she said.  “Lee Kuan Yew knew what he wanted. He got what he wanted. The Court of Three did not find that he was of unsound mind or that he was not in control.”

She added that no complaint against her had ever been lodged by Lee Kuan Yew, his lawyer, or any of his beneficiaries. “This case arose from a complaint years later by the Attorney-General’s Chambers,” while the prime minister had made “extensive submissions, but did not present himself as a witness and was not subject to cross-examination.”

Lee Suet Fern added that probate, the legal process for a will to be accepted as a valid public document, for Lee Kuan Yew’s will had been granted by the courts in 2015. “Probate had been sought on the urging of Lee Hsien Loong and Lucien Wong,” then the premier’s personal lawyer, “before he became attorney-general” in 2017 amid the estate dispute.

In an immediate response to the verdict, Li Shengwu, who is Lee Suet Fern’s and Lee Hsien Yang’s son, wrote on Facebook that Singapore’s prime minister “has no shame about using state resources to settle grudges against relatives” and called on him to “resign now, rather than continuing to undermine the rule of law in Singapore.”

Li Shengwu, a 35-year-old Harvard University economics professor, was found guilty of scandalizing Singapore’s judiciary in July and sentenced in absentia to a S$15,000 (US$11,200) fine after he wrote in a “friends-only” Facebook post in 2017 that the wealthy city-state’s government was “very litigious and has a pliant court system.”

Prime Minister Lee addressed his family’s property dispute on the witness stand in court in late November when a defamation suit he brought against Terry Xu, chief editor of local news website The Online Citizen (TOC), went to trial over an allegedly libelous article based on claims made by his siblings in joint public statements and on Facebook.

The TOC article references a Facebook post by Lee Wei Ling in which she claimed that the premier misled their father into thinking that the family bungalow had been gazetted by the government as a heritage property, which in turn led the late Lee to remove the demolition clause from his fifth and sixth will. The house has never been gazetted.

Lee’s lawyer, Davinder Singh, argued that the article went beyond what the siblings had alleged, while Xu’s lawyer, Lim Tean, engaged in a lengthy back-and-forth with the premier while under cross-examination, during which he denied misleading his father and rebutted claims that he sought to preserve the house for political gain.

Terry Xu faces defamation charges. Image: Facebook

“Singaporeans know me. I have been in politics now since 1984, 36 years. I have been prime minister for 16 years and if I still depend on living in a particular house in order to exude a magic aura and overawe and impress the population, I think I am in a very sad state and Singapore would be in a very sad state,” said Lee during his witness testimony.

A government panel set up to consider the fate of the historic property, where key meetings of first-generation PAP leaders were held in the 1950s, said in a 2018 report that a future government should make the final decision as to whether the house should be demolished or preserved, either partially or wholly, as a national monument.

Lee has recused himself from the government’s handling of the matter and sold his share of the property to his brother. During the hearing, the premier said his decision not to sue his siblings did not mean “carte blanche” for others to repeat their claims, which his lawyers characterized as having gravely injured his character and reputation.

In October 2019, Xu applied to bring the premier’s siblings into the suit as third parties, with the intention for them to bear damages if he was found liable for defamation. Xu’s lawyer confirmed in November that third-party involvement would be discontinued without citing a reason, thus ruling out the possibility of the Lee siblings testifying on the matter in court.

Lee is seeking damages from Xu including aggravated damages, an injunction to restrain him from publishing or disseminating the allegations, and costs. The trial is scheduled to resume in February. In a separate libel suit brought by Lee in his capacity as a private citizen, the premier is seeking S$150,000 ($110,000) in damages from activist blogger Leong Sze Hian.

In November 2018, Leong shared a news article by Malaysian website The Coverage on Facebook, posted with no accompanying caption, that falsely alleged Lee had helped former Malaysian prime minister Najib Razak launder money from the graft-plagued Malaysian state fund 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB).

Lee chose to sue Leong even after he removed the post, which his legal counsel said he “in no way endorsed”, on the basis that “removal does not expunge the defamation.” When Leong launched a crowdfunding campaign in December of that year to raise funds for his legal defense, the first person to contribute was Lee Hsien Yang.

Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong has so far refrained from suing his siblings. Image: Agencies/File Photo

After being questioned by Lim, who is also Leong’s lawyer, during cross-examination in October over why he chose to sue his client, who merely shared the article on Facebook as others had and was not its original author, the premier said he did so on the advice of his legal counsel. A verdict on the case is expected to be delivered by the High Court in early 2021.

Lim described the proceedings as “an abuse of the process”, while Singh, Lee’s lawyer, accused the defense of attacking the plaintiff and politicizing the case. “We are in Singapore, where there is an embedded culture, a set of values of political leadership which or where under Singaporeans come to expect that their leaders will sue if allegations are false. And if they don’t sue, they have to explain,” Singh told the court.

“If there is any ‘embedded culture’ in operation regarding Terry Xu and Leong Sze Hian, it is to ‘kill the chicken to scare the monkey’,” said Michael Barr, an associate professor of international relations at Flinders University. “Bullying people into fearful silence is the main set of values on display in the current generation of political leaders.”

Critics of the government and premier Lee will “see the lawsuits as another attempt to suppress dissent by members of the political establishment,” said Eugene Tan, an associate professor of law at Singapore Management University (SMU). “Singaporeans, by and large, do not find the lawsuits startling or inappropriate, but muse on whether a less muscular response can be used to protect the reputation of public figures.”

It is accepted in Singapore that political leaders will “sue in their private capacity for damages in respect of defamation in order to protect their reputation and integrity should they be defamed,” because the public might suspect that there may be some truth to the allegations if no legal action is taken, he added.

“Public figures as well as that of private individuals…are equal before the law of defamation. In other words, a government leader does not forfeit his right to reputation merely because he has entered the political arena and can be expected to be closely scrutinized,” said Tan. “As such, defamatory remarks are met with robust legal action.”

On that basis, Barr argues that logically “Lee should and must sue his siblings” for libel. In November, Lee reiterated in court that he had dealt with their accusations in two ministerial statements and opened himself to questioning in Parliament on the matter. Though he has thus far refrained from suing his siblings, that “does not mean I will never do it,” said Lee.

Grandchildren of Singapore’s former prime minister Lee Kuan Yew carry his portrait during a funeral procession at the University Cultural Center in Singapore on March 29, 2015. Photo: AFP/Adek Berry

“I doubt that it will happen. I have trouble seeing what he would gain by taking such action,” said Barr. “But I can’t see what has been gained by taking action against Lee Suet Fern, so who knows? When family comes into the picture, reason tends to go out the window. This happens even in functional families, let alone in the Lee family.”

Garry Rodan, an honorary professor at the University of Queensland’s School of Political Science and International Studies, said it is hard to predict whether Lee will bring his siblings to court. “If the prime minister did embark on legal actions against his siblings, it would demonstrate he is non-discriminatory in recourse to the courts to settle disputes.

“However, this may not be the best note on which to approach the conclusion of his tenure as prime minister,” he added. “While there may be an ’embedded culture’ within the PAP that views litigation as essential to protect reputations, it is very questionable as to whether that view is shared by Singaporeans in general,” said Rodan.  

“I am not aware of any evidence whatsoever to support this claim. It sounds more like a rationalization of the obsession with litigation, the preferred modus operandi among PAP leaders, and an underestimation of the ability of Singaporeans to weigh up for themselves the merits of competing claims.”