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Is this the end of the FamiLEE saga? Part 2

In News Reports on December 4, 2020 at 3:33 am

It’s been entertaining, until it got tiring. I am talking about the defamation suit the Prime Minister filed against Mr Terry Xu of The Online Citizen. Even “irrelevant’’ questions were interesting, like whether PM Lee Hsien Loong invited his siblings for Chinese New Year reunion dinner or when was the last time the siblings spoke to each other. I guess the questions were asked to show the extent of animosity the PM and his wife, Madam Ho Ching, had for the brother-and-sister team? But what animosity? All coming from their side, the PM asserted. 

You would think some patriarch was tending to a family squabble, except that he’s dead and the issue is now before a judge. I am almost tempted to tell the two warring sides to go slug it out in a quiet alley but the police would be after me for incitement of violence. 

What is this defamation lawsuit going to achieve? If the PM succeeds, will it be vindication for him? That he did not mislead his late father into thinking that the house had been gazetted? 

If you haven’t been following, the allegations in TOC and its import goes something like this: The late Lee Kuan Yew wanted the house demolished and said so in his first four wills. The allegation is that after PM Lee told him the house had been gazetted and hence cannot be demolished, this particular demolition clause was taken out of the fifth and six wills. It went back into the final will, ostensibly because LKY found out that no move had been made about the house. In other words, the PM had conned his father. In fact, LKY was so angry that he removed PM Lee as an executor and trustee of his will. 

Hence, law suit.

If only it were that simple. 

The problem is that the TOC relied on words that PM Lee’s siblings, particularly Dr Lee Wei Ling, used in the heat of public email exchanges over the fate of the Oxley Road house in 2017. The PM decided then that he would not sue his siblings. This means we wouldn’t know if whatever they said was true since they hadn’t been tested in a court of law. The PM believes that since he had given a reply to their charges in Parliament, the issue is done and dusted. Over. 

What he didn’t say then was that it doesn’t mean he wouldn’t sue others who repeated what his siblings said. And that’s perfectly legal, by the way. It’s pretty common for plaintiffs to choose to sue some people but not the others. For example, authors can get sued but not the printers or even publishers who carried the defamatory remarks.

When news broke that TOC was being sued, I thought it was an adroit move by PM Lee. What better way to tell opposition politicians that they had better be careful about using his siblings’ words against him when the general election rolls around? In fact, there wasn’t much campaigning over Oxleygate during GE2020, which either showed the opposition “got’’ the message or believed this wasn’t an issue that would energise the electorate. 

The article in TOC appeared in August 2019, and it had seemed a wonder to me that nobody else had tried to besmirch PM Lee by using his siblings as a proxy in the intervening two years. 

PM fired the first shot the next month in September with a “letter of demand’’ from his press secretary which was publicized in the media. When TOC declined to say sorry or take down the article, he sued because the article had gravely injured his character and reputation and brought him into “public scandal, odium and contempt’’.

I haven’t heard or read anyone who believes that TOC has a chance in hell of overturning the suit.  

Perhaps, TOC would have had a better shot if the court did not turn down his application to have documents such as correspondence among the family members and minutes of Cabinet meetings related to the house for his perusal as part of the “discovery’’ process. No reason was given or, at the very least, it was not reported. https://www.straitstimes.com/singapore/toc-editor-fails-in-bid-to-obtain-documents-from-pm

I presume Mr Xu was hoping to uncover angry letters from LKY to his son. Or maybe he was hoping that the minutes would show that PM Lee took an active part in Cabinet discussions about the house, instead of maintaining the silence that he said he did. In any case, he had no luck there. 

Mr Xu had also wanted to have the siblings involved in a third-party action. After all, he had relied on their words and if he lost, they too should bear some of the damages. 

Alas, it was not to be. One month after he applied to the court to have their names included, Mr Xu’s lawyers wrote to say that this was being withdrawn. 

Why? 

During the trial, Mr Xu said he saw no need for this, and later said because he thought the process was “too late’’. PM Lee’s lawyer Davinder Singh jumped at this to say that this was because the siblings themselves couldn’t establish the truth behind their allegations. I was frankly quite flummoxed. What happened to the idea of having the siblings to bear some of the damages should PM Lee win the suit? 

The case yesterday concluded with LKY’s lawyer, Ms Kwa Kim Li, on the stand. Finally, the public reads of the woman who appeared to have been cut out of involvement in drafting of the final will, either because she was uncontactable or deliberately ignored – depending on which warring side you want to believe. 

Her testimony was short but illuminating: She said she had tried at least twice to find out if the house had been gazetted. She found nothing and had told LKY so. 

Senior Counsel Davinder had no questions for her.  

Some people have argued that this was just a family feud writ large – and none of anyone’s business. I disagree. I think the case has cast a spotlight on the role of the Prime Minister – as head of government, and as a member of a family. When should he wear which hat? In fact, given that MPs have the Rules of Prudence, shouldn’t there be a ministerial code of conduct as well? I recall there was one, a few decades ago. 

Few people would view this defamation case in isolation, especially after the State’s successful contempt of court case against the PM’s nephew, Harvard lecturer Li Shengwu, and the 15-month suspension for his sister-in-law, Lee Suet Fern, from legal practice in Singapore. The State and the PM can argue that each case was independently pursued and based on its respective merits, but try telling that to the public. Even if independent and separate, questions would surface about the culture of conformity – whether people would do what they think the powerful would want done even without being asked to. 

That Mr Li paid a derisory $15,000 fine for a case which traversed the oceans, with many stops and starts, would make a taxpayer wonder about the time and energy put into this. That Mrs Lee got a 15-month suspension instead of getting struck off the rolls as originally called for, also leaves people wondering if her role in the last will was much ado about nothing. 

I suppose the argument is that a line must be drawn on what is appropriate or legal, and they have stepped across them. A good point, if consistently applied. 

To answer the earlier question on what this defamation suit achieves: Glory for Mr Xu’s lawyer, Mr Lim Tean, who, by the way, is in the shadow of some pending sexual harassment case as well head of a political opposition party.  He turned the suit into a question of power and authority, intimidation of the media and scare tactics. What a coup for him to be able to grill the PM on the stand, not just for this case but the earlier one against blogger Leong Sze Hian as well! 

Is this the end of the FamiLEE saga?

In News Reports on November 24, 2020 at 3:47 am

I sure hope so.

I’ve had enough of the troubles of this family, the public statements and the use of the court’s time and energy on matters that I’m not so sure are of grave national import. Even the dramatic aspects of Lee versus Lee (or the State versus Lee) doesn’t stimulate the senses anymore. 

I’ve read the 98-page judgment by the Court of Three Judges which suspended Mrs Lee Suet Fern from practising for 15 months. So the lawyer can’t do any work here, but it seems that doesn’t really matter since she is registered as a lawyer in Hong Kong. 

I had to read the judgment a few times because I’m just a layman. The judges tried to untangle all the words that have been said by all the parties to determine who was telling the truth and who was lying, and even what the late Lee Kuan Yew would have thought at that time. Shorn of all the legalese about “implied’’and “imputed’’, “putative’’ and “precedents’’, it boiled down to this:

  1. Did Mrs Lee “act’’ as LKY’s solicitor when she prepared the last will? She shouldn’t have, because her husband benefited from the will. 
  2. If she didn’t “act’’ as a solicitor, should she, as a lawyer, have known better than to advise her father-in-law especially since her husband would gain from the new will? 

So there are two levels here. The first is more serious than the second. I thought to myself the number of times people have told me that “as an educator’’ or “as a journalist’’, I should know “better’’. I’m glad that I’m not a lawyer who has to keep his legal hat on wherever he is and with whoever he talks to. 

At the risk of over-simplifying the process, the court got involved because the Disciplinary Tribunal of the Law Society of Singapore wanted her struck off the rolls. The Law Society got involved because it got a complaint from the Attorney-General’s office. So it was the State that complained, not a mere citizen who believes he was bamboozled or befuddled by the smart talk of a lawyer. 

I can’t carry on opining unless I give a gist of the FamiLEE saga. So bear with me.

It started with the Lees’ family home in Oxley Road and whether it should be demolished or preserved. Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said that his father wanted it demolished initially but had changed his mind. His two siblings, Mr Lee Hsien Yang and Dr Lee Wei Ling, said he wanted it razed. 

But the nail in the coffin (pardon the pun) was LKY’s seventh and last will, which re-inserted the so-called demolition clause and gave the three children equal shares in the estate. Will Number 5 and 6 didn’t have the Demolition clause and would have given Dr Lee the biggest share. (There was also something about two carpets for Hsien Yang, but I won’t go into that.) 

It’s that last will that is now the nub of the case against Mrs Lee. Although it went through probate and nobody raised objections, the Attorney-General’s Office took issue with the involvement of Mrs Lee, a lawyer of 37 years, in getting the will signed and executed. She should have recused herself, it said, because of conflict of interest – her husband gained materially from it. 

The court went through every single step right up to when LKY signed the will on Dec 17, 2013. 

First question: Did LKY regard his daughter-in-law as his lawyer? 

No, he was still talking to Ms Kwa Kim Li, who had drafted the earlier wills and was in fact in touch with her about changing Will Number 6 to give the children equal shares, even as late as Dec 13, 2013.

So the first charge about Mrs Lee acting as LKY’s solicitor got thrown out. 

Second question: Who initiated the changes? 

At first, Mrs Lee said that she was acting on instructions from LKY about the reverting to the first will, but her story changed later. She said it was LKY who told Lee Hsien Yang about reverting to the first will and the younger son set about getting it done. As he had to catch a flight to Brisbane that day, he got his wife to contact Ms Kwa to get it settled. But Ms Kwa wasn’t contactable (she said she never got the email), so Hsien Yang told her to settle it herself quickly lest LKY lose his temper about the slow pace. Ms Kwa wasn’t called to give evidence, by the way. (From the judgment: Ms Kwa was not subpoenaed to give evidence because the Testator’s estate had asserted privilege over the documents pertaining to the Last Will and to her engagement as the Testator’s solicitor)

So it was Mr Lee Hsien Yang who was behind the process and his wife was acting on his instructions. 

Third question: Was there anything wrong about the will LKY later signed? 

Here’s where some contradictions surfaced.

At first, Mrs Lee said she had the first will with her, but both she and her husband later changed their minds and said he was the one who forwarded it to her. The court settled on her original statement. 

So, she somehow has a copy of the first will with her, but (and here’s a significant but) it wasn’t the final first will. It was just a draft of the first will. She said she didn’t know.

The court examined this draft and the final first will and found that there were a couple of discrepancies. For example, there was no gift-over clause in the draft will that was later signed, indicating what would happen should any of LKY’s children die before him. Also missing was a provision that PM Lee would pay for the maintenance and upkeep of the house for as long as his sister is staying in it.

Mrs Lee assumed that what she had on hand was the correct first will and gave it to LKY as such, adding that it gave equal shares to the children. She didn’t check its veracity as anyone with legal training would have done. She got her ex-colleagues to witness the signing the next day, Dec 17. The court said that the process was done in “unseemly haste’’.

I have to pause here to tell you about the ministerial committee that got involved earlier regarding the house. The three-member committee had been corresponding with the siblings and were told about Mrs Lee’s involvement. The about-turns in testimony came about when the process became a legal matter with the Disciplinary Tribunal’s involvement. The judges surmised that the changed testimony was because Mr Lee Hsien Yang didn’t want to be seen as playing a role in the process in answers to the ministerial committee. So, according to the court, some lies were told. 

What has been puzzling to me is why the Demolition clause was not much canvassed during the trial. The issue isn’t merely about whether the couple were conspiring to get more of their inheritance, but whether LKY knew that reverting to the first will meant including the demolition clause – and had intended it to be so.  In fact, that would be a point of public interest, not whether a daughter-in-law or a lawyer was acting for LKY. 

The judgment said that LKY’s discussions with Ms Kwa did not involve “replacing the Sixth Will with another will, nor about reinstating either the First Will as a whole or the Demolition Clause in particular.’’

I know that learned legal types will say that the court can only deal with the evidence brought before it, but I can’t help but feel that the case dwelt on everything but the elephant in the room. Earlier, the Disciplinary Committee tried to paint a picture of a conspiracy to defraud a frail old man, with his daughter-in-law, a lawyer, knowingly out to deceive him. The court however, believes that the case isn’t that serious. “Moderate degree of culpability and harm’‘, was how the judges put it.

Frankly, I thought the case would be thrown out since the court decided that there was no solicitor-client relationship between LKY and Mrs Lee. That would have led to disbarment.

 But it seems that just being a lawyer is good enough (or bad enough) for a  court to decide on how culpable the person is the business of drafting wills. Even though there was no material harm. So, she was remiss in her duty, did not do due diligence and seemed more concerned for her husband than doing right by her father-in-law. 

The court decided on a 15-month suspension. In my view, it seemed more like a signal to other lawyers to be careful about doing work that can be construed as legal than a stern admonition for Mrs Lee.

As the judges said, LKY seemed content with the last will, after changing it six times. He lived for more than a year without re-visiting it. 

As for the harm caused in this case, the material harm was that the Testator (LKY) ended up signing a document which was in fact not that which he had indicated he wished to sign. The fact that the Last Will and the First Will were materially similar was fortuitous, and does not discount the fact that the potential harm could have been far more severe than the actual harm that eventuated.’’

By this, I suppose the court meant that there could have been other significant changes and this might have slipped by LKY. And that one of Singapore’s greatest minds, himself a lawyer, wouldn’t be able to detect the changes because of age and sickness. Hm. 

 At the end of the day, I am not sure what to make of this case. I question the haste in getting LKY to sign the will when Ms Kwa was actually available. But I can also understand how children would jump to attention when a parent who is ailing wants something as important and final as his will changed. 

It can’t have escaped people’s notice that Mrs Lee Suet Fern’s case follows that of her son, who was recently fined $15,000 for contempt of court. Other cases have invoked the FamiLEE saga in some form while at least one more is in the pipeline. 

I am sticking to my earlier position that PM Lee should simply have sued his siblings for defamation and put a full-stop to saga. Now, he can stay silent or reiterate his non-involvement with his relatives’ legal problems, but the actions of government machinery will still be laid at his door, whether justifiably or not. 

Political transition’s ambiguous timeline

In News Reports on November 10, 2020 at 6:25 am

Singapore has had only two leadership transitions – with a third on the way. And the way looks bumpy. You have the Prime Minister talking during the general election about staying on to help Singapore through the Covid-19 crisis. 

You have my word: Together with my older colleagues like Teo Chee Hean and Tharman Shanmugaratnam, as well as the 4G ministers, I will see this through. I am determined to hand over Singapore intact and in good working order to the next team.”

I thought then that he was attempting to placate people who thought that the A team shouldn’t have left the management of the crisis to the B team. Poor Heng Swee Keat. 

Then former Cabinet Minister S Jayakumar raised the possibility of PM Lee Hsien Loong staying in place for the full term and even to fight  the next general election in 2025. He said that “changing horses in mid-stream’’ doesn’t make sense. If the PM agrees, what does that do to his pledge that he would like to step down before his 70th birthday in February 2022?

I thought again, poor Heng Swee Keat. 

Over the weekend at the People’s Action Party conference, the PM talked again about staying on. 

Leadership renewal remains one of my top priorities. But as I have explained, because of the COVID-19 pandemic and its economic impact, it is my duty to see our nation through the crisis, before I hand over responsibility for Singapore in good shape to the next team and into safe hands. I ask you to support me and my whole team – older and younger MPs, office holders and backbenchers. We will do our very best to fulfil our duty at this critical time.’’

I searched for signs of an endorsement of the 4th leadership but other than that they were leading initiatives and getting feedback, nothing further was said about them stepping up. There was no rousing call to cadres to show support for the younger team, but more an injunction to party members to put their backs into making sure the party stayed relevant. 

His 2018 speech to PAP cadres was more fulsome: “The 4G team has been in Cabinet for several years now. Many of them joined in 2011. Some joined earlier, others in 2015. They have been tested in several portfolios. At the same time, they are working with each other, and learning to complement each other’s strengths and weaknesses.

It is a team of able men and women, with a good combination of skills amongst them. They are gaining experience, willing to serve, and most importantly, with their hearts in the right place. I can see them gelling as a team, and am confident that they have what it takes to lead Singapore. I hope that you will join me in giving your whole-hearted support to the new CEC and our 4G leaders.’’

Given Singapore’s opaque partisan politics, it is natural for the people to read “signs’’ to foretell the future, whether they are real or not. 

Following GE2020, I listened carefully to PM Lee’s speech at the opening of Parliament and wondered why he said almost nothing about the 4G. His speech is better remembered for his castigation of free-riding voters who wanted both a PAP government and an opposition presence in Parliament. 

On the outside looking in, the succession process looks terribly unwieldy and wobbly, despite the PAP’s boast that it takes leadership renewal seriously. 

The first transition from Lee Kuan Yew to Goh Chok Tong had never gone off-course, despite the late Mr Lee’s grumblings about how his deputy wasn’t his first-choice pick. The late Mr Lee’s criticisms of Mr Goh’s lack of charisma and wooden demeanour seemed to have backfired if the idea was to de-legitimise Mr Goh as successor. In fact, Mr Lee’s blunt honesty about the “gentle man’’ led to a wave of sympathy for the underdog, sandwiched in the hierarchy between the father and the son. 

Mr Goh declared that he would walk in his “own shoes’’ rather than try to fit that into his predecessor’s gargantuan ones.

You can say that, barring the Kennedys, our current Prime Minister had the best and most extensive tutelage for the job, both at home and in political office. Everybody knew the lay of the land; nobody would attempt to make a pitch for the top job, especially with Mr Goh and the late Mr Lee still in the Cabinet. 

The baton passed smoothly from Mr Goh to the current PM in 2004. No surprises. This second handover was like a “done’’ deal, given that Mr Lee had been a deputy prime minister for 14 years and early declarations by Mr Goh that Mr Lee would be his successor.

So what happened in the third generation? My guess is that PM Lee left the succession plan too late. One of chess pieces was knocked off the board in 2011 when Mr Ong Ye Kung, now Transport minister, didn’t make it in the general election along with the rest of the Aljunied GRC team.

PM Lee seemed content to try individuals out in different capacities to see who would rise above the others while leaving it to the 4th generation to decide among themselves on who would be their choice of leader. It was such a slow process that even Mr Goh weighed in, to tell the ministers to “get a move on’’.

From the 2015 election till the Covid outbreak early this year, I believe most people felt that the 4th generation was in the driver’s seat. We’re told several times that they would be making the decisions, and that the veterans would take a back seat. Both Mr Teo Chee Hean and Mr Tharman Shanmugaratnam became Senior Ministers which Singaporeans have come to think of as the pre-retirement stage. Mr Heng became Number 2 in the People’s Action Party as First Assistant Secretary-General and holds the sole Deputy Prime Minister job in the Cabinet. 

I had great hopes in the leadership of Mr Heng, whom I thought performed superbly in the education and finance portfolios and as chairman of the Our Singapore Conversation. I wanted to see him perform like a Deputy, and more than just a Finance minister, never mind how important the portfolio is. I don’t think he succeeded. I also did not like that he had to front a couple of parliamentary altercations with the Workers’ Party MPs. It seemed uncharacteristic of his personality and more like attempts to look “tough’’. 

Despite unveiling four Budgets, he was eclipsed by Covid-19 taskforce co-chairman Lawrence Wong, who was also picked to make public the PAP’s preliminary post-mortem of GE2020 and has excited pundits who view him as a front-runner in the PM stakes. I thought yet again: poor Heng Swee Keat. 

So what’s happened to the succession plan? Is it on track? Because the “signs’’ are not clear. 

I doubt that Mr Heng can live down his “East Coast plan’’ election speech any time soon, but should that be a deciding factor? As for the election results in his East Coast GRC, you can argue that he propped up the PAP team to prevent it from slipping into opposition hands, or that he should have done better. 

Mr Heng’s technocratic ability is not in doubt, but some people think that this is not enough for the job. Note that Mr Goh suffered from the same compliment/drawback : that while he was able, he was not inspiring. The difference, however, is that no one ever believed that he would be re-routed from the job.

If Mr Heng is still their man, the 4G leaders should be rallying around him too – publicly. After all, in November 2018, they said in a joint statement: “Now we have a consensus that the team will be led by Swee Keat.” It can’t have escaped people’s notice that it was Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan, not Mr Heng’s political contemporary, who said the 4G leaders were in “complete unity’’ behind Mr Heng. 

Prof Jayakumar said that whether PM Lee Hsien Loong retires two years from now or a few years later, the exact timing is not the critical issue. “What is important for Singapore is that there is no abandonment of the strategic impulse to plan for and execute an orderly succession.’’ 

I wondered at that. Of course, a successor must be appointed. Nobody lives forever.  

And while Prof Jayakumar is right to say that horses should not be changed mid-stream, it is also true that most Singaporeans have been prepared for the change for some time. To have the status quo remain – that would, in fact, be a change.