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A house divided

38 Oxley Road dispute: A look at the key issues

A summary of the public spat between Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong and his siblings

WHO ARE THE KEY PLAYERS?

At the heart of the family feud are the three children of founding prime minister Lee Kuan Yew, and the wives of his sons:

  • Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, 65, eldest of the three siblings
  • PM Lee's wife, Ms Ho Ching, 64, chief executive of Singapore investment firm Temasek Holdings
  • Dr Lee Wei Ling, 62, senior adviser at the National Neuroscience Institute
  • Mr Lee Hsien Yang, 59, chairman of the Civil Aviation Authority of Singapore
  • Mr Lee Hsien Yang's wife, Mrs Lee Suet Fern, 59, former managing partner at legal firm Morgan Lewis Stamford

WHAT IS THE DISPUTE ABOUT?

Three main issues of contention have emerged so far in the statements from the family:

  • The future of the former family home at 38, Oxley Road: Dr Lee and Mr Lee Hsien Yang, who are joint executors and trustees of their father's estate, want the house to be demolished as per their father's wishes in his final will, but allege that PM Lee and his wife want the house preserved for their own political gain. PM Lee has refuted the allegations and said he will "do my utmost to continue to do right by my parents".
  • The circumstances under which Mr Lee Kuan Yew's last will was prepared and executed: PM Lee said his father may not have known that the last version of his will included a reinstated clause stating his wishes for the house to be demolished. He also questioned the role of his sister-in-law and her law firm in the making of the will. His siblings both made Facebook posts refuting parts of PM Lee's statement, which included posting what appears to be a scanned copy of part of the will with Mr Lee Kuan Yew's initials.
  • Allegations over the misuse of power: Dr Lee and Mr Lee Hsien Yang say their brother abused his position as prime minister to drive his personal agenda, in particular, to preserve the Oxley Road house. They also allege that Ms Ho has influence "well beyond her job purview" and that the couple harbour political ambitions for their son, Mr Li Hongyi. PM Lee, his wife and their son have denied all this.

HOW DID THE DISPUTE BECOME PUBLIC?

At around 2am last Wednesday, Dr Lee and Mr Lee Hsien Yang issued a joint statement on their Facebook pages alleging misuse of power by PM Lee in relation to the house.

In a six-page document, they said they had lost confidence in their brother and feared the use of organs of state against them. "We feel extremely sad that we are pushed to this position," the statement began.

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The situation was such that Mr Lee Hsien Yang felt "compelled" to leave the country "for the foreseeable future" with his wife, they said.

PM Lee, who was overseas on leave at the time, denied the allegations in a Facebook post later that day and said he would consider the matter further when he returned.

Social media was abuzz with reactions and the story was widely covered by local and overseas media.


Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong has refuted his two siblings' allegations and said he will "do my utmost to continue to do right by my parents". ST FILE PHOTO

The younger siblings wrote more posts on Facebook, including one by Mr Lee Hsien Yang pointing out what he said were contradictions between what PM Lee said in public and to a ministerial committee looking into options for the house.

Dr Lee also alleged that if PM Lee could "misuse his official power" against his siblings in relation to the house, this suggests he could do the same to ordinary citizens.

In response, PM Lee issued a lengthy statement last Thursday through his lawyers, summarising what he told the ministerial committee about the preparation and execution of his father's last will.

"My siblings have continued to give interviews and make allegations against me. This makes it untenable for me not to respond publicly to the allegations and to explain why I have serious questions about how my father's last will was prepared," he said.

WHEN DID THE FEUD BEGIN?

The fault lines appear to have surfaced two years ago at the reading of Mr Lee Kuan Yew's last will on April 12, 2015.

PM Lee said in his statement that his brother repeatedly insisted that the house be torn down immediately, which PM Lee said would be too soon after their father's death and could prompt the Government to gazette the house to protect it.


In their joint statement, Mr Lee Hsien Yang (left) and Dr Lee Wei Ling (right) said they had lost confidence in their brother and feared the use of organs of state against them. They alleged that PM Lee abused his position as prime minister to drive his personal agenda, in particular, to preserve the 38, Oxley Road house. ST FILE PHOTO

The argument abated when Dr Lee said she wished to continue living in the house.

 

But disagreements persisted over ownership of the house, which had been bequeathed to PM Lee, and the Prime Minister said his siblings had threatened to embarrass him during the 2015 General Election by spilling details about the tussle.

Last year, Dr Lee also called PM Lee a "dishonourable son" in remarks she made public on Facebook, alleging that he was abusing his power by commemorating their father's death all too soon in order to establish a dynasty. PM Lee responded to say the accusations were "completely untrue".

WHO OWNS 38, OXLEY ROAD NOW?

Mr Lee Hsien Yang owns the house.

The property was initially bequeathed to PM Lee. His siblings were unhappy about this, so he proposed transferring the house to Dr Lee for a nominal sum of $1, he said in the statement. This was on condition that if it was transacted later or acquired by the Government, all proceeds should go to charity.

 

But an agreement could not be reached until late 2015, when PM Lee transferred ownership of the house to his brother instead at market value. In addition, the brothers each donated half the value of the house to eight charities named in Mr Lee Kuan Yew's obituary notice.

Separate from the agreement, PM Lee said he also gave to charity an additional amount worth half the value of the house. The sum was not disclosed, but conservative estimates in 2015 put the value of the plot at $24 million.


Ms Ho Ching, the wife of PM Lee, was alleged to have influence "well beyond her job purview", in the statement by Mr Lee Hsien Yang and Dr Lee. PM Lee and Ms Ho have denied this. ST FILE PHOTO 

As part of the agreement, all three siblings issued a joint public statement in December 2015, saying they hoped the Government would allow their father's wish for the demolition of the house to be honoured. That statement also said that PM Lee had recused himself from all government decisions involving the house, and, in his personal capacity, hoped to see his father's wish honoured.

WHAT DID MR LEE KUAN YEW'S WILL SAY ABOUT THE HOUSE? WAS THERE MORE THAN ONE WILL?

A clause was added to Mr Lee Kuan Yew's final will, stating that he wished for the house to be demolished immediately after his death, or, if Dr Lee wanted to continue living there, immediately after she moved out. If changes in the law, rules or regulations prevent this, the clause states that he hoped the house would not be opened to anyone except his children, their families and descendants.

PM Lee said in last Thursday's statement that the demolition clause appeared in the first four of his father's seven wills made from Aug 20, 2011, onwards, but was removed on the late Mr Lee's instruction from the fifth and sixth wills. It was re-inserted in the final will made on Dec 17, 2013.

Earlier versions of the will also divided Mr Lee's estate equally among the three children. In the sixth will, an extra share was given to Dr Lee in relation to her brothers. But the final will reverted to the original equal division.

WHAT QUESTIONS DID PM LEE RAISE ABOUT THE PREPARATION OF THE LAST WILL?

PM Lee said he had "grave concerns" about the preparation of the final will, done without the usual lawyer, as well as the role played by Mr Lee Hsien Yang's wife, Mrs Lee, and her legal firm.

Detailing the events of Dec 16 and 17, 2013, surrounding the making of the will, PM Lee said that instead of having lawyer Kwa Kim Li prepare the last will, as she had the preceding six, Mr Lee Hsien Yang and Mrs Lee had gone ahead to have the last will prepared "in great haste".

Two lawyers from Mrs Lee's firm - called Stamford Law Corporation at the time - spent less than 15 minutes with Mr Lee, and came only to witness him signing the will and not to advise him, said PM Lee. He posed nine questions, including:

  • Were the provisions of the last will explained to Mr Lee, and, if so, who explained them to him?
  • Did Mr Lee give specific instructions to re-insert the demolition clause in the last will, and, if so, to whom?
  • What was Mrs Lee's role in the preparation and signing of the last will, and was there a conflict of interest on her part, and that of her fellow lawyers and her firm?

Mr Lee Hsien Yang replied in a post on Facebook, saying that Stamford Law did not draft any will for his father and the will was drafted by Ms Kwa of Lee & Lee. The demolition clause was drafted at his father's direction and "put into language" by Mrs Lee, then inserted into the will by Ms Kwa, he said.

He added that on his father's written instructions, two lawyers from Stamford Law were asked to witness his signing of the will.


PM Lee has questioned the role of his sister-in-law Lee Suet Fern and her law firm in the making of his father's will.  ST FILE PHOTO

Last Friday night, however, Ms Kwa told The Straits Times: "I did not prepare the last will."

Mr Lee Hsien Yang also said that the final will was a reversion to the first will from 2011, which Ms Kwa drafted.

WHY THE NEED FOR A MINISTERIAL COMMITTEE?

An internal ministerial committee set up by the Cabinet will be listing the different options for the house and the implications of those options, to help a future government when a decision needs to be taken about the house.

Dr Lee and Mr Lee Hsien Yang revealed in their statement that they were told by National Development Minister Lawrence Wong last July that the committee had been set up.

Deputy Prime Minister Teo Chee Hean said in a statement yesterday that he set up and chairs the committee, which includes ministers responsible for heritage, land issues and urban planning: Mr Wong; Minister for Culture, Community and Youth Grace Fu; and Home Affairs and Law Minister K. Shanmugam.

The committee is considering the options available for the house, while paying particular attention to respecting the late Mr Lee's wishes. One option that is being studied is demolishing the house but keeping the basement dining room, where many important meetings took place, said Mr Teo.

"There is nothing 'secret' about this committee. It is a committee like numerous other committees that Cabinet may set up from time to time to consider specific issues... The Government has the responsibility to consider the public interest aspects of any property with heritage and historical significance, and this applies to 38, Oxley Road," he added.

Cabinet Secretary Tan Kee Yong said in a statement last Wednesday that the committee sought PM Lee's views in his personal capacity, but that he has not been involved in Cabinet discussions about the committee. He added that the Government has no intention of doing anything with the house as long as Dr Lee lives there.

The committee has also been looking at how the late Mr Lee's will was prepared and the role that Mrs Lee and her colleagues played.

CAN THE HOUSE BE PRESERVED AGAINST MR LEE KUAN YEW'S WISHES?

The law allows the Government to preserve the house as a national monument. Under the Preservation of Monuments Act, the National Heritage Board can ask the Minister for Culture, Community and Youth to gazette the property, if it fulfils criteria such as having historic, cultural, traditional, archaeological, architectural, artistic or symbolic significance and national importance.

Current national monuments include the former City Hall and the former Tanjong Pagar Railway Station.

Public opinion has been mixed.

Soon after Mr Lee's death on March 23, 2015, an online petition calling for his house to be preserved gathered 1,700 signatures in about a week.

Meanwhile, an online poll in December 2015 by market research firm YouGov Asia-Pacific found that a majority of those surveyed supported the demolition of the house.

Of the 1,000 people polled, 77 per cent said they backed Mr Lee's wish for the house to be torn down, while 15 per cent wanted the house retained.

 

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on June 18, 2017, with the headline '38, Oxley Road dispute: Key issues'. Print Edition | Subscribe