SINGAPORE - Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong on Monday (July 3) refuted allegations by his siblings that he had misused his power in handling the matter of his late father's house at 38, Oxley Road, and explained how he had sought to keep his private interests and public duties separate.
Addressing Parliament at the start of a two-day debate on abuse of power in relation to the late Mr Lee Kuan Yew's house, PM Lee also called on MPs to raise all questions and doubts they had so they can be dispelled, and Singaporeans' confidence in the government strengthened.
"In Singapore, everyone is equal before the law. Mr Lee understood this most of all," he said.
"When the dust has settled on this unhappy episode, people must know that the Government operates transparently, impartially, and properly. That in Singapore, even Mr Lee's house and his wishes are subject to the rule of law."
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The Government Mr Lee Kuan Yew had built must also be able to withstand intense and sustained attacks on its reputation and integrity, and emerge not just untainted, but stronger, PM Lee said.
"This is the 'house' that Mr Lee built, not 38, Oxley Road," he added.
Other ministers also spoke at the debate on the dispute involving PM Lee and his sister Dr Lee Wei Ling and brother Mr Lee Hsien Yang.
Deputy Prime Minister Teo Chee Hean explained why he set up a ministerial committee to study options for the house, while Minister for National Development Lawrence Wong spoke about the Government’s role and responsibilities in deciding on the preservation of properties.
Many MPs who spoke raised concerns about the episode affecting Singapore’s reputation and distracting the Government from more pressing tasks.
They urged all parties to quickly put an end to the very public feud, with Workers’ Party MPs calling on PM Lee to take his siblings to court.
The family quarrel was thrust into the national spotlight on June 14, when PM Lee's sister Lee Wei Ling and younger brother Lee Hsien Yang released a statement accusing their elder brother of abusing his power to prevent the demolition of their father's house.
Both younger siblings want the house demolished, saying that is in accordance with their father's wishes. PM Lee had also made clear in Parliament in April 2015 that as a son, he supports his father's wish on demolition.
But Dr Lee and Mr Lee Hsien Yang have accused PM Lee of setting up a "secret" ministerial committee to challenge what they said was their father's preferred wish to demolish the house, and of improperly acquiring a deed of gift for items to be used in an exhibition not long after Mr Lee Kuan Yew's death in March 2015.
They also accused PM Lee and his wife Ho Ching of nepotism, saying they had political ambitions for their son Hongyi, and that PM Lee wanted the house to bolster his power.
Addressing each of these three claims in turn, PM Lee said he had recused himself from all Government decisions relating to the house, and had no part in the decision to set up the committee, which is chaired by Deputy Prime Minister Teo Chee Hean.
On the ministerial committee
PM Lee said his siblings had argued that even though he had recused himself from all Government matters to do with 38, Oxley Road, the ministers are his subordinates.
"Therefore, the Ministerial Committee cannot be independent from me. In fact, they say this of Parliament itself," PM Lee noted.
"This cannot be right. It is standard practice for the person facing a potential conflict of interest to recuse himself from the matter in this way."
"Suppose instead that I had decided as PM to knock the house down, and had pushed that decision through without allowing the Government to consider the alternatives, weigh the considerations, and go through due process, just because it was what my father wanted," PM Lee added.
"That would have been a real abuse of power. That would have abused my position as PM and gone against the whole system of rules and values that Mr Lee Kuan Yew built up."
On the deed of gift
PM Lee also addressed allegations that he had improperly obtained the deed between Dr Lee and Mr Lee Hsien Yang and the National Heritage Board (NHB).
PM Lee noted that as Prime Minister, he had every right to see the deed, which Minister Lawrence Wong gave him. After reading it, PM Lee said he was very concerned, as the terms were onerous and unreasonable: Whenever NHB displayed the items, it also had to display them together with the first half of the Demolition Clause of Mr Lee's will - which said Mr Lee wanted the house knocked down when Dr Lee was no longer living in it.
But it did not include the second half of the Clause, which stated what Mr Lee wanted done if the house could not be knocked down - thereby misleading the public on Mr Lee's intentions.
PM Lee also felt his siblings were wrong to call it a gift, when they set conditions that if any of the terms were breached, they could take back all the items for $1.
"What my siblings had done was wrong. Discovering all this, as Prime Minister, I had to act - otherwise people might later wrongly think that I was party to this," he added.
"It is nonsensical to say that because I saw the deed in my official capacity as PM, I could not raise the matter with a family member. If I come across anyone doing something wrong, even family, it is my duty to set them right."
As to allegations of nepotism by his siblings, who said PM Lee wanted 38, Oxley Road, kept in order to inherit their father's credibility and bolster his standing, and help his son's political ambitions, PM Lee said there was no basis for these claims.
"Hongyi, my son, has publicly said he is not interested in politics. Nor have I pushed him to enter politics," PM Lee said.
"My wife, Ho Ching, is CEO of Temasek Holdings. As CEO, she reports to the Board, chaired by Mr Lim Boon Heng. As a company, Temasek Holdings answers to its shareholder, the Ministry of Finance, under Minister Heng Swee Keat," he added.
"I have every confidence that both Lim Boon Heng and Heng Swee Keat understand the meaning of good, proper, corporate governance."
"It is the Temasek Board which appoints the CEO, and the appointment has to be confirmed by the President, who is advised by the Council of Presidential Advisors. If Ho Ching ever behaves improperly, I have no doubt that the Temasek Board, the President and CPA know what their duty is."
"Regarding the house, and how its continued existence enhances my aura as PM, if I needed such magic properties to bolster my authority even after being your PM for 13 years, I must be in a pretty sad state," PM Lee said.
"And if such magic can work, Singapore must be in an even sadder state," he added.
On LKY's plans for Oxley
Earlier in his speech, PM Lee sketched out before a full chamber the nature of family discussions on 38, Oxley Road, when Mr Lee Kuan Yew was alive, what happened after Mr Lee died, and where the matter now stood.
He revealed that Mr Lee Kuan Yew had explored various permutations for the house with family members, and approved a proposal for 38, Oxley Road, to be redeveloped instead of demolished after his death. The private living spaces would be removed and the house renovated without knocking it down.
Mr Lee Kuan Yew had also signed the authorisation to submit the development application to the authorities in March 2012, and the Urban Redevelopment Authority approved it a month later.
PM Lee said he heard nothing to the contrary until after his father died in March 2015.
When Mr Lee Kuan Yew's will was read before the family in April 2015, Mr Lee Hsien Yang for the first time objected to the renovation plans their father had approved, PM Lee said.
Mr Lee Hsien Yang and his wife also objected strenuously to PM Lee reading out in Parliament their father's letter to Cabinet on what to do with the house if it is to be preserved, and to reading the Demolition Clause in full.
PM Lee read both out, and said there was no need to rush into making decisions on the matter, but as a son, he wanted to see his father's wishes carried out.
After the sitting, he also recused himself from all Government decisions and divested himself of the house, selling it to his brother at full market price. The two donating one and a half times the value of the house to charity.
"That complicated arrangement substantially addressed a major concern of mine: that our family be seen not to be benefiting financially from 38 Oxley Road," he said.
No reason for current dispute
PM Lee said there was no longer anything for his siblings and him to dispute over the house. They all want their father's personal wish - to demolish the house - to be carried out.
His siblings' view is their father absolutely wanted to demolish it without compromise.
But PM Lee's view is that while he wanted the house demolished, he was prepared to consider alternatives should the Government decide otherwise.
PM Lee also pointed out some unusual circumstances around how the last will was prepared, which he said are relevant given the weight the siblings put on the Demolition Clause.
Still, the Government has said the ministerial committee will not make any decisions on the house, and will not even recommend any decisions to the Cabinet.
It will only list options for the house, so that when a decision is needed one day, the Cabinet of the day will have options available to consider.
"There is therefore no reason for anybody to feel 'pushed into a corner', as my brother has claimed to be," he added.
PM Lee also addressed questions as to why he was not taking legal action - to challenge the will, sue for defamation, or take other legal action to put a stop to the dispute and clear his name.
"These are valid questions. I took advice and considered my options very carefully," he said.
"I believe I have a strong case. In any other imaginable circumstance but this, I would surely sue," he added, saying his siblings' allegation of abuse of power, while baseless, is a "very grave attack" not just on him but on the whole Government.
"But suing my own brother and sister in court would further besmirch my parents' names," he added.
"It would also drag out the process for years, and cause more distraction and distress to Singaporeans. Fighting this out in court cannot be my preferred choice."
PM Lee hoped that by making his statement in Parliament to account to MPs, the issue would be dealt with expeditiously, and Singaporeans will understand what the issue is about - and put the matter to rest.
He noted it was striking that the Workers' Party MPs had filed questions concerning broad principles, and "contain no specific allegations or facts about any wrongdoing or impropriety". He called on the opposition MPs to raise any questions they come across during the debate.
"My Ministers and I will deal with all their questions and give comprehensive answers, because we have nothing to hide."
PM Lee ended his speech by recounting how when Mr Lee was asked what the most important things to him in life were, he said "my family and my country"."It pains me that this episode has put both under a cloud, and done damage to Singapore. I hope one day I will be able to resolve the unhappiness within the family," PM Lee said.
"But today I stand here before you to answer your questions, clear any doubts, and show you that you have every reason to maintain your trust in me and my Government."
About 30 MPs are expected to speak during the debate today and tomorrow, and PM Lee and DPM Teo will respond to the concerns and issues raised on Tuesday (July 4).
Deputy Prime Minister Teo Chee Hean
DPM Teo, in his ministerial statement, refuted claims that the ministerial committee was an example of PM Lee abusing his power.
He said the Government had been following proper processes in setting up the committee, and it was ironic that this had attracted accusations of abuse of power.
He added that it was proper for PM Lee to recuse himself as there is a conflict of interest between his public role as the head of Government, and his private role as son of the late Mr Lee.
If PM Lee had not recused himself and had, simply as prime minister, ordered government agencies to demolish the house without due process, that would have been an abuse of authority and power, he noted.
He also said the Government had the responsibility to consider the public interest aspects of properties with historical and heritage significance.
Minister of National Development Lawrence Wong
This point was echoed by Mr Wong, who was the third minister to speak.
All properties with architectural or heritage merit must be subject to due process, which means carrying out a “rigorous assessment process” for all such properties, before deciding whether to conserve or preserve them, he said.
It is especially crucial in the case of the Oxley Road house, as there are only a small number of buildings from the country’s era of independence still remaining.
What MPs said
MPs, noting that the issue had troubled Singaporeans and affected Singapore’s international standing, welcomed the debate in Parliament, saying that it was necessary to clear the air in a transparent manner.
But they asked more could have been done to prevent the dispute from spiralling out of control.
Ms Sun Xueling (Pasir Ris-Punggol GRC) and Mr Zaqy Mohamad (Chua Chu Kang GRC) asked for clarification over the late Mr Lee’s last will.
Ms Sun asked why PM Lee had not challenged the will when he got to know of the disturbing circumstances surrounding its drafting, while Mr Zaqy questioned if it was necessary for the ministerial committee to be concerned about the validity of the will, pointing out that many Singaporeans have said that such an issue should be a private family matter.
Go to court
WP MPs, meanwhile, asked PM Lee to sue his siblings, saying that it was the only way to end the dispute.
WP chief Low Thia Khiang (Aljunied GRC), noting that PM Lee and the Government had taken people to court in the past, said: “There is no reason why this time it should be different because it comes from the Lee family, and in fact the allegations are much more serious.”
He added that not doing so risked giving the impression that the Government was “afraid of what the Lee siblings will say or reveal”.
Other WP MPs, including Ms Sylvia Lim (Aljunied GRC) and Mr Pritam Singh (Aljunied GRC), echoed this call, with Ms Lim pointing out that Dr Lee and Mr Lee Hsien Yang were not in Parliament to give their side of the story.