SINGAPORE - It is ironic that following proper processes, like setting up a ministerial committee to consider options for the late Mr Lee Kuan Yew's house, has now been labelled an abuse of power, said Deputy Prime Minister Teo Chee Hean.
On Monday (July 3), he delivered a ministerial statement defending the committee he set up and chairs, which has been roundly criticised Mr Lee Hsien Yang and Dr Lee Wei Ling in recent weeks.
The siblings charge that their brother, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, continues to have undue influence over a committee of his subordinates even though he had recused himself from all government decisions on 38, Oxley Road.
Mr Teo refuted claims that the committee was an example of PM Lee abusing his power.
It was proper for PM 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 Kuan Yew, who had originally been bequeathed the property, said Mr Teo.
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.
"It would have bypassed the objective due process that (the late) Mr Lee himself would have stood for. Instead, PM Lee did the proper thing, recused himself and let the Cabinet without him, chaired by me, decide on how to proceed with the matter," he said.
"It is ironic that following the proper process is now being labelled, by some, as an abuse of power. Perhaps it is because they feel that their demand for a particular outcome should simply be carried out. But simply doing this would be an abuse of power. Going through the due process is the proper way of doing things."
He drew parallels with how companies deal with conflicts of interest, even where it involves the chairman or chief executive officer.
Anyone who runs a major listed company, he said, would know this. Mr Lee Hsien Yang, who is currently chairman of the Civil Aviation Authority of Singapore, was previously the chief executive officer of SingTel.
Mr Teo cited an example of a property company slated to bid for an en-bloc redevelopment. If the chairman or CEO happens to own apartment units in this development, they would have to recuse themselves, and others in the company would have to be empowered to decide on the bid.
He also explained that the late Mr Lee Kuan Yew's thinking on the Oxley Road house is a key consideration. The committee has been paying particular attention to respecting Mr Lee Kuan Yew's wishes as it looks at the range of possible options, he added.
It is for this reason that the committee, which comprises Mr Teo, Minister for National Development Lawrence Wong, Minister for Culture, Community and Youth Grace Fu, and Home Affairs and Law Minister K Shanmugam, sought views from all three of the late Mr Lee's children.
The younger Lee siblings have stood firm that their father's "unwavering wish" was to have the house demolished.
But Mr Teo noted that while the late Mr Lee had expressed his wish for the house to be demolished at a Cabinet meeting in July 2011, he "also listened carefully to the views of the cabinet members".
"While he expressed his personal wishes, he was also very proper. Mr Lee did not direct the Government. He was aware of the Government's responsibilities and how the law on this matter operates," said Mr Teo.
The late Mr Lee wrote to Cabinet five months later, stating his view on what to do with the house if it is to be preserved. This, said Mr Teo, was the late Mr Lee's last formal communication with Cabinet on this matter.
The ministerial committee, he added, wrote to all of Mr Lee's children on July 27, 2016, to invite them to share with the Committee any views they had on their father's thinking on the property, and the context and circumstances relating to his thinking, beyond what had already been stated in public.
"It is only natural that the committee should ask the siblings for their views. The siblings wrote to us, providing differing views, including on the drafting of the last will," said Mr Teo. "We then provided each party two opportunities to comment on the views of the other party. Indeed, the fact that the Committee received differing views showed how essential it was that we had sought the views of the siblings on Mr Lee's wishes and thinking."
He pointed out how Mr Lee Hsien Yang had made various allegations about the committee - charges he repeated on Monday - "ignoring the replies that have been provided to him in writing".
Mr Teo's press secretary, Ms Lee May Lin, had issued a statement a day before the debate, saying Mr Lee Hsien Yang's claims about his exchanges with the committee were inaccurate and selective.
"Mr Lee Hsien Yang seemed unhappy that the committee had posed him questions which he might find "inconvenient", said Mr Teo.
"If the committee had not asked the siblings for their views, it would have been a significant omission, and the siblings might justifiably be upset that the Committee had not given them an opportunity to make their views known, or to make clarifications," he added.
"The siblings should therefore have no reason to be unhappy with being given the opportunity to make voluntary representations to offer their views."
The committee's interest, he added, is confined to obtaining as full a picture as possible of the late Mr Lee's thinking on the House. He also emphasised that it is not for the committee to decide whose claims are valid.
Mr Teo said: "We had explained on April 25, 2017 in writing to Mr Lee Hsien Yang and Dr Lee Wei Ling that the legal validity of the will was a matter between the beneficiaries. The Committee is not the place where decisions on the legal validity of the last Will can be made. What we do try is to understand, as best we can, Mr Lee's wishes and thinking."
Both parties , he said, made representations to the committee that might have been uncomfortable to the other. Each party's views were circulated, with their permission, to the other party.
"Both parties were offered opportunities to respond if they wished. This is being open and transparent with the parties," said Mr Teo. "Being given the opportunity to voluntarily clarify issues even though they may be uncomfortable is not an abuse of power."
"We hope that the differences of views on private matters can be resolved within the family. But ultimately, the Government of the day and its ministers cannot avoid taking responsibility for making the required decisions on matters involving the public interest," he added.