How founding PM Lee Kuan Yew's last will was executed in 16 hours

In a photo taken on Aug 6, 2013, former prime minister Lee Kuan Yew speaks at the book launch of One Man's View Of The World.
In a photo taken on Aug 6, 2013, former prime minister Lee Kuan Yew speaks at the book launch of One Man's View Of The World.PHOTO: ST FILE

Lawyer Lee Suet Fern has been found guilty by a disciplinary tribunal of grossly improper professional conduct in her handling of the last will of Mr Lee Kuan Yew, Singapore's first prime minister and her father-in-law.

Her case will be referred to the Court of Three Judges, the highest disciplinary body to deal with lawyers' misconduct, and she could face a fine, suspension or be disbarred as a lawyer.

Here's a look at how the will was executed in 16 hours.

October 2010 to November 2012

Madam Kwa Geok Choo, Mr Lee Kuan Yew’s wife, died at the age of 89 on Oct 2, 2010. Thereafter, and before his last will in December 2013, Mr Lee executed six other wills.

Ms Kwa Kim Li, a partner in the law firm Lee & Lee, who is also Madam Kwa’s niece, was his lawyer. She drafted all six wills and retained the original copies.

Mr Lee discussed the first will with his family and worked with Ms Kwa on it. He also discussed changes to his penultimate will with her over a period of time.

The wills were executed on:

• First will: Aug 20, 2011

• Second will: Dec 21, 2011

• Third will: Sept 6, 2012

• Fourth will: Sept 20, 2012

• Fifth will: Oct 4, 2012

• Sixth (penultimate) will: Nov 2, 2012

Mrs Lee Suet Fern – the lawyer wife of Mr Lee’s younger son Hsien Yang – had made drafting suggestions to Ms Kwa on the first will, with Mr Lee’s approval, the Disciplinary Tribunal (DT) said.

At that time, there had been discussions between Mr Lee and his three children regarding the future of the family home at 38 Oxley Road.

These sometimes included Mr Lee’s daughters-in-law, Mrs Lee Suet Fern and Ms Ho Ching, the wife of elder son, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong.

The five wills that followed the first had changes in these areas: what shares in the estate each child would get; whether the will contained a demolition clause setting out Mr Lee’s wishes for the house to be demolished after he died and, if so, which of two versions of this clause; and whether Mr Lee’s daughter, Dr Lee Wei Ling, was to be given a right – with or without conditions – to live in the house after Mr Lee died.

September to October 2013

Mr Lee’s health deteriorated in 2013 and he was hospitalised for several weeks between September and October. He had medical issues, including pneumonia, atrial fibrillation and transient ischaemic attacks, or mini strokes, said the DT.

Dec 13, 2013

Around Nov 30, 2013, Mr Lee discussed with Ms Kwa about making amendments to his sixth will. On Nov 30, she sent him an e-mail to say: “Please let me know your thoughts, and I can make the appropriate changes to the will.”

The last e-mail exchange between them regarding his will during this period was on Dec 13, 2013. As of that date, Mr Lee had instructed Ms Kwa to make two changes to his sixth will.

They were:

a. To give his three children equal shares in the estate; and

b. To bequeath two carpets – one silk and the other wool – to Mr Lee Hsien Yang. The two changes were to be made through a codicil, or amendment, to the sixth will.

Dec 16, 2013

7.08pm

Mrs Lee Suet Fern sent Mr Lee a draft of what eventually became his last will.

The DT said Mrs Lee Suet Fern’s position was that Mr Lee had independently decided he would make the last will, the terms of which were substantially different from what he had discussed with Ms Kwa on Dec 13.

Mrs Lee Suet Fern and her husband Hsien Yang were aware, when the e-mail was sent, that Ms Kwa was likely to be travelling and might not respond.

In that e-mail, Mrs Lee Suet Fern told Mr Lee that “this was the original agreed will which ensures that all three children receive equal shares...” She also asked Ms Kwa, who was copied in the mail, to engross the will.

The parties involved in the case agreed that “original agreed will” referred to Mr Lee’s first August 2011 will, and that Mr Lee would have also understood it as such.

However, the DT noted, the draft which Mrs Lee Suet Fern attached was not the first will.

The differences:

• The first will contained a gift-over clause. This was missing from the draft.

• The first will provided for PM Lee to pay for the upkeep of 38 Oxley Road while Dr Lee occupied it. This was missing from the draft.

The DT said the draft will also differed from the sixth, penultimate, will in several ways:

• The draft gave the three children equal shares in his estate. The sixth will had given Dr Lee an extra share compared to her two brothers.

• The draft will re-inserted a version of the demolition clause. This was not in the sixth will.

• The draft gave Dr Lee an unfettered right to live in the house. In the sixth will, this was conditional upon PM Lee’s consent.

• The draft removed the gift-over clause in the sixth will, which was also in Mr Lee’s first to fifth wills.

The DT noted that it is not in dispute that other than the change in shares, the differences between the sixth will and the last will were not brought to Mr Lee’s attention.

The last will also did not incorporate what Mr Lee had wanted regarding the bequeathing of the carpets, which he had told Ms Kwa.

After sending the e-mail to Mr Lee, Mrs Lee Suet Fern spoke to Mr Bernard Lui, a partner at her Stamford Law firm, to brief him about the last will. 

She asked for his help to engross and witness the last will. But she did not speak to Mr Lee about the changes. 

Dec 16, 2013

7.31pm

Mr Lee Hsien Yang replied to the e-mail his wife had sent.

He told his father that he could not get in touch with Ms Kwa: “I believe she is away. I don’t think it is wise to wait till she is back. I think all you need is a witness to sign the will.”

He said his wife can get one of her partners to come round with an engrossed copy of the will to execute and witness, and said the partner could coordinate with Mr Lee’s personal assistant – Ms Wong Lin Hoe – for a convenient time.

The DT noted that Mr Lee Hsien Yang removed Ms Kwa from the e-mail.

So, apart from him and his father, only Mrs Lee Suet Fern and Ms Wong were copied.

Ms Kwa was also not copied on subsequent e-mail exchanges leading up to the execution of the last will.

Dec 16, 2013

8.12pm

Mrs Lee Suet Fern e-mailed Ms Wong, her husband and Mr Lui to introduce the latter to them.

She asked Ms Wong to contact Mr Lui and “make arrangements”. She told Mr Lui to have the last will “ready for execution”.

Dec 16, 2013

9.42pm

Mr Lee Kuan Yew replied to his son’s 7.31pm e-mail and said: “Ok. Do not wait for Kim Li. Engross and I will sign it before a solicitor in Fern’s office, or from any other office.”

The DT said various e-mails were then exchanged regarding Mr Lee’s execution of the last will between Mrs Lee Suet Fern, who was then en route to Paris, Mr Lee Hsien Yang, who was then flying to Australia, Ms Wong and Mr Lui.

Dec 17, 2013

4.53am

Mr Lee Hsien Yang replied to his father’s e-mail and said someone would go to Oxley Road or his office at his convenience, and that Ms Wong had the contacts and would arrange it.

He e-mailed Mr Lui at 5.32am and asked that he be available when Ms Wong got in touch.

Mr Lui acknowledged this at 9.02am.

Dec 17, 2013

9.22am

Mrs Lee Suet Fern e-mailed Mr Lui to say: “Please be ready and accessible at short notice. Ready to go. Impt that we get this done asap please.”

Mr Lui acknowledged this at 9.23am.

At the same time, Ms Wong e-mailed back to Mrs Lee Suet Fern to say she would coordinate with Mr Lui for an appointment with Mr Lee.

Mr Lee Hsien Yang and Mr Lui were copied in Ms Wong’s e-mail.

Dec 17, 2013

9.24am

Mrs Lee Suet Fern e-mailed Mr Lui again and said: “Be good to run. AM Are engrossments ready?” 

Dec 17, 2013

10.13am

Mr Lui replied: “Preparing. 11am. EK will be with me. I keep the will?” EK referred to Ms Elizabeth Kong, another lawyer at Stamford Law.

The DT said that it appeared that by 10.13am, Ms Wong had been told to fix, or was in the process of fixing, an appointment with Mr Lee at 11am.

Dec 17, 2013

10.35am

Mr Lui sent Mrs Lee Suet Fern another e-mail where he said: “Date of will is 2011 – I put today’s date.”

Dec 17, 2013

11.05am

Police logs showed that Mr Lui and Ms Kong arrived at 38 Oxley Road at about 11.05am.

They left at 11.20am.

In those 15 minutes inside the house, Mr Lee’s last will was executed.

After the will was signed, Mr Lui reported this to Mrs Lee Suet Fern who, among other things, said she was thankful and it was a “huge relief to everyone”, asked how the meeting went and thanked the lawyers.

One copy of the original last will was kept in Mrs Lee Suet Fern’s office safe. The other original copy was kept by Mr Lee.

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on February 23, 2020, with the headline 'Last will executed in 16 hours'. Subscribe