No 'freedom of action' to override Cabinet views on Oxley house, says PM Lee in TOC libel suit

PM Lee is suing the editor of The Online Citizen, Mr Terry Xu, over an article posted on its website and Facebook page on Aug 15, 2019. ST PHOTO: JASON QUAH

SINGAPORE - Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said in court on Tuesday (Dec 1) that he did not have complete freedom of action to override his Cabinet ministers' position on not demolishing the home of his late father at 38 Oxley Road.

PM Lee, testifying on Day Two of the hearing on his libel suit against The Online Citizen (TOC) editor Terry Xu, also said his father Lee Kuan Yew understood his son's considerations and constraints as head of government, and rejected a repeated charge by the defendant's lawyer Lim Tean that he "called the shots" when it came to handling the family property.

PM Lee is suing Mr Xu over a TOC article, published in August last year, which pointed to claims by his sister Lee Wei Ling that her brother had misled their father into thinking 38 Oxley Road had been gazetted by the Government.

During his cross-examination of PM Lee, Mr Lim asked why he could not override the Cabinet ministers, who in a July 2011 meeting had - counter to Mr Lee Kuan Yew's wishes - expressed opposition to knocking the Oxley house down.

"As the prime minister, I have to put aside my family considerations," said PM Lee. "It's my duty, I swore an oath to do so." Overriding the ministers based on his father's wishes would be going against that oath and doing wrong by Singapore, he added.

PM Lee said that after the Cabinet meeting, he gave his father his honest assessment of what the Government would do with the house after his death.

"I told him that he had met the Cabinet and heard the ministers' views. I said that if I chaired the Cabinet meeting, given that these were the views of the ministers and the public, I thought that it would be very hard for me to override them and knock the house down.

"I added that I would have to agree that the house had to be gazetted to be kept and if I was not the prime minister or I did not chair the meeting, all the more likely the house would be gazetted. Mr Lee understood."

Mr Lim then referred to an e-mail sent by Dr Lee Wei Ling to her father, in which she wrote: "Having lived here for so many years I have adjusted myself and my room to the most efficient status. You call the shots. I am delighted to stay on at Oxley."

"Your father replies to her later that evening… 'I cannot call the shots. Loong as PM has the final word'," said Mr Lim to PM Lee. "Your father here was stating the obvious, isn't it? You call the shots... It is not your ministers, it is not your Cabinet as you would like us to believe?"

"This is a shorthand," PM Lee replied. "I am the prime minister. I have a view. If I say my father would like the house knocked down, the ministers will consider it. It is not possible for me to go against the ministers, as I explained to my father and as my father acknowledged."

Pressing the matter, Mr Lim pulled out another e-mail from the founding prime minister, which read: "Even if I knock it down while I am alive, the PM can gazette it as a heritage site and stop the demolition."

This showed that Mr Lee Kuan Yew was talking, at all times, about his son being the decision-maker, said Mr Lim. "The reality of the matter is that you as the prime minister, as the most powerful person in this country politically, you had the final word, didn't you?"

PM Lee agreed his father had said that in the e-mail, but added: "I had explained to him what I would have to do if I were the decision-maker. In other words, I really didn't have freedom of action."

Lee Kuan Yew understood Cabinet, son's positions: PM

Mr Lim then put it to PM Lee that his father was unhappy to hear the views expressed at the July 2011 Cabinet meeting.

"I have no information about that, but that is what my sister has written in some of her depositions," said PM Lee.

"But you were present at the meeting. You could have seen the reaction of your father?" said Mr Lim.

"I did not sense that," PM Lee replied. "I imagined he was disappointed he didn't get them to agree with him, but I mean in Cabinet, ministers disagreeing with one another, that is how we do business."

"It would be fair to describe that he was distraught, wasn't he?" Mr Lim continued.

"I have no evidence of that," said PM Lee.

Mr Lim then said: "I am suggesting to you that after the Cabinet meeting of 21 July 2011, your father was distraught because as the prime minister of this country from 1959 to 1990, he knew that no Cabinet of his would have opposed him on an issue of this kind and he knew that no Cabinet of yours would have opposed you if you had said you wanted demolition. That is right, isn't it?"

"That is wrong," said PM Lee.

"He knew you called the shots?" said Mr Lim.

"These are political statements, not questions," said PM Lee.

Justice Audrey Lim rebuked Mr Lim at this juncture, saying: "If you want to ask a question, it should be in the form of a question. You are making a lot of statements."

PM Lee then reiterated that his father understood where both the Cabinet ministers and his son stood. "When he wrote to Cabinet in December 2011, he said the ministers have unanimously expressed their view that the house should not be demolished," said PM Lee. "He did not say the prime minister has told the ministers that he will not demolish the house."

"I am suggesting to you that your father knew that you called the shots and that you were not supporting him," said Mr Lim. "It was convenient for you to say that it was pressure from others."

"I reject that totally and I have explained why," said PM Lee.

38 Oxley Road, the home of founding prime minister Lee Kuan Yew. PHOTO: ST FILE

"Your siblings are correct, when they say you wanted to keep the house to inherit Mr Lee Kuan Yew's credibility?" said Mr Lim, changing tack.

"That is rubbish," said PM Lee.

"The prime minister living in 38 Oxley Road would remind the public of your father, won't it?" Mr Lim claimed.

"Maybe for the better, maybe for the worse," said PM Lee, to which Mr Lim asked: "Are you saying that Singaporeans had a terrible impression of your father?"

"No," said PM Lee. "Singaporeans know me. I have been in politics now since 1984, 36 years. I have been prime minister for 16 years and if I still depend on living in a particular house in order to exude a magic aura and overawe and impress the population, I think I am in a very sad state and Singapore would be in a very sad state."

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