Lee Suet Fern misled founding PM Lee Kuan Yew into signing will: Disciplinary Tribunal

When she forwarded to her father-in-law, Mr Lee Kuan Yew, a draft of his will over e-mail on Dec 16, 2013, Mrs Lee Suet Fern was merely playing a peripheral role and being "an obedient wife" to her husband Lee Hsien Yang, she said.

She did not discuss the contents of the will with the elder Mr Lee, and neither did she open the file of the draft will to read it, she added.

But a Disciplinary Tribunal appointed by the Chief Justice found otherwise.

It said she had "managed every aspect of the process" in drafting the will, getting her colleagues to witness its signing, and later even kept the original copy locked in her office safe.

These details emerged as the tribunal tried to ascertain the actual nature and extent of Mrs Lee's role, to determine if she had breached the Legal Profession Act and the relevant rules on conduct.

FAMILY MEMBER OR LAWYER?

Mrs Lee said that she was incidentally involved in the matter because her husband asked her for some help with "his... chore for his father".

She said that on Dec 16, 2013, he had been preparing to go on a trip to Sydney, and asked her for help to forward the draft of the will to Mr Lee Kuan Yew, and to get a solicitor who could witness the will's signing as soon as possible.

This was because Mr Lee Kuan Yew had been anxious to get the matter settled, she told the tribunal.

She herself was preparing to go on a work trip to Paris that night, and dallied on the task, she added.

"Yang called me... and he scolded me for taking so long to deal with it," she said during cross-examination at the tribunal hearing.

EXTRACT FROM TRIBUNAL REPORT: FRAIL AND ILL 

"Mr Lee (Kuan Yew), who was very frail and in poor health, was misled by the very people whom he trusted: his son, Mr Lee Hsien Yang, and daughter-in-law, the respondent (Mrs Lee Suet Fern)."

Mr Lee, then 90, had been in hospital for several weeks between September and October 2013 for various medical conditions, from pneumonia to minor strokes, the tribunal noted.

THE OBEDIENT WIFE

"The respondent testified that she followed Mr Lee Hsien Yang's directions as she was an 'obedient wife'. But her statement that she was an 'obedient wife' shows her mindset on Dec 16 and 17, 2013: that she focused primarily on what her husband wanted done, though her duties were owed to Mr Lee. She worked together with Mr Lee Hsien Yang, with a singular purpose, of getting Mr Lee to execute the last will quickly."

E-mail from the period showed she had sent Mr Lee Kuan Yew a draft of the will at 7.08pm that day.

In it, she assured him that it had the same terms as "the original agreed will which ensures that all three children receive equal shares".

Shortly after - and even before Mr Lee Kuan Yew replied to an e-mail from Mr Lee Hsien Yang to proceed with the matter without Mr Lee's usual lawyer Kwa Kim Li - Mrs Lee had given instructions to her colleagues to make themselves available at short notice for the execution of the will the next day.

Asked why she had done so, Mrs Lee replied: "Because I'm an obedient wife and Yang told me to do so."

The will was eventually signed the next morning at around 11.10am, just 16 hours after Mrs Lee first sent the draft to Mr Lee Kuan Yew.

This was done in the presence of Mr Bernard Lui and Ms Elizabeth Kong, both lawyers from Mrs Lee's law firm, Stamford Law.

Twice during the session, Mr Lee Kuan Yew had asked the two lawyers to tell him who had drafted the will, and they replied it was primarily Mrs Lee.

On hearing that, he signed it.

This account had emerged in e-mail between Mrs Lee and her colleagues, when they updated her on the signing of the will.

The tribunal said that if Mrs Lee had not agreed with this characterisation of her role, she did not say or do anything to object.

Throughout the day, she also continued to communicate with Mr Lui, a partner in her law firm, giving him instructions on what to do. Among them was one for an original copy of the will to be locked in her safe.

Asked by the Law Society's lawyers about this, Mrs Lee said she was just helping out as family and insisted her involvement did not amount to being Mr Lee Kuan Yew's lawyer.

Her exchanges with Mr Lui were "merely... seeing through a favour and that it's properly done", and did not constitute making arrangements, she said.

She was also "just a conduit" between Mr Lui and her husband, who was the one handling the will.

But the tribunal pointed out in its report that she was the only lawyer responsible for the last will, after having acquiesced in cutting out Ms Kwa from the process.

 
 

In fact, Mrs Lee herself had told the Attorney-General's Chambers in December 2018 that her father-in-law had given her instructions to have his last will engrossed, or finalised.

This was also Mr Lee Hsien Yang's position in a letter to a ministerial committee set up to look into options for his father's Oxley Road house. Mr Lee Kuan Yew died on March 23, 2015.

The tribunal, noting that the couple had contradicted themselves on this point in their affidavits and during cross-examination, had strong words for their conduct.

"Having procured the last will through these improper means, (they) then fabricated a series of lies and inaccuracies, to perpetuate the falsehoods that Ms Kwa Kim Li had been involved in the last will, and hide their own role in getting (Mr Lee Kuan Yew) to sign the last will and their wrongdoings," it said.

At the same time, the tribunal said, it seemed that Mr Lee Kuan Yew himself had taken Mrs Lee as his lawyer for this last will, instead of Ms Kwa, his actions showed.

Besides signing the will on knowing that Mrs Lee had drafted it, he had also instructed his personal assistant to send Ms Kwa only a copy of the will.

This differed from his usual practice, as he had asked Ms Kwa to keep the originals for the six previous versions of his wills that she had drafted.

WHOSE INTEREST DID SHE SERVE?

Even as Mrs Lee had acted as her father-in-law's lawyer, she had ignored her duties towards him, the tribunal found.

A conflict of interest arose in her capacities as both lawyer to Mr Lee Kuan Yew and wife to Mr Lee Hsien Yang, a beneficiary of the will.

The elder Mr Lee was bequeathing one-third of his estate to Mr Lee Hsien Yang. As such, Mrs Lee should also have asked Mr Lee Kuan Yew to consult another lawyer for advice to avoid any conflict of interests. But none of this was done, the tribunal noted.

 

In fact, Mrs Lee had taken instructions from her husband on the arrangements relating to the signing of the will and, in doing so, had "abused her position to further Mr Lee Hsien Yang's wishes that the last will be executed hurriedly", the tribunal said.

Aside from one e-mail from Mr Lee Kuan Yew over the matter, all the other instructions that Mrs Lee had received on the matter had come from her husband.

Also, Mrs Lee had not even discussed the will or explained it to Mr Lee Kuan Yew, by her own admission.

The last will had some key differences with the sixth and penultimate will, which Mr Lee Kuan Yew had been discussing with Ms Kwa until just a few days before Dec 16, 2013.

Among other things, Mr Lee Kuan Yew had bequeathed to his daughter, Dr Lee Wei Ling, a larger share of his estate than to his sons in his penultimate will. There was also no demolition clause - relating to the demolition of his Oxley Road house after his death - in it.

Mrs Lee admitted that she had not gone through the draft will with Mr Lee Kuan Yew to explain the differences. Asked about this dereliction of duty, she said of Mr Lee Kuan Yew: "I think Papa was his own best lawyer. He knew what he wanted."

SICK AND FRAIL

The tribunal noted that during the time the last will was executed, Mr Lee Kuan Yew's health was frail.

In an e-mail to Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong's wife Ho Ching on Dec 16, 2013, Dr Lee told her sister-in-law that her father had "been doing very well" because he had not been admitted to hospital for more than a month.

She added that she thought "age has caught up with his brain".

 

In another 2014 e-mail to Ms Ho, recounting the happenings of Dec 16, 2013, Dr Lee had said of her father: "By now, Pa was already (very) forgetful."

At 90 years old in December 2013, Mr Lee Kuan Yew had been in hospital for several weeks, with a string of ailments, from pneumonia to minor strokes.

It was under those circumstances that his last will was signed in a hurry, unlike the deliberate process he had used for previous wills.

"Mr Lee, who was very frail and in poor health, was misled by the very people whom he trusted: his son, Mr Lee Hsien Yang, and daughter-in-law, the respondent," the tribunal said.

It concluded that Mrs Lee "managed every aspect of the process", with her husband actively involved, and the circumstances in which they did so raised "serious questions" about their motives.


About the case

In January last year, the Attorney-General's Chambers (AGC) referred a case of possible professional misconduct involving Mrs Lee Suet Fern of Morgan Lewis Stamford LLC to the Law Society.

In a statement on the complaint, the AGC noted that Mrs Lee appears to have prepared the last will of founding Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew and arranged for Mr Lee to execute it, despite the fact that her husband, Mr Lee Hsien Yang, is one of the beneficiaries. His share increased under the last will.

The AGC also noted that Mr Lee Hsien Yang had said publicly that the last will was drafted by Ms Kwa Kim Li of Lee & Lee. However, Ms Kwa has denied that she drafted it.

Mr Lee Hsien Yang and his sister Wei Ling have clashed with their older brother, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, over whether their late father's house at 38 Oxley Road should be preserved or demolished.

Mr Lee Hsien Yang has also questioned what is the public interest that is being served by the AGC pursuing the case and why it was rushing the case only last year when the facts were known by all parties for years.

The AGC has said it has a statutory duty to deal with misconduct by lawyers, and that rules for lawyers make clear that they should not place themselves in a position of conflict.

The AGC had also written to Mrs Lee several times to ask her to explain the position and her role in preparing the last will - but it said she did not answer the questions.

Deputy Attorney-General Lionel Yee, who oversees the case as Attorney-General Lucien Wong has recused himself - he was previously PM Lee's personal lawyer - had further asked that it be referred to a disciplinary tribunal.

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on February 23, 2020, with the headline 'Suet Fern misled Mr Lee into signing will'. Subscribe