The tribunal’s report on Mrs Lee Suet Fern’s role in the saga of the first Prime Minister’s last will makes for pretty sad reading. I was sad that the grand old man wasn’t around to set the record straight or to clarify the circumstances that led to him signing off on his seventh and final will. I was even sadder to think that the man might have been so frail and feeble to have been snookered by his own son and daughter-in-law to do something against his own judgment.
This was not the Lee Kuan Yew we knew.
The tribunal was scathing about what they called “an unsavoury tale’’ starring Mr Lee Hsien Yang and his wife: “Mr Lee, who was very frail and in poor health, was misled by the very people whom he trusted: his son, Mr LHY, and daughter-in-law, the respondent.
“Mr LHY and the respondent tried to explain away their conduct, the contemporaneous documentary evidence and other surrounding evidence, and even their own previous statements. Their explanations ranged from the improbable, to the patently contrived, to the downright dishonest.’’
Frankly, I am not sure anyone really knew the state of Mr Lee Kuan Yew’s mind in that month of December 2013. I wondered why no one called his private secretary Wong Lin Hoe, as a witness, given that she was the “post box’’ between her boss and everyone else. Surely, she would be in the best position to see if he was lucid enough to know the implications of changing his will – whether with his own solicitor present or involving his daughter-in-law who is a lawyer.
Even the lawyer Ms Kwa Kim Li, who had taken charge of all his previous wills, wasn’t examined. The Law Society said it already had what it need, that is, all previous wills, and Mr Lee Hsien Yang said that as the estate’s lawyer, she had to preserve some confidentiality. Cue the word: privilege.
Instead, documentary evidence was produced in the form of emails (some can’t be found) and testimonies and affidavits from Mrs Lee’s ex-colleagues from Stamford Law Corporation who witnessed the signing of the will on Dec 17.
It was their testimony that struck me. It seemed that the late Mr Lee had asked them twice who drafted the last will, something which the tribunal said the Lee couple had tried to suppress.
The first reply from Mr Benard Lui was that it was Mrs Lee. Asked again, he said it was Mrs Lee and Ms Kwa. It seemed like the two lawyers at the signing didn’t have a clue who had done what and were merely obeying orders from Mrs Lee to get the will engrossed and witnessed.
What about the late Mr Lee’s health at that time? The other lawyer, Miss Elizabeth Kong, had taken notes of the meeting. She wrote: “LKY appeared frail and his speech was slurred, but his mind was certainly lucid he asked us who drafted the will and specifically instructed us to date the will today.’’
So the big question: Was Mr Lee apprised of its contents? He had the draft the day before from his daughter-in-law, who said it was the same as the first will. (not exactly)
The pity is that Mr Lee cannot reply for himself. Did he forget that this final will was the supposed first will (also not exactly) that Ms Kwa had sewn up for him? Did he think that Mrs Lee drafted or changed the contents? Nevertheless, he read and initialled every page and even added a codicil to it later in January. And he seemed to have let the matter rest in the 15 months up to his death.
If you’re flummoxed already, I am sorry. The famiLEE saga has bred so many tentacles that it is hard to keep track of what’s happening.
So the short summary is that one of the points in the saga was about how that last will was prepared and whether Mrs Lee had exercised any undue influence. In the bigger, national-level picture, this is critical because this last will has a clause regarding the Oxley Road house which the family lived in. The so-called demolition clause states that it should be demolished only after Dr Lee Wei Ling stops living in it. While this clause was in the first will, it wasn’t in the sixth and penultimate will.
So did he really change his mind again and wanted it demolished? Or was he all right about leaving the decision to the government?
Nor was the clause a replica of a first will, made in 2011. The original clause made PM Lee responsible for the upkeep of the house while Dr Lee lived in it. This was not in the last will. Also, the executed first will also had a gift-over clause specifying what should happen if any of the children died before him. This was absent as well. The Lee couple admitted that they had mistaken the draft for the executed first will and argued that the substance of both first and final will was the same.
The case before the tribunal isn’t about the house per se but the role Mrs Lee played. Was she acting merely as a daughter-in-law as she claimed or was she really doing the work of a lawyer? If she was acting in a legal capacity, then she was breaking the rules because her husband, Mr Lee Hsien Yang, was a beneficiary of the will. The case made by the Law Society went further: to accuse the couple of machinating the whole process such that the late Mr Lee’s regular lawyer, Ms Kwa, was kept out of the picture, and that they had rushed the old man to get the will executed.
PM Lee Hsien Loong had alluded to this when he made public his reservations about the will in sworn statements released at the height of the famiLEE saga. I had wondered then why he made no mention of this at a probate hearing on the will. And since he had given his statements to the public, I thought the G would take steps to investigate given that he had made some grave accusations against his brother and sister-in-law. Or, alternatively, the couple could have sued him for defamation. (Please note that I am not a lawyer, just exercising common sense).
The Attorney-General’s Chambers entered the picture in December 2018, and it later directed the Law Society to investigate if Mrs Lee was acting in accordance with the Legal Profession Act’s rules of conduct. (AG Lucien Wong recused himself as he was at that time the PM’s lawyer leaving the decisions to his deputy Lionel Yee). The Law Society’s lawyers, led by Senior Counsel Tan Chee Meng faced Senior Counsels Walter Woon and Kenneth Tan, who acted for Mrs Lee.
Much of the 254-page report was about whether what Mrs Lee did (getting the first will to Mr Lee, arranging for lawyers and seeing to the safe-keeping of the will and its copies) was “administrative’’, as she said, or the work which Ms Kwa would have carried out as a lawyer.
The tribunal concluded that her behaviour was grossly improper professional conduct. It said she should have advised her father-in-law to get another lawyer because of conflict of interest. Even if she was acting as a lawyer, she had been pretty tardy in not making sure that her “client’’ knew about the implications of changing the will, how it would differ from the last one he made, and to ask him about his intentions concerning the house. Her response: “I think Papa was his own best lawyer. He knew what he wanted.’’
There was much discussion over another change in the will: By going back to the first will, this means that the three children would get equal shares of the house. But the sixth and penultimate one had given Dr Lee Wei Ling an extra share. This meant that the Lee couple was benefitting at Dr Lee’s expense. To this, the Lee couple maintained that they did not know what was in this sixth will.
This seems like a moot point anyway given that the late Mr Lee had intended to equalise the shares as he had spoken about it to Ms Kwa earlier in the month. This was to be in a codicil or attached to the will, along with a gift of two carpets to his younger son.
The wrinkle was this: Before this could be done, he seemed to have changed his mind and wanted a reversion to the first will, according to the younger Mr Lee. Mr Lee Hsien Yang said he was acting on his father’s instructions, had tried and failed to reach Ms Kwa and had got his wife to act instead. He also suggested to his father that there was no need to wait for Ms Kwa and that his wife could deal with the matter easily. Mr Lee agreed and said he would sign it at Mrs Lee’s law firm or in front of any lawyer.
So was Mr Lee really so anxious about getting the last will done that he didn’t think he needed to wait for Ms Kwa? The Lee couple painted the older Lee as an anxious and impatient man. Ms Kwa was supposed to have given him the changes by Dec 15 but hadn’t done so. Then there was his health: He had to be hospitalised for several weeks before prior to December.
The couple were thoroughly tarred and feathered by the tribunal, presided over by Senior Counsel Sarjit Singh Gill and Mr Leon Yee. They had “constructed an elaborate edifice of lies’’, they said.
As for Mrs Lee, it described her as “a deceitful witness, who tailored her evidence to portray herself as an innocent victim who had been maligned. This was a façade. She lied to the AGC and she lied to us. Before us, she lied or became evasive whenever she thought that it was to her benefit to lie or evade.’’
As for Mr Lee Hsien Yang, it said his conduct was “equally deceitful’’. He lied to the public, he lied to the MC (ministerial committee), and he lied to us. He tried to hide how he and his wife had misled his own father, Mr Lee, on the Last Will. He had no qualms about making up evidence as he went along. We found him to be cynical about telling the truth.’’
One instance the tribunal cited : Mr Lee’s public social media posts had stated that it was Ms Kwa who drafted the last will. Mr Lee, it noted, made no mention of his wife’s role. He conceded during cross-examination that aspects of the post could be misleading and inaccurate. The tribunal said the assertions in his post “were in fact untrue and dishonest’’.
There was also much back-and-forth about why he wanted his wife to forward the draft will to his father, when he could have done so himself and who, really, was the one in possession of the supposed first will.
At the end of it all, I’m wondering what the issue is about. If the will didn’t represent the late Mr Lee’s intentions, there must be some other way to have a court decide on it, rather than have a tribunal address the question of whether what Mrs Lee did was improper conduct for a lawyer. It’s like addressing a symptom and not the illness.
Then, maybe, we could also settle the question of motive, which wasn’t an issue in this case except for the implication that the Lee couple was just plain greedy (my words). Still, it boggles the mind that a well-off couple like the Lees would have wanted to deprive Dr Lee of her extra share of the estate. In any case, Dr Lee doesn’t seem to be complaining and has already fired one salvo.
I also would have thought Ms Kwa would have signalled to her client that the final will wasn’t what he wanted based on his earlier discussions with her. She had a copy, after all, of the draft last will as well as the one that was finally executed.
So is this really a way to bring up the matter of whether the Oxley Road house should stay or go? That issue was key in the famiLEE saga, which I thought has been left to a future government to decide. Does the tribunal’s findings nullify the will?
The matter hasn’t ended. It will be referred to the Court of Three Judges, the highest disciplinary body to deal with lawyers’ misconduct. Mrs Lee could face a fine, suspension or struck off the roll.
I had totally forgotten about this case until reading about in The Sunday Times today. The famiLEE saga just can’t seem to write its closing chapter.
By the way, here’s a list of reports and my columns on the saga during the days of The Middle Ground. Start from the bottom. Not boring. Promise.
- FamiLEE saga: Who’s involved (Jun 17)
- FamiLEE saga: Is a grant of probate really final? (Jun 17)
- FamiLEE saga: Somebody should just sue (Jun 17)
- FamiLEE saga: PM Lee’s version of events (Jun 16)
- FamiLEE saga: Let a third party tell all (Jun 16)
- FamiLEE saga: The past three days (Jun 16)
- FamiLEE saga: How Lee Suet Fern got LWL her inheritance, according to leaked emails (Jun 15)
- FamiLEE saga: Singaporeans react with confusion, humour and CSI skills (Jun 15)
- FamiLEE saga: From 38 Oxley Road to 1 Parliament Place, not just a family affair (Jun 15)
- FamiLEE saga: Headlines around the world (Jun 15)
- FamiLEE saga: Now about that mysterious ministerial committee (Jun 15)
- Not just a famiLEE affair (Jun 14)
- Third generation Lee weighs in (Jun 14)
- “We do not trust Hsien Loong as a brother or as a leader. We have lost confidence in him.” (Jun 14)