I sure hope so.
I’ve had enough of the troubles of this family, the public statements and the use of the court’s time and energy on matters that I’m not so sure are of grave national import. Even the dramatic aspects of Lee versus Lee (or the State versus Lee) doesn’t stimulate the senses anymore.
I’ve read the 98-page judgment by the Court of Three Judges which suspended Mrs Lee Suet Fern from practising for 15 months. So the lawyer can’t do any work here, but it seems that doesn’t really matter since she is registered as a lawyer in Hong Kong.
I had to read the judgment a few times because I’m just a layman. The judges tried to untangle all the words that have been said by all the parties to determine who was telling the truth and who was lying, and even what the late Lee Kuan Yew would have thought at that time. Shorn of all the legalese about “implied’’and “imputed’’, “putative’’ and “precedents’’, it boiled down to this:
- Did Mrs Lee “act’’ as LKY’s solicitor when she prepared the last will? She shouldn’t have, because her husband benefited from the will.
- If she didn’t “act’’ as a solicitor, should she, as a lawyer, have known better than to advise her father-in-law especially since her husband would gain from the new will?
So there are two levels here. The first is more serious than the second. I thought to myself the number of times people have told me that “as an educator’’ or “as a journalist’’, I should know “better’’. I’m glad that I’m not a lawyer who has to keep his legal hat on wherever he is and with whoever he talks to.
At the risk of over-simplifying the process, the court got involved because the Disciplinary Tribunal of the Law Society of Singapore wanted her struck off the rolls. The Law Society got involved because it got a complaint from the Attorney-General’s office. So it was the State that complained, not a mere citizen who believes he was bamboozled or befuddled by the smart talk of a lawyer.
I can’t carry on opining unless I give a gist of the FamiLEE saga. So bear with me.
It started with the Lees’ family home in Oxley Road and whether it should be demolished or preserved. Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said that his father wanted it demolished initially but had changed his mind. His two siblings, Mr Lee Hsien Yang and Dr Lee Wei Ling, said he wanted it razed.
But the nail in the coffin (pardon the pun) was LKY’s seventh and last will, which re-inserted the so-called demolition clause and gave the three children equal shares in the estate. Will Number 5 and 6 didn’t have the Demolition clause and would have given Dr Lee the biggest share. (There was also something about two carpets for Hsien Yang, but I won’t go into that.)
It’s that last will that is now the nub of the case against Mrs Lee. Although it went through probate and nobody raised objections, the Attorney-General’s Office took issue with the involvement of Mrs Lee, a lawyer of 37 years, in getting the will signed and executed. She should have recused herself, it said, because of conflict of interest – her husband gained materially from it.
The court went through every single step right up to when LKY signed the will on Dec 17, 2013.
First question: Did LKY regard his daughter-in-law as his lawyer?
No, he was still talking to Ms Kwa Kim Li, who had drafted the earlier wills and was in fact in touch with her about changing Will Number 6 to give the children equal shares, even as late as Dec 13, 2013.
So the first charge about Mrs Lee acting as LKY’s solicitor got thrown out.
Second question: Who initiated the changes?
At first, Mrs Lee said that she was acting on instructions from LKY about the reverting to the first will, but her story changed later. She said it was LKY who told Lee Hsien Yang about reverting to the first will and the younger son set about getting it done. As he had to catch a flight to Brisbane that day, he got his wife to contact Ms Kwa to get it settled. But Ms Kwa wasn’t contactable (she said she never got the email), so Hsien Yang told her to settle it herself quickly lest LKY lose his temper about the slow pace. Ms Kwa wasn’t called to give evidence, by the way. (From the judgment: Ms Kwa was not subpoenaed to give evidence because the Testator’s estate had asserted privilege over the documents pertaining to the Last Will and to her engagement as the Testator’s solicitor)
So it was Mr Lee Hsien Yang who was behind the process and his wife was acting on his instructions.
Third question: Was there anything wrong about the will LKY later signed?
Here’s where some contradictions surfaced.
At first, Mrs Lee said she had the first will with her, but both she and her husband later changed their minds and said he was the one who forwarded it to her. The court settled on her original statement.
So, she somehow has a copy of the first will with her, but (and here’s a significant but) it wasn’t the final first will. It was just a draft of the first will. She said she didn’t know.
The court examined this draft and the final first will and found that there were a couple of discrepancies. For example, there was no gift-over clause in the draft will that was later signed, indicating what would happen should any of LKY’s children die before him. Also missing was a provision that PM Lee would pay for the maintenance and upkeep of the house for as long as his sister is staying in it.
Mrs Lee assumed that what she had on hand was the correct first will and gave it to LKY as such, adding that it gave equal shares to the children. She didn’t check its veracity as anyone with legal training would have done. She got her ex-colleagues to witness the signing the next day, Dec 17. The court said that the process was done in “unseemly haste’’.
I have to pause here to tell you about the ministerial committee that got involved earlier regarding the house. The three-member committee had been corresponding with the siblings and were told about Mrs Lee’s involvement. The about-turns in testimony came about when the process became a legal matter with the Disciplinary Tribunal’s involvement. The judges surmised that the changed testimony was because Mr Lee Hsien Yang didn’t want to be seen as playing a role in the process in answers to the ministerial committee. So, according to the court, some lies were told.
What has been puzzling to me is why the Demolition clause was not much canvassed during the trial. The issue isn’t merely about whether the couple were conspiring to get more of their inheritance, but whether LKY knew that reverting to the first will meant including the demolition clause – and had intended it to be so. In fact, that would be a point of public interest, not whether a daughter-in-law or a lawyer was acting for LKY.
The judgment said that LKY’s discussions with Ms Kwa did not involve “replacing the Sixth Will with another will, nor about reinstating either the First Will as a whole or the Demolition Clause in particular.’’
I know that learned legal types will say that the court can only deal with the evidence brought before it, but I can’t help but feel that the case dwelt on everything but the elephant in the room. Earlier, the Disciplinary Committee tried to paint a picture of a conspiracy to defraud a frail old man, with his daughter-in-law, a lawyer, knowingly out to deceive him. The court however, believes that the case isn’t that serious. “Moderate degree of culpability and harm’‘, was how the judges put it.
Frankly, I thought the case would be thrown out since the court decided that there was no solicitor-client relationship between LKY and Mrs Lee. That would have led to disbarment.
But it seems that just being a lawyer is good enough (or bad enough) for a court to decide on how culpable the person is the business of drafting wills. Even though there was no material harm. So, she was remiss in her duty, did not do due diligence and seemed more concerned for her husband than doing right by her father-in-law.
The court decided on a 15-month suspension. In my view, it seemed more like a signal to other lawyers to be careful about doing work that can be construed as legal than a stern admonition for Mrs Lee.
As the judges said, LKY seemed content with the last will, after changing it six times. He lived for more than a year without re-visiting it.
“As for the harm caused in this case, the material harm was that the Testator (LKY) ended up signing a document which was in fact not that which he had indicated he wished to sign. The fact that the Last Will and the First Will were materially similar was fortuitous, and does not discount the fact that the potential harm could have been far more severe than the actual harm that eventuated.’’
By this, I suppose the court meant that there could have been other significant changes and this might have slipped by LKY. And that one of Singapore’s greatest minds, himself a lawyer, wouldn’t be able to detect the changes because of age and sickness. Hm.
At the end of the day, I am not sure what to make of this case. I question the haste in getting LKY to sign the will when Ms Kwa was actually available. But I can also understand how children would jump to attention when a parent who is ailing wants something as important and final as his will changed.
It can’t have escaped people’s notice that Mrs Lee Suet Fern’s case follows that of her son, who was recently fined $15,000 for contempt of court. Other cases have invoked the FamiLEE saga in some form while at least one more is in the pipeline.
I am sticking to my earlier position that PM Lee should simply have sued his siblings for defamation and put a full-stop to saga. Now, he can stay silent or reiterate his non-involvement with his relatives’ legal problems, but the actions of government machinery will still be laid at his door, whether justifiably or not.