#37: The OxLee Feud Special

I’m chucking the usual format out of the window this week and doing something new at the request of some friends. In this issue (which is also coming to you a day early), I’ll be focusing solely on the Lee family feud, which resurfaced again this week with the AGC’s complaint against Lee Hsien Yang’s wife Lee Suet Fern. I’ll be taking it from the top (or as close to the top as I know to take it) and running through my reading of this whole sorry drama.

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The Story of Oxley P̶a̶l̶a̶c̶e̶ House

Once upon a time, there was a house on 38 Oxley Road.

To be honest, it was really not that much to look at, but it was the home of this guy…

…and his family, which made it a pretty big deal. A lot of historical stuff — like early PAP meetings — also took place in the basement. Then Mr Lee Kuan Yew — Singapore’s first Prime Minister and all-round Big Boss — passed away in 2015, leaving his estate to his descendants: Lee Hsien Loong (the current Prime Minister), Lee Hsien Yang and Lee Wei Ling.

This is where our story begins…

Up to that point, things were pretty buttoned down in that family. They were unofficially known as the “first family” in Singapore because of their dad’s boss-ness, but we didn’t know a whole lot about what went on behind closed doors. The first sign that all was not well came in 2016 when Lee Wei Ling expressed unhappiness over the commemoration of LKY’s death and referred to her big brother Lee Hsien Loong as a “dishonourable son”.

Lee Wei Ling’s comments “deeply saddened” Lee Hsien Loong, but there wasn’t that much more to go on, so everyone went back to their usual business of grumbling-about-everything-but-still-supporting-PAP.

And then, early one morning in June 2017…

…the younger Lee siblings went public on social media. Lee Hsien Yang and Lee Wei Ling, said that they were “disturbed by the character, conduct, motives and leadership of their brother, Lee Hsien Loong, and the role of his wife, Ho Ching.” They claimed that they “felt threatened by Hsien Loong’s misuse of his position and influence over the Singapore government to drive his personal agenda.”

SINGAPOREANS:

38 Oxley Road was at the heart of the dispute (although it became clearer and clearer that there was more to it — more on that later). You see, Lee Kuan Yew had made it very clear that the Oxley house should be demolished upon his death (once Lee Wei Ling stopped living there). Basically, once Lee Wei Ling vacates the premises, get a wrecking ball in.

(Something like this, but with a lot more health and safety gear. Although, knowing the way some subcontractors treat their migrant workers, maybe not.)

Lee Kuan Yew had put this wish to demolish the house in his will. But the younger Lees said that Big Brother wasn’t keen on knocking the thing down, because he and his wife wanted to “milk Lee Kuan Yew’s legacy for their own political purposes”, among which were political ambitions for son Li Hongyi. (Because Singapore needs more Lees? #heh)

Also a source of conflict was a ministerial committee set up to consider options for the house. What was the deal with that? Big Brother Lee had said there was no need to take any action right away (since Lee Wei Ling still lives at Oxley Road). But then Lee Hsien Loong had also made statutory declarations to the committee that questioned the preparation of LKY’s last will.

YOUNGER LEE SIBLINGS:

The siblings point out that the will was granted probate (empowering the executors to carry out the will) in October 2015, and that LHL had raised no legal challenge then. So why was he casting doubt on the preparation of the will?* Why was there even a committee?

(*NOTE: Under the law, it was entirely possible for the government to argue that 38 Oxley Road had great historical significance and had to be preserved despite LKY’s personal wishes. LHL didn’t need to question the will to preserve the house if that was all he wanted to achieve — which suggests that the way in which the house is preserved is just as, if not more, important a consideration.)

All this played out over Facebook, because the younger Lee siblings didn’t trust mainstream media outlets like The Straits Times to report their side of the story honestly and truthfully — an odd nod to the effectiveness of their dad’s undermining of press freedom in Singapore.

I said it then and I’ll say it again: I never saw so many popcorn-eating GIFs in Singapore’s social media scene.

It all culminated in a two-day session in Parliament, where LHL sought to answer questions and clear his and his ministers’ names. I’d previously summed up the parliamentary session, so I won’t do it again — you can read it here (don’t worry, I used GIFs there too). I also have an old tl;dr:

After those two days in Parliament, the siblings agreed to stop warring on social media — Singaporeans reacted with a mix of “oh thank God” and “aiyah no more drama to watch” — and settle their dispute privately. But the dispute never actually went away.

The contempt of court detour

After a period of silence, the saga recruited a younger cast member (in K-drama this would be considered fan service but in this case it was just deployment of the civil service), Li Shengwu, son of Lee Hsien Yang and Lee Suet Fern. Li Shengwu’s friends-only Facebook post got screencapped and circulated. He was sharing an article that provided an overview of this tedious makjang, and within his Facebook caption he said that “the Singapore government is very litigious and has a pliant court system.”

Next thing we know, the AGC’s commencing contempt of court proceedings against him, with over 1,000 pages submitted to the court. Now, I’ve seen those 1,000 pages, and it actually involves filing documents like affidavits over and over and over and over again, like a desperate student trying to pad out the dissertation an hour before the deadline.

Now we have this unnecessary sub-plot, which would be just dumb if it didn’t have serious consequences for freedom of expression in Singapore. (Seriously, friends-only post also can kena?) For now, all you need to know is that the Court of Appeal has allowed Li Shengwu to appeal against the court decision that allowed the AGC to serve him papers in the US, where he’s a smartypants at Harvard*. So we’ll have to see how things go.

(* Lest K Shanmugam accuse me of fabricating Li Shengwu’s credentials, I’d like to pre-emptively declare that I’m not saying that’s his official academic title.)

And then, on 6 January 2019…

Lee Wei Ling took to social media again to reveal that the Attorney-General’s Chambers have filed a 500-page complaint against Lee Hsien Yang’s wife, lawyer Lee Suet Fern, to the Law Society.

In their media statement, the AGC said that they had lodged a complaint against Lee Suet Fern because there was “possible professional misconduct”. According to the AGC, Lee Suet Fern had prepared Lee Kuan Yew’s last will, which was a conflict of interest (because her husband was a beneficiary) that isn’t allowed under the legal profession rules. Lee Hsien Yang’s hit back, saying that Lee Suet Fern hadn’t prepared the will; she’d merely put one paragraph into legal language upon the instruction of LKY himself. Lee Hsien Yang also conveniently dropped in the fact that Lee Kuan Yew’s first will had been drafted by his mother Kwa Geok Choo, who had been the principal beneficiary at the time (read: lagi more conflict). But the AGC insists they’ve handled this in a way consistent with other cases, and that the matter will go before a Disciplinary Tribunal.

Lee Hsien Loong had said in Parliament in July 2017 that he wouldn’t sue his sister and brother because it would “besmirch” their parents’ names. But he hadn’t said anything about sisters-in-law or nephews.

What does this mean for us?

This whole sorry saga has been riveting for politically-engaged Singaporeans, but also pretty embarrassing. And I don’t mean it in a “look at the international press writing about this and making us look bad” way, which is how a lot of members of the PAP approached it when they stood up to speak in Parliament in 2017.

It’s embarrassing and distressing because it’s shown up weaknesses in our institutions. While a lot of this appears to circle around the house at Oxley Road, there’s something much deeper and more fundamental at the core. Let’s face it, we could be just one instance of Lee Wei Ling “accidentally leaving the stove on” from not having to worry about the house, but there are matters here that cannot be so easily got rid of.

Through this saga, we’ve seen that respect and trust in our mainstream media has slipped to the stage where even Lee Kuan Yew’s own children don’t think they can be trusted to cover the issues properly. We’ve seen Lee Hsien Loong stand up before other elected officials to answer questions, only to ownself-clear-ownself… and our Parliament wasn’t robust enough, wasn’t diverse enough, to really hold his feet to the fire. We’ve seen the AGC file a 1,000-page submission over a Facebook post they weren’t even supposed to be able to read, and a 500-page complaint, five years late, about something that no one actually involved or affected formally complained about.

And while all this is happening, we’re also seeing a clampdown on civil society and civil liberties, with artists and activists arrested and charged and jailed and sued.

The family feud has spilled out from a sibling spat over papa’s house into a political game where one sends pointed messages via hawker centre porridge. Lee Hsien Yang also donated to Leong Sze Hian’s legal fund to counter-sue Lee Hsien Loong for abusing court process (Leong and LHL are now applying to strike each other’s suits out).

It’s pretty clear: Lee Kuan Yew’s PAP might be one thing, but Lee Hsien Loong’s PAP doesn’t even have the support of his own siblings. This is a fight for the narrative, for the legacy, for the legitimacy. And the general election is rumoured to be coming our way this year. And try as the mainstream media might, the response to the 4G leadership transition and the anointing of Heng Swee Keat as the future PM has been less than enthusiastic. Alamak.

The question to ask is: what happens to us less powerful people when powerful people get insecure?