This is my final piece on this site. From now on, please follow my work at Jom, a weekly digital magazine covering arts, culture, politics, business, technology and more in Singapore.
Lee Kuan Yew wanted his entire house at 38 Oxley Road demolished—nothing else—but he was aware that it might not be.
My formulation is the product of over a year’s worth of research by our team into the two competing narratives proffered by his feuding children: Lee Hsien Loong, Singapore’s prime minister, on the one side; and Lee Wei Ling and Lee Hsien Yang, executors of the estate, on the other.
It puts Lee Kuan Yew’s thinking between the two, albeit certainly closer to the executors’.
Furthermore, based on the available evidence, it is my belief that, although mistakes may have been made by some of them, the following people have been unfairly judged in this matter by their respective public critics: Ho Ching and Lee Suet Fern, Lee Kuan Yew’s daughters-in-law; as well as Lee Wei Ling and Lee Hsien Yang.
There are still lingering questions in my mind about Lee Hsien Loong’s chosen path of engagement, specifically his decision not to query his father’s thinking (and possible foul play regarding the will) in court, as might have been expected, but instead to cooperate with (and thus endorse) a private investigation by the Ministerial Committee on 38 Oxley Road (MC). The committee’s formation and findings are, in my view, problematic.
These arguments are substantiated in an e-book that is available here for free (click to download the PDF), and for which this essay is meant to serve as a synopsis and entry-point.
We need to first discuss the very need for research on a topic that causes many Singaporeans to roll their eyes. It was sparked by the release into the public domain in 2020-21 of mountains of fresh evidence, including hundreds of emails between the Lees. This happened because of a few legal battles, primarily the case by the Law Society of Singapore against Lee Suet Fern for alleged misconduct in the preparation of Lee Kuan Yew’s last will.
If this were any other rich democracy, mainstream media outlets would have been salivating over this expansive source material. It offers us a peek into the nature of political power among a traditionally guarded elite. The issues surrounding this battle, from the power of the executive to the privilege of the members of Singapore’s first family, cut to the heart of our democracy.
Yet our local outlets are unable to engage deeply with this material for well-documented structural reasons. Over the past few months, my team and I have done so.
The other reason why we must examine this issue now is that an important deadline may be approaching. Once Lee Wei Ling is no longer living at the house, the Singapore government may decide to interfere with the free property rights of its current owner, Lee Hsien Yang, possibly by gazetting the property under the Preservation of Monuments Act. Given Lee Wei Ling’s ailing health, this may happen in the coming years.
Importantly, this research does not incorporate any primary interviews. It relies almost exclusively on secondary research, particularly the above-mentioned casefile, which is over 2,500 pages long.
I did not interview anybody because I have limited access. The few establishment people I approached rebuffed my requests. Lee Hsien Yang and Lee Suet Fern are the only two concerned parties whom I know personally. I did not want to include only their voices.
The one exception to this is that in April this year I sent out requests for comment to three parties: Lee Hsien Loong; Lee Wei Ling and Lee Hsien Yang; and Teo Chee Hean, in his capacity as head of the MC. My requests and their responses are reproduced in the book’s Appendix.
The Demolition Clause in Lee Kuan Yew’s will is straightforward. His primary wish was for the entire house to be demolished. In the event that it could not be, his secondary wish was that “the house never be opened to others except my children, their families and descendants.”
Much of the disagreement between the siblings rests, I think, on the relative emphasis that they place on his primary and secondary wishes.
According to Lee Hsien Loong, his father “accepted” that the Government “was likely” to preserve the house, and that “he was prepared for the House to be preserved”.
By contrast, Lee Wei Ling and Lee Hsien Yang say that their father felt forced to consider alternatives to demolition because of the apparent inevitability of gazetting, which he “never accepted in any way or form”.
There is overwhelming evidence that Lee Kuan Yew, though open-minded enough to listen to contrarian views, wanted to demolish the entire house. In March 2011, well before his children, daughters-in-law and fellow politicians are on record sharing their views, Lee Kuan Yew engaged in a robust e-mail exchange with newspaper editors, including Patrick Daniel and Han Fook Kwang. Each gave their own reasons for preservation.
Lee then conversed with his children. “The decision is yours to make,” Lee Wei Ling told him.
“My decision is to knock it down.”
Those seven words are telling.
Having sought and received exhaustive views from Singaporean luminaries, Lee Kuan Yew still wanted to demolish the house.
Yet he would later become aware that this wish may not be fulfilled. In July that year Lee Hsien Loong told Lee Kuan Yew that “the govt will not buck” the “huge public pressure” to preserve the house, giving the impression that the government’s hand is being forced by the public (a rather unusual phenomenon in Singapore).
Lee Hsien Loong, who had recused himself from cabinet decisions on the house, later told the MC that “…Cabinet, reflecting what it honestly believed was the public’s view, was firmly against demolition.”
Put another way, the cabinet’s argument against demolition to Lee Kuan Yew in 2011 hinged on what it believed Singaporeans themselves wanted. With the benefit of hindsight, we now know that the cabinet’s assessment was grossly wrong. In a survey conducted in 2015 by YouGov, the only available data point, 77% of Singaporeans said that they are in favour of demolition (only 15% were opposed to it).
Nevertheless, this argument prompted Lee Kuan Yew to include the secondary wish in his Demolition Clause. “Cabinet members were unanimous that 38 Oxley Road should not be demolished as I wanted,” Lee wrote in December 2011.
My assessment, based on available evidence, is that Lee Kuan Yew seemed neither as cheery about preservation as Lee Hsien Loong and the MC make out; nor as dead set against it as Lee Wei Ling and Lee Hsien Yang suggest. The establishment places too much emphasis on Lee Kuan Yew’s secondary wish; while the executors place too little.
(Lee Hsien Yang, in his response to me, rejected my classification of the two wishes. “There was only one wish – that the house be demolished.”)
If Singaporeans in the future decide to preserve the house—parts of it, or in its entirety—we must acknowledge that we will be directly and unambiguously going against the primary wish of Lee Kuan Yew (as he worried we might).
This is what we now know. It appears, however, that in the weeks following Lee Kuan Yew’s death in 2015, there may have been legitimate doubt about his wishes. Some of the many oddities include the fact that Kwa Kim Li, his niece and lawyer, handled the signing of his first to sixth wills, but not the seventh and last will, attended to by senior lawyers from Lee Suet Fern’s firm; and the fact that in 2014 Lee Wei Ling had, in emails to Ho Ching, raised suspicions about Lee Hsien Yang’s role in the last will, and him possibly having “played her out” with respect to her inheritance share, alongside the suggestion that Lee Suet Fern “has great influence on Yang”. (A suspicion she recanted only in September 2015, some five months after the reading of the last will.)
These (and other) discoveries would have bothered anybody in Lee Hsien Loong’s shoes. It is understandable why he felt the need for a further investigation. Yet it is puzzling why the investigation was conducted not solely by the courts but, once probate had been granted, initially by the executive political machinery.
The formation and findings of the MC are problematic, in my view. First, its formation in private appears to contradict what Lee Hsien Loong had said in public. In April 2015, shortly after Lee Kuan Yew’s passing, Lee Hsien Loong told Parliament: “If and when Dr Lee Wei Ling no longer lives in the house, Mr Lee has stated his wishes as to what then should be done. At that point, speaking as a son, I would like to see these wishes carried out. However, it will be up to the government of the day to consider the matter [emphasis mine].”
Subsequently in July 2016, even though Lee Wei Ling was still living in the house, the MC with Teo Chee Hean as the head was formed to, in the words of Lawrence Wong, “consider the options [emphasis mine] for 38 Oxley Road (and the implications thereof).”
Lee Hsien Loong claims that the investigation by the executive political machinery was orchestrated not by him, but independently by fellow ministers representing the public interest. There is no evidence to suggest otherwise.
Still, it is unclear why Singapore needed this MC. Precious ministerial time does not have to be spent assessing conservation and preservation value. As academics Terence Chong and Yeo Kang Shua pointed out in 2015, “…state agencies like NHB and URA have the legal tools and institutional capacity at their disposal to ensure that due process is carried out.”
Meanwhile, Lee Hsien Loong’s parliamentary statement the year before indicated that Lee Kuan Yew had already clearly stated his wishes with regards to the house. It is unclear what additional information about Lee Kuan Yew’s thinking on 38 Oxley Road warranted an investigation by ministers.
Another problem concerns the obvious conflict of interest. We know that since at least 2011 Teo Chee Hean, the MC’s chair, and K Shanmugam, its other senior member, were against demolition, as part of the cabinet. In other words, a committee that was already seemingly in favour of preservation was tasked with assessing the late Lee Kuan Yew’s thinking on preservation (and the alternatives).
(Teo Chee Hean declined to comment on these aforementioned issues.)
Some of the MC’s findings, as detailed in its report, are also problematic, in my view. One glaring omission, for instance, is any mention of the 2015 survey showing Singaporeans overwhelmingly in favour of demolition. Given how much public sentiment on this issue apparently matters to cabinet members, the argument put forth to Lee Kuan Yew in 2011, why was there no mention in the report of the one available relevant data point? It appears as if this “public sentiment” argument has only been used in private, and without supporting data.
Setting aside the nature of this investigation, it is worth discussing the case by the Law Society of Singapore against Lee Suet Fern. The Court of Three Judges (C3J) eventually cleared Lee Suet Fern of the more serious misconduct charge, but found her guilty of the lesser one and suspended her for 15 months. The C3J’s conclusion—that a solicitor-client relationship “reasonably” existed from LSF’s perspective but not LKY’s—is the subject of much heated debate for its unique, threading-the-needle precision.
Lee Suet Fern was also found to have made one error, in that she sent Lee Kuan Yew a draft will that may not have been the exact one he expected. It contained two minor differences from the actual first will that he had signed (and that he seemingly wanted to re-enact). Neither Lee Kuan Yew nor Kwa Kim Li picked up on these differences.
The first difference is that Lee Kuan Yew’s actual first will contained a gift-over clause, making provisions in the event that one of his children died before him. (Moot, since he died first.) Second, according to the actual first will, Lee Hsien Loong would have had to pay for the upkeep of 38 Oxley Road while Lee Wei Ling lived there. This requirement was not in the draft that Lee Suet Fern sent him.
In other words, the only person who has benefited financially from Lee Suet Fern’s alleged error is Lee Hsien Loong, not Lee Hsien Yang, her husband. The error clearly reflects an oversight, not ill-intent.
Aside from the above error, she (and Lee Hsien Yang) are alleged by the C3J to have offered varying and inaccurate accounts to different government bodies during the investigation.
Following the conclusion of her case in November 2020, the mainstream media unsurprisingly focused on her charge and suspension, thereby, consciously or not, distracting members of the public from the fact that she has been cleared of all ill-intent.
The important perspective must incorporate the last six years. Consider the numerous suggestions in Lee Hsien Loong’s statutory declaration to the MC in 2016, including that there may have been a conflict of interest on the part of Lee Suet Fern; that Lee Kuan Yew may not have been advised properly; that the provisions in the last will may not have been explained to him sufficiently; and that Lee Kuan Yew may not have wanted the Demolition Clause re-inserted into the last will.
All of the aforementioned suggestions have been debunked through the C3J’s findings.
Imagine an athlete suspected of wilfully taking anabolic steroids, or using blood transfusions to bolster their performance—but who is then found only to have mistakenly had a bit too much caffeine from their coffee in their blood. (Aha! Got you.)
Lawyers will continue to debate the merits of the judgment against LSF. What seems clear is that in the court of public opinion—mediated largely by the establishment and the mainstream media—she has been judged unfairly.
So too, in my mind, has Ho Ching (by a different set of public critics). Ho Ching appeared to be enthusiastic about the prospect of redeveloping (and possibly moving into) 38 Oxley Road, but this was an arrangement that had the blessings of Lee Kuan Yew, who indeed was quite happy for her to lead the redevelopment.
Ho Ching’s critics have long suggested that she wants to move into the house because of its political symbolism. By perpetuating the link to Lee Kuan Yew, so it goes, she cements her own family’s legacy and possibly, some suspect, paves the way for her son, Li Hongyi, to also one day run for high office.
There is only a little evidence of Ho Ching’s awareness of the symbolism, in her desire to maintain the basement dining room, the site of early People’s Action Party (PAP) pow-wows, even as she wanted to redo the rest of the house’s interior.
Still, the obvious rejoinder to Ho Ching’s critics is: “So what?” Whatever her motivations, Lee Kuan Yew supported her plans as a less favourable, albeit still seemingly tolerable, alternative to demolition. The possibility of Lee Hsien Loong and Ho Ching moving into the house, or of them renting it out, was a means of fulfilling this secondary wish.
Lee Wei Ling, meanwhile, was seemingly torn between following her father’s demolition wish and her desire to keep living in the house (the only one she has ever known). Lee Hsien Yang, although mindful of the property’s value to Lee Kuan Yew’s estate, was seemingly motivated only by a desire to follow his father’s demolition wish.
I would like to conclude with my own personal view on the Lee family feud. It is unfortunate that the streams of accusations and counter-accusations by the two sides have fed Singapore’s political polarisation. The family’s fracture is mirrored, somewhat, by society.
Many PAP supporters now view Lee Hsien Yang and Lee Suet Fern negatively. Many outside view Lee Hsien Loong and Ho Ching similarly. It is Singapore’s loss that four key members of the Lee family are now distrusted by “the other side”.
Many Singaporeans I speak to are just tired of the bickering and infighting. Far-fetched as it is, many of us pine for the day when ties within the family are mended. It is part of a conciliatory process that will slowly, hopefully, heal some political divides and foster a healthier climate of public discourse and debate, even as socio-political diversity increases.
Download (and share) the e-book: The battle over Lee Kuan Yew’s last will.