Split screen image of Lee Hsien Loong (R) and his brother Lee Hsien Yang (L). Photo: AFP/Facebook
Split screen image of Lee Hsien Loong (R) and his younger brother Lee Hsien Yang (L). The two brothers have fallen out over their deceased father's will. Photo: AFP / Facebook

SINGAPORE – The 18th-century poet Percy Bysshe Shelley famously told of a ruined statue depicting a once powerful king, its fragments buried in desolate desert sands. The vivid poem “Ozymandias” is often interpreted as a warning against the hubris of building monuments to one’s own greatness, as even the mightiest empires wane and eventually crumble.

The message is one that resonated with Singapore’s founding prime minister Lee Kuan Yew, whose relatives say he cited Shelley’s sonnet as he pondered his legacy. Prior to his death in March 2015 at age 91, the revered elder statesman publicly expressed his wish that his family’s five-bedroom residence at 38 Oxley Road be demolished after his passing.  

This was to avoid the cost of preserving the historic colonial-era bungalow and the risk that it would fall into disrepair, with the political patriarch having once remarked how he detested the way the homes of national figures such as India’s founding prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru were left in “shambles” when converted into memorial tourist attractions. 

What exactly the late premier wanted and stipulated in his will is at the heart of an acrimonious nearly six-year dispute that has bitterly divided Singapore’s most prominent family, a family feud between siblings that has become part and parcel of the prosperous city-state’s increasingly partisan politics.

The quarrel has since entered a new phase, with the deceased Lee’s youngest son and his wife now evading a police investigation. Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong’s estranged brother, Lee Hsien Yang, is being probed for allegedly giving false evidence in a case involving the handling of his father’s final will.

Details of the police investigation were disclosed shortly before Lee Hsien Yang, a former chief executive of telecom company Singtel, said he would consider a run for Singapore’s largely ceremonial presidency.  

“A lot of people have come to me. They really want me to run. It is something I would consider,” he told Bloomberg earlier this month.

Candidates for the presidential race must be non-partisan under Singapore’s constitution, though several past candidates, including incumbent Halimah Yacob, have been former members of the long-ruling People’s Action Party (PAP).

“There is a view that depending on who they float, if I were to run, they would be in serious trouble and could lose,” Lee Hsien Yang was quoted as saying.

Lee Hsien Yang on the 2020 campaign trail. Photo: Nile Bowie

Analysts believe the one-time army brigadier-general would indeed be a competitive candidate, but one whose entry into the race would invariably complicate national politics ahead of a still unscheduled prime ministerial succession.  

“The prospect of Lee Hsien Yang running as a presidential candidate would surely have been a cause for PAP concern. This is not because he would necessarily win, but because he would likely garner enough support to embarrass the ruling party and its preferred candidate,” said Garry Rodan, an honorary professor at the University of Queensland’s School of Political Science and International Studies.

There are, however, obvious hurdles in the way of Lee Hsien Yang standing in the upcoming presidential race, which is expected to be called by September, not least of which is his self-declared “fugitive” status. Though not charged with a crime, the 65-year-old says he is living in exile in Europe and is “unlikely to return to Singapore” due to fear of political persecution.

“It pains me beyond words that I am unlikely ever to be able to see my sister face to face again,” he said in a March 7 statement, disclosing that his 68-year-old sibling Lee Wei Ling “is now extremely unwell” after being diagnosed in August 2020 with progressive supranuclear palsy, a brain disease that slows physical movements and eventually leads to dementia.

Lee Wei Ling’s ailing health could factor into the dispute because her father’s will states that the family residence, which Lee Hsien Loong inherited and sold to his younger brother in 2015, is to be demolished once she no longer resides there. Singapore’s laws do, however, allow for the government to gazette the property, constructed in 1898, as a monument.

Reiterating the position that he and his sister have taken in regard to the property, Lee Hsien Yang added in his statement that “Both of us have always accepted that the Singapore Government has the power to preserve our father’s house, but we reject the continued pretense that he had changed his mind, that he was somehow ‘ok’ with it.”

He claimed his family has “paid dearly” for speaking up against his prime ministerial brother, alleging that they have been subject to harassment, surveillance and smear campaigns.

“How can there be fair and proper investigations or a fair trial, in what is clearly a politically-motivated prosecution? After what I have been through, I have no confidence whatsoever in the system,” he said in the statement.

In response to a lawmaker’s query, Senior Minister Teo Chee Hean told Singapore’s parliament on March 3 that Hsien Yang and his wife Lee Suet Fern, 64, an international corporate lawyer, had “refused to attend” a police interview on whether they had perjured themselves during disciplinary proceedings against the latter’s role in the preparation and execution of Lee Kuan Yew’s will.

The proceedings took place after the Attorney-General’s Chambers filed a complaint about possible professional misconduct on her part in 2019. The Court of Three Judges, the highest disciplinary body to deal with lawyers’ misconduct, ruled the following year that Lee Suet Fern had misled her father-in-law into signing a new will at the urgent behest of her husband.

According to the court judgment, Lee Suet Fern’s “divided loyalties” presented a “potential conflict of interest” and, in turn, Lee Kuan Yew had “ended up signing a document which was in fact not that which he had indicated he wished to sign.” The court and an earlier disciplinary tribunal also ruled that the couple had lied under oath during the legal proceedings.

A view of former Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew's Oxley Road residence in Singapore June 14, 2017. REUTERS/Edgar Su - RTS16ZE0
A view of former Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew’s Oxley Road residence in Singapore, June 14, 2017. Photo: Agencies

Lee Suet Fern was handed a 15-month suspension from legal practice in November 2020. At the time, she asserted that there was “no basis” for the case to have been initiated. “This was a private will. Lee Kuan Yew knew what he wanted. He got what he wanted. The Court of Three did not find that he was of unsound mind or that he was not in control,” she said.

Lee Kuan Yew’s seventh and last will re-inserted the so-called Demolition Clause central to a long-running public quarrel. The clause, variations of which had existed in the first to fourth wills, stipulates that the 38 Oxley Road residence be demolished immediately after his death, or when his daughter Lee Wei Ling, the property’s current occupant, chooses to move out.  

“I would ask each of my children to ensure our wishes with respect to the demolition of the House be carried out,” the clause reads. The will specifies that if the heritage property is unable to be demolished due to any changes in the law, “it is my wish that the House never be opened to others except my children, their families and descendants.”

Email correspondence cited as evidence in the disciplinary proceedings suggested that Lee Kuan Yew had been under the impression that 38 Oxley Road had already been gazetted for preservation by the government when it had not been, thereby leading to the Demolition Clause being taken out of the fifth and sixth wills prior to it reappearing in the seventh and final will.

In December 2013, Lee Kuan Yew told his youngest son that he wished to re-execute his original 2011 will. The document, emailed to him by Lee Suet Fern at her husband’s request, was in fact an earlier draft that contained minor differences to the final version of the original will. In an apparent oversight, she claimed she had attached the “original agreed will” for re-execution.

Senior lawyers from Lee Suet Fern’s firm witnessed the late statesmen, a Cambridge-trained lawyer and still a sitting member of parliament, read and initial the will line by line. The Court of Three Judges ruled that Lee Kuan Yew was “content” with the will and lived for more than a year after executing it without alteration, apart from a codicil bequeathing carpets to Lee Hsien Yang.  

Probate, the legal process for a will to be accepted as a valid public document, was granted by the courts in October 2015 with no complaints or objections made against Lee Suet Fern, who maintains there was no solicitor-client relationship between her and her statesmen father-in-law, which the court agreed, and that there was no dishonesty in her dealings with him.

Acrimony over the clause only became public in June 2017, when Lee Hsien Yang and Lee Wei Ling published an explosive joint statement accusing their elder brother, the prime minister, of misusing his executive powers to undermine their father’s instructions, citing the existence of a ministerial committee tasked with exploring options other than demolition for the property.

The three Lee siblings at the funeral of their father Lee Kuan Yew in 2015 – Lee Hsien Yang (left), Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong (centre) and Lee Wei Ling (second from right). Photo: Getty via AFP

The committee said in a 2018 report that a future government should make the final decision as to whether the house should be demolished or preserved, either partially or wholly, as a national monument or heritage center. It offered no recommendation. Lee Hsien Loong has promised to recuse himself from all government decisions on the matter.   

Felix Tan, a political analyst from Nanyang Technological University (NTU) said “the public knows that there is a strong indication that certain segments of society and the government would want to keep the property intact. This would provide a continuation of the legacy – not just the Lee Kuan Yew story, but a physical manifestation of his myth and legend as part of the Singapore history.”

The siblings had accused Lee and his wife Ho Ching of seeking to gain political capital through the preservation of the house, where key meetings of first-generation PAP leaders were held in the 1950s, and of aspiring to build a family dynasty by grooming their 35-year-old son Li Hongyi to take up a future political role, allegations that the premier has adamantly denied.

“My siblings’ statement has hurt our father’s legacy,” said Lee Hsien Loong, 71, in his initial response, expressing disappointment that private family matters had been publicized. The premier, who has governed Singapore since 2004, responded to the allegations in parliament and said he has refrained from suing his siblings to prevent his family name from being besmirched.

The siblings continued to criticize their brother and raise governance-related accusations on social media, with Lee Hsien Yang entering the political fray in 2020 by joining the opposition Progress Singapore Party (PSP). While briefly flirting with the idea of standing as an election candidate against his brother, he ultimately decided against a run, arguing that “Singapore doesn’t need another Lee.”

Though it performed respectably for a newly formed party, the PSP failed to win any of the 24 seats it contested in the July 2020 general election, while the PAP’s vote share dropped to 61.24%, its second-lowest showing on record. Lee Hsien Yang previously denied that personal issues with his elder brother had influenced his decision to enter politics.

Nydia Ngiow, Singapore-based managing director at strategic policy advisory firm BowerGroupAsia, told Asia Times that while the younger Lee “could be a strong presidential candidate in his own right as the former CEO of Singtel, one would have to carefully consider whether he is truly a credible, intentional candidate at this time or if he is fanning the flames to spite his brother.”

Though he argues Lee family members should not take future political leadership roles, Lee Hsien Yang has said the presidential post “is slightly different” as “it’s apolitical, theoretically.” While Singapore’s premier runs the government, the president has powers to veto government budgets to safeguard accumulated reserves and must also sign off on civil service appointments.

There is, however, strict eligibility criteria for potential candidates set by a Presidential Elections Committee. To qualify, candidates for the presidency are required to have at least served as a cabinet minister or in an equally high-profile post in the public sector or helmed a large private company with at least S$500 million (US$375 million) in shareholder equity.

While Lee Hsien Yang is thought to be one of the few prominent government critics able to meet the high bar set for potential candidates owing to his corporate experience, a candidate must also satisfy the Presidential Elections Committee that he or she is a person of “integrity, good character and reputation” to qualify, which analysts see as the main hurdle he would face.  

Addressing the matter in parliament on March 21, powerful Law and Home Affairs Minister K Shanmugam said Lee Hsien Yang and his wife “essentially absconded from justice” but retain the right to provide explanations on the investigations if they eventually decide to cooperate with the police and “explain why they say the courts were wrong to say that they had lied.”

Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong’s planned succession could be complicated by family matters. Image: Twitter

As a result of court findings of him being untruthful and the inquiry into his wife, Eugene Tan, an associate professor of law at Singapore Management University (SMU), believes “Lee Hsien Yang may stumble at the constitutional requirement that he satisfies the Presidential Elections Committee that he is a person of integrity, good character and reputation.”

“If he becomes a presidential hopeful, [it would] ignite keen interest in the presidential poll. But, given the family feud, he would likely be a divisive figure. While he likely meets all other eligibility requirements, he will find it a challenge to persuade fellow Singaporeans that he has no agenda in seeking public office,” the veteran political observer told Asia Times.

Tan of NTU said “Lee Hsien Yang would have indeed been a very competitive candidate. He fits all the criteria of a presidential candidate and would very likely have won… However, that very thought is now moot because there are doubts to the very character and integrity of him” in the eyes of a general public that is “extremely compliant when it comes to matters involving the law.”

Rodan of the University of Queensland, however, argues that the perceived “character assassination of Lee Hsien Yang through PAP-controlled institutions and media” is seen to reflect the ruling party’s desire to block his candidacy. “Ironically, [this] also bolsters his credibility among a portion of voters who expect this attack on those who most concertedly challenge existing political elites in Singapore.”

“Oxleygate” as the feud is referred to, mirrors “the extent of the political divide among Singaporeans,” said BowerGroupAsia’s Ngiow, adding that “most Singaporeans are weary (and wary) of having what seems like internal family drama escalated to the point where Parliament is involved, seemingly taking priority ahead of bread-and-butter concerns like the rising costs of living.”

It remains to be seen whether the ongoing police investigation results in charges being filed against Lee Hsien Yang or his wife. Observers do not rule out the possibility of arrest warrants being issued against the couple. Though with the dispute between Lee Kuan Yew’s estranged children seemingly farther from resolution than ever, observers sense mounting public fatigue with the issue.

“There is a patent desire among many Singaporeans for the disagreements to be resolved amicably, and sooner rather than later. As the matter drags on, it will increasingly be an unmitigated public distraction that can erode the standing of the government. The saga has not divided society and it must not be allowed to,” said SMU’s Tan.

“What many Singaporeans wish for is resolution and closure.”

Follow Nile Bowie on Twitter at @NileBowie