Dispute over 38 Oxley Road: A timeline of events

Dispute over 38 Oxley Road: A timeline of events

38 Oxley Road 1
38 Oxley Road. (Photo: Howard Law)

SINGAPORE: Should founding Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew’s family home at 38 Oxley Road be demolished, or not? Despite his having stated his wish that it be torn down after his death, the house has become the centre of a very public spat among his three children.

The dispute spilled into the public domain following a Facebook post in the wee hours of Jun 14, 2017. In the post, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong's siblings, Mr Lee Hsien Yang and Dr Lee Wei Ling, issued a statement titled "What has happened to Lee Kuan Yew's values?" They reiterated their father’s wish for the house to be demolished immediately after his death, and alleged that their brother, PM Lee, wanted to preserve the house “to inherit (Lee Kuan Yew’s) credibility”.

38 Oxley Road illustration
The house at 38 Oxley Road has significant historical, architectural and heritage value, said a report by the ministerial committee on 38 Oxley Road and the National Heritage Board. (Illustration: Kenneth Choy)

PM Lee has denied the allegations and expressed disappointment that his siblings chose to publicise a private family matter. Following his return from an overseas break, he issued a video statement to Singaporeans apologising for the state of affairs.

"I deeply regret that this dispute has affected Singapore’s reputation and Singaporeans’ confidence in the Government," he said.

He also addressed questions on the matter in Parliament on Jul 3 and 4, 2017.

On Apr 2, 2018, a ministerial committee laid out the options for the house in a report that said a future government should decide the fate of the family home of Singapore's founding Prime Minister. 

Here is a timeline of the key events in the dispute.

Jun 14, 2017: Mr Lee Hsien Yang and Dr Lee issued a joint six-page statement saying they had "lost confidence" in their brother and "do not trust him". They wrote that they "felt threatened" by PM Lee’s use of his position and influence over the Singapore Government and its agencies to "drive his personal agenda” since their father died on Mar 23, 2015. Mr Lee Hsien Yang said he felt “compelled to leave” Singapore, and that PM Lee was “the only reason for (his) departure”.

They also claimed that PM Lee wanted the house preserved as “his popularity is inextricably linked to Lee Kuan Yew’s legacy". "His political power is drawn from his being Lee Kuan Yew’s son,” they said in the statement. They also stressed that their father wrote in his final will that he wanted the house demolished.

In his first response on Facebook about eight hours later, PM Lee rejected the allegations, adding: “My siblings’ statement has hurt our father’s legacy.”

Later that day, Cabinet Secretary Tan Kee Yong confirmed that a ministerial committee had been set up to consider options for the house. He made clear that the Prime Minister has not been involved in the Cabinet's discussions concerning the committee. 

pm lee, dr lee wei ling, mr lee hsien yang
PM Lee Hsien Loong, Dr Lee Wei Ling, Mr Lee Hsien Yang. (Photos: Xabryna Kek, TODAY, AFP)

Jun 15, 2017: In a Facebook post, Mr Lee Hsien Yang suggested that some of PM Lee's public statements did not match what he said in private to the ministerial committee.

Noting that his siblings continued to make allegations, PM Lee said: "This makes it untenable for me not to respond publicly to the allegations and to explain why I have serious questions about how my father's last will was prepared." 

He made public the summary of a statutory declaration he submitted to the ministerial committee.

At issue, in particular, was the removal and subsequent re-insertion of a clause stating the late Mr Lee's wish that his house at 38 Oxley Road be demolished after his death, PM Lee noted.

He added that there was “no evidence that Mr Lee (Kuan Yew) even knew that the Demolition Clause had been re-inserted into the last will". The clause calls for the house to be demolished immediately after the elder Mr Lee’s death, or if Dr Lee is living there, after she moves out.

The Prime Minister added that it appeared that his father had simply wanted to reinstate the equal division of his estate among the three children.

The late Mr Lee had made changes in his sixth and penultimate will to give his only daughter, Dr Lee Wei Ling, an extra share.

In his final will, however, their father reverted to his earlier decision to give each of his children an equal share, said PM Lee.

He also questioned the role Mr Lee Hsien Yang’s wife, lawyer Lee Suet Fern, played in the final will.

Shortly after the summary was published, Mr Lee Hsien Yang responded, saying that his wife’s law firm, Stamford Law, attended to the attestation of the final will at “Lee Kuan Yew's explicit request”. 

Dr Lee, meanwhile, refuted a suggestion in PM Lee’s statutory declaration that the issue of equal shares had been a subject of discussion between Mr Lee and his youngest son, Mr Lee Hsien Yang.

She said she was quoted "out of context" to suggest that Mr Lee Hsien Yang and his wife had tried to "cheat" her in their final will, and posted on Facebook screengrabs of emails that appeared to show otherwise. The screengrabs were taken down shortly after.

38 Oxley Road house aerial view - illustration
Aerial view of 38 Oxley Road. (Illustration: Kenneth Choy)

Jun 16, 2017: The issue of who prepared the final will came into question.

Mr Lee Hsien Yang said on his Facebook page that Stamford Law did not draft any will for Mr Lee Kuan Yew, and that the will was drafted by lawyer Kwa Kim Li of Lee and Lee.

“Paragraph 7 (the demolition clause) of the Will was drafted at LKY's direction, and put into language by Lee Suet Fern his daughter-in-law and when he was satisfied he asked Kim Li to insert it into his will,” he said.

He also took issue with the ministerial committee, saying it was “entirely uninterested in exploring options for the house”.

Kwa Kim Li, PM Lee’s cousin, who prepared the six previous versions of Mr Lee Kuan Yew’s will, said that she did not prepare his final will.

Mrs Lee Suet Fern stepped down as managing partner of Morgan Lewis Stamford. She will continue to stay in her firm as head of the international leadership team.

Emeritus Senior Minister Goh Chok Tong became the first politician to weigh in on the dispute, calling it “petty” in a post on his Facebook page. He said the public spat “should not be allowed to define who we are”.

Jun 17, 2017: The dispute continued to grow, centred on the will and the ministerial committee.

Mr Lee Hsien Yang said that Mr Lee Kuan Yew's final will was prepared on his late father's instructions to revert to his first will from 2011, drafted by Ms Kwa. He added that father had read the will carefully and initialled every page, including below the demolition clause.

In a statement, Deputy Prime Minister Teo Chee Hean said that it was he who had set up the ministerial committee to consider the future of the house, and that he chairs the committee. He revealed that the members of the committee include Minister for Culture, Community and Youth Grace Fu, Minister for Law K Shanmugam, and Minister for National Development Lawrence Wong.

Mr Lee Hsien Yang and Dr Lee said there was a potential conflict of interest in Mr Shanmugam being on the committee as he had been consulted on Mr Lee Kuan Yew's will.

Mr Shanmugam responded, saying that the suggestion was “ridiculous”. He added that he spoke with some members of the Lee family at their behest and gave them his views. "They were not my clients. Nothing that I said then precludes me from serving on this Committee," he said. 

Dining room at 38 Oxley Road
The basement dining room at 38 Oxley Road was where the People's Action Party was founded and headquartered in its early days. (Photo: Screenshot/NHB report/Straits Times)

Jun 18, 2017: Mr Lee Hsien Yang told Channel NewsAsia that he had no plans for the site of his late father Lee Kuan Yew’s home at Oxley Road as yet.

“I purchased the house to fulfil my parents' wishes. That is my sole aim. I have not thought about what lies beyond demolition if I achieve it,” he said.

He added that he has not made any application seeking approval for demolition of the house and that his sister, Dr Lee, does not intend to move out.

pm lee - jun 19 announcement
PM Lee Hsien Loong delivering the statement on Monday (Jun 19). (Photo: MCI) 

Jun 19, 2017: PM Lee released a video message to Singaporeans, apologising and saying he deeply regrets that the dispute has affected the country's reputation and Singaporeans’ confidence in the Government.

The Prime Minister said he would issue a ministerial statement on the matter when Parliament sits on Jul 3 and that the party whip would be lifted.

"I urge all MPs, including the non-PAP MPs, to examine the issues thoroughly and question me and my Cabinet colleagues vigorously. I hope that this full, public airing in Parliament will dispel any doubts that have been planted and strengthen confidence in our institutions and our system of government," he said.

"I want to assure all Singaporeans that this matter will not distract me and my Cabinet colleagues from our responsibility to govern Singapore, and to deal with more important national issues, including the pressing economic and security challenges we face," he said.

Earlier in the day, Mr Lee Hsien Yang re-introduced another issue in the dispute, surrounding a Deed of Gift - the agreement signed by him and Dr Lee, as executors of their father's estate, to donate some of his furniture and personal items to the National Heritage Board (NHB). In a Facebook post, Mr Lee said that PM Lee's then-personal lawyer had written to him to demand the document, but wrote again hours later to say that PM Lee had since received it from NHB.

Mr Lee questioned how his brother had acquired the confidential document, and whether he had done so in his public or private capacity. 

Lee Hsien Yang (Reuters)
File photo of Lee Hsien Yang (Photo: Reuters)

Jun 20, 2017: Responding to DPM Teo’s Jun 17 statement on the ministerial committee, Mr Lee Hsien Yang denied having had any interaction with him in his capacity as chair of the ministerial committee set up to consider options for 38 Oxley Road.

Separately, in his response to PM Lee’s video message, Mr Lee Hsien Yang said that the siblings had never objected to PM Lee receiving the Oxley Road home as part of his equal share of estate. Rather, he said, their objections were to PM Lee's "flip-flopping about Lee Kuan Yew's demolition wish".

The Workers' Party said it filed several parliamentary questions "to help clear the air" on the allegations against PM Lee. "We are only concerned with the allegations of abuse of power and the harm these have caused to confidence in Singapore and our political institutions," said the opposition party in a Facebook post.

Oxley Road
Looking into 38 Oxley Road's porch and verandah. (Photo: Howard Law)

Jun 21, 2017: DPM Teo defended his decision to set up a ministerial committee to look into the options for Mr Lee Kuan Yew's family home on 38 Oxley Road, saying that the Government of the day "has to be responsible for making a decision on the property".

He was responding to a commentary in The Straits Times questioning the need for Cabinet ministers to get involved in the dispute between Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong and his siblings over their late father's will.

"(The) Cabinet cannot outsource decision-making," DPM Teo said, pointing out that setting up a ministerial committee to study or work on issues was part of normal Cabinet working processes. 

Jun 22, 2017: Deputy Prime Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam joined DPM Teo in explaining that ministerial committees are formed to “ensure that important issues are given in-depth attention, and the options are weighed up by the ministers closer to the issue, before Cabinet makes its decisions and takes collective responsibility”.

The dispute also widened to include items in the late Mr Lee's estate that were loaned to a memorial exhibition. Mr Lee Hsien Yang accused Mdm Ho Ching, the wife of PM Lee, of accessing some of Mr Lee Kuan Yew's documents on Feb 6, 2015 while the elder Mr Lee was "gravely ill" in hospital.

NHB has since clarified that the date was a "clerical error" and that the items were handed over on Apr 6, 2015, after the elder Mr Lee's death.

Mr Lee Hsien Yang said the revelation was "even more troubling" as he and his sister, Dr Lee, were the executors of the estate. "Ho Ching is not an executor or a beneficiary to our father's estate," he said.

"Unapproved removal of these items, even by a beneficiary, constitutes both theft and intermeddling," he added. 

38 Oxley Road study - illustration
The study at 38 Oxley Road. The estate of the late Mr Lee Kuan Yew donated items, including the desk and other personal effects, to the National Heritage Board for the people of Singapore. (Illustration: Kenneth Choy)

Jun 23, 2017: Senior Minister of State for Law Indranee Rajah noted that the late Mr Lee, in his will, “accepted that the house may not be demolished and in such case expressed his wishes on what should happen”. 

“Essentially he did not want the house to be open to the public," she wrote in a Facebook post.

Mdm Ho Ching commented on Mr Lee Hsien Yang's Facebook page, explaining the circumstances under which Mr Lee Kuan Yew's belongings were loaned to NHB.

She said that it was only after the elder Mr Lee's death that she helped tidy up the house and found items that she thought were "significant in papa's life". 

She added that she kept both Mr Lee and his sister, Dr Lee, posted on what she had done, including the loan of the items to NHB.

Meanwhile, Minister for National Development Lawrence Wong clarified that PM Lee was given the Deed of Gift for Lee Kuan Yew's belongings in his official capacity.

Ho Ching
Mdm Ho Ching. (File photo: AFP/Roslan Rahman)

Jun 24, 2017: Mr Lee Hsien Yang responded to Mdm Ho's Facebook note, saying that the executors of Mr Lee Kuan Yew’s estate had never authorised Mdm Ho to lend the items to NHB.

"Informing the executors after the fact does not give her the right to intermeddle," he wrote in a Facebook post. 

He also questioned again why Mdm Ho was acting on behalf of the PMO, despite having no official position.

On the same day, Ms Indranee said in a Facebook post that the interest of the 38 Oxley Road ministerial committee in the will of the late Mr Lee Kuan Yew was confined to trying to understand his thinking on the house, pointing out that he had changed his mind on the demolition clause before. 

She also said that under Singapore law, whoever drafted the last will is required to be independent. "If the lawyer has an interest in the will, the lawyer must make sure the person making the will gets independent advice," she explained.

"In the seventh will, Dr Lee Wei Ling's extra share was reduced and the three children were given equal shares i.e. Mr Lee Hsien Yang's share increased. As Mrs Lee Suet Fern is his wife, if she prepared the seventh will, then the question which will arise is what independent advice (Mr Lee Kuan Yew) received?" Ms Indranee wrote. 

About an hour after her Facebook post, Mr Lee Hsien Yang responded on his own page, calling it "an insult to a great man" for PM Lee's ministers to "repeat his insinuations" that Lee Kuan Yew - a Cambridge-educated lawyer - did not understand his own will.

He said that the last will was "no more than a reversion" to the 2011 will on the late founding prime minister's instructions, reiterating that the last will is final and legally binding since probate has been granted. 

38 Oxley Road 2
38 Oxley Road. (Photo: Howard Law)

Jun 26, 2017: Ms Indranee listed four possible options for 38 Oxley Road – demolition, preservation, conservation and compulsory acquisition – and questioned why Mr Lee Hsien Yang wanted "immediate commitment" on demolition since Dr Lee is still living in the house. 

“The Government has publicly stated that it will respect those wishes and does not intend to do anything until Dr Lee leaves,” she wrote, pointing out that letting the property stand, for now, does not go against the wishes of the late Mr Lee.

If the house is demolished, Ms Indranee said it would clear the way for the owner, in this case, Mr Lee Hsien Yang, to appeal for the land to be re-zoned since the original rationale for the two-storey zoning in the area for security reasons is also gone with the passing of Mr Lee.

The value of the land, if re-zoned, will increase "well beyond" the market value of a two-storey property, she said. 

While Mr Lee Hsien Yang has said he has not thought about what lies beyond demolition,"it would appear he has not ruled out redevelopment," she added. 

A man walks past the house of Singapore's late founding father Lee Kuan Yew at Oxley Rise in
A man walks past the house of Singapore's late founding Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew at Oxley Rise in Singapore. (Photo: AFP/ROSLAN RAHMAN)

Jun 27, 2017: Responding to Ms Indranee's comments, Mr Lee Hsien Yang said he and his sister Dr Lee had never asked the Government to allow them to demolish the house right away.

He also mentioned that he and Dr Lee had offered to build a memorial garden after the house is demolished. This suggestion was rejected by PM Lee, he alleged.

The same day, DPM Teo said it is untrue that the ministerial committee is "bent on preventing the demolition of the house".

PM Lee also released a statement saying: "My siblings continue to make allegations about what I supposedly did or did not do. They are mostly inaccurate."

He reiterated that he will address the allegations in Parliament on Jul 3.

Jun 29, 2017: Mr Lee Hsien Yang said that he has "no confidence" that a "fair, transparent or complete account of events" will be told in Parliament by PM Lee.

"Only his side of the story will air, with no promise of truthfulness due to parliamentary privilege," Mr Lee said on Facebook.

Jul 1, 2017: Dr Lee said PM Lee “threatened angrily to gazette” 38 Oxley Road in the wake of their father's death.

Mr Lee Hsien Yang released a statement on why he went public with his allegations against PM Lee, saying had been pushed to do so by his brother's "secret Cabinet committee". He also dismissed suggestions that he planned to redevelop 38 Oxley Road into a luxury condominium for financial profit. 

Mr Lee Kuan Yew's former principal private secretary Chee Hong Tat commented on the spat, saying the late Mr Lee would not wish for a family dispute to be turned into a public quarrel that hurt Singapore’s international standing.

A view of former Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew's Oxley Road residence in Singapore
A view of former Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew's Oxley Road residence in Singapore June 14, 2017. REUTERS/Edgar Su/Files

Jul 2, 2017: Ahead of PM Lee and DPM Teo's ministerial statements on 38 Oxley Road in Parliament, Mr Lee Hsien Yang accused his elder brother of an "extra-judicial secret attack" by seeking to bypass the court system with a ministerial committee, describing it as "neither transparent nor proper". 

On the same day, DPM Teo's press secretary said that Mr Lee Hsien Yang's statement was a "selective and inaccurate account" of his exchanges with the ministerial committee. 

Jul 3, 2017: Mr Lee Hsien Yang questioned DPM Teo in a Facebook post if he believes that a ministerial committee of PM Lee's subordinates "should be opining on a private dispute between the PM and his siblings". 

In Parliament, PM Lee delivered a ministerial statement and rebutted the allegations of abuse of power made by his siblings, saying they were "entirely baseless". He also apologised to Singaporeans for the public spat. 

PM Lee screenshot
Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong delivering his ministerial statement on the Oxley Road dispute in Parliament on Jul 3, 2017. 

PM Lee added that Mr Lee Kuan Yew had accepted a proposal to renovate 38 Oxley Road in 2011 and the dispute between the siblings stemmed from a "difference of views"

He also explained why he chose to raise the dispute in Parliament instead of suing his siblings, saying a lawsuit "would further besmirch my parents' names". 

Meanwhile, DPM Teo said the committee will not decide what to do with the property, but will instead assess plans for a future government

Oxley LHL parliament 3
Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong delivering a ministerial statement on the Oxley Road dispute in Parliament on Monday (Jul 3).

Jul 4, 2017: Responding to PM Lee's ministerial statement from the previous day, Mr Lee Hsien Yang and Dr Lee Wei Ling on Facebook said their brother "has made convoluted, but ultimately false, claims about Lee Kuan Yew's wishes". 

On the second day of Parliament, PM Lee emphasised he did not deceive his father and also expressed hope for reconciliation with his siblings. 

In his closing speech on the debate, DPM Teo said that any abuse of power by political office holders will be investigated and necessary actions taken. 

DPM Teo also addressed the controversy related to the Deed of Gift for items belonging to Mr Lee Kuan Yew which were donated to the National Heritage Board. 

A view of former Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew's Oxley Road residence in Singapore
A view of an empty guard post outside former Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew's Oxley Road residence in Singapore June 14, 2017. (Photo: Reuters/Edgar Su/Files)

Jul 6, 2017: Mr Lee Hsien Yang and Dr Lee said in a joint statement that they would cease presenting further evidence on social media. They also said they "welcome Hsien Loong's stated desire ... to manage his disagreement with us in private". 

DPM Teo said he welcomed the statement, noting this as a positive development. 

PM Lee later released a statement saying he shared his siblings' wish not to carry on their dispute in public and this was "exactly" what he had been trying to do. 

Oct 20, 2017: In an interview with CNBC, PM Lee said he was not sure if the dispute has been solved. 

“The matter is in abeyance. I am not sure that it is solved.”

Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong in an interview with CNBC. (Photo: Singapore's Ministry of Communications and Information)

Apr 2, 2018: The ministerial committee on 38 Oxley Road issued its report laying out the options for the house when Dr Lee no longer lives in it. 

The options include: 

  • Retain the property either by gazetting it as a national monument to be acquired by the state with an alternative use for the site, or gazetting it for conservation and allowing the owner to retain the property for residential use;
  • Retain only the dining room and integrating it with an alternative use for the site;
  • Demolish the house fully for redevelopment, carried out either by the owner for residential use, or by the state for alternative uses, such as a park or heritage centre.

The report also included the committee's views that Mr Lee Kuan Yew was open to options other than demolishing the house, and it detailed the National Heritage Board's assessment of the 120-year-old bungalow's historical value.

38 Oxley Road dining room illustration
Basement dining room at 38 Oxley Road. (Illustration: Kenneth Choy)

PM Lee said in a Facebook statement that he accepted the committee's conclusion.

Apr 3, 2018: Mr Lee Hsien Yang and Dr Lee responded on Facebook, saying that the committee's report did not accurately represent their father's "unwavering" wish for the house to be demolished. 

"Combined with Lee Kuan Yew's numerous and unwavering public statements on the matter, there is more than enough documentary evidence for a future government to understand - and hopefully grant - our father's last wish," Mr Lee Hsien Yang said.

The committee replied that their views will be lodged with the Cabinet Secretary for a future government’s reference.

Jan 7, 2019: The Attorney-General's Chambers (AGC) said it has referred to the Law Society "a possible case of professional misconduct" by lawyer Lee Suet Fern - wife of Mr Lee Hsien Yang - over the preparation of Mr Lee Kuan Yew's final will. 

AGC said in a statement: "Ms Lee appears to have prepared the Last Will of Mr Lee Kuan Yew and arranged for Mr Lee Kuan Yew to execute it, despite the fact that her husband, Mr Lee Hsien Yang, is one of the beneficiaries under the Last Will."

It added: "Mr Lee Hsien Yang’s share increased under the Last Will. AGC also noted that Mr Lee Hsien Yang had said publicly that the Last Will was drafted by Ms Kwa Kim Lee of M/s Lee & Lee. However Ms Kwa Kim Lee has denied that she drafted it."

Under the legal profession's rules of conduct, lawyers are not allowed to place themselves in a position of conflict, according to the AGC.

Source: CNA/ja/hm