SINGAPORE: If he still depended on living in his late father Lee Kuan Yew’s home at 38 Oxley Road to “exude a magic aura and impress the population”, both he and Singapore would be in a “very sad state”, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said on Tuesday (Dec 1).
He made this comment in courtroom evidence as part of a lengthy back-and-forth with lawyer Lim Tean over whether he had misled his father into thinking that the house would be gazetted as a heritage property.
The Oxley Road property has taken centre stage in a defamation lawsuit that PM Lee filed against Mr Lim’s client - socio-political website The Online Citizen’s (TOC) chief editor Terry Xu.
The lawsuit went to trial in the High Court on Monday. It continued on Tuesday in a courtroom filled to capacity with onlookers, subject to safe distancing measures, as Mr Lim cross-examined PM Lee.
READ: TOC defamation trial: Animosity from siblings evident, but PM Lee hopes that 'matters can be repaired' one day
The Prime Minister is suing Mr Xu for alleged libel over an article published on TOC in August last year. The article was titled “PM Lee’s wife Ho Ching weirdly shares article on cutting ties with family members”.
Since 2017, PM Lee has been embroiled in a dispute with his siblings - Dr Lee Wei Ling and Mr Lee Hsien Yang - over the fate of their family home at 38 Oxley Road after the death of their father, who was Singapore’s founding prime minister.
The TOC article, PM Lee’s lawyers have said, contains false allegations repeated from his siblings that gravely injure his character and reputation.
During a three-hour hearing on Tuesday morning, PM Lee reiterated his stance on 38 Oxley Road - that it was “politically untenable” for him to profit from redeveloping it.
If he wanted to carry out his father’s wishes and do this, he “would do ill to Singapore”, he said.
PM Lee had previously explained that he had recused himself from the Government’s handling of the property and sold the property to his brother.
Part of his case for defamation is that those who read the TOC article would think that PM Lee misled his father into thinking that the Government would gazette the house and that it was futile for the late Mr Lee to maintain his position that it should be demolished.
READ: Court documents claim PM Lee 'suffered loss and damage' following publication of The Online Citizen article
The house has never been gazetted.
On the other hand, Mr Xu’s case is that between Dec 27 in 2011, when Mr Lee wrote to the Cabinet about the house, and Sept 6 in 2012, when he said in an email that it had been gazetted as a heritage house, he had been misled into thinking it had been gazetted.
Mr Lee thus removed the demolition clause in his fifth will in October 2012, Mr Xu argues.
Mr Lee had signed six wills over 15 months between August 2011 and November 2012. He signed a final one, with the demolition clause re-inserted, in December 2013.
NO FREEDOM OF ACTION
Earlier, PM Lee testified that many members of the public, newspaper editors, as well as members of the Cabinet wanted the house to be preserved. Mr Lee wanted it demolished.
On Tuesday, in a bid to establish the proposition that the late Mr Lee thought the house would be gazetted, Mr Lim took PM Lee through numerous emails between him, his father, Madam Ho and his siblings.
On Aug 11, 2011, Dr Lee had responded to an email from their father. She said that she would prefer to continue living at the Oxley Road property but that he “called the shots”.
The late Mr Lee replied: “I cannot call the shots. Loong as PM has the final word.”
In another email shortly after, he also said: “Even if I knock it down while I’m alive, the PM can gazette it as a heritage site and stop the demolition.”
Mr Lim told PM Lee in court: “The reality of the matter is that you as PM, the most powerful person in Singapore politically - you had the final word. Not editors, not the Cabinet, the public.”
PM Lee replied: “That’s what my father said, but I explained to him what I would do if I were the decision maker. In other words, I really did not have freedom of action.”
"SINGAPOREANS KNOW ME"
Mr Lim then suggested that Mr Lee was “distraught” after meeting the Cabinet in July 2011. PM Lee replied: “That is wrong.”
The lawyer also suggested that it was “convenient” for PM Lee to say there was pressure from others to preserve the house when his father knew that he, PM Lee, called the shots.
“I reject that totally and I have explained why,” the Prime Minister responded.
“Your siblings are correct when they said you wanted to keep the house to inherit Lee Kuan Yew’s credibility?” the lawyer asked. PM Lee said he thought this was “rubbish”.
Mr Lim then asked: “The PM residing at Oxley, will it remind the public of your father?”
"Maybe for better, maybe for worse,” PM Lee replied.
“Are you saying that Singaporeans have a terrible impression of your father?” the lawyer asked.
“I’m saying that Singaporeans know me … I’ve been a politician for 36 years, PM for 16 years. If I still depend on living in the house to exude a magic aura and impress the population, I think I would be in a very sad state and Singapore would be in a very sad state,” he responded.
GAZETTING NOT EVEN RELEVANT: PM
Among the emails that Mr Lim went through was one that the late Mr Lee sent to Mdm Ho, copied to PM Lee.
He had said: “Yes, but Loong as PM has indicated he would declare it a heritage site that will put an end to any rebuilding.”
In his evidence, PM Lee explained that they had discussed the matter repeatedly afterwards and that his father knew on Dec 27, 2011, when he wrote to the Cabinet, that the house would not be gazetted.
Mr Lim produced another email from the late Mr Lee dated Sep 6, 2012 where he wrote: “Although it has been gazetted as a heritage house, it is still mine as owner.”
PM Lee accepted that based on the email, his father believed the house had been gazetted at that point. However, he said that he did not discuss the matter with Mr Lee beyond May 2012.
The lawyer pointed to another email dated Nov 30, 2013 sent to Mr Lee by his usual lawyer, Ms Kwa Kim Li. It stated: “Last night, you raised the possibility that Oxley may one day be de-gazetted after your passing.”
PM Lee again stressed that he had not discussed gazetting the property with his father.
When his own lawyer, Senior Counsel Davinder Singh, asked if gazetting was even a relevant point, he responded: “No. Even if it was not gazetted and I, after inheriting the house, would be allowed to redevelop and profit from it, I think it would have been a humongous stink. It’s impossible.”
The trial continues on Tuesday afternoon with Mr Xu taking the stand.
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