SINGAPORE: Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong on Monday (Jul 3) delivered a statement in Parliament seeking to “clear the air” after weeks of allegations levelled by his siblings in public and widely-discussed social Facebook posts.
Since mid-June, Mr Lee Hsien Yang and Dr Lee Wei Ling have accused the Prime Minister, their eldest brother, of abusing his political office to hinder the willed demolition of their 38 Oxley Road family home, which was occupied by their father and Singapore’s founding leader Mr Lee Kuan Yew from the 1940s up to his death in 2015.
PM Lee has since denied the claims and apologised to Singaporeans - which he did again on Monday before speaking at length on events relating to 38 Oxley Road before and after his father’s death.
One of these was the revelation that Mr Lee Kuan Yew had approved a proposal to renovate and not tear down the property. PM Lee also attributed the ongoing dispute to disagreement between siblings rather than anything of “substance”. He then addressed their specific charges of misuse of power, while intimating his reasons for taking the issue to Parliament instead of court.
“My account will inevitably be from my perspective, but I will try my best to be objective and factual,” he told the House.
BEFORE LKY’S DEATH
PM Lee opened with a recap of the times his father had written to the Cabinet - three in total, between 2010 and 2011 - to have on record his desire to demolish the Oxley bungalow upon his passing.
The general populace, newspaper editors and Cabinet ministers alike were against the idea, and at one stage Singapore’s first prime minister wanted to leave the decision to his children, said PM Lee.
“But we told him that only he could decide,” he recounted, adding that he did not express a view as he was both son and PM and “therefore conflicted”.
The house was eventually willed to his eldest son Lee Hsien Loong in August 2011. This was when PM Lee and his wife Ho Ching “started discussing alternatives” with Mr Lee Kuan Yew.
“To see how best we could fulfil his wishes, in the event that the house could not be demolished,” PM Lee explained. “So Ho Ching and I came up with a proposal to renovate the house to change the inside completely.
“Demolish the private living spaces to preserve the privacy of the family, keep the basement dining room, which was of historical significance, strengthen the structure which was decaying, and create a new and separate living area, so that the house could be lived in.
“My father accepted this proposal.”
In December 2011, Mr Lee Kuan Yew then told the family it was “best to redevelop 38 Oxley Road straight away” after his death, and do as proposed by PM Lee and Ho Ching – to remove the private spaces and renovate the house without knocking it down.
Later the same month, in his third letter to the Cabinet dated Dec 27, 2011, Mr Lee Kuan Yew stated “that if 38 Oxley Road is to be preserved, it needs to have its foundations reinforced and the whole building refurbished … It must then be let out for people to live in.”
PM Lee said he then proceeded along these lines while keeping the family fully abreast through email.
“No one raised any objections to the plan,” he noted. “My father met the architect, went through the proposal, and approved the scheme to reinforce the foundations and renovate the house.”
“As far as I knew, that was how the family had settled the matter – rationally, amicably while Mr Lee was still alive … I heard nothing to the contrary until after my father died.”
A DIFFERENCE OF VIEWS
The first sign of sibling friction arose after Mr Lee Kuan Yew’s passing on Mar 23, 2015, said PM Lee, pointing to events which occurred before he was due to speak in Parliament in April on how to honour their father.
“At the reading of the will, I discussed with my siblings what I could say about the house in Parliament,” he said.
“Hsien Yang for the first time objected to the renovation plans that my father had approved. He wanted the house to be knocked down immediately.
“This was a complete surprise to me. I pointed out that his position now was different from what the family had discussed and agreed on.”
PM Lee’s intention was to read out in Parliament the demolition clause in his father’s will along with the latter’s aforementioned Dec 27, 2011 letter to Cabinet.
“My brother and his wife objected strenuously. But I decided that I had to do so, and said so,” said PM Lee.
“I told Parliament that since my sister was going to continue living in 38 Oxley Road, there was no immediate issue of demolition and no need for Government to make any decision now. As and when my sister was no longer living there, the Government of the day would consider the matter.”
After this particular session, PM Lee recused himself from all Government decisions on 38 Oxley Road and divested himself of the house.
“Soon after the Parliament sitting, I learned that my siblings were unhappy that I was getting the house,” he said. “I was not sure why, but I thought the best way to resolve the matter was to transfer the house to them.”
PM Lee then sold the property to Mr Lee Hsien Yang, and together the brothers donated one-and-a-half times its value to charity.
These events after Mr Lee Kuan Yew’s passing, combined with family discussions while he was alive, mean “there is no longer, in substance, anything for my siblings and me to dispute over on the matter of the house”, said PM Lee.
“So why is there still an argument? I really am not sure, but one possible factor may be a difference in views between me and my siblings.
“My siblings’ view is that my father absolutely wanted to demolish the house, with no compromise,” he explained. “They point to the first half of the demolition clause as evidence. They say that if he considered any alternatives, that was only because he was under duress, because the Government had the power to prevent him or his heirs from knocking it down.
“My view is that while my father wanted the house to be demolished, he was prepared to consider alternatives should the Government decide otherwise.
“Indeed, he put it in writing, and approved alternative architectural plans which were submitted to URA and approved by URA,” he continued. “Next, we have to look at the full demolition clause, and not just the first half, and the full clause shows that my father did accept alternatives.
“Further, I have pointed out some unusual circumstances surrounding how the last will was prepared, which are relevant because of the weight that my siblings put on the demolition clause in the last will.
“Despite this difference in views, I still see no need for argument. I have submitted my views to the ministerial committee. My siblings have submitted theirs. We have commented on each other’s views. I will leave it in the good hands of the committee.”
ON THE MINISTERIAL COMMITTEE, DEED OF GIFT AND NEPOTISM
This was the same committee, set up to handle 38 Oxley Road’s future, which PM Lee’s brother Lee Hsien Yang had cited as a “prime example” of abuse of power.
“I have already explained that I have recused myself,” said PM Lee. “My only dealing with the committee has been to respond to their requests in writing by formal correspondence, no different from my siblings’ dealings with the committee.
“My siblings argue that even though I have recused myself, the ministers are my subordinates and therefore, the ministerial committee cannot be independent from me. In fact, they say this of Parliament itself. This cannot be right.
“Suppose instead that I had decided as PM to knock the house down, and had pushed that decision through without allowing the Government to consider the alternatives, weigh the considerations, and go through due process, just because it was what my father wanted,” PM Lee said.
“That would have been a real abuse of power. That would have gone against the whole system of rules and values that Mr Lee Kuan Yew spent his whole life upholding and building up."
He also disagreed with his siblings’ claim that he had improperly used his official capacity to obtain a Deed of Gift of 38 Oxley Road artefacts, when it was between them and the National Heritage Board (NHB).
“The deed was signed by my sister and brother, who were acting for my father’s estate. I was one of the beneficiaries of the estate. I was entitled to be consulted by my siblings before they did this, but I was not consulted.
“As Prime Minister, I had every right to see it,” he said. “After reading the deed, I became very concerned over what NHB had agreed to. The terms were onerous and unreasonable to NHB.
“For example whenever NHB displayed the items, it also had to display them together with the first half of the demolition clause - but only the first half, which said Mr Lee wanted the house knocked down, and not the second half of the clause, which stated what Mr Lee wanted done if the house could not be knocked down.
“Furthermore, my siblings had announced publicly that this was a gift. But in fact, they had set conditions in the fine print: If any time the terms of the deed were breached, my siblings could immediately take back all the items for S$1.
“Therefore, this was not a gift at all. They had misled the public.”
Added PM Lee: “Mr and Mrs Lee Kuan Yew had gifted many items to NHB during their lives, and they had never imposed any conditions on their gifts remotely like these. What Lee Wei Ling and Lee Hsien Yang had imposed on NHB was wrong.
“Discovering all this, as Prime Minister, I had to act. Otherwise people might wrongly think that I was party to this.
“It is nonsensical to say that because I saw the deed in my official capacity, I could not raise the matter with a family member. If I come across anyone doing something wrong, even family, maybe especially family, it is my duty to put a stop to it and set them right if I can,” he declared.
“I therefore wrote to my siblings through lawyers to object to what they had done.”
The siblings have also alleged nepotism concerning PM Lee’s wife and son Hongyi, and claimed their brother’s desire to keep 38 Oxley Road standing was to “inherit his father’s credibility”.
“Hongyi, my son, has publicly said he is not interested in politics. Nor have I pushed him to enter politics,” said PM Lee.
“My wife, Ho Ching, is CEO of Temasek Holdings. As CEO, she reports to the board, chaired by Mr Lim Boon Heng. As a company, Temasek Holdings answers to its shareholder, the Ministry of Finance, under minister Heng Swee Keat,” he explained.
“I have every confidence that both Mr Lim Boon Heng and minister Heng Swee Keat understand the meaning of good proper corporate governance. It is the Temasek board which appoints the CEO, and the appointment has to be confirmed by the President, who is advised by the Council of Presidential Advisors (CPA).
“If Ho Ching ever behaves improperly, I have no doubt that the Temasek board, the President and the CPA know what their duty is.
“Regarding the house, and how its continued existence enhances my aura as PM, if I needed such magic properties to bolster my standing, even after being your PM for 13 years, I must be in a pretty sad state,” said PM Lee.
“And if Singaporeans believe that such magic works in Singapore, I think Singapore will be in an even sadder state.”
“WE HAVE NOTHING TO HIDE”
PM Lee, however, acknowledged recent events already represented a sad state of affairs for Singapore.
While “entirely baseless’, his siblings’ allegations “have already damaged Singapore’s reputation”, he said earlier. “Unrebutted, they can affect Singaporeans’ confidence in the Government.
“I know many Singaporeans are upset by this issue. They are tired of the subject, and wish it would end. I too am upset that things have reached this state.
“As your Prime Minister, I deeply regret that this has happened.”
In closing, he recalled how Mr Lee Kuan Yew once stated that family and country were the most important things to him in life. “It pains me that this episode has put both under a cloud, and done damage to Singapore,” PM Lee reiterated.
Preventing “more distraction and distress to Singaporeans” over a protracted period also formed part of the reason he decided not to sue his siblings.
“Many people have asked me why I’m not taking legal action, to challenge the will, or sue for defamation, or take some other legal action to put a stop to this and clear my name,” said PM Lee. “I took advice and considered my options very carefully. I believe I have a strong case.
“In normal circumstances, in fact, in any other imaginable circumstance but this, I would have sued immediately.
“Because the accusation of the abuse of power is a very grave one, however baseless it may be. And it is in fact an attack not just on me, but on the integrity of the whole Government.
“But suing my own brother and sister in court would further besmirch our parents’ names,” he explained. “At the end of the day, we are brother and sister, and we are all our parents’ children.
“Every family will understand that family disputes do happen, but they are not something to flaunt in public. That is why I have done my best to deal with this out of the public eye.”
His siblings left him with “no choice but to defend” himself by releasing statements and facts about the matter, said PM Lee.
“I stand by the statements I have published but I really don’t want to go further if I can help it.”
Instead, he chose to raise the issue in Parliament “to account to Members and to Singaporeans, and to deal with the issue expeditiously”.
“So that Singaporeans can understand what it is all about and we can put the matter to rest, I hope once and for all,” he added.
“Whether you are a minister, or an ordinary citizen, whether you are the Prime Minister, or the children of the founding Prime Minister - you are not above the law.
“When private interests and public duties clash, we make sure that our private interests do not sway our public decisions,” he said. “When allegations of impropriety and corruption are made, we take them seriously and investigate them fully.
“In Singapore, everyone is equal before the law. Mr Lee understood this most of all.”
Said PM Lee: “I hope one day I will be able to resolve the unhappiness within the family. But today I stand here before you … to show you that you have every reason to maintain your trust in me and my Government.”