A Disciplinary Tribunal appointed by Chief Justice Sundaresh Menon has found lawyer Lee Suet Fern guilty of grossly improper professional misconduct in handling the final will of Singapore’s founding Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew under section 83(2)(b) of the Legal Profession Act.
In a Judgement released last Friday (21 February), it was noted that Mrs Lee and her husband Lee Hsien Yang – son of the late Mr Lee and an executor of his will – had encouraged Mr LKY to revoke the sixth will in the absence of his lawyer Ms Kwa Kim Li who had drafted all of Mr LKY’s previous wills between 2011 to 2012.
The tribunal said that Mrs Lee did not inform Mr LKY that the draft last will included a demolition clause not present in the sixth will nor did she confirm with him if he wanted certain other changes to be made in the first place.
However, Mrs Lee noted in her defence that she had informed Ms Kwa via email explicitly about the signing of the last will, “In fact, this is just going back to his 2011 will so it supercedes all. He read it extremely carefully before signing”.
Additionally, the tribunal noted that Mrs Lee did not advise Mr LKY to seek independent legal advice pertaining to the matter, especially given her own possible conflict of interest as Mr LHY’s wife and the absence of Ms Kwa. The final will, said the tribunal, increased Mr LHY’s share in Mr LKY’s estate.
The tribunal also noted the issue of whether Mrs Lee had properly and fully explained the final will to her father-in-law and it also addresses his condition at the time of signing. LKY was, after all, 90-years-old when the will was signed and passed away only 15 months after.
On this note, however, Mrs Lee explained that LKY was fully aware of her involvement and chose to proceed.
Ms Suet Fern has said during the tribunal: “I think Papa was his own best lawyer. He knew what he wanted.
The thing is, since the tribunal was convened to investigate the conduct of a lawyer, it did not address the issue of the validity of the will or the soundness of LKY’s mind when signing.
LKY’s state of mind – sound or not?
So the larger question here is whether LKY was in sound mind when he revised his final will and whether he was clear about what he wanted.
The PM’s sister Dr Lee Wiling had reportedly told Ho Ching—wife of PM Lee—that LKY “had been doing very well” because he hasn’t been in the hospital for more than a month.
However, Dr Lee did also say that her father was already very forgetful, noting that “age has caught up with his brain”.
The thing is, even at over 90 years old, LKY remained a member of Parliament and was praised as still being very sharp. On his 91st birthday, Mr LKY was even reportedly preparing for his regular Chinese lesson.
So while LKY might have been physically frail and forgetful, it does appear that he was still mentally sharp and would be aware of what he was doing. Unless a court makes a finding to say that he was not of sound mind after all relevant medical evidence is evaluated, we can assume that LKY was sharp as a pin.
But let’s assume for a moment that LKY was actually of unsound mind, wouldn’t PM Lee have applied for a legal challenge of the final will by now, given that it is the most troublesome of all seven wills with the reinsertion of the demolition clause?
No such complaint was made on that grounds.
Also, the probate for the seventh will was granted with no contest on 6 October 2015, meaning it has been recognised as final and binding.
Was LKY actually misled by LHY for personal gain?
On the point of whether PM Lee’s brother and sister-in-law misled LKY into signing the seventh will, the tribunal report found that Lee Hsien Yang and Lee Suet Fern were guilty on that count.
The question is, why would they do that? What did LHY and his wife stand to gain in the seventh will compared to the sixth?
To figure that out, we have to go back a little. We note that the sixth will gave a larger share of the inheritance to LKY’s daughter, Dr Lee, meaning that the two brothers will each be left with a smaller share. On the other hand, the seventh will stated that everything would be divided equally between the three siblings.
So at first glance, you could say that it seems LHY would gain a larger share of the inheritance in the seventh will, thus giving his wife a reason to bypass Kwa and rush the seventh will out.
But in fact, it was noted in her defence during the tribunal that Mrs Lee was only aware that LKY had reduced Dr Lee’s share to a life interest in the estate in one of his wills, thus increasing the respective shares of the two brothers, one of whom is her husband LHY.
So as far as she knew, reverting the seventh will back to the contents of the first will would result in an increase in Dr Lee’s share and decrease in LHY’s share.
On top of that, about four days before signing that latest will, LKY emailed Kwa to say that he wanted to make changes to the sixth will including giving an equal share to all his children. That particular decision was made solely by LKY with no evidence that it was “engineered” by LHY.
So really, the argument that LHY has something to gain by pushing to change the sixth will falls flat since LKY already made that decision for himself via email.
Additionally, if LKY is believed to have been of sound mind and knew exactly what he wanted to do when signing the last will, it would be tougher to conclude that he was actual misled by his son and daughter-in-law.
Also, why was LHY even pulled into the picture when the disciplinary tribunal hearing was about Mrs Lee’s conduct as a lawyer?
Confusion over the reinsertion of the demolition clause
The next question is on the demolition clause. It was taken out of the fifth will and remained out in the sixth. But by the seventh will, that clause was back in.
Why would LHY want to do that given that the issue of keeping the Oxley Road property up was an issue between his two siblings, PM Lee and Dr Lee?
Based on what we know from media reports, it doesn’t seem like LHY has much to gain from this latest 7th will. That begs the question: what do LHY and his wife have to gain by allegedly misleading LKY?
It was also noted in Mrs Lee’s defence that the Attorney-General’s complaint and charges does not raise the issue of the demolition clause being reinserted. The defence noted that no complaint was made to that effect and no party contended LKY’s intention of including that particular clause.
The defence emphasised that any arguments made on this matter goes beyond the complaint – yet the tribunal did, in fact, consider evidence on that particular matter nonetheless.
Even so, the defence noted that the reinsertion of the demolition clause is in fact aligned with LKY’s interest given that it has always been his intention that the house should be demolished after his death and not become a shrine.
It was also noted that LKY wanted to revert to the original will in which he was fully away included the demolition clause as originally drafted. This illustrates that he clearly knew what he wanted.
So this entire saga, is this actually about the seventh will being made by circumventing Kwa (who made all the earlier wills) and the conflict of interest in having Mrs Lee involved in creating the last will or is it the manifestation of a pre-existing soured relationship between the three siblings?