On life with the Lee family, son’s ‘coming out’ and the ‘magic’ of quilting: Lee Suet Fern opens up about personal life

Corporate lawyer and quilting extraordinaire Lee Suet Fern recently opened up about her personal life in a “rare” interview with Yahoo! News Singapore published on Thursday (1 Oct).

Mrs Lee is the wife of Lee Hsien Yang, the youngest son of the late founding Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew.

She is the eldest child of distinguished economist Lim Chong Yah and schoolteacher See Nah Nah. Born in Singapore, she spent a significant part of her childhood in the United Kingdom and Malaysia.

Typically a low-profile figure, Mrs Lee was thrust into the limelight due to the ongoing conflict in her husband’s family in connection with the handling and execution of the elder Lee’s final will.

“What has happened in terms of publicity is something we don’t welcome at all. We clearly don’t like it [the attention] but this is what has happened,” she said, in response to a question about her family being placed under public scrutiny.

Mrs Lee was called to the Bar in 1982. She founded Stamford Law Corporation in 2000, which became the sixth-largest law firm in the city-state.

Her law firm then merged with Morgan, Lewis & Bockius LLP in 2015. She is a director at Morgan Lewis Stamford LLC and a partner at Morgan Lewis.

“I felt that I needed to be my own person. And I eventually decided I would step out, and I wouldn’t work for the government in any way, or at any government agency, or even at Lee & Lee,” said Mrs Lee, adding that she has never even kept a family photo in her office for years.

Mrs Lee, a lawyer of 37 years’ standing, is currently awaiting the Court of Three Judges’ decision on her appeal against the Disciplinary Tribunal’s findings that she was guilty of professional misconduct due to her purported role in the execution of her late father-in-law Lee Kuan Yew’s final will.

The court so far has reserved its judgement after a hearing last month.

Mrs Lee was first faced with charges related to professional misconduct following a complaint filed by the Attorney-General’s Chambers (AGC) to the Law Society on 4 December 2018.

By law, the Society is obligated to submit an application to the Chief Justice to appoint a Disciplinary Tribunal, as the complaint was lodged by AGC.

One charge pertained to how Mrs Lee had failed to advance the late Mr LKY’s interest as his retainer, unaffected by her own interest and/or that of her husband.

She had allegedly demonstrated this by preparing for and arranging the execution of the will, in which her husband was to get a one-third share of the estate as a result.

The second charge accused Mrs Lee of breaching the rules as a retainer by acting on the one-third share and failing to advise Mr LKY to be independently advised on the “significant gift” to be bestowed upon Mr LHY.

The Law Society last month pushed for Mrs Lee’s disbarment, relying on the DT’s findings that she has engaged in “gross improper professional conduct” as a lawyer by having “misled” her frail and ailing father-in-law into signing his last will.

Walter Woon, former Attorney-General and one of Mrs Lee’s defence counsels, however reiterated that the DT’s findings “sought to convey the impression that Mr Lee Kuan Yew was a doddering old dotard being taken advantage of by his son and daughter-in-law”.

He added that this is a “complete perversion” of the facts and that LKY was actually still “very lucid” and remained a Member of Parliament until his passing in 2015.

Prof Woon also submitted that the DT had “cherry-picked” evidence against Mrs Lee and subsequently made “very serious allegations” against Mrs Lee and Mr LHY when it accused them of “lying, suppressing evidence and deceit”.

He argued that the DT had ignored parts of an email which recorded the late LKY’s wish to address the possible degazetting of his Oxley Road property.

The DT also ignored the fact that it was Mr LKY himself who expedited the signing of his last will, he added.

Speaking about her ongoing appeal, Mrs Lee told Yahoo! News Singapore that she “always hopes that there will be fairness and justice”.

Trials and tribulations have made family “better and stronger”

Mrs Lee is not the only member of Mr LHY’s nuclear family who has been embroiled in a legal battle, as her eldest son Li Shengwu was found guilty this year of contempt of court over a private Facebook post that he made in 2017.

Contempt of court charges against Dr Li arose after the post — which was only made accessible to his connections on the social media site — was first leaked to the public by a relatively unknown blog and subsequently made viral through the now-defunct SMRT Feedback by The Vigilanteh Facebook page.

Dr Li “the Singapore government is very litigious and has a pliant court system”, which he noted referred to the constraints surrounding what the media is allowed to or able to report regarding the high-profile dispute of his paternal family.

The AGC issued a public statement to local media saying that it was looking into the Facebook post by Dr Li, in which he questioned the independence of Singapore’s courts — in response to a media query by a media outlet which remains unknown till today.

On 21 July 2017, AGC sent a warning letter to Dr Li claiming that he made “false and baseless allegations” about the Singapore judiciary’s purported lack of independence.

The warning letter also requested him to “purge the contempt” by deleting the post from his Facebook page and other platforms, and asked him to “issue and post prominently” on his Facebook page a written apology and undertaking drafted by the AGC.

By 4 August 2018, the AGC filed an application in the High Court to commence committal proceedings against him for contempt of court, which was allowed by Justice Kannan.

In October that year, AGC then “ambushed” Dr Li with “court papers in public” whilst he was delivering a lecture in “Scott Kominers’ brilliant market design class” at Harvard University in United States.

Dr Li, a 35-year-old assistant professor of economics at Harvard University, was ordered to pay a fine of S$15,000.

While he decided to pay the fine to “buy some peace and quiet”, Dr Li emphasised in a Facebook post on on 11 August this year that paying the fined is not an admission of guilt.

Mrs Lee told Yahoo! News Singapore in the interview that she is proud of how Dr Li and her other sons have overcome the trials and tribulations faced by their family with maturity and thoughtfulness.

Her family, she added, has even become “better and stronger” as a result.

“We’re closer than we’ve ever been before. And I’m incredibly proud of my husband and my sons, in different ways. I love that our sons have stood by their father and me throughout.

“I’ve learned that they are strong, very wise, mature and thoughtful, have better insights on Singapore and the world than I would have ever imagined. We have come to deeply value their perspectives,” she said.

Second son Li Huanwu ‘hugely courageous’ to have come out as gay

Mrs Lee’s second son, Li Huanwu, married his longtime boyfriend Heng Yirui in South Africa last year.

Dr Heng, a veterinarian, made the announcement via Instagram on 24 May last year.

“Today I marry my soul mate. Looking forward to a lifetime of moments like this with @hero.unit,” he wrote.

When asked about her reaction to her son’s decision to come out as gay, Mrs Lee responded that Mr Li first came out to her as she is the closest person to him.

Initially, she said, she was unsure if she had handled the situation “very well”.

However, Mrs Lee said that she “rapidly realized that it was tough for him” and that it was “hugely courageous” of her son to have come out.

“We know that for him and for other gay people, they face discrimination all the time. In Singapore, they also face the Sword of Damocles of criminality. That’s tough,” she said.

“At the end of the day, at the heart of it all, whether you’re gay or not, each of us just wants to be accepted and loved for who we are and we love Huanwu,” Mrs Lee added.

“I always support my husband”

Mrs Lee’s husband made world news following his decision to join the alternative Progress Singapore Party (PSP) on 24 June.

However, Mr LHY did not contest in this year’s general election, saying that “Singapore does not need another Lee”.

Mrs Lee said that many values that PSP stands for such as accountability, freedom of choice and freedom of speech resonate with her husband.

“I always support my husband. I suppose Hsien Yang has evolved in the years after his father’s passing.

“A lot of people, a more diverse group of people, have spoken to him and he’s become much more aware of the issues and challenges our country faces,” she said.

When Mrs Lee was asked about the dissimilarity between the Lee brothers, she said: “They’re like chalk and cheese.”

“Hsien Loong has always been front and centre of his mother’s efforts. Hsien Yang, on the other hand, is the youngest child, he very much felt he needed to find his own way to be his own person, to chart his own path.”

When her three sons went for National Service, she noted that Mr LHY “wanted to preserve their anonymity, vis-à-vis their peers and other parents and other people in the camp as much as possible”.

Cambridge university days witnessed Lee Suet Fern and Lee Hsien Yang’s budding romance

Mrs Lee’s connection to the Lee family went as far back as when her father, Professor Lim, tutored both Mr LHL and Mr LHY for their A-Levels.

She attended Raffles Girls School while Mr LHY went to Catholic High School. Both of them became contemporaries at National Junior College, where she was a debater and he was an athlete and national swimmer.

They became closer as they continued studies at the University of Cambridge, where the couple graduated with double firsts.

Talking about the beginning of her romance with Mr LHY, Mrs Lee quipped: “I joke that he didn’t have much choice, there were so few girls in Cambridge in the 70s.”

“He jokes that I fell for him, largely because he cooked so well for me. He also claims that he was persistent enough that, over time, the others just gradually fell away,” she added.

Mrs Lee recalled that Mr LHY would cycle back and forth between their respective colleges in the university — Girton College and Trinity College — just to meet up with her.

“It was a long cycle, quite often in the typical English rain. When my classes were over, he’d offer to cycle me back to Girton, which was a little outside Cambridge city, and then he’d cycle back to town, and then if we were going out in the evening, he would cycle up again,” she narrated.

“Some amount of parental pressure”, said Mrs Lee, led the couple to marry at a fairly early age.

Mrs Lee was 23 when they got married in July 1981, while Mr LHY was a year older.

She revealed that the wedding took place just days after she took her final law exams.

The wedding was first held in a small ceremony at Barker Road Methodist Church and then in a bigger reception at the Istana.

Mrs Lee described the wedding as an “impersonal” one where she “shook hands with hundreds of people I did not know”.

The bridal car was a Honda Civic which was Mr LHY’s first car.

Mrs Lee recalled how she put on lipstick that she bought from Boots — a pharmacy chain in England — as she did not have anyone to do her makeup or hair. The newlyweds did not have any studio photographs taken of them.

When asked if she had any reservations about marrying a man from such a prominent family, Mrs Lee said that she was young and in love with Mr LHY, who she said is a “really special individual”.

Mrs Lee indicated that her husband gave her “huge support” in her career.

“It takes a special man to allow his wife to work all night in the office. And he often put up with a house not being perfect, and he never complained.

“I never married the family, I married him,” said Mrs Lee.

Did not anticipate how “fierce, old-fashioned and imperious” Ms Kwa Geok Choo would be

Mrs Lee said of her relationship with her parents-in-law that she “would be a very dutiful daughter-in-law, because I loved my husband”.

“And because I love him, it’s the right thing to do to be good to his family. Beyond that, I didn’t particularly want, desire, any outside connection,” she revealed.

Mrs Lee said that she did not anticipate how “fierce, old-fashioned and imperious” her late mother-in-law would be.

“Before I was married, my father-in-law and mother-in-law were incredibly courteous and very gracious,” Mrs Lee said.

Mr LKY’s wife Kwa Geok Choo was also a Cambridge University graduate and a lawyer.

What started off as academic rivalry between the two at the prestigious Raffles College — with Ms Kwa being the only female student in the institution at the time — blossomed into a friendship before they became a couple.

Mr LKY and Ms Kwa married in secret during their university days in Cambridge before marrying for the second time when they returned to Singapore.

Mrs Lee said that at the beginning of her marriage to Mr LHY, she felt “a little isolated and unprotected”.

“I confided that in Yang, that when I first got married, she [her mother-in-law] was quite frightening. Yang just gave me every assurance that it was him that I married and not his mother, and that he would always put me first,” she said, noting that Mr LHY was often away for military training at the time.

When Mr LHL’s first wife died of a heart attack in October 1982, however, Mrs Lee noted that Ms Kwa became “more reserved and reticent and more careful”.

Even then, she said, Ms Kwa often gave advice to Mrs Lee on how to raise her children.

“I was often ticked off by her (but) not in a terrible way. And when I had my first two sons, this was her typical refrain, ‘You know Fern, you must raise your children like the queen. Leave others to raise your children, and inspect them every day at tea time.’”

Her late mother-in-law also disapproved of breastfeeding, which led to Mrs Lee hiding the fact that she was nursing her babies.

“She would say, ‘Yang’s fully bottle fed and he turned out all right, leave them to maids and a bottle.’”

As for her late father-in-law, Mrs Lee noted that she was “very scared of him”.

“In those days, I think everyone was terrified of him, more so me,” she said.

Their conversations were often about Mrs Lee’s sons, particularly on their academic performance in Chinese.

Mr LKY would also constantly enquire about her weight when he noticed that Mrs Lee has lost weight because of work and family stress. She would also be asked to weigh herself whenever she came to Oxley Road.

“For ever so long, Papa was very fierce at home. He expected everything to be perfect. And not uncommonly, he would tick off my mother-in-law, even in front of me. She never answered back to him.”

But after her late mother-in-law’s debilitating strokes in 2008, which left her bedridden, she noticed that the elder Lee looked after her.

Mrs Lee recalled when her mother-in-law wanted to show her a new lipstick, she asked her husband to get the lipstick instead.

Ms Kwa passed away in 2010 while Mr LKY passed away five years later.

‘Magic’ of quilts lies in the process of making them

Last year, Mrs Lee bagged an award at the Yokohama Quilt Time Festival in Japan for her work “Castel del Monte”, which was inspired by a protected World Heritage European castle with octagonal towers located in southern Italy.

The Straits Times reported in November 2014 that two of Mrs Lee’s quilts were selected for the Traditional Pieced Quilts category at the International Quilt Festival Houston the month before — reportedly the world’s largest and most competitive quilt show.

The ST report noted that it was Mrs Lee’s first time partaking in a quilting competition.

While Mrs Lee’s quilts didn’t win in Houston back in 2014, it was still a significant moment for her, as that was the first time that a Singaporean contestant’s quilt made it to the finals.

When Mrs Lee was asked by Yahoo! News Singapore about the quilts that she feels most proud of, she answered: “For me, it’s not which one I’m terribly proud of, but the process of making them.”

“For me, the magic has always been in the making,” she said.

“The one that I most proud of is the quilt that I’m planning in my head,” Mrs Lee added.

She revealed that she has also taught her three sons how to knit when they were younger, which has helped them dispel the perception that knitting is solely a hobby for girls and women — knowing how to sew will help them patch up parachutes, for example.

A special quilt by Mrs Lee will be up for grabs to the highest bidder in an online charity auction slated to take place this month.

Social enterprise Dignity Kitchen in a Facebook post on 26 September said that the online auction for the “Dignity Blooms” quilt will take place from 1am on 1 October to 4pm on 15 October.

An “early bird” viewing of the artwork will be held on 30 September from 9.30am to 2.30pm for the first 50 registrants. Photography is allowed.

Public viewing of “Dignity Blooms” will take place the next day on 1 October from 9.30am to 2.30pm.

Proceeds from the auction will be channelled into the renovation efforts of Dignity Kitchen’s new facility at 69 Boon Keng Road.

Mrs Lee will “generously match the winning bid amount dollar for dollar to Dignity Kitchen”, Dignity Kitchen said.

Made during the COVID-19 circuit breaker, the colours in “Dignity Blooms” represent several positive values that will carry people through the pandemic.

“The rich shades of blue – navy, cobalt and royal – to reflect honesty and trustworthiness, emerald greens for harmony, freshness and renewal, and fuchsias to inspire confidence and assurance for the days ahead.

“These colours almost jump out through the quilting of a single large lush bloom. If you look closely, see if you can spot a bird, a butterfly, a ladybird and a bee hiding on the petals,” wrote Dignity Kitchen.

The quilt, measuring 106 cm by 106 cm, “would make a striking, stunning, inspiring wall hanging”, added the social enterprise.

Parties interested in “Dignity Blooms” may dial Dignity Kitchen at 65 6333 5668 for more details. Alternatively, Dignity Kitchen can also be contacted via WhatsApp at 65 8223 0954 or email.

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