Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong could not give a straight answer as to whether he would agree with his two siblings over the wishes of their late parents on the demolition of the property at 38 Oxley Road.

Testifying in court as a witness during the first day of the trial of his defamation suit against TOC’s chief editor Terry Xu on Monday (30 November), PM Lee said that he could not get Mr Lee Hsien Yang and Dr Lee Wei Ling to agree with him on demolishing the house at 38 Oxley Road.

PM Lee’s defamation suit against Mr Xu pertains to an article published on TOC on 15 August last year titled “PM Lee’s wife, Ho Ching weirdly shares article on cutting ties with family members”.

The article contained alleged defamatory statements made by PM Lee’s siblings Mr LHY and Dr LWL in relation to the 38 Oxley Road dispute.

During his cross-examination of PM Lee at the witness stand, Mr Xu’s lawyer Lim Tean asked the prime minister if he may not agree with his siblings on demolishing the property at 38 Oxley Road.

As a response to this, PM Lee said that he was not consciously thinking about it but could have not ruled it out completely as well.

“It was not consciously on my mind, but if you (had) asked me at that time, I could not have absolutely ruled it out,” PM Lee said.

When pressed for a clearer explanation by Mr Lim on whether the prime minister thinks he could not agree with his siblings on knocking down the property, PM Lee explained: “Yes, the answer is a direct no. I did not expect division. I thought that there was understanding and common agreement as to the way to proceed”.

“We proceeded completely openly. Ho Ching and I kept the family fully informed of what we were doing, especially after my father had decided to will the house to me and we thought everything was settled.

“My father also said that the will was settled (and) represented what the three siblings had agreed to. It was only after died and the will was read that the disagreement (took place),” said PM Lee.

Difficult to go against public pressure if siblings can’t agree to demolish property: PM Lee

During the hearing, Mr Lee also explained that he did not want the three siblings to decide on demolishing the property as it would be difficult for them to go against the public pressure.

“The reason why I did not want it to be left to the three children to decide is that it would have become even if the three children could agree to knock it down.

“It would have been very difficult for us to go against the public pressure and say our father left it to us and we have decided to knock it down, not putting aside the possibility that the three children could not agree,” PM Lee explained.

Explaining why he was reluctant to demolish the property, PM Lee said that if the siblings insist on tearing down the building, it will be redeveloped into a more dense property, adding that he believes it is “unwearable”.

“If we insist on knocking down (the property), the house (will) develop and as a result, benefit financially from it because redeveloping doesn’t just mean putting back the house and renting it out.

“But redeveloping really means developing it into denser developed, paying development charges – including the plot ratio, building several units on what is now one piece of land,” the prime minister noted.

Background of PM Lee Hsien Loong’s defamation suit against TOC chief editor Terry Xu

In September last year, PM Lee asked TOC to remove the article as well as a Facebook post linking to it, and publish a full and unconditional apology.

It was said that the article contained alleged defamatory statements made by PM Lee’s siblings in relation to the 38 Oxley Road dispute.

At the heart of the 38 Oxley Road dispute is the house owned by the Lee siblings’ late father and Singapore’s founding prime minister Lee Kuan Yew and the elder Lee’s wish to have the house demolished instead of being turned into a museum or government relic.

Mr LHY and Dr LWL are joint executors and trustees of Mr LKY’s estate.

In a joint statement released on 14 June 2017, which was shared on their Facebook pages, PM Lee’s two younger siblings claimed, among multiple other allegations, that PM Lee and his wife Ho Ching had defied Mr LKY’s wish to demolish the house.

They also alleged that PM Lee and Mdm Ho were responsible for instilling and perpetuating the Government’s stance to preserve the house at 38 Oxley Road, including PM Lee’s purported move to demonstrate that Mr LKY had changed his mind on having the house demolished.

Mr LHY and Dr LWL also claimed that PM Lee had engaged in abuse of power as Prime Minister to obtain a copy of the Deed of Gift from then-Minister of National Development Lawrence Wong, which was then passed to his personal lawyer Lucien Wong at the time for his own purpose.

The younger Lee siblings also alleged that Mdm Ho wielded significant influence in the Government despite not being a public official.

PM Lee issued a statement the same day to counter the allegations. Despite that, Mr LHY and Dr LWL continued to make claims against PM Lee in subsequent Facebook posts.

Following that, PM Lee announced in June the same year his plans to deliver a ministerial statement in Parliament the next month to address the allegations made by his siblings.

The prime minister delivered his ministerial statement on 3 July 2017, in which he branded the allegations as baseless.

PM Lee also said that he would not be suing Mr LHY and Dr LWL as doing so would further besmirch their parents’ name.

The next day, PM Lee delivered another ministerial statement, in which he said that he would not call for a Select Committee or a Commission of Inquiry to be convened into the 38 Oxley Road dispute and his siblings’ allegations.

Mr LHY and Dr LWL on 4 July — the same day PM Lee made his second ministerial statement on the matter — in a joint statement alleged that PM Lee had improperly misrepresented to LKY that the gazetting of 38 Oxley Road was either “inevitable” or that the house was already gazetted.

Two days later on 6 July, Mr LHY and Dr LWL jointly stated that they would not post any further evidence on the allegations if PM Lee and the Government do not interfere with Mr LKY’s wish — as well as their own — to have the house demolished.

PM Lee responded the same day by saying that he could not concede to his siblings’ demand to withdraw plans to deliver his ministerial statement and to hold the debate in Parliament, as well as disbanding the Ministerial Committee and not responding to their accusations.

Mr LHY and Dr LWL henceforth continued to make posts on matters relating to 38 Oxley Road.

However, PM Lee decided to file a defamation suit against Mr Xu for publishing the article that contained the allegedly defamatory statements made by Mr LHY and Dr LWL in relation to the 38 Oxley Road dispute.

Prior to that, PM Lee’s press secretary Chang Li Lin wrote to Mr Xu, asking the latter to remove the “libellous” article and to publish a “full and unconditional” apology.

PM Lee later began legal proceedings against Mr Xu after the latter had refused the demands made in Ms Chang’s letter.

The trial continues tomorrow on Tuesday (1 December).

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