Defamation trial: Lee Kuan Yew said PM Lee Hsien Loong “as PM has the final word” on 38 Oxley Road matters

It was revealed in court on Tuesday (1 December) that Singapore’s founding prime minister Lee Kuan Yew had said that Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong “as PM has the final word” on matters pertaining to the 38 Oxley Road property.

This was disclosed on the second day of the PM’s defamation suit trial against TOC chief editor Terry Xu today.

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 Lee Hsien Yang and Dr Lee Wei Ling in relation to the 38 Oxley Road dispute.

In his cross-examination of PM Lee at the witness stand, Mr Xu’s lawyer Lim Tean highlighted a “very short” and “curt” email reply from Mr LKY to Dr LWL regarding her email on 11 August 2011 asking what her father’s stance on the demolition of the 38 Oxley Road property was.

Citing Mr LKY’s email reply, Mr Lim noted that Mr LKY said he “cannot call the shots”, and that  “Loong as PM has the final word”.

Dr LWL in her email to Mr LKY said that while she would move out and “get Oxley pulled down” if Mr LKY wished so, she also had “no complaints” if he wanted the 38 Oxley Road home to be left as it was, in spite of her dislike of “bowing to public sentiment” on the matter.

“I like Oxley not just for it location, but also because having lived here for so many years I have adjusted myself and my room to the most efficient status. You call the shots. I am delighted to stay on at Oxley,” Dr Lee’s email read.

Following the above, Mr Lim prompted PM Lee: “You call the shots, Mr Lee. It is not your ministers, it is not your Cabinet as you would like us to believe?”

PM Lee replied: “This is a shorthand.  He says I call the shots. I am the prime minister — I have a view. If I say my father would like the house knocked down, the ministers will consider it.”

The prime minister also told the court, however, that “it is not possible for me to go against the ministers, as I explained to my father”.

“And as my father acknowledged–and if I may take this email chain a little bit further–the final decision when he made when he announced what he would do I think is relevant to this,” said PM Lee.

This is because on 14 August the same year, according to PM Lee, his wife Ho Ching had written an email to the family “and set out an approach to dividing up the family properties amongst the siblings”.

“And after this email, within 20 minutes … My brother replied that he would like to take Oxley. But two hours later at about 3 o’clock in the afternoon on 14 August, Mr Lee (Kuan Yew) replied: “Will Oxley to Loong”. And that was his last word,” said PM Lee.

“So in other words, after hearing me and what I had explained to him, after having the question put to him that the main issue is Oxley and think about the how to manage this politically, and after hearing my brother expressing a wish to take Oxley, he thought it over and decided to will Oxley to me and he never changed that decision,” he elaborated.

PM Lee testified that Mr LKY did not “ever say he was thinking of changing that decision as long as he lived”.

Mr Lim pointed out that Mr LKY had replied within the hour, stating that the PM “can gazette it as a heritage site and stop the demolition” even if the 38 Oxley Road property is knocked down while he was still alive.

“So, Mr Lee, your father was talking at all times about you being the decision-maker, not the Cabinet.  He was referring to you?” Mr Lim questioned.

PM Lee replied: “But he was referring to me — what I explained that the government would do, and what I would have to do if I were the decision-maker in the government”.

“I had explained to him I couldn’t do what he wanted me to do if it went against the government,” he added.

Mr Lim asserted that as the prime minister — “the most powerful person in this country politically” — PM Lee would have the final word.

“Not the editors, not the Cabinet, not the public,” he added.

PM Lee replied that he did not have “freedom of action”.

Having the final word as PM, he said, is what Mr LKY had said in the email.

“But I had explained to him what I would have to do if I were the decision-maker,” said PM Lee.

Mr Lim then pointed out: “Now, at the Cabinet meeting of 21 July 2011, you have told the court that your Cabinet told Mr Lee that it was opposed to the demolition?”

“The ministers all said that, other than me who were present,” PM Lee replied.

Mr Lim argued that PM Lee was still present at the Cabinet meeting despite saying that he had to recuse himself from matters concerning 38 Oxley Road.

“And as a son of Lee Kuan Yew, knowing your father’s wishes, you will not put in a word, tell your Cabinet colleagues, “This is the wish of my father, the wish of the founder of the PAP, and I hope you will respect his wishes”?” Mr Lim pressed on.

PM Lee responded that he was chairing the Cabinet meeting as Prime Minister.

He added that he invited Mr LKY to “express his views and make his case in person”.

“He argued his case. He heard all of the ministers. They all spoke. I felt conflicted. I did not express my view,” PM Lee testified.

When questioned by Mr Lim on why he was conflicted despite knowing Mr LKY’s views on 38 Oxley Road’s future, PM Lee said: “I have explained to you.”

Justice Audrey Lim interjected at this point to reiterate to Mr Lim that PM Lee has explained the answer, adding that Mr Lim does not “have to repeat your question again and again”.

Mr Lim continued by asking PM Lee: “Your father was not happy to hear what he heard from the Cabinet, am I right?”

PM Lee testified that while he has “no information about that”, he was of the knowledge that such is what Dr LWL had written “in some of her depositions”.

“But you were present at the meeting.  You could have seen the reaction of your father?” Mr Lim questioned.

PM Lee replied: “I did not sense that.  I imagined he was disappointed he didn’t get them to agree with him, but I mean in Cabinet ministers disagreeing with one another that is how we do business.”

Mr Lim asserted that “it would be fair to describe” that Mr LKY “was distraught”, to which PM Lee replied: “I have no evidence of that.”

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

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 Lee Hsien Yang and Dr Lee Wei Ling 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 is adjourned to Wednesday morning (2 December), with Mr Xu taking the stand.

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