Defamation trial: LKY email to family notes that he “cannot call the shots” on 38 Oxley Road and PM Lee has “final word” on gazetting house

Email correspondence between Singapore’s founding prime minister Lee Kuan Yew and his children revealed that the Lee patriarch had stated that he “cannot call the shots” on the fate of 38 Oxley Road, as Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong “has the final word”.

This was disclosed on the second day of the trial of PM Lee’s defamation suit against TOC chief editor Terry Xu on Tuesday (1 December).

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 on Tuesday, Mr Xu’s lawyer Lim Tean pointed the court to emails dated 11 August 2011, which highlighted Mr LKY’s mention of PM Lee and the inevitable gazetting of 38 Oxley Road.

One email was sent by Mr LKY to Mr LHY, in which the elder Lee said that he “spoke to Loong” and “asked him if he intends to retain Oxley Road as heritage site”.

According to what Mr LKY had written in his email, PM Lee had replied ‘Inevitably so, given the strong views in Cabinet’.

The email was copied to PM Lee, Dr LWL and Mr LKY’s lawyer Kwa Kim Li.

Mr Lim also referenced another email sent by Mr LKY on 11 August 2011, in which Mr LKY wrote that he “cannot call the shots”, because “Loong as PM has the final word”.

Mr LKY wrote this separate email in response to Dr LWL asking him what her father’s stance on the demolition of the 38 Oxley Road property was.

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.

Email correspondence among the Lee family members on 11 Aug, which was submitted to the Disciplinary Tribunal

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.

Email correspondence among the Lee family members on 11 Aug, which was submitted to the Disciplinary Tribunal

“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.”

PM Lee confronted with email disclosing K Shanmugam’s comment on him preserving 38 Oxley Road for historical reasons

In his cross-examination of PM Lee on Tuesday, Mr Lim also pointed to an email sent by Dr LWL to Mr LKY dated 15 August 2011, which read:

“There is a platoon of people trooping through Oxley right now. I don’t like it and it will be worse if it is ever open to public. Shan says Loong’s decision must be based on the historical value of Oxley.”

“There is nothing in Oxley now that reflects the formation of the PAP in the 1950s. I am not going to read the rest of that email, all right?” Mr Lim told PM Lee.

Mr Lim then highlighted the line in which Dr LWL stated that according to Law and Home Affairs Minister K Shanmugam, PM Lee’s decision on whether to demolish or preserve the 38 Oxley Road property “must be based on” its “historical value”.

“She is saying Mr Shanmugam is telling her that you want to preserve Oxley, 38 Oxley Road, because of the historical value, not the Cabinet wanting to preserve, but you wanting to preserve?” Mr Lim questioned.

PM Lee replied: “He doesn’t say that I want to preserve. He says a decision must be based on the historical value. My sister doesn’t think there is historical value.”

Mr Lim then reiterated the particular line in Dr LWL’s email regarding PM Lee’s purported comment on retaining the 38 Oxley Road home based on its historical value.

“So she is telling her father she has heard from Mr Shanmugam that you want to preserve 38 Oxley Road because of the historical value?” Mr Lim probed.

PM Lee disagreed, saying: “‘The decision must be based on the historical value’ means you must make an assessment of the historical value and decide. It doesn’t mean that I have taken a view of what the historical value is or that I have decided. It is conditional.”

Both PM Lee’s and Mr Xu’s sides are expected to send written submissions to the court in January.

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