Singapore's Family Feud: A 'Secret Committee' and the Problem of Due Process

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Why you need to know

'What we’re seeing now is not regular due process; instead, we have a ministerial committee placed between a rock and a hard place, plagued with considerations and intricacies they should never have had to deal with, and a senior official within the Ministry of Law making statements and arguments related to what is essentially a personal matter for the family to sort out, all while the actual Minister of Law is a member of the committee.'

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It’s been a dizzying week-and-a-half for Singaporeans earnestly following the ins and outs of the Lee family feud on social media. Side-stepping the mainstream media – which they see as controlled by their elder brother’s government – the younger Lee siblings have been dropping accusations and nuggets of information daily, as if the entire saga were a serial novel.

There are petty insinuations flying from all sides, but none of them should distract from the troubling issues related to due process that have been surfaced by this dispute.

One of Lee Wei Ling and Lee Hsien Yang’s core accusations have been that their brother, current Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, has misused his power to get his own way. While their father Lee Kuan Yew has been public with his desire for his home at 38 Oxley Road to be demolished upon his death, the younger siblings claim that Lee Hsien Loong wishes to preserve the home instead, so as to reap the political capital one could get from riding on the much-revered Lee Kuan Yew’s legacy.

It’s since been revealed that an internal ministerial committee – or a “secret committee,” as Lee Wei Ling and Lee Hsien Yang have been calling it – has been convened to consider the issue of what to do with 38 Oxley Road. The existence of such a committee is a little surprising, considering that the government had previously stated that, since Lee Wei Ling is still living at Oxley Road, there is no need for any immediate decision regarding the house.

Various members of the government have since come out to reassure Singaporeans that an internal ministerial committee is nothing out of the ordinary, that such committees are routinely convened to consider a variety of matters, and that Lee Hsien Loong has recused himself from all government deliberations related to 38 Oxley Road and isn’t involved in this particular committee. But many questions still remain.

In an early response to his siblings, Lee Hsien Loong published a summary of statutory declarations he had made to the committee, in which he took issue with the way his father’s last will, which included the all-important demolition clause, had been drafted and signed. Basically, he’s questioning whether his father had adequate time to review that final will, which contained the demolition clause that had not been present in the two previous iterations.

His siblings have pointed out that this last will has been given a grant of probate, which allows the executors – in this case, Lee Wei Ling and Lee Hsien Yang – to carry out the instructions therein. Lee Hsien Loong had not challenged the validity of the will in court before probate was granted. According to his statutory declarations, he said he had wanted “to avoid a public fight which would tarnish the name and reputation of Mr Lee and the family.”

Deputy Prime Minister Teo Chee Hean, who chairs the ministerial committee, has said that the committee is merely interested in understanding Lee Kuan Yew’s views on the matter of 38 Oxley Road, so that options and implications can be listed for the future. But Lee Hsien Loong’s statutory declarations place them in a difficult position, where they could inadvertently appear to be making a decision on an issue that shouldn’t be anywhere near their remit – the validity of Lee Kuan Yew’s last will itself.

This troubling situation has been exacerbated by comments made by Indranee Rajah, Senior Minister of State for Law. In a Facebook post, she reiterated Lee Hsien Loong’s concerns over the drafting and signing of Lee Kuan Yew’s last will, asking if Lee Hsien Yang’s wife had been involved in its drafting, which would raise questions over whether the elder Lee had received independent advice.

The charge that a will has been improperly handled is a serious one. But it’s also a red herring in this case; ultimately, all of this is none of the Singapore government’s business, and the ministerial committee should have had nothing to do with it in the first place.

A will that has been given a grant of probate is legally binding. It is officially recognized as the deceased’s final wishes. This is all the ministerial committee needs to know in their effort to discern Lee Kuan Yew’s thoughts on the matter. Whether Lee Kuan Yew had been properly advised and given adequate time and opportunity to review his will is a matter of importance, but only to members of his family. If any of his children have any issues with the will and whether it is a true representation of their father’s wishes, they should take it back to the courts and resolve the matter there. If Lee Hsien Loong did not wish to challenge the will in court, then he will simply have to live with the result.

Singapore is a country with a reputation for being process-oriented. The government has long emphasised an unwavering commitment to the rule of law. But what we’re seeing now is not regular due process; instead, we have a ministerial committee placed between a rock and a hard place, plagued with considerations and intricacies they should never have had to deal with, and a senior official within the Ministry of Law making statements and arguments related to what is essentially a personal matter for the family to sort out, all while the actual Minister of Law is a member of the committee.

This is what Singaporeans should be concerned with when it comes to the ministerial committee. This won’t be the first or last time children will contest their deceased parent’s will – why have things veered from the usual process? The Lees might not be an ordinary family, politically, but that doesn’t explain why their dispute over the last will has turned into such a spectacle with multiple government officials dragged unceremoniously into the picture.

Editor: Edward White

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