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  • Writer's pictureJulie O'Connor

The Nexus of Power and Justice

Updated: 4 days ago

Why Did Desmond Get Involved Again?

It's uncertain whether Desmond Lee's actions were driven by explicit instructions to publicly support former PM Lee Hsien Loong and Senior Minister Teo, or if they reflect another manifestation of the "sontaku culture", where individuals align themselves with leadership expectations. Nevertheless, Desmond Lee has joined in on an attack on Lee Hsien Loong's brother Lee Hsien Yang, and this time his wife Lee Suet Fern as well, echoing the recent condemnation voiced by Senior Minister Teo.

Desmond Lee's deep-rooted affiliation with the People's Action Party (PAP) is evident, with a familial lineage tied to a PAP Minister and a career trajectory entrenched in party loyalty. His recent actions might only serve to reinforce perceptions among many observers, who believe that the leadership within the PAP struggles to discern between personal agendas, party interests, and the broader welfare of the nation. Desmond's repeated utilization of Petir to launch rebuttals further fuels this sentiment, suggesting a blurred line between party machinery and state resources for advancing personal agendas.

Ironically, the genesis of this controversy traces back to 2017 and Lee Hsien Loong's decision to bring a family dispute over his father's will into the parliamentary arena. Then for some unknown reason SM Teo sought to resurrect the matter last week, which serves as a poignant reminder that despite the passage of time, fundamental issues surrounding the delineation of personal, party, and national interests persist within the political landscape.

Indeed, it's a concerning situation if power dynamics can potentially influence legal proceedings. Some would assert, and I believe with valid reasons, that PAP wields significant influence across various sectors, including the press, law enforcement, prosecution, and the judiciary. Considering this, it's natural for questions to arise regarding the fairness and impartiality of legal processes involving individuals associated with the party. In the case of Lee Hsien Yang and Lee Suet Fern, there are legitimate concerns about the originating evidence used against them, and the conduct of legal proceedings. It would be interesting to understand just how much of the evidence against them originated from an affidavit submitted by Lee Hsien Loong, who was the aggrieved party, and whether there was sufficient, if any, cross-examination of the information provided by the former PM, to ensure thoroughness and fairness of the legal process.

If my understanding is correct, it appears that Lee Hsien Loong initiated the process through an extremely lengthy complaint via the Attorney General, who was his former personal lawyer. Surely the standard practice for aggrieved clients and members of the public is to complain directly to the Law Society, as I had myself been advised to do by former Law Society President Adrian Tan? Here Lee Kuan Yew "was legally trained, had a brilliant legal mind, was lucid at the time he signed the Last Will” and "was content with it" (C3J). There was no complainant or 'victim' when the will passed through Probate. Therefore, wouldn't it have been wholly improper if Lee Hsien Loong had used the Attorney General's Chambers to lodge the complaint with the Law Society, for a personal matter that occurred years earlier? Ironically, for events that took place when the Attorney General was Lee Hsien Loong's personal lawyer and had chosen not to raise any concerns about the will passing through Probate.

Comparisons will undoubtedly be drawn to the case of Parti Liyani, the Indonesian maid employed by the family of former Changi Airport Group Chairman Liew Mun Leong. Her ordeal, where flimsy and false evidence led to a wrongful conviction of theft, highlights the potential for miscarriages of justice when power dynamics are at play. It took Parti Liyani approximately four years to be acquitted by the Court of Appeal, which cited the presence of an improper motive by her employer's family in her convictions.

Desmond Lee wrote "Mr Lee Hsien Yang says ( his FB post of 12 May) that his wife, Mrs Lee Suet Fern was not dishonest in her dealings with the late Mr Lee Kuan Yew. That is false. The Court found Lee Suet Fern guilty of misconduct unbefitting an advocate and solicitor and suspended her from practice for 15 months." I wonder if Desmond Lee would have called Parti Liyani a liar and labelled her a common thief based on the perjured evidence of her aggrieved accuser?

The outcomes in cases like Lee Suet Fern's and Parti Liyani's underscores the importance of ensuring equitable justice for all individuals, regardless of their social or political standing. Such instances highlight the need for ongoing scrutiny and reform to safeguard the integrity and fairness of legal processes in Singapore.

"The country’s top judges are appointed by the president on the advice of the prime minister. The government’s consistent success in court cases that have direct implications for its agenda has cast serious doubt on judicial independence. The problem is particularly evident in defamation cases and lawsuits against government opponents." ~ Freedom House 2024

Timothy Dutton CBE QC found that "the judgment of the Court and its conclusion that LSF committed misconduct is flawed. The Court's reasoning in its judgment is legally unsound and falls into serious error.” “In my view, such findings would not be sustained on any appeal were one to be available against the judgment of the Court."

Besides the findings of Timothy Dutton, Singapore's top chancery lawyer, TPB Menon, in his memoirs wrote a scathing criticism of the C3J judgement. Prof Tommy Koh endorsed those criticisms saying that Menon "is an honest man and a man of integrity. His integrity is not for sale and he has never hesitated to fight for justice and against bullies." and that "I never understood why he wasn’t made a Senior Counsel or a High Court Judge until I read the book." Reading between the lines was Prof Tommy Koh commending not just TPB Menon’s vast domain knowledge and integrity, but also that Menon was in Lee Suet Fern's case speaking up “against bullies”?

To those who question my involvement, I offer a straightforward response: I entered the fray at the invitation of those who presented me with a troubling financial offer to conceal allegations of fraud which implicated a well-connected individual This cover-up which would deceive investors on the Singapore Exchange (SGX), runs counter to the PAP's avowed commitment to transparency and the rule of law.

The PAP staunchly proclaims its stance against cover-ups and asserts that no one is exempt from accountability. However, the reality belies these assertions. Despite repeated calls for investigation into allegations concerning a prominent individual with connections to the political elite, the authorities have consistently refused to investigate. Notably, this individual was represented by a high-profile law firm headed by none other than the Attorney General at the time, and further was represented by the Second Minister of Law.

These glaring conflicts of interest at the highest levels of governance are not of my making, and I believe they highlight systemic issues, much like those raised during the Ridout scandal, that demand independent scrutiny and rectification, not defamation suits. It is imperative that such conflicts are addressed transparently and decisively to uphold the principles of fairness and the rule of law. I continue to question if systems are being exploited not only to persecute opponents but also to protect allies?

My involvement stems from a commitment to accountability, integrity, and the pursuit of justice, Perhaps Desmond Lee can consider taking up the cause of all those Singaporeans who lost funds following the collapse of the EZRA Holdings Group, and the serious concerns raised not just by me, but others too. Unlike his public rebuttals in support of the former Prime Minister involving a private family dispute, such a worthwhile cause would be in the public interest.

In closing, I urge Singaporeans to carefully examine both Desmond Lee's responses to Lee Hsien Yang's assertions, and recent articles containing comments made by SM Teo. Ponder whether taxpayer resources are being best utilized to launch such attacks on citizens. Desmond Lee stated that he had set out the facts in July 2023, but what evidence were these 'facts' based on? Desmond Lee's rebuttal, in my view, only serves to deepen concerns about the potential influence of personal agendas in Singapore's political and legal systems. The involvement of state organs in a private family dispute, especially one instigated by a now former Prime Minister within the parliamentary arena, raises troubling questions about the underlying motivations.

Perhaps Senior Minister Teo and Desmond Lee, along with any other elected and taxpayer funded politician seeking to exert this type of political influence, need to reassess their roles within the party and their utilization of taxpayer-funded resources. Maybe they should consider resigning from the PAP, thereby avoiding potential conflicts within the party while retaining the freedom to engage in personal attacks without the burden of taxpayer support.

The truthfulness of the contents of any affidavits used against Lee Hsien Yang and Lee Suet Fern, as well as the independence of those tasked with judging them, is crucial. The case of Parti Liyani should serve as a stark reminder for everyone that the legal system is not infallible, and the outcomes of Court or Tribunal proceedings may not always reflect the truth, especially when powerful individuals or entities are involved. And apparently there was no-one more powerful in Singapore than the former Prime Minister, and he was the aggrieved party, who advised on the appointment of Judges.

Update - I noticed that Desmond Lee had added some further comments to his post (see screenshots below) which I would like to address.

It appears that the word “dishonesty” is being sprinkled around like fairy dust without going into any specifics, as if to use to spawn satellite prosecutions. Which is ridiculous, or is it persecution?

As a timing matter, if there was perjury at the Disciplinary Tribunal in 2019, surely there should have been action taken then. More importantly, my understanding from the Parti Liyani case is that perjury requires specific lies on oath that are material to judgement which is necessarily false and knowingly false. These both need to be proved independently of the case. It is not good enough to pepper dishonesty in the judgement. In addition, incorrect memories are not grounds for an investigation. Not forgetting that Karl Liew was not even prosecuted for perjury but a lesser offence in the Parti Liyani case.

Just because someone is disbelieved by a judge (who I might add in this case I believe is appointed on the advice of the aggrieved party) that is not enough, or courts would be clogged up with such cases and I believe such cases are RARE!

Singaporeans are unable to read Asia Sentinel articles unless they have VPN as it is blocked in Singapore, so I will leave a copy here.

In my opinion, there is something very wrong about this case and the 'system' which has become entangled in what is a private matter. As I wrote above, the truthfulness of the contents of any affidavits used against Lee Hsien Yang and Lee Suet Fern, as well as the independence of those tasked with judging them, is crucial. The case of Parti Liyani should serve as a stark reminder for everyone that the legal system is not infallible, and the outcomes of Court or Tribunal proceedings may not always reflect the truth, especially when powerful individuals or entities are involved. And apparently there was no-one more powerful in Singapore than the former Prime Minister, and he was the aggrieved party, who advised on the appointment of Judges.

"In an extraordinary escalation of the bitter feud wracking Singapore’s ruling Lee family, the city-state’s police have confirmed they are investigating Prime Minister Lee Hien Loong’s own brother and his wife over allegedly giving false evidence in the wrangle over the fate of the patriarch Lee Kuan Yew’s colonial home, opening the couple to the possibility of arrest.

The 65-year-old Lee Hsien Yang, formerly one of Singapore’s most prominent businessmen and a former army brigadier general, and his wife, lawyer Lee Suet Fern, left the country last year for the UK, saying they feared arrest and accusing the prime minister of vindictiveness. The couple’s son, Li Shengwu, a Harvard University economist, has said he is afraid to come back to the country for fear of arrest.

Police officials told local media they started investigations against the couple following a referral in October 2021. The two refused an invitation to interview and later left the country.

“This is unbecoming of our country,” a Singaporean who declined to be named commented.

Ironically, the police action against Lee Hsien Yang and his wife occurred while the Singapore government plans to hold celebrations of the 100th anniversary of his father’s birth later this year.

On March 3, Bertha Henson, a former editor of the Straits Times (Singapore’s main newspaper), said on her Facebook: “Do we really want to celebrate LKY’s 100th birth anniversary given all this wrangling going on? Not appropriate methinks. He needs to rest in peace. In any case, I doubt he would have wanted a celebration, just like I don’t doubt he wanted his own house demolished.”

In parliament on March 2, Senior Minister and Coordinating Minister for National Security Teo Chee Hean in a written answer to a query, said the two are being investigated for allegedly of giving false evidence in judicial proceedings over Kuan Yew’s will, which stipulated that the home be demolished because Kuan Yew, the founder of modern Singapore and a towering international figure, didn’t want it turned into a shrine to him. Lee senior died in 2015.

Attempts to reach the couple were unsuccessful at publication time. However, Hsien Yang posted on Facebook on March 2 that “The persecution of my family by the Singapore Authorities continues unabated. In June 2017, my sister Wei Ling and I said ‘We do not trust Hsien Loong as a brother or as a leader. We have lost confidence in him.’ We said we feared the use of organs of the state against us and my family.”

In July and August 2017, “they prosecuted my son Shengwu, an economist at Harvard. After a drawn-out three-year court case, the Singapore courts convicted him for ‘scandalizing’ the judiciary. In 2020, they prosecuted my wife over LKY’s 2013 will. I was the real target. The relentless attacks continue.”

The possibility of arrest if Hsien Yang were to return would also block him from an avowed intention to run for the presidency of Singapore when the current president’s term ends later this year. Individuals under criminal indictment are barred from running for office.

There is growing behind-the-scenes concern within factions of the ruling People’s Action Party over the affair as an embarrassment to the 71-year-old prime minister, who is open to charges of inappropriately using the power of the government in the feud although Hsien Loong said in 2017 that he had recused himself from all government decisions relating to the property.

Nonetheless, critics say the rift within the family has exposed the contradictions inherent in Singapore’s system between the appearance of the rule of law via an independent judiciary and the perceptions of so many onlookers of favoritism toward the government and the Lees.

The squabble came into the open in 2017 when it was reported that the prime minister wanted to preserve the eight-bedroom, two-story bungalow, the birthplace of the PAP, which has ruled Singapore since its inception. Lee Hsien Yang and Lee Wei Ling insisted that the elder Lee’s wishes be followed, and that the house be destroyed. Hsien Loong said his father had changed his mind but that Lee Suet Fern misled the old man in the execution of the will. She argued that she had almost nothing to do with the will and subsequent revisions, beyond having someone from her law firm arrange for a witnessing.

Nonetheless, in 2020 at the request of the attorney general, the country’s Law Society brought legal malpractice proceedings against Lee Suet Fern. She was ultimately suspended from practice for 15 months after she was found guilty of misconduct over the handling of the will, with Chief Justice Sundaresh Menon finding that she was acted in a manner "unbefitting an advocate and solicitor."

On March 2, Teo cited the judges' judgment in saying: "Mrs Lee 'focused primarily on what her husband wanted done', and 'worked together with Mr Lee Hsien Yang, with a singular purpose, of getting Mr Lee Kuan Yew to execute the last will quickly'.

"Mr Lee Kuan Yew 'ended up signing a document which was in fact not that which he had indicated he wished to sign'."

There has been considerable collateral damage from the case, with Terry Xu, the editor of a relatively innocuous website called The Online Citizen effectively being driven from the country and ordered to pay the prime minister S$210,000 (US$156,283) over a 2019 article that dealt with the feud. The article reproduced allegedly defamatory statements by Lee Hsien Yang and Lee Wei Ling.

But instead of suing his brother and sister for the comments, Lee chose to take on the Online Citizen and its editor. Xu in September 2022 moved his operation to Taiwan, joining Roy Ngerng, another Singaporean critic who was forced to leave the country after being sued for tangling with the government over the returns on government investment funds.

Teo’s statements on March 2 could also put “Jom,” a new independent digital publication started last year, in government sights. The portal’s co-editor and founder, Sudhir Vadaketh, last year wrote an ebook describing the controversy over the house. Teo alleged that the book contained falsehoods, which could give the government an excuse to close down Jom. In a phone conversation, Vadaketh said he wasn’t worried.

In response to Teo’s allegations against the ebook, Vadaketh said in an article, “Teo has said that this book is an attempt to “to rewrite the facts.” But every single fact in the book is from the Supreme Court documents. I have not introduced any new facts.”

“Most importantly, there is the e-mail from Lee Wei Ling, the only child living with LKY, at 10.06 pm, Dec 16th 2013, the night before he signed his final will, saying: “Papa says go back to 2011 will.” (The so-called First Will, including the clause. See pages 35 and 70 of my book.),” Vadaketh added.

“Singaporeans can ask themselves why Teo has chosen to ignore LWL’s words. Though the answer may not be obvious. It still isn’t clear to me why this house seems to matter so much to a few,” Vadaketh said.

The affair has thus generated considerable schadenfreude among opponents of the government, who have been cowed by years of legal actions for contempt, libel and other actions perceived slights that have largely reduced the opposition to impotence, going back to the 1980s and the elder Lee’s use of the courts against Joshua B. Jeyaretnam, the first opposition politician to take on the government. Jeyaretnam was sued repeatedly and bankrupted and subjected to petty allegations and legal harassment. Although the Privy Court in the UK said Jeyaretnam had been unfairly prosecuted, Singaporean authorities ignored the admonition.

A long string of international publications has been sued for such seemingly innocuous statements of fact as whether there was a Lee “dynasty” or if the family members had won their exalted positions in a meritocracy. Foreign publications have had to pay damages on numerous occasions while opposition figures in Singapore have been bankrupted, subject to petty allegations and legal harassment. Neither the government nor the Lee family has ever been known to lose such cases in the local courts."


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