How a House Provoked a Feud in Singapore’s Lee Family: QuickTake

(Bloomberg) -- Singapore’s most famous family became embroiled in a very public feud in 2017 when a spat between Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong and his two younger siblings spilled onto Facebook. The argument centered on the fate of the house that belonged to their late father, the country’s first prime minister, Lee Kuan Yew. It marked a rare public display of acrimony from the family that’s been at the forefront of Singapore’s establishment since the country’s independence in 1965 -- and that largely kept private any discord before the elder Lee’s death in 2015. It’s a dispute that continues to simmer.

How a House Provoked a Feud in Singapore’s Lee Family: QuickTake

1. What was the spat about?

It centered on 38 Oxley Road, a colonial-era bungalow near the Orchard Road shopping belt. Lee Kuan Yew lived there for most of his 91 years and his will included a wish for the property to be demolished eventually. All three children have said they want to honor that request, but the two younger siblings accused Prime Minister Lee of maneuvering behind the scenes to undermine their father’s instructions -- an allegation he denies. Lee Kuan Yew was prime minister from 1959 to 1990, turning Singapore into Southeast Asia’s richest nation and running a tightly controlled state that emphasized incorruptibility and stability.

2. Who are the protagonists?

As well as the prime minister, there’s his brother Lee Hsien Yang -- a former chief executive officer of Singapore Telecommunications Ltd. and an ex-chairman of the Civil Aviation Authority of Singapore who turns 62 this year. And then there’s Dr. Lee Wei Ling, the middle sibling who is a senior adviser at Singapore’s National Neuroscience Institute. She currently lives in the house -- Lee Kuan Yew’s instruction in his will to demolish it only kicks in after she moves out.

3. What’s the significance of the house?

As well as being on prime real estate, 38 Oxley Road is seen by many as a hallmark of the elder Lee’s legacy and influence, the site of critical decisions on Singapore’s future taken by the nation’s pioneer leaders. Founding members of the People’s Action Party, in power since independence, held early meetings at the house. Lee Kuan Yew wanted 38 Oxley Road demolished after his death to avoid the cost of preserving it and the risk that it would fall into disrepair, he told Singapore’s Straits Times in an interview published in 2011.

4. Who owns the house?

Prime Minister Lee says he was bequeathed the property by his father and sold it to his younger brother, donating the proceeds to charity. Cushman & Wakefield in 2017 estimated the value of the bungalow, which stands on a plot of about 12,000 square feet, or 0.3 acre, at about S$25 million, or $18.4 million. Property development and real estate values are big talking points in Singapore, an island where space is at a premium. PM Lee, as the prime minister is known, said in 2015 he had recused himself from all government decisions regarding the house.

5. So the house will be demolished?

Back when the spat went public, the siblings cited the existence of a ministerial committee exploring options for 38 Oxley Road as evidence that PM Lee had other ideas. Deputy Prime Minister Teo Chee Hean, at the height of the dispute, said there was nothing secret about the committee, which needed to review the situation in case, for example, Dr. Lee chose to move out. In April 2018, the committee published a report laying out three options: Retaining the property as a national monument or for conservation; keeping the basement dining room, where important meetings took place, in a park or as part of a heritage center; demolishing the house for residential use or for a park or heritage center. However, the committee made no recommendation and left any decision to a future government. It also said that Lee Kuan Yew was “prepared to accept options other than demolition” provided that the house was kept in a habitable state and the family’s privacy was protected.

How a House Provoked a Feud in Singapore’s Lee Family: QuickTake

6. How bad did the dispute get?

The family discord had simmered for two years before bursting into full view in 2017 with a six-page statement posted via Facebook by the younger Lees. They said they had “lost confidence” in their brother and accused him of misusing his position to advance his personal agenda and of harboring political ambitions for one of his sons. Their posting prompted a Facebook tit-for-tat that brought in other members of the family as well as the prime minister, who then felt compelled to address the allegations of abuse of power in parliament. In a two-day debate in July 2017, PM Lee said the dispute could dent public confidence in the government if it continued and that suing his siblings would only further besmirch their parents’ names. He added that the debate had not produced any evidence to back allegations of abuse of power leveled at him by his siblings.

7. Have the siblings resolved their differences?

Hardly. There were further Facebook posts, with Wei Ling responding to the report on the house’s future by posting “it would require unbelievable lack of intelligence or determined denial to not understand what Pa & Ma so unambiguously wanted. It seems to me my big brother & his committee have achieved that distinction with amazing ease.” The feud re-emerged in January after the attorney general’s chambers asked the Law Society to look into possible misconduct by Hsien Yang’s wife, Lee Suet Fern, over her role in preparing Lee Kuan Yew’s final will. Hsien Yang has said publicly that the will was drafted by Kwa Kim Lee of the law firm Lee & Lee, though the latter has denied drafting it, according to the attorney general’s office. Wei Ling, commenting on Facebook, called the move an “unprecedented use of such legal process involving a private will.” Separately, the attorney general’s office is pursuing contempt of court proceedings against Li Shengwu -- one of Hsien Yang and Suet Fern’s sons -- over a Facebook post.

8. What impact has the spat had on Singapore politics?

Very little, on the surface. PM Lee, 66, retains broad popular support. He has signaled he doesn’t want to stay in office beyond the age of 70 and has been grooming a group of younger ministers for succession. The PAP has a strong grip on power. Months after the elder Lee died, the PAP boosted its share of the popular vote by about 10 percentage points to nearly 70 percent -- the highest since 2001 -- and secured 83 of 89 seats up for grabs.

How a House Provoked a Feud in Singapore’s Lee Family: QuickTake

The Reference Shelf

  • The April 2018 ministerial report on options for the house.
  • A Straits Times summary of parliament proceedings about the dispute
  • A Straits Times summary of the key aspects of the dispute.
  • A Google search montage of pictures of 38 Oxley Road.
  • A Bloomberg News story on the start of the Facebook 
  • Another Bloomberg report on an agreement among the siblings on the house. 
  • A Bloomberg story on a dispute over Lee Kuan Yew’s interviews.

©2019 Bloomberg L.P.