OPEN LETTERS REVEAL DISPUTE OVER THE ESTATE OF THE FORMER SINGAPOREAN PRIME MINISTER

On 23 March 2015, Lee Kuan Yew (LKY), the former Prime Minister of Singapore (and father of the current Prime Minister of Singapore, Lee Hsien Loong ("LHL")) passed away, leaving behind a will. The will included a clause concerning LKY's former home (38 Oxley Road). This clause provided that LKY's daughter (LWL) was to be granted the right to remain living at 38 Oxley Road, and upon her passing or relocation, it should be demolished (the Demolition Clause). The intention behind this will, and in particular the Demolition Clause has been questioned in two public letters in social media between LKY's three children.

Further to the two public letters, additional information has been released by the Lee family to the public through various social media postings, including questions relating to the validity of a Deed of Gift of certain family items that the younger Lee siblings (LHY and LWL) purported to make, as executors of LKY's last will and representatives of his estate, to the National Heritage Board.

The above events have culminated in LHL announcing that he will deliver a Ministerial Statement when the Singapore Parliament sits on 3 July 2017, with the lifting of the People Action Party's party whip in order for Parliament to have a full public airing of the issues. This is significant because the party whip has been lifted fewer than 10 times since 1965 when Singapore became independent.

This post explores some of the interesting questions raised by this matter in relation to private wills and gifts when public interest issues are at play.

Letter by LHY and LWL regarding demolition of 38 Oxley Road

The dispute over LKY's estate was first made public upon the release of an open letter by LHY and LWL, the joint executors and trustees of LKY's estate, on 14 June 2017. Titled, "What has happened to Lee Kuan Yew's values?" (the First Letter),  the First Letter raised concerns over the fate of 38 Oxley Road, which was left to LHL in the will. In doing so, LHY and LWL asserted that "[LKY] made clear throughout the years in public and private his wish that his home at 38 Oxley Road be demolished upon his passing" and that this was "reiterated" in his final will which was executed on 17 December 2013 (the Final Will).

The First Letter also alleged that because LHL was in a position of power over a Ministerial Committee which had been set up to consider options with respect to 38 Oxley Road, he was in a position of conflict, which also contradicted his previous undertakings that he would recuse himself from all government decisions involving the property.

Letter in reply by LHL

Following the letter by his siblings, LHL issued an open letter in reply on 15 June 2017 (the Reply), which called into question the circumstances under which the Final Will was executed by LKY.

In particular, LHL alleged that the reinsertion of both the Demolition Clause and the clause to grant all children equal shares of LKY's estate from earlier wills of LKY happened under rushed circumstances under which LKY was not properly legally advised. LHL also stated that it was LHY's wife's firm who had prepared the Final Will, which presented a conflict of interest.

Therefore, LHL stated that his father may not have known that the Demolition Clause, which was omitted from LKY's prior two wills, had been reinstated in the Final Will as it was not drawn to his attention.

Deed of Gift

In subsequent posts, LHL also released information relating to a Deed of Gift that LHY and LWL had executed in 2015 in favour of the National Heritage Board for the donation and public exhibition of significant items, with a stipulation that LKY's wish for the demolition of 38 Oxley Road (as set out in various documents) be displayed prominently at the exhibition.

However, LHY alleged that LHL had acquired the Deed of Gift from the National Heritage Board in his capacity as Prime Minister, for the purpose of issuing private objections to LHY and LWL.

Ministerial Committee

Under the Preservation of Monuments Act in Singapore, the Government has the right to preserve 38 Oxley Road as a national monument. The National Heritage Board can ask the Minister for Culture, Community and Youth to gazette the property, if it fulfils criteria such as having historic, cultural, traditional, archaeological, architectural, artistic or symbolic significance and national importance. This can be done in spite of an individual's wishes in a will regarding a property. Current national monuments in Singapore include the former City Hall and the former Tanjong Pagar Railway Station.

An internal Ministerial Committee has been set up to list the different options and implications for the actions to be taken with regard to the house, while paying attention to LKY's wishes. It has been suggested by the Deputy Prime Minister Teo Chee Hean that one option that is being studied is demolishing the house but keeping the basement dining room, where many important meetings took place. The Ministerial Committee will also be looking into how the Final Will was prepared and the roles of the people involved.

Conclusion

It is yet to be seen how the correspondence between LKY's children will develop and the effect it will have in respect to decisions over LKY's estate. The 38 Oxley Road family saga calls into question the extent to which public interest may override individual wishes in a will, and emphasises the importance of being aware of any possible conflicts in the process of drafting and executing a will. Given the complex legal issues and questions of governance involved, the development of this matter will likely have important implications on how property disputes involving important public figures in Singapore will be resolved going forward. 

Richard Norridge
Richard Norridge
Partner
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Joanna Caen
Joanna Caen
Senior Consultant
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