Closing Statement by PM Lee Hsien Loong on the Ministerial Statements on 38 Oxley Road
First of all, I would like to thank Members for this debate.
Two weeks ago, when I decided to bring this matter to Parliament, I explained my purpose. To air fully all the accusations against me and my Government. To allow MPs to raise difficult and inconvenient questions, whether you are a PAP MP, an opposition MP, or an NMP. To enable me and my Cabinet to render account to Parliament and clear the air.
In my Ministerial Statement, I have fully addressed the allegations of abuse of power. In his Ministerial Statement, DPM Teo Chee Hean has explained the Ministerial Committee, and how we uphold the integrity of the Government.
I brought the matter to Parliament because I am answerable to MPs and to Singaporeans. I have opened myself up to questioning by Members. It is the Members’ responsibility to ask me any question they want and get to the bottom of the issue.
So I was surprised that some Members asked me why I had brought this to Parliament, and questioned if we should discuss this in Parliament. I agree that we should not fight private disputes in Parliament, nor have we done so. But grave accusations of abuse of power have been made against me as PM, and against my Government. Doubts have been cast on our Government and the leadership. How can my Ministers and I not discuss them in Parliament? Imagine the scandal, if MPs filed Parliamentary questions on these accusations, and the Government replied that Parliament is not the place to discuss the matter. So whatever else I or the Government may or may not do to deal with this matter, we have to come to Parliament to render account. It is our duty.
Therefore, I am glad that in the last two days, we have had a good debate. Members, PAP and non-PAP MPs, have raised questions and my Ministers have answered them and given a proper account.
What has been the outcome? Over the past two days, the allegations about me abusing power which prompted the sitting, have been answered. No MPs have produced or alleged any additional facts or charges, or substantiated any of the allegations. Mr Low Thia Khiang talks about “scattered evidence centred on family displeasure”. But he has not accused the Government of anything. Nor has he given any concrete evidence, or cited any. Mr Png Eng Huat read out the litany of allegations by my siblings, but he did not endorse them and that is significant. Because it shows that the Government and I have acted properly and with due process and that there is no basis to the allegations of abuse of power made by my siblings, Dr Lee Wei Ling and Mr Lee Hsien Yang.
My Ministers have in the course of the debate dealt with most of the questions and points raised by MPs. I would like to deal with just a few questions. Firstly, the Attorney-General’s Chambers. Secondly, whether I deceived my father. Thirdly, whether I considered or I am considering the legal options, and finally, where do we go next.
So, AG’s Chambers. Ms Sylvia Lim and several of her Workers’ Party colleagues have raised questions about the propriety of appointing of Mr Lucien Wong as Attorney-General (AG) and Mr Hri Kumar as Deputy Attorney-General (DAG), because Lucien Wong was previously my lawyer, and Hri Kumar was a PAP MP. SMS Indranee Rajah gave a clear reply yesterday. It is perfectly normal for lawyers to have existing clients and connections, and to encounter potential conflicts of interest when they change jobs. In fact, lawyers with no clients and connections probably have no job.
But the way to deal with this is also quite standard – for the lawyers to recuse themselves when matters come up which they had previously dealt with in a previous capacity. The rules are quite clear. All professional lawyers know how to handle such matters. Every time a lawyer moves from practice onto the bench to become a judge, the judge has to do the same. Because he has old cases, the cases may appear before the courts, and he cannot participate in the cases when they turn up before the courts.
So there is no problem of conflict at all for Lucien Wong or Hri Kumar to become AG and Deputy AG. If matters come up which they had previously handled as private lawyers, they just recuse themselves and let others deal with it and so it is with the dispute with my siblings on the house. Lucien Wong was my lawyer. But now he is the AG. I have lost a good lawyer. He is not advising me anymore on this matter. In the AGC, the Government cannot use Lucien Wong either to advise it on this matter, because he is conflicted, he used to represent me. So on this matter, another officer in AGC takes charge. Lucien Wong is out of it.
When Lucien Wong’s name came up as a candidate to succeed Mr VK Rajah as AG, I endorsed him with confidence. He is known as one of Singapore’s top lawyers, and has a high international reputation, especially in corporate and banking law. I was even more confident because I have had direct, personal experience working with him on this case, my personal case. I had also consulted him, informally, on Government matters before, when we were working on the Points of Agreement dispute with Malaysia. I knew that he was a very good lawyer. Everyone involved in the appointment was fully aware that this was the basis of which I was recommending him. I told them. I told the Cabinet – Lucien is my lawyer, he is a very good lawyer. But the Opposition will make an issue of this. But I do not consider this an impediment, because there is no difficulty of conflict of interest. I recommend him.
The AG’s appointment has to be confirmed, approved by the President. I briefed the President before the matter formally went to him, and I told him the same thing. He consulted the CPA (Council of Presidential Advisers), the CPA recommended that the he approve the appointment. He did. Indeed, after the President approved Lucien Wong’s appointment, and it was announced, the Law Society welcomed it.
Likewise, my direct knowledge of Hri Kumar, as an MP and a lawyer, gave me confidence that he would make a good Deputy Attorney-General. I know he has a good legal mind, and he has a good heart as an MP for people.
It is critical for Singapore to have a strong Attorney-General’s Chambers and for the AGC to have a strong top leadership because the AG is a very important and demanding job as the Workers’ Party MPs have themselves pointed out. It is very difficult to find people of the right calibre and range of experience. You can take my word for it. I have been involved doing this, looking for suitable people to be Attorneys--General for quite a long time. And I have had to do it several times. It is important that we get the best that there are to become the Attorney-General. The role is becoming more complex and we need the most capable people to defend our interests. You just look at Pedra Branca. You would have thought the matter was settled nine and a half years ago. No. Four days ago, on 30 June, Malaysia filed an application over the ICJ judgement on Pedra Branca. We are confident of our case; we think the Malaysian case has no merit. But unless we have a top notch team, we may mishandle the case with very serious consequences. Do you want to take a chance?
We have also outstanding officers within the AG Chambers coming up the ranks. We have promoted them within AGC, and we have elevated some of them to the bench. For example, there is the Deputy Attorney-General Mr Lionel Yee, there are two Solicitors-General, Mr Kwek Mean Luck and Ms Mavis Chionh, all promoted to their positions recently. And other career legal service officers have been elevated to the bench to become Judicial Commissioners as a first step, like Pang Khang Chau, Aedit Abdullah, Hoo Sheau Peng, and Audrey Lim. So we look for talent and we groom and develop talent within but at the same time we seek to reinforce the AG’s Chambers with lawyers from the private sector because they will both reinforce the team, and add to the talent pool and also the AGC can also benefit from their experience with private sector work. We have a good team in AGC today. They hold their own with the very best to fight for Singapore’s interests abroad. They pursue cases in court and handle very complicated cases professionally, competently, and when necessary, aggressively. And the appointments of Lucien Wong and Hri Kumar will contribute to building this team and make the AG’s Chambers an even stronger institution.
Did I deceive LKY?
Now let me turn to a few of the points which have to do with Oxley Road.
Starting with what Ms Cheng Li Hui asked just now, whether I deceived my father and made him believe that the house was gazetted. I think when the allegation is that you have deceived Mr Lee Kuan Yew, and is directed at the Prime Minister that can never be a private allegation. It has enormous ramifications for my standing and reputation and the matter has to be answered.
The simple answer is that I didn’t deceive my father. I explained to you yesterday how my father’s primary wish on the house has always been clear – he always wanted it knocked down.
Where my siblings and I differ is on whether my father was prepared to consider alternatives should demolition not be possible.
After meeting Cabinet on the 21 July 2011, Mr Lee asked me for my view of what the Government would do with the house after he died. I gave him my honest assessment. I told him, you have met the Cabinet.You have heard the Ministers’ views. If I chair the Cabinet meeting, given that these are the views of the Ministers and the public, I think it would be very hard for me to override them and knock the house down. I would have to agree that the house has to be gazetted, to be kept and if I am not the PM or I don’t chair the meeting, all the more likely the house would be gazetted. He understood.
In August 2011, about a month later, he decided to will the house to me as I told you yesterday and he told the family. Ho Ching and I knew my father’s wishes and also my mother’s feelings on the house and we wanted to address their concerns should demolition not be allowed. So we came up with a proposal to renovate the house to change the inside completely, to demolish the private spaces but keep the historic basement dining room. And my wife, kept the whole family comprehensively informed.
Madam Speaker, may I now ask the Clerk to distribute the handout to Members?
I am distributing two family emails, just to give you a sense of the conversations and the discussions and how they were conducted. The first email is dated 2 Jan 2012 and it is from Ho Ching to my father. In fact, it is to the whole family – Lee Wei Ling, Lee Hsien Yang, Lee Kuan Yew, Lee Hsien Loong, and Lee Suet Fern – to keep the whole family informed on what we were doing. It is a long email, I will just take you through the beginning and the end. It says:
“Hi Ling, just to update you on one of the ideas for Oxley, renewal / development.”
“As Loong mentioned, the first preference is to demolish the Oxley house and build afresh.”
“The next best alternative is to renovate and redevelop parts of the house/annex, so that it is liveable/rentable for many more years but with a new internal layout. The renovation/renewal idea is to keep or renew the main Oxley house structure, retaining its old world ambience but completely changing the internal layout except for the basement dining room, and redeveloping the back annex into a 2 storey annex connected to the main house.”
“Thus, the current private/family living spaces in the main house upstairs will be gone and family privacy protected…”
And then there’s a long description of all the different possibilities and then we come to the conclusion on the second page.
“If there’s objections to renting out to say expats, then the family could consider moving in, at least for the initial years and Ling can use one the big bedrooms…” and so forth, where, who can go where.
Mok Wei Wei, that is the architect, “has done various projects including the renewal of Victoria theatre as well as conservation of private dwellings and as he explained, the conservation requirements typically do not mean preserving the house in its entirety. The interior layouts are often changed to reflect new family usage needs. So we have the option of redoing the entire interior layout to remove any linkages back to the private family space. Thanks.”
So that’s the first email. I give you a second email which is dated 13 April 2012 – that means about 4 months later – from my wife, Ho Ching, to my father, again copied to the whole family, to say that the approvals have been secured and will be delivered to him and please let her know if anything else needs to be done. He replied about three hours later:
“Noted. Nothing to follow up to sign by me. Permission has been granted as I had previously signed in letters to them. We’ll send them to you. “
So you see, it is quite clear, it is quite open, it is not very curt.
The conservation plan was done honestly, transparently, and not on false pretences.
After my father died, I said in Parliament on 13 April 2015, as I recounted yesterday, that the Government will take no decision on the house, so long as my sister was living in it. Why did I do that? Because people were then, three weeks after his passing, still very emotional over losing Mr Lee Kuan Yew. Some wanted to honour him by keeping the house. Others wanted to honour him by knocking the house down. Emotions were high. Whichever decision we made, one way or the other, significant numbers of people would be upset and you are just creating tensions and unhappiness and anxieties for nothing. Best if we postponed this major decision for a calmer time, let time pass before we come to the matter. That’s why I said what I did in Parliament and I see it in no way contradicting my father’s wishes, or what I had advised my father when he was alive.
Restraint in handling the dispute
Now many Members have asked me other specific questions on matters after my father died. Ms Sun Xueling was unsure why I had offered to transfer the house to my sister for $1, but subsequently sold it to Lee Hsien Yang at market value. Mr Henry Kwek asked why I had not raised matters on the will during probate and why I am expressing concern now and have put my views in the form of Statutory Declarations. And several Members have suggested that I take legal action, to clear my name and put a stop to the matter once for all. Let me explain my overall approach to handling this family matter and to do so, I beg your indulgence, Madam Speaker, but I do have to go a little bit into the family history.
It’s a complicated story, but one golden thread running through it, right from the beginning is my desire to manage the issue privately, without escalating the temperature and the dispute, and without forcing the issue of my legal rights. I adopted this approach because it involves family and I was hoping all along to work out an amicable resolution even if that meant compromising some of my own interest. When I learnt from others, who were meant to tell me, that my siblings were unhappy that my father had willed me the house, I tried to resolve the unhappiness.
So in May 2015 I offered to transfer the house to my sister for a nominal sum of $1. She had been living there for some time, in fact all her life, except when she was abroad, and small gaps. And my father had wanted her to continue living in the house after he died, if she wished to. So it was natural to let her own the house. I only asked for one condition: that if the property were sold later, or acquired by the Government, that the proceeds would be donated to charity. I thought it was a very reasonable offer.
My brother wanted in on the deal. He wanted to join in and jointly buy the house with my sister from me for $1. My sister had no objection so I agreed to this. But during the discussions, disagreement arose. My siblings started making allegations about me, and escalating them. So I told them that they would have to stop attacking me if they wanted the deal done, because otherwise if I transfer the house to them and the quarrel continues, there was no point. And they wanted to me to give a certain undertaking. I won’t go into all the details now but I could not agree to what they asked for. So we were at an impasse. We went back and forth for several months. Every few weeks, my letter would go to them. They would think about it. Every few weeks, their lawyer would reply to my lawyer and so we continued the discussion.
Faced with these allegations, I reviewed my old family emails. Kwa Kim Li was my father’s lawyer before his last will. She did not do his last will. But she sent me and my siblings’ information about the previous wills of my father and also information about what she knew about the last will. Only then did I understand what had happened before my father died, and became troubled by how the last will had been done but I still held back from raising the issues with my siblings, because I still hoped for an amicable settlement.
In August 2015, I dissolved Parliament and called the General Election. My siblings then issued me an ultimatum, to accept their terms by 1 September 2015, which perhaps coincidentally was Nomination Day. I told them I was very busy; they would surely understand that I had many things on my plate and I would respond as soon as the elections were over, which I did. I could not allow myself, the Government or the PAP to be intimidated by such threats. I decided to ask my siblings to clarify the circumstances surrounding the last will. After that, for whatever reason, the 1 September deadline passed uneventfully.
After the election, I again tried to settle the matter. I told my siblings that we were not getting anywhere on the $1 offer, with the conditions on what each side could do or say. So I made them a fresh offer. Forget all the previous discussions – new offer. No conditions on what we can do or say but I will sell the house to my brother at full market value, and the only condition which is attached now is that we each donate half the value to charity. Then you do and say what you think fit, and I am free to be my own person. I am not constrained in any way. I offered this arrangement, which involved the donation to charity because it was a variation that we had discussed before Mr Lee died, but ultimately had not adopted. So we said, “Well, if we want to settle the matter, there was this old variation. Would you like to take it up now?” He took it; we signed, and that was December 2015. Again, I hoped that this would settle the problem and we could keep the matter low-key and perhaps gradually subsiding.
Later on, when the Ministerial Committee asked for views from my siblings and me, I wrote in to give my views; so did my siblings. We both commented on each other’s views. My siblings had put a lot weight on the first part of the Demolition Clause in the last will. So I felt the need to explain the circumstances surrounding the preparation of the last will to the Ministerial Committee so that they would understand what to make of the evidence. And because of the gravity of the matter, I voluntarily made my submissions to the Ministerial Committee in the form of sworn Statutory Declarations (SDs), or as they say in the coffee shops, sumpah. That means that if what I put down is proven to be false, I can go to jail for perjury. The statements cannot be taken back – they are done, sworn and irrevocable. But I did this privately, because it was just to inform the committee in their deliberations and I did not want to escalate the quarrel.
Unfortunately, at 2 am on 14 June this year, my siblings made public allegations against me. I was forced to respond. I decided to put out the facts, and I released a summary of my Statutory Declarations. Again, in the first instance, I did not take the legal route and sue for defamation. I stand by what I swore in the SDs and published in the statement, but really I do not want to go further along this way if I can help it. I did not, and still do not, want to escalate the quarrel. At each point, I decided not to try to enforce my full legal rights. My priority was to resolve the matter privately, and avoid a collision.
Some MPs still asked why I am not taking legal action against my siblings. For example, Mr Low Thia Khiang advocates my suing my siblings for defamation. This background which I have narrated to you explains why I have hesitated to do so. As I said yesterday, I have been advised that I have a strong legal case. And in normal circumstances, I would surely sue because the accusations of abuse of power are so grave but suing my own brother and sister in court would further besmirch our parents’ names. Mr Low may think that does not count and is neither here nor there. I take a different view. Mr Low argued that we should “do whatever it takes to bring the issue to a quick resolution”. I agree but going to court will not achieve this. It would drag out the process for years, cause further distress to Singaporeans, and distract us from the many urgent issues that we must deal with.
Several MPs – Mr Pritam Singh, Ms Kuik Shiao-Yin, Mr Louis Ng and Mr Zaqy Mohamad, suggested a Select Committee, or a Commission of Inquiry as an alternative. But what is the basis for this? There are no specifics to the headline charge of abuse of power. What specifically did I do that was wrong? What was wrong with that, whatever that may be? Who was involved? When did it happen?
After two days of debate, nobody has stood behind these allegations or offered any evidence, not even opposition MPs. The Workers’ Party MPs say that they are not in a position to judge. Indeed Mr Low criticises my siblings for making “vague allegations … based on scattered evidence centred on family displeasure”. If MPs believe that something is wrong, it is MPs’ job to pursue the facts and make these allegations in their own name. Decide whether something seems to be wrong and if you think something is wrong, even if you are not fully sure, then come to this House, confront the Government, ask for explanations and answers. If having heard the Government, you are not satisfied, then by all means demand a Select Committee or a Commission of Inquiry (COI) but do not just repeat allegations and attribute them to others, or ask for a Select Committee or COI because accusations are around – don’t know what but therefore we must have a COI to find out what.
The accusers may not be in Parliament but that should not stop MPs from talking to them to get their story, nor would it stop the accusers from getting in touch with MPs, including opposition MPs, to tell their story so that the MPs can raise it on their behalf in Parliament. That is, in fact, how the MP system is meant to work. Those are the MP’s duties. That is one reason why Parliamentary Privilege exists. So that MPs who have heard troubling allegations or news, can make these allegations and raise the matters in the House even if they are not completely proven and may be defamatory, without fear of being sued for defamation. That is how Parliaments are supposed to function.
But none of this has happened over the last two days. No one says there is evidence of abuse of power. Even the Opposition is not accusing the Government of abuse of power. So it is not a case of oneself defend oneself. Why do we need in these circumstances, a Select Committee or COI, and drag this out for months? It would be another Korean drama full scale serial. Should we set up Select Committees to investigate every unsubstantiated allegation, every wild rumour? It is as Mr Low Thia Khiang says, “vague allegations,…based on scattered evidence centred on family displeasure”, as a basis for ordering a Select Committee or COI? That’s not a basis. But if there is evidence of wrongdoing that emerges or alleged evidence of wrongdoing which emerges, then I and the Government will consider what further steps to take. We can have a Select Committee, we can have a Commission of Inquiry, I may decide to sue for defamation or take some other legal action, but until then let’s get back to more important things that we should be working on.
Where do we go from here? The ministerial statements and the debate have been important and valuable. Facts and explanations have been put on the record. Singaporeans have received a full account of how the Government works, and what the Government has done, in the case of 38 Oxley Road. The allegations have been aired, have been answered and rebutted. People can see that there has been no abuse of power, by me or the Government. I hope that this two-day debate has cleared the air and will calm things down.
It would be unrealistic to hope that the matter is now completely put to rest. I do not know what further statements or allegations my siblings may make. But with the benefit of the statements and debate in Parliament, Singaporeans are now in a better position to judge the facts, and see this issue in perspective. And we can all go back to what we should be focused on and not be distracted from national priorities and responsibilities.
I thank ESM Goh Chok Tong, Ms Chia Yong Yong, Mr Charles Chong and many others for your good wishes for reconciliation within the family. I, too, would like to think this is possible. It will be a difficult and a long road but I hope that one day there will be rapprochement.
DPM Teo reminded us about the national week of mourning when Mr Lee died. It was an emotional week for everybody. For Singaporeans, who lost their founding father, for my family and for me. For me, the most difficult and emotional moment in that whole week came when I was reading the eulogy at the state funeral service, when I recounted how when I was about 13, my father had told me: “If anything happens to me, please take care of your mother, and your younger sister and brother”. Singapore was then part of Malaysia. We were in a fierce fight with the Central Government and the communalists. My father did not tell me, but he knew his life was in danger. Fortunately, nothing happened to my father then. He brought up the family and I thought we had a happy family and he lived a long and full life. Little did I expect that after my parents died, these tensions would erupt, with such grievous consequences and after so many years I would be unable to fulfil the role which my father had hoped I would. So I hope one day, these passions will subside, and we can begin to reconcile. At the very least, I hope that my siblings will not visit their resentments and grievances with one generation upon the next generation and further, that they do not transmit their enmities and feuds to our children.
I am sad that this episode has happened. I regret that in addressing public accusations against me, I have had to talk about private family matters in Parliament. My purpose has not been to pursue a family fight, but to clear the air, and to restore public confidence in our system. This is how the system is supposed to work. When there are questions and doubts about the Government, we bring them out, deal with them openly, and clear the doubts. If anything is wrong, we must put it right. If nothing is wrong, we must say so.
Ms Chia Yong Yong spoke eloquently yesterday of the many issues she felt passionately about, the many challenges we face as a nation, and why we should be focussing on them and not be distracted by this controversy. Mr Low Thia Khiang called on everyone to “focus on rallying Singaporeans to be united in facing the challenges, and not be participating in a divisive dispute”. I fully agree with them. We must all get back to work. This is not a soap opera. Come together, tackle the challenges before us. My team and I will do our best to continue building this Singapore, keeping it safe, and making it prosper. Thank you very much.
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