Finance

Singapore court suspends PM’s relative from practising law

A Singapore court has suspended the prime minister’s sister-in-law from practising law in an escalation of a feud between the city state’s first family that started with the death of Lee Kuan Yew, its founding father. 

The Court of Three Judges — a disciplinary body in Singapore’s supreme court — found prominent lawyer Lee Suet Fern “guilty of misconduct unbefitting an advocate and solicitor” and suspended her from practising law for 15 months.

The written judgment, which was released on Friday and cannot be appealed, is linked to Ms Lee’s involvement in the preparation and execution of her father-in-law Lee Kuan Yew’s last will. 

The Lee family dispute represents a rare display of public acrimony at the elite level of the south-east Asian financial hub, which has been run by the same party since independence in 1965. 

Friday’s judgment puts a fresh spotlight on the inner machinations of power in the closely controlled Asian city state, where Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong is the eldest son of Lee Kuan Yew, while his wife Ho Ching heads the state-backed investment company, Temasek.

The conflict, in which Lee Hsien Loong is at loggerheads with his estranged brother Lee Hsien Yang and sister Lee Wei Ling, started about a year after Lee Kuan Yew’s death in 2015.

Singapore’s founding father wanted his home, a traditional Singaporean bungalow, demolished after his death to prevent its possible use to promote a personality cult. But Lee Hsien Loong’s siblings accused the prime minister of wanting to preserve the house. 

Last year, the attorney-general’s chambers referred a case of potential misconduct involving Ms Lee to Singapore’s Law Society. The chambers alleged Ms Lee prepared Lee Kuan Yew’s last will and arranged for the statesman to execute it despite her husband, Lee Hsien Yang, being one of its beneficiaries, with his share increasing in the will’s final version.

Singapore’s Law Society brought the case to the supreme court seeking Ms Lee’s disbarment after a disciplinary tribunal in February found her guilty of misconduct.

The court said Lee Kuan Yew ended up “signing a document which was in fact not that which he had indicated he wished to sign”. It acknowledged the version he signed was “materially similar” to the first version but said this was “fortuitous” and that the potential harm “could have been far more severe”.

The court did, however, stop short at disbarring Ms Lee permanently, saying this would be a “disproportionate” penalty. 

Ms Lee said in a statement she disagreed with the court’s decision, adding the will was private and that Lee Kuan Yew — who never lodged a complaint against her — knew and got “what he wanted”. She also said the judgment acknowledged Mr Lee was content with the last will.

“There was no basis for this case to have even been initiated,” she added.

Li Shengwu, Ms Lee’s son, on Friday wrote on Facebook that Singapore’s prime minister “has no shame about using state resources to settle grudges against relatives”, adding he “should resign now, rather than continuing to undermine the rule of law in Singapore”. 

The prime minister’s office did not comment on Li Shengwu’s remarks.

In July, Li Shengwu, an assistant professor at Harvard University, was convicted of contempt of court and fined S$15,000 ($11,000) — a judgment he said he disagreed with — in relation to a Facebook “friends-only” post he wrote in 2017 in which he said Singapore’s government “is very litigious and has a pliant court system”. 

Lee Hsien Yang earlier this year joined the opposition Progress Singapore party denouncing the “natural aristocracy” of the ruling People’s Action party.

After the family dispute first went public, Lee Hsien Yang said he and his sister had lost confidence in the leadership of their brother and feared “the use of the organs of state” against them. Lee Hsien Loong and his wife rejected the allegations.

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