Tribunal finds Lee Suet Fern guilty of improper conduct in handling Lee Kuan Yew’s last will, misled him into signing it
Lee Suet Fern said she was acting as an "obedient wife."
Lee Suet Fern (LSF), lawyer and wife of Lee Hsien Yang (LHY), has been found guilty of grossly improper professional conduct by a Disciplinary Tribunal.
On Feb. 23, the Straits Times (ST) reported that the tribunal found LSF guilty of improper conduct in the handling of the last will of Lee Kuan Yew (LKY), Singapore’s first Prime Minister and father of her husband (Lee Hsien Yang) and Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong.
LSF’s case will be referred to the highest disciplinary body that deals with misconduct by lawyers, the Court of Three Judges.
LSF could be fined, suspended or disbarred as a lawyer.
The tribunal considered LSF’s role in preparing and executing LKY’s last will, which was signed on Dec. 17, 2013, to figure out if she had breached the Legal Profession Act and its rules on professional misconduct.
The report, which was released last Tuesday (Feb. 18), received extensive coverage in ST and Lianhe Zaobao today.
The two-man tribunal, comprising of Senior Counsel Sarjit Singh Gill and Leon Yee, was appointed by Chief Justice Sundaresh Menon. Former Attorney-General Walter Woon was part of LSF’s team.
“Managed every aspect of the process”
The tribunal did not accept LSF’s characterisation of her minor role in drafting the will for LKY.
This is because she was the only lawyer responsible for the last will. Kwa Lim Li, a lawyer who had prepared the first six wills for LKY, was not involved.
LSF explained that she was merely acting as an “obedient wife” to LHY.
The tribunal concluded that Lee had “managed every aspect of the process” in drafting the will, reported ST.
- Drafted the last will.
- Asked her colleagues to witness the signing.
- Locked the original copy of the will in her office safe.
LSF said during her tribunal hearing that LHY had asked for her help with a “chore for his father” on Dec. 16, 2013, one day before the will was signed, as he was preparing to go on a trip to Australia.
He asked her to help forward a draft of the will to LKY, and get a solicitor who could witness the signing of the will as soon as possible.
Although she was preparing to leave for France herself, LSF said she did it because LKY was “anxious” in settling the matter.
LSF added that she was scolded by LHY for taking her time.
She said, according to ST: “Yang called me… and he scolded me for taking so long to deal with it.”
Lee sent an email with the first draft of the will to LKY at 7:08pm on Dec. 16, 2013.
Shortly afterwards, she told her colleagues at Stamford Law, now known as Morgan Lewis Stamford, to make themselves available the next day at short notice for the execution of the will.
This was before LHY received a reply from his father to an email he sent telling him to proceed without involving his usual lawyer, Kwa.
When asked why she had given the instruction to her colleagues, Lee replied: “Because I’m an obedient wife and Yang told me to do so.”
The signing of the will
The will was signed at 11:10am on Dec. 17, 2013, in the presence of Elizabeth Kong and Bernard Lui, both lawyers from Stamford Law.
ST noted that twice during this meeting, LKY asked the lawyers who had drafted the will. They told him it was “primarily” LSF.
LKY then signed the will after hearing this.
Lui and Kong also updated LSF on the signing of the will by email afterwards. The tribunal stated that LSF did not object to the characterisation of her role.
In a Facebook post on Jan. 7, 2019, Lee Hsien Yang said: “My wife was never Lee Kuan Yew’s lawyer.”
Lee Kuan Yew appeared to regard Lee Suet Fern as the lawyer for his last will
On Dec. 17, 2013, LSF continued to give Lui instructions on what to do, including to make sure that an original copy of the will was locked in her office safe.
LSF claimed she was just helping out, as a member of the family, and that her role amounted to seeing through the favour and making sure it was properly done.
She added that she was a “conduit” between Lui and her husband, who was handling the will, and her role did not involve making arrangements.
But the tribunal said that LSF had agreed to cut out Kwa and that she was the only lawyer responsible for the last will signed by Lee Kuan Yew.
The tribunal also pointed out that LKY appeared to regard Lee as his lawyer for the last will, instead of Kwa.
Instead of asking Kwa to keep the original will, as he had done so for the six previous versions of the wills she drafted, LKY asked his personal assistant to send Kwa only a copy of the will instead.
Lee Hsien Yang and Lee Suet Fern apparently contradicted themselves
The tribunal said that Lee and her husband had contradicted their position on the role that she played, in their affidavits and cross-examination.
In Dec. 2018, LSF told the Attorney-General’s Chambers that LKY had given her instructions to have his last will “engrossed” or finalised.
This was the same position taken by LHY in a letter he sent to the Ministerial Committee set up to look into options for LKY’s house at Oxley Road.
The tribunal said, according to ST:
“Having procured the last will through these improper means, (they) then fabricated a series of lies and inaccuracies, to perpetuate the falsehoods that Ms Kwa Kim Li had been involved in the last will, and hide their own role in getting (Mr Lee Kuan Yew) to sign the last will and their wrongdoings.”
Possible conflict of interest
If LSF had acted as the lawyer for the last will, the tribunal found a conflict of interest.
Her husband stood to receive one-third of LKY’s estate.
This was different from the second-last will, which gave LHY’s sister Lee Wei Ling a larger share of the estate.
The second-last will also did not have a demolition clause for the house at Oxley Road after his death.
LSF should have asked LKY to consult another lawyer to avoid potential conflict of interests. But the tribunal said she did not.
LSF also did not go through the draft of the will with LKY to explain the differences.
When asked, she said: “I think Papa was his own best lawyer. He knew what he wanted.”
Tribunal: Lee Suet Fern was a “deceitful witness”
The tribunal said: “Mr Lee, who was very frail and in poor health, was misled by the very people whom he trusted: his son, Mr Lee Hsien Yang, and daughter-in-law, the respondent.”
The tribunal also said that LSF was a “deceitful witness” who tailored her evidence to portray herself as an innocent victim.
It added that during the hearing, she supposedly lied and became evasive whenever she thought it was to her benefit.
It also had strong words for LHY, saying he was “equally deceitful.” It added:
“He tried to hide how he and his wife had misled his own father, Mr Lee, on the last will. He had no qualms about making up evidence as he went along. We found him to be cynical about telling the truth.”
Response by Lee Wei Ling and Lee Hsien Yang
Lee Wei Ling (LWL) responded to the ST report, calling it a “travesty” and that it amounted to character assassination of LSF and her husband.
LWL claimed her father knew “full well” what he was doing and was “clear” in his decision for the will, pointing out that Lee Kuan Yew drafted an amendment to the will and executed it two weeks later.
You can see the post below:
LHY shared his sister’s post on his own Facebook page, without additional comment:
Top image from NTU website via Stamford Law and Law Society Pro Bono Facebook page.