Singapore

I had no freedom of action to override Cabinet: PM Lee

Testifying in libel suit, he says he faced constraints over handling of Oxley house as head of government

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said in court yesterday that he did not have complete freedom of action to override his Cabinet ministers' position on not demolishing the home of his late father at 38 Oxley Road.

PM Lee, testifying on day two of the hearing on his libel suit against The Online Citizen (TOC) editor Terry Xu, also said his father Lee Kuan Yew understood his son's considerations and constraints as head of government.

He also rejected a repeated charge by the defendant's lawyer Lim Tean that he "called the shots" when it came to handling the property.

CLAIMS

PM Lee is suing Mr Xu over a TOC article, published in August last year, which pointed to claims by his sister Lee Wei Ling that her brother had misled their father into thinking 38 Oxley Road had been gazetted by the Government.

In his cross-examination of PM Lee, Mr Lim asked why he could not override Cabinet ministers, who in a July 2011 meeting had - counter to Mr Lee Kuan Yew's wishes - opposed knocking down the Oxley house.

"As the prime minister, I have to put aside my family considerations," said PM Lee.

"It's my duty, I swore an oath to do so."

Overriding the ministers based on his father's wishes would be going against that oath and doing wrong by Singapore, he added.

PM Lee said that after the Cabinet meeting, he gave his father his honest assessment of what the Government would do with the house after his death.

"I told him that he had met the Cabinet and heard the ministers' views. I said that if I chaired the Cabinet meeting given that these were the views of the ministers and the public, I thought that it would be very hard for me to override them and knock the house down.

"I added that I would have to agree that the house had to be gazetted to be kept and if I was not the prime minister or I did not chair the meeting all the more likely the house would be gazetted. Mr Lee understood."

Mr Lim then referred to an e-mail sent by Dr Lee Wei Ling to her father, in which she wrote: "Having lived here for so many years I have adjusted… you call the shots. I am delighted to stay at Oxley."

Mr Lim said to PM Lee: "Your father replies to her later that evening… 'I cannot call the shots. Loong as PM has the final word'. Your father here was stating the obvious, isn't it? You call the shots... It is not your ministers, it is not your Cabinet as you would like us to believe?"

Mr Lim produced another e-mail from the late Mr Lee that read: "Even if I knock it down while I am alive the PM can gazette it as a heritage site and stop the demolition."

This showed Mr Lee Kuan Yew was talking, at all times, about his son being the decision-maker and not the Cabinet, said Mr Lim.

PM Lee replied: "I am the prime minister. I have a view. If I say my father would like the house knocked down the ministers will consider it. It is not possible for me to go against the ministers, as I explained to my father and my father acknowledged.

"I had explained to him what I would have to do if I were the decision-maker. In other words, I really didn't have freedom of action."

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