Morgan Lewis Singapore chief steps down after involvement in Prime Minister's family feud

Morgan Lewis & Bockius Singapore head Suet Fern Lee is stepping down as office managing partner after being caught up in a high profile family dispute between the three children of late Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew.

Lee (pictured above right), who is married to one of the siblings, will remain a partner at the firm and plans to spend time in Hong Kong, where the firm launched in January through an association with a local firm. Her deputy in Singapore, Joo Khin Ng, will take over as managing partner of the firm’s Singapore base, which operates as Morgan Lewis Stamford.

The leadership change follows the publication of a six-page statement in which Lee Hsien Loong (pictured above left), the current Singaporean Prime Minister and eldest son of Lee Kuan Yew, was accused by his younger sister and brother of misusing his influence over the government to advance his personal agenda.

In the joint statement, titled “What has happened to Lee Kuan Yew’s values?”, the Prime Minister’s siblings, Lee Wei Ling and Lee Hsien Yang, said they felt uncomfortable and monitored living in a country run by their older brother, and specifically named Suet Fern Lee, Hsien Yang’s wife, as one of the people who felt threatened.

“We feel big brother omnipresent. We fear the use of the organs of state against us and Hsien Yang’s wife, Suet Fern. The situation is such that Hsien Yang feels compelled to leave Singapore,” read the statement, which then went on quoting Hsien Yang as saying that he would “leave Singapore for the foreseeable future”.

A Morgan Lewis spokesperson said in a statement that the firm does not anticipate any material change in the Singapore team or practice, and that Lee will continue as head of the firm’s international leadership team.

Lee’s own firm, Stamford Law Corp, merged with Morgan Lewis in April 2015. The deal was the first such merger to take place after Singapore amended its law in 2012, allowing foreign law firms to take up to one third of the equity in a local firm. This opened doors for financial mergers between international and Singaporean law firms.

Lee, formerly a corporate partner at top Singapore firm WongPartnership, founded Stamford Law Corp in 2001 and had a brief joint venture with Shearman & Sterling during the first year. Stamford went on to be successful on its own, achieving recognition for its cross-border transactional work.

The Lee siblings first posted the statement on Facebook on 14 June. The family feud centres largely on whether an old family house of the late Lee Kuan Yew should be demolished. Lee Kuan Yew was the first Prime Minister of Singapore, governed for three decades and is recognised as the nation’s founding father, having made Singapore a first-world country in a single generation. The younger Lees insisted that it was their father’s will to demolish the house in order to prevent it from becoming a monument. The current Prime Minister, however, Lee Kuan Yew’s eldest son, intended to preserve the house.

The next day, 15 June, as Prime Minister Lee responded to his siblings’ claims in a statement, the dispute steered into a quarrel over Lee Kuan Yew’s last will, signed in December 2013. According to Prime Minister Lee, Suet Fern Lee and her then-firm, Stamford Law Corp, were involved in drawing up that will.

In the statement, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong detailed his version of the events leading up to the signing of Lee Kuan Yew’s seventh and final will on 17 December 2013. Prime Minister Lee said that Kwa Kim Li, the lawyer who had drawn up his father’s previous wills and was the niece of his late wife Kwa Geok Choo, could not be reached, and his brother Hsien Yang and sister-in-law Suet Fern persuaded their father that lawyers at Stamford would help prepare the last will. The Prime Minister then identified Stamford partner Joo Khin Ng as the lawyer to whom Suet Fern designated the work on the will, as she did not want to get personally involved.

In a response post on Facebook, Lee Hsien Yang, Suet Fern’s husband, dismissed Prime Minister Lee’s account entirely and wrote: “The final will was not drafted by Stamford Law Corp or Ng Joo Khin and Lee Hsien Loong’s claimed recollection to that effect is clearly erroneous.” In a separate post, Hsien Yang reiterated that the will was not drafted by Stamford Law but by Kwa Kim Li, managing partner of Singaporean firm Lee & Lee, and that Ng’s role was nothing more than reading the final will after Lee Kuan Yew’s passing.

Other Singaporean firms and lawyers are also now involved in this dispute. Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong is represented by Drew & Napier, one of the ‘big four’ domestic law firms; whereas Lee Wei Ling and Lee Hsien Yang, joint executors and trustees of the Lee Kuan Yew estate, are represented by Rajah & Tann. The big four firm is advising as joint executors and trustees of the Lee Kuan Yew estate in litigation relating to the estate’s rights over certain oral transcripts, as well as other matters relating to the administration of the estate.

In the original statement, the younger Lees claimed they had received letters from the Prime Minister’s former personal lawyer, Lucien Wong, then chairman and senior partner of yet another big four firm, Allen & Gledhill. Wong left the firm to be Singapore’s attorney general in January.