I think 38 Oxley Road should be demolished entirely, razed to the ground. I don’t really care what is put up on the site, but a garden dedicated to the memory of the man who had lived there would be nice.
I say this because it is the last thing that a citizen can do for the man who led Singapore since independence. Like him or hate him, Mr Lee Kuan Yew presided over the transformation of Singapore from Third World to First. Yes, I have just used a cliché, but the cliché happens to best describe our broad post-independence history. Call me sentimental if you like.
I think there is a reason the late Mr Lee decided that one part of his will, the demolition clause, be made public. He wants the public involved. The trouble is, that clause has been interpreted in many ways, and even the circumstances in which the clause has been inserted has been questioned.
The clause reads:
“I further declare that it is my wish and the wish of my late wife…that our house at 38 Oxley Road… (“the House”) be demolished immediately after my death or, if my daughter, Wei Ling, would prefer to continue living in the original house, immediately after she moves out of the House. I would ask each of my children to ensure our wishes with respect to the demolition of the House be carried out. If our children are unable to demolish the House as a result of any changes in the law, rules or regulations binding them, it is my wish that the House never be opened to others except my children, their families and descendants. My view on this has been made public before and remains unchanged. My statement of wishes in this paragraph… may be publicly disclosed notwithstanding that the rest of my Will is private.”
The parties involved including the ministerial committee examining the fate of the house, accept that it was Mr Lee’s wish that the house be demolished if Dr Lee Wei Ling was no longer living in it. That was his first and foremost preference. Then comes the controversy over whether he “came to accept’’ the idea that the house might be retained in some form. I use quote marks because that was how the ministerial committee put what Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong had told members:
While Mr Lee’ s personal wish was for demolition, from the second half of 2011, after reflecting on the views of several people, including senior journalists and members of the Cabinet, he “came to accept” that there was a strong body of opinion that the Property should be preserved “in the public interest”. He also accepted that when the decision has to be made, the Government in office may seek to preserve the property for these reasons. Mr Lee was “prepared to be flexible and contemplate options short of demolition”.
I have lost track of the twists and turns of the famiLEE saga, which exploded into the public eye in the middle of 2017, although I have written more than a dozen commentaries under The Middle Ground. There were so many emails, correspondence and documents presented by both PM Lee and his siblings that touch on his final wishes. Allegations and counter-allegations had been thrown that clouded, rather than clarified, the issue – which is really the fate of the house.
And I am not sure the ministerial committee got it right either, even when it based its conclusions on what it said was “objective evidence’’ of the demolition clause, a Cabinet letter and a URA planning permit that the committee viewed as his acceptance of the idea that the place would be preserved somewhat after he passed on.
That’s because an ordinary person knowing what Mr Lee had said in the past about the house would have been satisfied that the first preference was the truest gauge of his wishes. In other words, that was what he wanted but in the event that it can’t be fulfilled because the G says no, then bo pian, but with conditions.
They were rather stringent too because they barred entry to the house to anyone else but his own family and descendents. The ministerial committee’s Option one to preserve some parts and seal off other private areas might be in keeping with the letter, but not the spirit, of his clause. Option 2 of preparing and enclosing the dining area where great decisions on Singapore’s future were made looks like a neither here nor there compromise.
The counter-argument, of course, would be why the wishes of one individual should over-ride the interests of the State. No one doubts that the State has the authority to gazette a building for preservation and put other strictures on its development and conservation. The ministerial committee’s report had wonderful, and extremely educational, chapters on the architectural and historical value of the house. Would this be enough to tip the balance towards preservation?
I don’t know enough about architectural value but I agree that there is a strong case for preservation for heritage purposes. This is where many of Singapore’s pioneers decided the course of Singapore’s history, and the house had played host to people as diverse as foreign journalists, Malaysian politicians, dissidents and those who formed Singapore’s first independence Cabinet.
Except that this is not just any man’s house.
The fact that so many people seemed to have tried to get him to change his position while he was alive showed that they were mindful about getting his consent, even though there was no need to.
Yes, he sought the views of others who argued for preservation, which the committee said showed that he “open’’ to other options.
But I think that getting feedback is what any reasonable man would do. We know that Mr Lee is a stickler for protocol, and if presented with a fait accompli by the State (we really, really want to preserve it Pa, says his son, the Prime Minister), do we really expect that he would make a public spectacle of opposition or resign himself to getting the best terms he can in accordance with the State?
Okay, that’s getting into the realm of mind-reading.
But seriously, if the G wants to gazette the house, it should just say so and put forth its reasons. (The sticking point though is that Dr Lee is stilling living there and the G would have to acquire the property). Instead there is all this mind-reading, suspicion-raising, and agenda-doubting that is taking place, never mind how hard the committee stresses that it was deciding based on “objective evidence’’.
So the upshot in the end was that the committee came up with three options a future government can draw upon – or dismiss. The G has said in the past that it would be remiss in its duty if it didn’t try to help a future G decide on the house. The question at that time was whether its decision would bind a future Cabinet.
The answer is no.
Said Deputy Prime Minister Teo Chee Hean, who chaired the committee: “We did not make any recommendation because no decision is required at this point in time. Ultimately, in the fullness of time, a future Government will have the responsibility to consider the public interest aspects of the Property, taking into account Mr Lee Kuan Yew’s wishes. They will have to decide what to do with the Property and be able to carry the decision.’’
Yes, it seems so odd doesn’t it? We’re wrangling over some thing that may not even take place in our life-time.
But I still think the house should be razed. That was what the old man wanted. And I think he should get it.