Sunday, 25 June 2017

38 Oxley Road: Symbol of the Singapore story

By Derwin Pereira, Published The Straits Times, 24 Jun 2017

Singapore's founding Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew was no ordinary Singaporean. His house is no ordinary house. These facts give Singaporeans a stake in its preservation, no matter how the tussle among his children ends.

As a citizen and former journalist who met him several times, the symbolic meaning of the house for me takes precedence over Mr Lee's own will. From a strictly legal perspective, the will says the last word on what should be done to 38, Oxley Road. But from a national perspective, the demolition of the house would represent a blow to a visual artefact that represents the nation's journey from Third World to First.

Singapore's political history literally was made there. The meetings in the basement, of anti-colonialists who would come to form the People's Action Party (PAP), laid the foundations of independent Singapore metaphorically.

Of course, the quest then was not for independence but for self-governance, and merger with Malaysia interceded between that period and eventual independence. However, the walls of 38, Oxley Road witnessed history in the making. The concrete habitation of that history cannot be demolished without injuring Singapore's self-awareness as a nation.

I have heard talk that the house possesses special properties which could help the future political prospects of Lee family members. Whether that is so or mere talk based on superstition is immaterial to someone like me. The pragmatic fact is that the public is unlikely to vote for someone merely because of his or her connection with a piece of property associated with Mr Lee.

A seemingly more credible view is that a museum set up in the house could brainwash the young into supporting the PAP when they come of political age. Museums and mausoleums in communist countries once served a comparable purpose vis-a-vis their regimes.

However, the notion of the house being turned into a propaganda centre belittles the political evolution of Singapore, the maturity of its citizenry and the moods of time. There is no guarantee that the PAP will last forever, and thus there is no need to invest the house with teleological significance that might be lost on future voters.

Instead, it is important to differentiate between the cultural or sentimental hold that it might exercise on members of the Lee family, and its importance to succeeding generations of Singaporeans.

For the latter, it would mark a milestone in the historical development of Singapore.

Mr Lee's house would not be the first to do so. The Sun Yat Sen Nanyang Memorial Hall legitimately embodies the legacy of Dr Sun's revolutionary activities in South-east Asia, capturing both the impact of the 1911 Chinese Revolution on Singapore and Singapore's contributions to the dawning of modern Chinese political history.

No one would suggest that the memorial serves an ulterior ethnic purpose by glorifying Singapore's links with the ancestral land of its majority race. The memorial records for all Singaporeans the role which the period played in a history that belongs to all the races of Singapore today.

Similarly, the Mahatma Gandhi Memorial Hall commemorates the remarkable life and achievements of the leader of India's independence movement. It pays concrete tribute to a person whose ideas of non-violence became a motif of many other anti-colonial movements apart from India's. The centrality of non-violence came to demarcate the constitutional struggle for independence from its violent communist counterpart here in Singapore as well.

No one would argue that the memorial celebrates India's connection with Singapore at the expense of the city-state's relations with countries in North-east and South-east Asia.

Surely, if buildings associated with Dr Sun and Gandhi can belong to the shared heritage of Singaporeans, it would appear incomprehensible that Mr Lee's house should be viewed as a partisan structure. Surely, he had - and has - greater influence on the destiny and direction of Singapore than the other two luminaries, great though they are in their own right.

It is essential to reiterate here that the national value of 38, Oxley Road exceeds its private value to the Lee family. If the Government were to gazette it, it would be recognising that national significance, even if Mr Lee's wishes were to be overruled in the process.

The conservation of the house would do no more than honour Mr Lee's lifelong belief that the public interest should supersede private interests and desires - even when it comes to the man with whom Singapore is identified, even today.

I disagree that retaining the house would contribute to the creation of a political cult around Mr Lee. Were that to be the intention of those hoping to preserve it, a much better way of reminding Singaporeans of his lasting influence would be to rename Changi Airport after him. After all, Jakarta has the Soekarno-Hatta International Airport, New Delhi the Indira Gandhi International Airport, New York the John F. Kennedy International Airport, and Washington DC the Ronald Reagan National Airport. Mr Lee's name would then preside over the millions of air departures and arrivals on which Singapore's economy depends heavily.

Instead of viewing 38, Oxley Road as a house around which to sustain the PAP's political legitimacy, it is important to see that building for what it is: a house that belongs not only to the Lee family, nor even to the PAP, but to the people of Singapore.

Let it last.

The writer heads Pereira International, a Singapore-based political consultancy. He is also a member of Harvard University's Belfer Centre for Science and International Affairs.

Oxley Road dispute: A unique heritage test case
By Ho Ai Li, The Straits Times, 24 Jun 2017

The dispute between Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong and his siblings about whether the house of their father, the late Mr Lee Kuan Yew, should be demolished has foregrounded an issue often pushed aside for development's sake.

Yes, I am talking about heritage.

Contrary to what some may think, heritage is not about airy-fairy sentimentalism or sheer nostalgia. Instead, preserving heritage - which the Singapore Heritage Society defines as the living presence of the past - is about keeping alive historically important places or practices which help forge the identity of Singapore and Singaporeans.

In Singapore, the ruling People's Action Party (PAP) prides itself on its "unsentimental pragmatism", a phrase used in a 1982 speech against welfarism by pioneer Cabinet minister S. Rajaratnam.

For a long time, the mantra here has been that all can be sacrificed in the name of development and modernisation, be it homes, schools, final resting places or even the National Theatre or National Library. It is almost as if no stone has been left unturned, said geographer Rodolphe De Koninck at the recent launch of his book, Singapore's Permanent Territorial Revolution; Fifty Years In Fifty Maps.

But there's a price to be paid for this constant churn. It has weakened Singaporeans' attachment to places here, and arguably eaten away at their sense of rootedness to the country.

Now, we have a test case like never before, in the form of the house at 38, Oxley Road, near the Orchard Road shopping district.

As the home for some 70 years of Singapore's founding Prime Minister, the house is clearly of significance in the nation's history.

Deputy Prime Minister Teo Chee Hean, when giving details about the ministerial committee that is looking into what to do with the house, said: "Many critical decisions on the future of Singapore were made there by Mr Lee and our pioneer leaders."

It was in the basement of the house that meetings which led to the setting up of the PAP were held. The house, built more than a century ago by a Jewish merchant, is also where our current PM spent his formative years.

I would argue that it should be kept for the sake of current and future generations of Singaporeans.

The key consideration is this: If even the house of the nation's founding PM cannot be preserved, what hope can Singaporeans have of holding onto other places whose historical significance may be more debatable?

What implication does this then have for Singaporeans' attachment to this place that we call home? Would it breed even more apathy if Singaporeans feel they have no say in preserving places or practices the community holds dear?

What to do with the house at 38, Oxley Road is no private family matter, but one of national interest. The Lee family is no ordinary family; its members have had or still have an influential role in shaping the nation's history.

But for now, there has not been as much public support for the house to be preserved, compared with, say, the community campaign to try to preserve the former National Library building in Stamford Road, which was demolished in 2004.

This is likely because, first, the house is off limits to the public and does not hold personal memories for most people, unlike popular places like the National Library.

Second, it seems disrespectful not to follow Mr Lee's often stated wish of demolishing the house.

But the issue is larger than one man, even if the man in question is Mr Lee, whose influence on the nation is large, to say the least. The PAP's unsentimental and pragmatic outlook means that the issue should be evaluated rationally and objectively, without being swayed by emotional factors such as the wishes of one person.

The discussion over the fate of the house is a rare opportunity to re-evaluate the importance of heritage, and examine what aspects of our collective history we as a community consider important enough to be preserved.

There has to be due process, such as a thorough study and discussion of the historical importance of the Oxley Road house and consensus on what ought to be done with it.

Hopefully, the committee set up to look into the issue, chaired by DPM Teo, will canvass the views of a wide swathe of society, especially heritage experts.

Given that our sense of identity as Singaporeans and loyalty to the nation have come under increasing threat from the pull of forces like race and religion in a globalised world, it is all the more crucial that we strengthen the sense of what it means to belong to Singapore.

There can be no better chance than now to rethink how we should approach heritage issues, and discussion over what to do with the house at 38, Oxley Road promises to point the way forward for heritage preservation.

Two ways to preserve buildings and sites
By Tham Yuen-C, Assistant Political Editor, The Straits Times, 24 Jun 2017

The discussion on the late founding prime minister Lee Kuan Yew's house has put the spotlight on heritage and conservation.

Since the 1970s, the Government has gazetted more than 7,000 buildings for conservation, and 72 as national monuments.

These are the two main ways by which buildings, structures and sites with historical significance are preserved.

Conservation, done as part of urban planning, comes under the Urban Redevelopment Authority. It has said in the past that it consults advisers - from architects to tour guides - on these old buildings.

When a building is marked for conservation, the owner cannot change its external facade, original structure and defining features, but the interior can be modified.

Conservation buildings comprise largely shophouses and bungalows. But in recent years, warehouses, a former market and even bridges have made the list.

Designating a building or site as a national monument is the highest preservation status here. Besides the architectural merits and historical value of the building, factors such as social significance and importance to the country's heritage are considered.

The Preservation of Sites and Monuments, a division under the National Heritage Board, is the national authority that advises the Government on the matter. It is responsible for identifying worthy buildings, commissioning research on them and determining the best method of preservation. Its advisory board consists of people from the public and private sectors. The Preservation of Sites and Monuments derives its powers from the Preservation of Monuments Act.

When such buildings are private dwellings, the authorities will seek the owners' consent. The Government can also acquire the property under the Land Acquisition Act if the owners are unwilling.

An example of a house gazetted as a national monument is the House of Tan Yeok Nee, built by the wealthy merchant between 1882 and 1885. It is one of four houses built in the traditional southern Chinese style, with large internal courtyards and decorative wood carvings. Gazetted as a national monument on Nov 19, 1974, it is still privately owned.

The Istana Kampong Gelam, where descendants of former sultan Hussein Shah lived, was gazetted for conservation in 1999, and as a national monument in 2015. The sultan was the 19th-century ruler of the Johor Sultanate, which Singapore was part of. Beneficiaries and tenants who moved out when the 174-year-old building was conserved were awarded a total of $350,000 a year for 30 years.

No one is above law of the land

It is important not to see spirits and ghosts where there are none, especially in a fractious dispute such as the ongoing one between the Lee siblings (Three key issues in the Lee v Lee saga; June 21).

Thanks to Mr Lee Kuan Yew's obsession with succession planning, Singapore has already moved into the post-LKY era for some years as our society evolves.

This is clear in the loosening of our political climate over the last couple of decades, and most poignant in the removal of the demolition clause in versions five and six of Mr Lee's will for 38, Oxley Road.

The deletion showed that while Mr Lee might have been unwavering in his desire to see his home demolished, he was also mindful that the government of the day has the final say on its preservation, and that no one, including him, is above the law of this land.

How the demolition clause found its way back into the final will is for the lawyers to investigate, should the disputants wish to take the matter to court. But it is absolutely immaterial in the broader scheme of the Government's right to decide the fate of the property.

Dr Lee Wei Ling and Mr Lee Hsien Yang can limit the damage to their stature, their father's legacy, and Singapore's reputation by refraining from posing irrelevant questions to their brother and our Prime Minister.

Unlike them, Mr Lee Hsien Loong has to perform the roles of both the dutiful son and the leader of this country.

PM Lee's sentiments about the demolition of the Lee family home as a scion ought to differ from how he performs his duties as our Prime Minister on the matter.

We, the citizens of Singapore, expect no less from him.

The house at 38, Oxley Road is undoubtedly an important monument of Singapore's political history; otherwise the family dispute over its conservation would not have grabbed so much attention across the country and in the international media

The Government is right to treat the estate as an extraordinary piece of local heritage and to form a ministerial committee to explore various options for its future.

Singapore is and must always be bigger than the Lee family.

Toh Cheng Seong
ST Forum, 24 Jun 2017

The possible options for 38, Oxley Road: Indranee Rajah
The Straits Times, 27 Jun 2017

In a Facebook post last night, Senior Minister of State for Finance and Law Indranee Rajah listed the various options for former prime minister Lee Kuan Yew's house at 38, Oxley Road - from demolition to conservation to compulsory acquisition. She questioned why Mr Lee Hsien Yang is asking for the Government to immediately commit to demolishing his late father's house, and noted that Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong has no financial interest in the property. Here is her post.


My two previous posts covered the so-called "Demolition Clause" in the late Mr Lee Kuan Yew's last will and the circumstances in which the will came to be.

In this post I will discuss the various options for the house that a future government might consider once his daughter, Dr Lee Wei Ling, is no longer living in it.



In the will, Mr Lee Kuan Yew gave 38, Oxley Road, to Mr Lee Hsien Loong, his eldest son.

In the Summary of Statutory Declarations, Mr Lee Hsien Loong says:

• After Mr Lee's passing, his siblings, Mr Lee Hsien Yang and Dr Lee, expressed unhappiness that 38, Oxley Road had been given to him.

• Mr Lee Hsien Loong offered to transfer it to Dr Lee for the nominal sum of $1 on condition that if the property was later sold or acquired by the Government, all proceeds should go to charity. (Note: This condition, if accepted, would have meant that Dr Lee could not keep for herself the money received upon sale or acquisition.) This was not accepted.

• Subsequently, Mr Lee Hsien Loong sold the property to Mr Lee Hsien Yang.

Mr Lee Hsien Loong donated the entire proceeds of the sale to charity. Mr Lee Hsien Yang also donated 50 per cent of the sale value to charity.

Hence Mr Lee Hsien Loong is no longer the owner of 38, Oxley Road.

The property now belongs wholly to Mr Lee Hsien Yang.


38, Oxley Road is a freehold site. The land area is 1,120.5 sq m (12,060 sq ft). It is currently zoned for a two-storey landed property.

Media articles cite the current estimated market value as $24 million (around $1,990 psf).


There are four possible options:


Demolition of a building requires planning permission from URA under the Planning Act and a permit from BCA under the Building Control Act.

The consequences of demolition are that:

• the land is cleared of the house;

• the path is cleared to seek redevelopment;

• demolition is irreversible. Once demolished, there is no going back. Demolition removes, once and for all, any possibility of future preservation, conservation or compulsory acquisition of the property;

• the original rationale for the two-storey zoning in the area - which was to keep neighbouring houses low in height for security reasons - is also gone as Mr Lee Kuan Yew has passed away;

• with the old rationale for two-storey zoning gone, demolition would clear the way for the owner to appeal for re-zoning and/or increase in plot ratio and eventual redevelopment. There could, of course, be other good reasons why such re-zoning may or may not be allowed;

• If re-zoning or increased plot ratio is granted, the land value will increase well beyond the market value for a two-storey property. In that event, one can expect many developers to line up to buy the property;

• For example, if a 20-storey luxury condominium can be built on the site, with one condo unit per floor, all with the address of 38, Oxley Road, it could be marketed as a unique trophy address.


Under the Preservation of Monuments Act (PMA), property can be designated a national monument via a preservation order. If designated a national monument:

• 38, Oxley Road cannot be redeveloped;

• It will be subject to stringent preservation guidelines and no works can be done to it without the approval of the National Heritage Board;

• since it is used as a residence, the property will be subject to compulsory acquisition within one year of the preservation order. (Under the PMA, if a preserved building is occupied as a residence, the Government must acquire it within one year of the preservation order, otherwise the preservation order will lapse. This relieves the occupier of having to bear over the long term the responsibilities that come with preservation. )


Conservation is under the Planning Act. Conservation is less restrictive than preservation. Works can be done to the building as long as they fall within URA guidelines. If conserved, the land cannot be redeveloped.

Compulsory Acquisition

This would be done under the Land Acquisition Act (LAA). In this scenario:

• there is no possibility of redevelopment, as property is acquired by the Government.

• the owner, Mr Lee Hsien Yang, will get compensation under the LAA at market value at the time of acquisition. It would be valued on the basis of it being a two-storey landed property.

• the Government has several further options. It could, for example, choose to demolish the house and build a tasteful memorial or symbolic marker in a park setting.


That is a good question.

The Government has the same question.

Mr Lee Kuan Yew wanted Dr Lee Wei Ling to stay in the house as long as she wanted. The Government has publicly stated that it will respect those wishes and does not intend to do anything until Dr Lee leaves. Letting the house stand for now does not go against those wishes. Mr Lee Hsien Yang has said Dr Lee does not want to move out and she has every intention of living a long life. That being the case, the matter may well not need to be decided for another 20-30 years. It can be decided by a future government.

So there is nothing for the Government to decide now.

The real question therefore is why Mr Lee Hsien Yang is asking for an immediate commitment on demolition now.

What is the urgency?

Until and unless Dr Lee moves out, there is nothing for the Government to decide. It is also a principle that the current government will not be able to bind a future government.

The options open to any government, current or future, are also not binary. There are a range of things it can consider.

For example, DPM Teo Chee Hean has said he personally would not support options at the extreme ends of the range: At one end, preserving the house as it is for visitors to enter and see, as that would be totally against the wishes of Mr and Mrs Lee Kuan Yew. And, at the other end, demolishing the house and putting it on the market for new private residences.

One can understand DPM Teo's feelings. A luxury condo with that address would confer bragging rights on a select few to say: "I'm living where Lee Kuan Yew lived." The history and heritage of the site would be forever lost to ordinary Singaporeans, including future generations. That is probably not the way Singaporeans will want to remember 38, Oxley Road.

Mr Lee Hsien Yang has said that "(he has)not thought about what lies beyond demolition". It would appear he has not ruled out redevelopment.

From the Government's perspective, the question is whether there is an intermediate option which will allow us to respect the wishes of Mr Lee Kuan Yew and still preserve the heritage and history of 38, Oxley Road for Singapore and Singaporeans.

As DPM Teo has mentioned, one option we are studying is demolishing the house but keeping the basement dining room where many historical meetings took place, with an appropriate heritage centre attached.

This would substantially fulfil Mr Lee's wish. His and Mrs Lee's privacy would be respected. Pictures of the basement were already made public during Mr Lee's time and are widely available. Nothing of the private spaces would be seen.

At the same time, the history and heritage would not be lost and the crucible where the hopes and dreams of a nation were forged can be kept to inspire many more generations to come.

These options need to be thought through deeply and carefully. The Ministerial Committee has tasked relevant agencies to study the range of possible options that a future government can consider at the appropriate time, after Dr Lee Wei Ling is no longer there.

Was Lee Kuan Yew rushed into signing his last will?

PM Lee Hsien Loong releases summary of statutory declarations to ministerial committee looking into options for Oxley Road house - 15 June 2017

PM Lee Hsien Loong apologises for damage to Singapore caused by family dispute over Lee Kuan Yew's house at 38 Oxley Road

Mr Lee Kuan Yew and 38 Oxley Road

38 Oxley Road: Symbol of the Singapore story

PM Lee Hsien Loong Ministerial Statement on "Alleged Abuse of Power on 38 Oxley Road" in Parliament on 3 July 2017

38 Oxley Road debate in Parliament:
Day 1 - 3 July 2017
Day 2 - 4 July 2017

Statement by DPM Teo Chee Hean on Ministerial Committee - 17 June 2017

Statement by PM Lee Hsien Loong on 38 Oxley Road - 19 June 2017

Ministerial Statement by PM Lee Hsien Loong on "Alleged Abuse of Power on 38 Oxley Road" - 3 July 2017

Ministerial Statement by DPM Teo Chee Hean on the Ministerial Committee on 38 Oxley Road - 3 July 2017

Closing Statement by PM Lee Hsien Loong on the Ministerial Statements on 38 Oxley Road - 4 July 2017

Closing Statement by DPM Teo Chee Hean on the Ministerial Statements on 38 Oxley Road - 4 July 2017

Oxley Road Dispute

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