Reporting by Nicholas Yong, Hannah Teoh and Wan Ting Koh
During his ministerial statement delivered in Parliament on Monday (3 July), Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong also summed up the history of the debate over what to do with his family’s Oxley Road house as well as father’s evolving views on the subject.
Lee Kuan Yew’s letters to the Cabinet
PM Lee began by citing the letter written by Lee Kuan Yew to the Cabinet on 27 October 2010 following the death of his wife, Kwa Geok Choo, which said, “38 Oxley Road has no merit as architecture. So please respect my wish to have it demolished when I am no longer around.”
Lee Kuan Yew reiterated this view in his book “Hard Truths To Keep Singapore Going”, which was released in January 2011. The views expressed in the book received a “strong public pushback” with many Singaporeans expressing their wish to have the house preserved given its historical significance, said PM Lee. Even newspaper editors – whose views Lee Kuan Yew sought in March 2011 – shared the public’s opinion on having the house preserved.
“All the editors replied that they would like it to be kept, given its historical importance and heritage value,” said PM Lee. “My father then wanted to leave the decision to his children. But we told him that only he could decide,” the prime minister added.
Following the 2011 General Election, Lee Kuan Yew again wrote to the Cabinet to reiterate that he wanted the house knocked down. The elder Lee even made his case in person to the Cabinet members, “but the Ministers were unanimous in expressing their opposition to knocking the house down”.
“I was the only one who did not express a view, because I was both the son and the PM and hence conflicted,” said PM Lee. After more deliberation, Lee Kuan Yew decided to will the house to PM Lee in August 2011.
To address the late Lee’s concerns over the condition of the house, PM Lee and Ho Ching came up with a proposal to “renovate the house and change the inside completely”. This included demolishing the private living spaces to preserve the family’s privacy, keeping the historically significant basement dining room, strengthening the decaying structure as well as creating a new living area.
Lee Kuan Yew accepted this proposal and in December 2011 told the family that it was “best to redevelop 38 Oxley Road straightaway”, said PM Lee, adding that his father wrote to the Cabinet a third time on 27 December 2011 to express his new position on the matter.
“We kept the family fully informed… We e-mailed everyone, including my father, my sister, my brother and his wife. No one raised any objections to the plan,” said PM Lee.
With Lee Kuan Yew’s development application to the Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA) having been approved on 17 April 2012, PM Lee said that he thought his family had “settled the matter”.
After Lee Kuan Yew’s death
On 12 April 2015, three weeks after his father’s death, PM Lee said that Lee Kuan Yew’s last will was formally read to the deceased’s three children. It stated that the house had been left to PM Lee and included the “Demolition Clause”.
It also stated that if Lee Kuan Yew’s children were “unable to demolish the House as a result of any changes in the laws, rules or regulations binding them”, then it should “never be opened” to anyone except the late Lee’s children, their families and descendants.
PM Lee said he discussed with his siblings what could be said about the house during Parliament the next day. Noting that there was a “difference of views”, PM Lee said Lee Hsien Yang “for the first time objected to the renovation plans that my father had approved” and wanted the house to be knocked down immediately.
“This was a complete surprise to me. I pointed out that his position now was different from what the family had discuss and agreed on,” said PM Lee, adding that it would not have been possible to demolish the house as Lee Wei Ling had intended to continue to stay in it.
PM Lee said he wanted to read out his father’s letter to the Cabinet from 27 December 2011 but was met by strenuous objections from Lee Hsien Yang and his wife Lee Suet Fern. “But I decided to do so… so that my father’s views would be on record,” said PM Lee, who later discovered that his siblings had released a statement containing the Demolition Clause.
In Parliament, PM Lee said that the decisions on the house should not be rushed. He added that since his sister was still living in the house, the “government of the day would consider the matter” when she no longer did so.
He said he took two major steps after the Parliament sitting. The first was to recuse himself from all government decisions relating to 38 Oxley Road, placing Deputy Prime Minister Teo Chee Hean in charge of the matter.
“Whenever the Cabinet deliberates on the house, for example when it set up a Ministerial Committee, I absent myself, and DPM Teo chairs the meeting,” said PM Lee.
The other step was to divest himself of the house, which he sold to Lee Hsien Yang at “fair market value” following an agreement in December 2015. Both agreed that they would donate half the value of the home to charity, with PM Lee later topping up another half himself.
“That substantially addressed a major concern of mine: that our family not be seen benefitting financially from 38 Oxley Road,” said PM Lee.
In concluding his summary of the issue, PM Lee said, “There is no longer, in substance, anything for my siblings and me to dispute over on the matter of the house”.
“So why is there still an argument?” he asked. “I really am not sure, but one possible factor may be a difference in views between me and my siblings.”
– additional reporting by Dhany Osman