COMMENT: Let the hard truth about Lee Kuan Yew's house prevail

A portrait of Singapore's late former prime minister Lee Kuan Yew is seen during his funeral service on March 29, 2015

This should be an open and shut case in a country that has been run in a rational, practical and pragmatic way. But here comes an issue where the state is asked to listen to the heart and support what is essentially an emotional decision.

Lee Kuan Yew and his immediate family want their pre-war bungalow at 38 Oxley Road torn down despite its deep historical and heritage value. It was there where modern Singapore’s destiny was made. It was in the basement of the house where more than half a  century ago that the momentous decision to give birth to the ruling People’s Action Party was made.

It was also there that Lee and other founders of modern Singapore met to discuss and plan the country’s self autonomy and subsequent independence from Britain.

That in themselves are good enough reasons why the Lee family’s wish  should not be granted. With misty-eyed Singaporeans caught in the grip of a heritage hysteria which coincided with the country’s
golden jubilee joy, a request like this seems misplaced.

From what has been made public so far, Lee Kuan Yew’s reason for wanting that house destroyed is very personal. Scenes of homes of famous people like William Shakespeare being trampled upon by visitors and a fear that visitors will gawk at the private spaces of Lee’s personal life are something that influenced his decision.

It is nice to note that the man known for his hard-truth approach to governance and life is human after all.
But his fear that the house he lived in for 70 years will be abused needs further study.

I visited Russian revolutionary novelist Vladimir Nabokov’s house in a quiet neighbourhood in Leningrad this June and did not find any evidence to support Lee’s apprehension. The small crowd who visited the place was dignified.

For me, it was a once-in-a lifetime opportunity to soak in the air and the environment of where the author of Lolita lived. I sat there taking in every word, every scene of a sepia-tinted interview with the
man and being intrigued by his fascination for butterflies.

People who have visited Lee’s house have documented how surprised they were to see the spartan lifestyle of the famous family. The man’s room was a simple affair with a single bed as the main piece of furniture. On it was a thin towel blanket and a bolster, wrote The New Paper reporter Judith Tan of her rare visit to the house five years ago.

Should that privilege to see the frugal life the Prime Minister of the land lived be taken away from the present and future generations of Singaporeans?

But the more important reason for preservation is to show that Lee and his family are not above the laws of the land that the former PM so assiduously imposed on his citizens.

A layman’s reading of the law on preservation shows that 38 Oxley Road ticks all the boxes of a building worthy of keeping. It qualifies as a “architectural, historic, traditional and aesthetic” building.

Read what National Heritage Board officer Jean Wee said at the official ceremony to gazette Fullerton Building as Singapore’s 71st national monument yesterday: “As we celebrate Singapore’s golden jubilee, we reflect on the trail history has left on our landscape, and in turn accord those that are nationally significant the highest form of preservation and recognition.”

Those words apply to the grand old dame of Oxley Road, too.

P N Balji is a veteran Singaporean journalist who is the former chief editor of TODAY newspaper, and a media consultant. The views expressed are his own.