Explainer: The Oxley Road house dispute, Singapore’s biggest family feud
Someone dies, the family mourns their death, fights a little over who gets what (mostly property and assets), mourn some more and then goes on with their lives – sounds pretty standard for families in Singapore, right?
Yes, unless the deceased happens to be Lee Kuan Yew, the “father” of the nation.
The debate over what should happen to LKY’s home after his death in died in 2015 may have begun as a Lee family issue, but it now spiraled into an extremely public spectacle that has somehow gotten tangled up in politics as well.
If you’re new to the drama, welcome and take a seat – while you prep the popcorn, we’ve also come up with some prep of our own.
Here is everything you need to know about the Oxley Road house feud, from deets about the house to all those involved.
So what’s so special about the house on 38 Oxley Road (and do you know it has a twin)?
Aesthetically, maybe not much.
The house was built in 1898 by a Dutch merchant named Hermann Cornelius Verloop. At the time, that part of Orchard Road was a nutmeg plantation owned by British doctor Thomas Oxley – hence its name.
The house at 38 Oxley was originally called Castor and was actually one of a pair of identical homes. Located on 40 Oxley Road, its twin house – called Pollux – has already been demolished.
The area was then purchased by a Jewish merchant, Manasseh Meyer, but during the Japanese Occupation, the house was taken over by Japanese civilians.
Lee Kuan Yew and his family only moved into the house after the war. While he was the leader of the People’s Action Party (PAP), the house served as an important venue for party meetings and other political gatherings.
Excerpt from ‘Men in White: The Untold Story of Singapore’s Ruling Political Party’ by Sonny Yap, Weng Kam Leong, Richard Lim
The current prime minister, Lee Hsien Loong, and his siblings were all raised there. Even after separating from Malaya in 1965, maintenance of the house was still kept at a minimum – although a guardhouse was added.
Real estate firm Cushman & Wakefield has estimated the current value of the house to be around S$18-25 million (US$ 13.4-18.5 million).
Did Lee Kuan Yew want the house to be demolished or not?
Well, it seems like it.
During a 2011 interview with The Straits Times for his book, Hard Truths To Keep Singapore Going, Mr Lee said he wanted his house to be demolished.
“I’ve told the Cabinet, when I’m dead, demolish it. I’ve seen other houses, Nehru’s, Shakespeare’s. They become shambles after a while. People trudge through. Because of my house, the neighbouring houses cannot build high. Now demolish my house and change the planning rules, go up, the land value will go up,” he can be heard saying.
After all, he’s a vocal man. If he changed his mind, he would definitely make it known, right?
He also made his first will (he changed the will MANY times) that same year and in it he stated that the estate, including the Oxley House residence, Cluny House residence and other assets, be divided equally among his three children.
In his final will, which he made in December 2013, the Lee family patriarch willed the house to Lee Hsien Loong, with a clause asking for its demolition after his daughter moved out.
And then he died on Mar. 25, 2015.
While LKY’s wishes may have seemed clear, his children remain sharply divided over what should happen to the house. In 2017, PM Lee and his siblings released documents that help illustrate how the conflict unfolded.
It appears that the internal family dispute started only weeks after LKY’s death. A statutory declaration released by PM Lee stated that their were disagreements over the future of the house even when their father’s will was being read by lawyers on Apr. 12, 2015.
PM Lee said at the reading that his younger brother, Lee Hsien Yang, insisted on the immediate demolition of the house but he disagreed, saying it was too soon after their father’s death and that it might upset the public, triggering a government intervention to preserve the house against their father’s wishes.
However, PM Lee believed the final will was made without the full knowledge of LKY. Instead of settling things legally, he approached then Deputy Prime Minister Teo Chee Hean about his doubts. Probate on the will was granted in October 2015 without objections.
PM Lee then offered to sell the house to his sister for a nominal S$1, on the condition that, if the government were to acquire the property, any future sales would go to charity. She rejected the offer.
It was later sold to his brother Lee Hsien Yang in 2015 at market price – also on the condition that both of them would donate half of the value to charity upon its sale. It was revealed later that PM Lee had donated all of his proceeds from the sale to charity.
His sister Lee Wei Ling then put out a bold statement on Facebook titled What Has Happened To Lee Kuan Yew’s Values that contradicted PM Lee’s account of events. In one of her posts, she accused him of threatening to gazette the house as a national monument after the will was read. Her brother Lee Hsien Yang’s version the story also corroborated with his sister’s, saying that their eldest brother and his wife, Ho Ching, had opposed the demolition.
The documents, along with screenshots of email correspondences released by Lee Hsien Yang and Lee Wei Ling, (who we’ll henceforth refer to as “the siblings”), hinted that the dispute actually began while LKY was still alive.
What happened in 2011?
Despite having gone public about his wishes for the house in 2011, the house was subject to a government deliberation over whether it should be conserved for historical reasons (because no one really owns anything in Singapore).
The Cabinet wanted the house to be preserved due to its historical significance and in later discussions, according to PM Lee, his father had agreed to preserve the building.
PM Lee also wrote a letter after a July 2011 meeting with the Cabinet saying, “Cabinet members were unanimous that 38, Oxley Road should not be demolished as I wanted. I have reflected on this and decided that if 38, Oxley Road is to be preserved, it needs to have its foundations reinforced and the whole building refurbished. It must then be let out for people to live in. An empty building will soon decline and decay.”
Apparently, LKY also was also a-okay with renovation works on the house commencing.
Confused yet? We are too.
Reno work, URA, will amendments and all the in-laws
In January 2012 (yes, while LKY is still alive), PM Lee’s wife Ho Ching sent an e-mail to LKY and the rest of the family setting out the renovation plans in detail. The ‘rest of the family’ included Lee Wei Ling, Lee Hsien Yang and his wife, Lee Suet Fern.
The plans were to retain the house’s external structure and basement but to change the internal layout and private living spaces to protect the family’s privacy.
The detailed architectural plans were then approved by LKY for submission to the Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA) and by May 2012, URA’s approval was obtained.
During this period, LKY also amended his will to remove a previous demolition clause.
His last will, made in 2013, reinstated the demolition clause (drafted by Lee Hsien Yang’s wife Lee Suet Fern) which was absent in the fifth and sixth wills and also reinstated an equal share among the siblings.
In documents submitted by the siblings, LKY had initialed beneath the demolition clause and personally drafted a codicil (supplement to revoke previous versions) to his will in January 2014, meaning that he knew about these amendments.
Secret government committees
One of the biggest allegations made by the siblings was that their brother the PM had secretly set up a ministerial committee that would look into the validity of the demolition clause inserted into their father’s last will.
Lee Hsien Yang and Lee Wei Ling claimed that the committee requested statements and information from them. PM Lee also submitted his statutory declaration to the committee in 2017. He has also denied the siblings’ allegations about the committee’s objectives – and of its “secret” nature.
Then Deputy Prime Minister Teo Chee Hean revealed that there was a committee, comprising him, Law and Home Affairs Minister K. Shanmugam, then national development minister Lawrence Wong, and then youth and culture minister Grace Fu, created to review the dispute. He said that it was just like any other committee the Cabinet sets up to tackle specific issues.
Teo released letters proving that they contacted the siblings in July 2016 stating they were looking into the fate of the house on 38 Oxley Road and were also trying to find out what LKY’s thoughts on the issue were.
Self-imposed exile and more emotional FB posts
Since the committee was “set up”, the siblings have claimed that it had started to affect their lives and families.
There are a couple of FB posts by the siblings and also their children which give insight into how the issue has affected them.
Li Shengwu, the son of Lee Hsien Yang, said that he was being prosecuted by the Singapore Attorney General’s Chambers (AGC) “for years” and had been accused of “scandalising the judiciary”.
In a special sitting of Parliament in 2017, PM Lee said that he did not want to publicize the family matter and did not want to go down the legal route of suing his siblings. By then, the feud had become public and the allegations spiraled into a matter regarding the “conduct and integrity of the Government and our public institutions”.
The siblings also agreed to stop posting attacks on FB and work privately to resolve the family matter.
As of 2018, the ministerial committee set up to weigh options about the future of the house revealed that no recommendations had been made as Lee Wei Ling is still residing there.
What’s happening in 2023?
Wait, it’s not over?
On Mar. 2, Senior Minister Teo Chee Hean made a statement regarding an e-book that had published about the dispute over the house.
Titled The Battle Over Lee Kuan Yew’s Last Will, he said that the book by author Sudhir Thomas Vadaketh contained several inaccuracies and was misleading.
Teo’s office put out a whole document listing all of the alleged inaccuracies, one of them being that Lee Hsien Yang and his wife Lee Suet Fern have been “cleared of all suspicion of improper motives or manipulations vis-a-vis Lee Kuan Yew and his will”. According to the document, the Court of Three Judges and a disciplinary tribunal have not cleared the couple of all impropriety and ruled that they had lied under oath and acted dishonestly.
The two are still under police investigation.
(After these incidents came to light, a Singapore comic artist posted an original idea for a board game based on the saga.)
More surprisingly, Lee Hsien Yang hinted in an interview with Bloomberg that a lot of people have approached him to run for president in the upcoming presidential elections.
“It’s something I would consider,” he said.
Shortly after that, he shared a raw and emotional post on Facebook titled ‘Singapore – My Country’ describing his disappointment over how it has all turned out. In the post, he said, “We have lost our lives in Singapore, our home, our friends, our wider families and our society.”
He also touched on Lee Wei Ling’s health and said that she is now “extremely unwell” and he fears that he will never be able to see her in person again.
Currently, he and his wife and are residing in Europe.
Do you think we will see another showdown and, most importantly, do we want to be subjected to another one?
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