SINGAPORE: The 120-year-old bungalow which was the bone of contention between Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong and his siblings Lee Wei Ling and Lee Hsien Yang has significant heritage, historical and architectural value, said the ministerial committee on 38 Oxley Road and the National Heritage Board (NHB) in a report on Monday (Apr 2).
The ministerial committee described the house as “a unique architectural type which is testament to its cosmopolitan past and the property is among the remaining few built in this style”.
The single-storey house was built in 1898 as one of a pair of bungalows. It was nicknamed “Castor” while its twin at 40 Oxley Road was nicknamed “Pollux”, after twin brothers in Greek and Roman mythology. "Castor" changed hands frequently then, a research report by the National Heritage Board said.
Among more than 200 old bungalows conserved in Singapore, 16 belong to the same Early Style and era as 38 Oxley Road. Its former twin bungalow at 40 Oxley Road has been demolished and redeveloped into three lots.
Later during the Japanese Occupation between 1942 and 1945, houses along Oxley Road were converted into comfort houses, the NHB found.
After the war, founding Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew and his new wife Kwa Geok Choo rented 38 Oxley Road, which was described as a “rambling house with five bedrooms and three others at the back which originally served as the servants' quarters". They paid 80 Straits dollars every month which went up to 118 Straits dollars by 1965, the report said.
The couple decided to buy the bungalow in 1965 when security became a concern and decided to fortify the house against threats such as arrests and assassination attempts, said NHB.
They added steel gates, additional brick walls and bullet-proof windows. Another house was also absorbed into the property, probably in the 1960s, to secure the back of the house after a police constable was shot dead there.
“THE UNDERGROUND” PLAYED A ROLE IN STOKING PAP’S FIRE
The ministerial committee’s report noted that the house was a familiar stomping ground for key political players in the 1950s, including former deputy prime minister Toh Chin Chye, Mr Samad Ismail who was the chief sub-editor of Utusan Melayu and unionist Fong Swee Suan.
"The Property was where meetings took place that led to the formation of the first independent government for Singapore, and altered the destiny of the country," the report said.
The house’s basement dining room, nicknamed “The Underground” was where the People’s Action Party was founded and the house functioned initially as its headquarters as the party “could not easily find places to rent as landlords were worried about upsetting the authorities”.
“Toh, Samad and Fong recalled that about 20 people huddled around the basement dining table for discussions. Dr Toh was the chairman and Lee Kuan Yew, the secretary and Lee Gek Seng, the assistant secretary. Lim Chin Siong, Fong and Devan Nair were among those who participated in the discussions,” the report said.
“These meetings were held secretly, as the internal security regulations then forbade such political meetings. Dr Toh recalled that Ong Eng Guan suggested burying the minutes of the meetings in the garden,” it added.
NHB also listed at least two other locations in the house where nationally significant events took place. First, the verandah where unionists and postal workers prepared posters and addressed election manifestos during the 1955 legislative assembly elections.
Second, the study where Mr Lee would work on the contents of his "red box" which he used to file papers in during his political career.
BUILDING’S STYLE IS ‘TESTAMENT TO ITS COSMOPOLITAN PAST’
The NHB report said that the house is built in the style of the Anglo-Indian bungalow but includes variations such as a raised-floor construction, verandahs and overhanging roof eaves to better suit Singapore’s tropical climate and the building’s location.
Built on a slope, the house has a single storey at the front but two storeys at its rear, with arched openings used to ventilate the basement space. Lofty ceilings and an additional jack roof were created to let hot air rise and escape, and to cool the house, the report said.
The verandah on 38 Oxley Road is described to be narrower than usual and is typically used for relaxation, entertainment and as a communal space. Part of the verandah was later enclosed and converted into a room.
The house also contains “a mix of features that were popular in bungalows of its time, and are not commonly found today” such as full-length French windows, fretted timber balusters, classical columns, pilasters and plinths, and vented grills that fill the arch masonry, the report said.
While the bungalow has gone through additions and alterations, the Ministerial Committee concluded that the original form and architectural character are largely intact.
“As the home of Mr Lee Kuan Yew, Singapore’s founding Prime Minister, 38 Oxley Road stands for the values that he and his wife exemplified both in their public and private lives – frugality and discipline in particular. The architectural simplicity of the house is reflective of the times, the site it sits on, as well as the values of its historic occupants,” said the NHB report.
READ: Dispute over 38 Oxley Road: A timeline of events