SINGAPORE: The purpose of the Ministerial Committee tasked to look into future options for 38 Oxley Road is not to replace the work of relevant Government agencies but to provide coordination and oversight into the matter.
Deputy Prime Minister Teo Chee Hean, who is also the Committee’s chair, said this in Parliament on Tuesday (Jul 4) on the second day of the debate on the allegations of abuse of power over the Lee family home. Questions had been posed by various PAP and opposition members on Monday into why there was a need to set up a separate committee, rather than letting agencies such as the Ministry of National Development (MND) and the Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA) look at the issue.
Mr Teo said MND and URA have been studying options for the property, including planning and zoning implications. At the same time, the National Heritage Board (NHB) has been documenting the historical significance of the house.
“The assessment of buildings of significance is an inter-agency effort, where various Government agencies will do the baseline research work,” Mr Teo said.
“The establishment of a Ministerial Committee merely seeks to improve coordination and oversight on the matter. This also does not preclude the conduct of consultations with heritage professionals and the public at a later stage.”
He also revealed why specifics into the composition of the Committee were not mentioned earlier - a point of contention for Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong’s siblings, Lee Hsien Yang and Dr Lee Wei Ling. Mr Teo said the Committee had informed them that “how the Committee functions is within the Cabinet’s prerogative to decide” because it could involve other members when needed.
Mr Teo said Dr Lee and Mr Lee Hsien Yang sent representations to all Cabinet members, which was not an issue. “In any case, should the Cabinet need to make a decision related to this matter, all Cabinet members, less PM, would be involved and collective Cabinet responsibility applies,” he said.
Mr Teo said this should put to rest allegations about the Committee, as the siblings knew about it, its scope of work and the fact that they knew neither the Committee nor the Government would make a decision on the house as long as Dr Lee continued to reside there. Mr Teo said both the siblings also knew the Committee was examining various options with “no pre-conceived ideas” of an outcome.
NHB DRAWN INTO PRIVATE DISAGREEMENT THROUGH DEED OF GIFT: DPM
Mr Teo also addressed the controversy surrounding the Deed of Gift for items belonging to Mr Lee Kuan Yew and which were donated to the National Heritage Board. The items were displayed for a major exhibition in September 2015.
Both the younger Lee siblings raised concerns into the way their brother, Prime Minister Lee Hsien long, acquired a copy of the document, and why NHB “breached” the legal document a day after signing it.
Reiterating the Government’s issues with the document, Mr Teo said the Deed of Gift came with unusual conditions, requiring the display of one part of Mr Lee’s wishes for the Oxley Road House, but not the whole paragraph.
The other was to do with the S$1 buy-back clause for the donated items.
“If the NHB is to be faulted for anything, it is that they were drawn, through the Deed of Gift, into this private disagreement,” Mr Teo said.
“NHB was being drawn into a private disagreement, and the exhibition - a major exhibition - was being used to put out only a part of Mr Lee’s wishes on the house. Members will recall that Mr Lee had said in his will that the whole paragraph could be made public so that his wishes on the matter could be made known.”
In the end, since the NHB had already signed the document, Mr Teo said he agreed with Minister Lawrence Wong that the government should proceed with it. “The point I am making is that contrary to this being an abuse of power, these were efforts to keep NHB, a public agency, and to keep a major public exhibition neutral. To keep them neutral in a matter which was then a private disagreement,” he said.
Mr Teo said the allegations of abuse of power by the Committee have no basis, and while it was not his place to delve into the siblings’ motivations on the allegations, he said they should not make such allegations “simply because they were unhappy or felt uncomfortable at being asked to volunteer their views and clarifications” on Mr Lee Kuan Yew’s wishes for the house.
Sharing some personal experiences, Mr Teo acknowledged Mr Lee Hsien Yang’s contribution to Singapore, during his time in the Singapore Armed Forces, and also in his private capacity.
“It is with deep sadness that the Hsien Yang I see now is not the Hsien Yang I knew. I see hurt and his strong emotions consuming him. I do not understand what underlying deep-rooted reasons there may be for this,” Mr Teo said.
“For Hsien Yang, I hope that these strong emotions that I see now in his heart will dampen over time, and that he will find peace and solace within himself. He has more to contribute to Singapore if he chooses to. I wish Hsien Yang and his family well, as I always have.”
Mr Teo said he wished Dr Lee Wei Ling happiness, after what must have been a “difficult” few years taking her of her parents while they were unwell.
LEE KUAN YEW’S LEGACY: HE ABIDED BY PROCESSES HE HELPED BUILD
Mr Teo said in the end, the Government has to carry out its responsibilities objectively, fairly and calmly, and this was a lesson taught by leaders like Mr Lee Kuan Yew.
“Mr Lee himself understood that he too had to abide by the processes and system that he helped build; and that the Government has a duty to consider the public interest and not just those of private individuals,” he said.
Mr Teo said Singaporeans may not have been written into Mr Lee’s will, but they have been left an even more previous and valuable asset.
“He left us Our Singapore, Our big House, which he worked together with us to build. And which we are all proud to call our home. This episode is a painful one for all of us. But I am confident that this big house we call Singapore will remain strong and robust,” Mr Teo said.
He said the foundations Mr Lee Kuan Yew and his generation of leaders put in firm foundations of robust processes and a system of governance that subsequent generations have strengthened, and something Singaporeans will continue to build on.