SINGAPORE: As a property with architectural or heritage merit, the Oxley Road family home of founding Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew should follow the due process of conservation or preservation, said Minister for National Development Lawrence Wong.
Speaking in Parliament on Monday (Jul 3) after a ministerial statement by Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong which addressed allegations centred on the house made by his younger siblings, Mr Wong said: “The Government undertakes a rigorous assessment process for all such properties before deciding whether or not to conserve or preserve them.”
This includes detailed research by agencies on the historical, cultural, social and religious significance of the property, its national importance, as well as its architectural merits and rarity.
The agencies will then look into planning considerations for the property and its surroundings, while reviewing allowable uses of the site.
They may also consider the need for the Government to acquire the property. “If the intent is to have significant public access, and the owner is not prepared to do so, then one option is to acquire the site,” said Mr Wong.
In the entire assessment process, views will also be sought from the property owner as well as relevant professionals and subject matter experts.
If the Government decides to pursue conservation or preservation, the property owner will be given the opportunity to respond. “Based on past cases, the vast majority of owners would agree,” said Mr Wong. “A few have appealed. But the final decision… lies with the Government.”
In the case of 38 Oxley Road, various agencies worked on it prior to the formation of the ministerial committee, he revealed.
“NHB (National Heritage Board) has been documenting the historical significance of the house. MND and URA have been looking at the planning and zoning implications under various scenarios,” he said. “This work was being done at the staff level. Later, in discussing the matter with DPM Teo and various ministerial colleagues, we agreed that it would be useful to have a Ministerial Committee to coordinate the work across agencies and to oversee the matter... The ministerial committee has no preconceived notion on what to do with the house.
“But the current Government has a duty to do the work now, list out all the options, and prepare ahead for the implications of each of them. That is the right and responsible thing to do.”
DEED OF GIFT ISSUE “HANDLED CORRECTLY AND ABOVE BOARD”
Mr Wong was the Minister for Culture, Community and Youth when the Deed of Gift was issued in 2015 between executors of the estate of the late Mr Lee Kuan Yew and NHB.
The deed involved a donation of 38 Oxley Road artefacts to an SG50 exhibition about Singapore’s founding leaders. It included “several unusual conditions”, said Mr Wong, echoing earlier points made by PM Lee.
One of these was the requirement for NHB to display only the first part of the demolition clause in Mr Lee Kuan Yew’s will, which sets out his wish to demolish the house, but not the second - which sets out his wishes if the house could not be demolished due to any changes in the law, rules or regulations.
“At that time, NHB did not pick up the significance of this partial quote from the demolition clause,” said Mr Wong. He noted that Mr Lee Hsien Yang’s wife, Ms Lee Suet Fern, was then a director on the NHB board and involved in the discussions.
“She supported the conditions stipulated by the executors in the deed, and her law firm Morgan Lewis Stamford LLC helped in the process of finalising the deed,” he said.
“While the terms were unusual, NHB proceeded to sign the deed with the executors because it recognised the heritage significance of the artefacts and felt that it would be in the public interest for them to be exhibited. NHB also assessed that several of the objects were in a deteriorated condition and required immediate care and conservation.”
Mr Wong then shared a copy of the deed with PM Lee, who felt that the terms of the deed were onerous on the NHB, said Mr Wong. “He told me that as a beneficiary of the estate, his consent for the donation had not been sought,” he added.
If PM Lee had asked for the deed of gift in his private capacity, NHB would have been entitled to give it to him, given his position as eldest son and beneficiary of the estate, said Mr Wong.
“NHB was caught in a difficult position,” said Mr Wong. “It had signed the deed and accepted the gifts. But it was not clear if the executors were properly empowered to enter into the deed without first consulting all beneficiaries. This also raises questions about the validity of the agreement."
Mr Wong and NHB then decided to postpone the display of the Oxley Road artefacts, but Mr Lee Hsien Yang responded by saying this was “unacceptable” and “a breach of a legally binding deed”.
When NHB sought to clarify if there were any other beneficiaries entitled to Mr Lee Kuan Yew’s estate and if their consent had been obtained, Mr Lee Hsien Yang did not address the question but said the board “should not be concerned about the position of the beneficiaries under the will”.
Mr Wong said he worked with Deputy Prime Minister Teo Chee Hean throughout the entire matter. “After weighing all the factors, and considering that NHB had already signed the deed, both DPM Teo and I agreed that the pluses of having the exhibition with the Oxley Road artefacts in accordance with the deed outweighed the potential controversy that was likely to arise,” he explained.
He said PM Lee later wrote to his siblings that despite his misgivings, he would not object to the exhibition “as he did not want to put NHB in a difficult position”.
“Despite his personal reservations … the Prime Minister did not instruct me to stop the display of the Oxley Road artefacts in the exhibition. Instead, he asked me to take instructions from DPM Teo on the matter, and that was how the matter was handled,” said Mr Wong.
“Contrary to this being an abuse of power, the matter was handled correctly and above board.”