SINGAPORE: The ministerial committee tasked with considering options for Mr Lee Kuan Yew’s family home will not decide what to do with the property. Instead, it prepares “drawer plans of various options” and their implications so that a future Government can make an informed decision when the time comes to decide on the matter.
Deputy Prime Minister Teo Chee Hean said this in his speech in Parliament on Monday (Jul 3). Mr Teo, who is chair of the committee on the property at 38 Oxley Road, was the second to speak after Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong.
Mr Teo said it was also made clear to Mr Lee Hsien Yang and Dr Lee Wei Ling that neither the committee nor Cabinet will be making any decision. “There is no decision required so long as Dr Lee continues staying in the house. This is what Mr Lee wanted and expressed in his will,” Mr Teo said.
He said while it may take as long as 30 years before a decision is made, it would be useful to have studied the different options should Dr Lee choose to leave earlier. In this instance, the current Cabinet would then have to decide what to do.
Mr Teo also said the committee does not take an “either or” approach, and has no pre-conceived notion that the house must be kept as is, or totally demolished.
OXLEY ROAD COMMITTEE LIKE “NUMEROUS” OTHERS: DPM TEO
Mr Teo also moved to clear the air on why the committee’s existence was not announced, saying the Cabinet sets up committees from time to time to study specific issues, such as on smart nation and digital government, population, national research and climate change.
“We even have a task force now looking at infant formula,” he said. “We would rarely need to announce the formation of such committees, as they often relate to internal working processes and coordination within Government.”
Mr Teo said like Cabinet committees set up by other governments, these committees ultimately report to the Cabinet, which then operates on the principle of “collective Cabinet responsibility”.
“This is an important consideration – that is, that members of Cabinet may have differing perspectives, but once Cabinet decides, members take collective responsibility for the decision. This remains a valid consideration for us,” Mr Teo said.
GOVT’S RESPONSIBILITY TO CONSIDER PROPERTIES WITH HISTORICAL SIGNIFICANCE: DPM TEO
Turning to the specific work involved, Mr Teo laid out three aspects of the committee’s terms of reference. He said the Government had to get involved in this matter because it has a responsibility to consider the public interest aspects of any property with historical and heritage significance.
“(It has) ... a range of powers to gazette or acquire property,” Mr Teo said. “I should emphasise that Government not only has the legal powers to act, but indeed the responsibility to decide what to do. Government cannot outsource decision-making on this. Ultimately, the Government of the day has to decide and carry the decision.”
And in doing this, Mr Teo said it has to carefully consider the merits for each property to be preserved or conserved. He said 72 buildings and structures are gazetted as national monuments, some of which were private residences, while more than 7,000 buildings have been conserved.
In some cases, Mr Teo said some property owners argued to retain the buildings, while in other cases, owners who applied for redevelopment but were directed to conserve the buildings instead had to forego financial gains they might have otherwise reaped. He said the same public interests and considerations would apply to 38 Oxley Road.
LEE KUAN YEW’S THOUGHTS ON THE HOUSE
Mr Teo said the second aspect of the committee’s work has to do with paying particular attention to Mr Lee Kuan Yew’s wishes, even as it looks at the options. And here, he said, is where it sought views from Mr Lee’s children.
On Jul 27 last year, the committee wrote to them to invite them to share their views on Mr Lee’s thinking on the property. These could be circumstances relating to his thinking “beyond what had already been stated in public”.
“The siblings wrote to us, providing differing views, including on the drafting of the last will,” Mr Teo said. “We then provided each party two opportunities to comment on the views of the other party. Indeed, the fact that the committee received differing views showed how essential it was that we had sought the views of the siblings on Mr Lee’s wishes and thinking.”
LEE HSIEN YANG CONTINUES TO REPEAT ALLEGATIONS WHILE IGNORING REPLIES
Mr Teo said despite the responses provided by his press secretary on Sunday, Mr Lee Hsien Yang continues to ignore them, and repeated the same “baseless” allegations on Monday. He said Mr Lee seemed unhappy that the committee had posed to him questions which he might have found uncomfortable.
For example, Mr Teo said it would have been a significant omission had the committee not asked the siblings for their views. This would have resulted in Mr Lee and Dr Lee becoming “justifiably upset” that the Government had not given them an opportunity to make their views and clarifications known.
COMMITTEE’S INTEREST TO GET THE FULL PICTURE
Mr Teo said the committee’s only interest is to get a full picture of Mr Lee Kuan Yew’s thinking on the property. He added that it is not for the committee to decide whose claims are valid, nor is it its place where decisions on the legal validity of the last will can be made. This point, he said, had been explained to Mr Lee Hsien Yang and Dr Lee Wei Ling on Apr 25 this year.
In addition, Mr Teo said the committee had explained that responses were voluntary. He said there was no need for any party to respond if they did not wish to do so, but their views would be useful. Mr Teo said Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, for example, had provided his representations in the form of three statutory declarations.
DIFFERENCES OF VIEWS AROSE BEFORE COMMITTEE’S FORMATION: DPM TEO
Mr Teo also said that soon after Mr Lee’s death, allegations of “dynastic ambitions” and “abuse of power” were already being made to people in smaller circles. This was before the formation of the committee in June last year.
In April 2016, for example, Mr Teo said Dr Lee Wei Ling made a public post making such allegations.
“Saying that the committee has ‘pushed’ Mr Lee Hsien Yang to take these allegations public, therefore does not conform to the facts and chronology. I am not in a position to opine why Mr Lee Hsien Yang now makes such a claim, and his motivation for doing so,” Mr Teo said.
He said he also met Mr Lee Hsien Yang five times in 2015, and once more in April last year, to speak on a range of issues before the committee was formed. Mr Teo said that in a meeting on Apr 27, 2015, they spoke about various possibilities for the property.
This is also where Mr Teo informed Mr Lee Hsien Yang he would personally not support options at either end of the range, from preserving the house as is for visitors to enter, and on the other extreme, demolishing the house and putting the property on the market.
Mr Teo told Parliament the committee has studied various intermediate options such as demolishing the house but keeping the basement dining room with an appropriate heritage centre attached.
The Deputy Prime Minister also said Mr Lee Hsien Yang acknowledged that no decision is needed now as Dr Lee Wei Ling is still living in the house, and that this is also the position of the Government. Given all these reasons, Mr Teo said there is no reason to disagree with studying the various possible options.
Mr Teo said while there is no urgency to complete these studies within a specified time frame, he will consult his colleagues to see if it is useful to put out a range of possibilities to let the public ponder on the matter without having to arrive at a decision.
“In the coming days, we will fully debate the specific allegations that have been made against the Government, and examine whether there is any substance behind them,” Mr Teo said.
He urged MPs to ask the Cabinet “probing questions” on the allegations, and clear any doubts they may have.
But even as they do this, Mr Teo said he hoped members would leave enough room for private issues to be worked through within the family.
CODE OF CONDUCT FOR PUBLIC APPOINTMENT HOLDERS, CIVIL SERVANTS
Mr Teo said public institutions must be kept neutral and not have allegations hurled at public officers. To that end, he said both ministers and MPs are aware that their conduct must be “above board”.
The code of conduct for ministers was last revised before Parliament in 2005, and ministers and other political appointment holders are notified of this code. Mr Teo said the code clearly states that a minister must not direct or request a civil servant to do anything or perform any function that is in conflict with the civil service’s values of incorruptibility, impartiality and integrity.
Mr Teo said the code also sets out guidelines on what constitutes private interest, and requires ministers to disclose these interests, while stating they should not influence or support issues in which they have a personal stake.
The public service is also guided by a code of conduct that details principles and rules they must abide by.
“We must not shy away from dealing decisively with the public issues which go to the heart of our system of clean and honest Government and we must do so for the good of Singapore,” Mr Teo said. “At the end of this session, Singaporeans should have their confidence in the honesty of our Government and our public officers strengthened.”
He said the Government makes decisions in the public interest of Singaporeans and does not “bend to the private demands of individuals, no matter who they are, or what family connections they can claim”.