SINGAPORE: A difference in views between siblings, rather than “substance”, is a possible reason for the dispute surrounding the 38 Oxley Road house of late founding prime minister Lee Kuan Yew, said his eldest son and Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong on Monday (Jul 3).
On Jun 14, Mr Lee Hsien Yang and Dr Lee Wei Ling alleged their brother Hsien Loong had misused his powers to prevent the house’s demolition as last willed by their father. PM Lee has denied the allegations and publicly apologised to Singaporeans.
On Monday he opened a ministerial statement in Parliament with a recap of Mr Lee Kuan Yew’s decision-making process for the house, noting that in 2011 his father had approved a proposal to renovate rather than demolish the property.
PM Lee next revealed the events which took place after his father’s death on Mar 23, 2015.
The latter’s last will was read to the siblings on Apr 12, with 38 Oxley Road given to PM Lee and the Demolition Clause included, with one paragraph reading:
“I further declare that it is my wish and the wish of my late Wife, Kwa Geok Choo, that our house at 38 Oxley Road, Singapore 238629 (“The House”) be demolished immediately after my death, or if my daughter Wei Ling, would prefer to continue living in the original house, immediately after she moves out of the House. I would ask each of my children to ensure our wishes with respect to the demolition of the House be carried out.
“If our children are unable to demolish the House as a result of any changes in the laws, rules or regulations binding them, it is my wish that the House never be opened to others except my children, their families and descendants.”
“My view on this has been made public before and remains unchanged. My statement of wishes in this paragraph 7 may be publicly disclosed notwithstanding that the rest of my Will is private.”
The next day, said PM Lee, he had to speak in Parliament on how to honour his father, with 38 Oxley Road “bound to come up” on the agenda.
“I was personally in a difficult position, because I am both Mr Lee’s son and the Prime Minister. So at the reading of the will, I discussed with my siblings what I could say about the house in Parliament.”
“There was a difference of views. Hsien Yang for the first time objected to the renovation plans that my father had approved. He wanted the house to be knocked down immediately,” said PM Lee. “This was a complete surprise to me. I pointed out that his position now was different from what the family had discussed and agreed on.”
PM Lee also said he wanted to read out in Parliament his father’s Dec 27, 2011 letter to Cabinet stating his view on what to do with the house if it were to be preserved, along with the Demolition Clause in full.
“My brother and his wife objected strenuously. But I decided that I had to do so, and said so,” he recalled. “So that my father’s views would be on record, and Singaporeans could know accurately what his thinking had been.”
PM Lee said he went ahead to read out the two items in Parliament, and stated then that “as a son I wanted to see my father’s wishes carried out”.
“I told Parliament that since my sister was going to continue living in 38 Oxley Road, there was no immediate issue of demolition and no need for Government to make any decision now,” said PM Lee. “As and when my sister was no longer living there, the Government of the day would consider the matter.”
“WHY IS THERE STILL AN ARGUMENT?”
PM Lee said that after this Parliament session, he took steps to recuse himself from all Government decisions relating to 38 Oxley Road, placing Deputy Prime Minister Teo Chee Hean in charge instead.
He said he also divested himself of the house.
“Soon after the Parliament Sitting, I learned that my siblings were unhappy that I was getting the house. I was not sure why, but I thought the best way to resolve the matter was to transfer the house to them,” he said.
PM Lee said an initial offer to transfer the house to Dr Lee Wei Ling for a nominal sum of S$1 fell through. A subsequent proposal to sell the house to Mr Lee Hsien Yang at fair market value was successful.
“We also agreed that my brother and I would each donate half the value of the house to charity. We both did so, and in addition I topped up another half myself – in other words I myself gave away the full value of the house that I had inherited. And together, my brother and I have donated one and a half times the value of the house to charity,” said PM Lee.
“And that complicated arrangement substantially addressed a major concern of mine: that was our family be seen not to be benefitting financially from 38 Oxley Road, either through receiving compensation from the State for acquisition or resisting acquisition or preservation, conservation, to profit by redeveloping and selling the property.”
PM Lee said that with the discussions made while his father was alive, coupled with the events after his passing, “there is no longer, in substance, anything for my siblings and me to dispute over on the matter of the house”.
“We all want our father’s personal wish to be carried out, which is to knock the house down,” he noted. “I no longer have any interest in the house. My brother now owns it. I do not take part in in any Government decisions on the house.”
“So why is there still an argument? I really am not sure, but one possible factor may be a difference in views between me and my siblings.”
“My siblings’ view is that my father absolutely wanted to demolish the house, with no compromise,” said PM Lee. “They point to the first half of the Demolition Clause as evidence. They say that if he considered any alternatives, that was only because he was under duress, because the Government had the power to prevent him or his heirs from knocking it down.”
“My view is that while my father wanted the house to be demolished, he was prepared to consider alternatives should the Government decide otherwise.”
“Indeed, he put it in writing, and approved alternative architectural plans which were submitted to URA and approved by URA, as I explained earlier,” he continued. “Next, we have to look at the full Demolition Clause, and not just the first half, and the full clause shows that my father did accept alternatives.”
“Further, I have pointed out some unusual circumstances surrounding how the last will was prepared, which are relevant because of the weight that my siblings put on the Demolition Clause in the last will.”
“Despite this difference in views, I still see no need for argument. I have submitted my views to the Ministerial Committee. My siblings have submitted theirs. We have commented on each other’s views. I will leave it in the good hands of the Committee.”
Added PM Lee: “In any case, the Government has stated that the Committee will not make any decisions on the house, and will not even recommend any decisions on the house to Cabinet.”
“The Committee will only list options for the house, so that when a decision does become necessary one day, perhaps decades from now, the Cabinet of the day, most likely by then under a different Prime Minister, will have these options available to consider.”
“There is therefore no reason at all for anybody to feel ‘pushed into a corner’ by the Committee, as my brother has claimed to be.”