SINGAPORE: Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong on Monday (Jul 3) said his father, Singapore’s first prime minister Lee Kuan Yew, had in 2011 accepted a proposal to renovate rather than demolish the family home at 38 Oxley Road, which has since taken centrestage in an ongoing feud between PM Lee and his siblings.
On Jun 14, Mr Lee Hsien Yang and Dr Lee Wei Ling alleged their eldest brother had abused his powers to prevent the house’s demolition as last willed by their father, who resided in it from the 1940s until his death in 2015. PM Lee responded by denying the allegations, expressing disappointment over the airing of a “family matter” and apologising to Singaporeans for the public spat.
In a ministerial statement delivered to Parliament on Monday, he apologised again, reiterating that his siblings’ allegations are “entirely baseless”.
“But they have already damaged Singapore’s reputation,” he said. “And unrebutted, they can affect Singaporeans’ confidence in the Government.
“I know many Singaporeans are upset by this issue. They are tired of the subject, and wish it would end. I too am upset that things have reached this state.
“As your Prime Minister, I deeply regret that this has happened … As a son, I am pained at the anguish that this strife would have caused my parents to feel if they were still alive,” he added.
“I intend to clear the air today, to explain the matter fully and to answer all questions on the matter. I am not here to make a case against my siblings. Parliament is not the place for that.
“What is private, I will try to resolve privately. But what is public, I have to explain and render account.”
“BEST TO REDEVELOP 38 OXLEY ROAD STRAIGHT AWAY”: LKY
PM Lee then delved into a timeline of his family’s discussions on the house, acknowledging it would be an account from his perspective but promising “to be objective and factual”.
He said his father wrote to the Cabinet on Oct 27, 2010 to put on record his wish to demolish the 38 Oxley Road bungalow after his death. Mr Lee Kuan Yew repeated this position in the Hard Truths book published in January 2011.
But after this book was published, “there was a strong public pushback … Many Singaporeans did not agree with him”, noted PM Lee.
He said his father asked newspaper editors for their views in March 2011 and all expressed a desire for the house to be preserved.
“These were not the answers my father hoped to get,” said PM Lee. “My father then wanted to leave the decision to his children. But we told him that only he could decide. He then said his decision was to knock it down.
“I told him that in that case he should tell the editors, and put it on record. And so he did.”
On Jul 20, 2011, Mr Lee Kuan Yew wrote to the Cabinet again, repeating the same wish. The next day he met Cabinet ministers in person - who “were unanimous in expressing their opposition to knocking the house down”, said PM Lee.
“I was the only one who did not express a view, because I was both the son and the PM and therefore conflicted.
“After the meeting, my father continued to ponder over how to deal with the house. In fact even before the Cabinet meeting, he had been discussing with the family how to go about demolishing the house and redeveloping the site.”
PM Lee said his brother, Hsien Yang, then suggested the property be gifted to Singapore, subject to the condition it be demolished and a small public park be built in its place.
“I said that I thought this was worth considering, but I offered another option: To demolish the house and redevelop the site as my father wanted, but then to sell off the property and donate the proceeds to charity,” said PM Lee.
“I asked my father between the two which he preferred, and he replied the latter … He was a practical‐minded man.”
In August 2011, Mr Lee Kuan Yew willed 38 Oxley Road to his eldest son, and informed the family, said PM Lee.
“Ho Ching (PM Lee’s wife) and I knew my father’s wishes and also my mother’s feelings. We also knew how Cabinet and the public viewed the matter,” he recalled.
“We started discussing alternatives with my father, to see how best we could fulfil his wishes, in the event that the house could not be demolished.
“So Ho Ching and I came up with a proposal to renovate the house to change the inside completely,” PM Lee explained. “Demolish the private living spaces to preserve the privacy of the family, keep the basement dining room, which was of historical significance, strengthen the structure which was decaying, and create a new and separate living area, so that the house could be lived in.”
“My father accepted this proposal.”
PM Lee said that in December 2011, Mr Lee Kuan Yew told the family it was “best to redevelop 38 Oxley Road straight away” after his death, and do as proposed – to remove the private spaces and renovate the house without knocking it down.
On Dec 27, 2011, Mr Lee Kuan Yew wrote to Cabinet for the third time, stating “that if 38 Oxley Road is to be preserved, it needs to have its foundations reinforced and the whole building refurbished”.
“It must then be let out for people to live in. An empty building will soon decline and decay,” wrote the founding prime minister of Singapore.
PM Lee and his wife Ho Ching then proceeded along these lines, while keeping the family “fully informed of our considerations and our intentions” by emailing “everyone, including my father, my sister, my brother, his wife”.
“No one raised any objections to the plan,” said PM Lee. “My father met the architect, went through the proposal, and approved the scheme to reinforce the foundations and renovate the house.”
He added his father signed the authorisation to submit the development application to the Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA) on Mar 28, 2012, which URA approved on Apr 17, 2012.
“As far as I knew, that was how the family had settled the matter – rationally, amicably while Mr Lee was still alive … I heard nothing to the contrary until after my father died.”