SINGAPORE: The late Mr Lee Kuan Yew wanted to demolish his longtime residence at 38 Oxley Road but later became open to other possibilities, according to a report released on Monday (Apr 2) by a ministerial committee.
The bungalow’s status came under scrutiny in June last year after Mr Lee’s children, Dr Lee Wei Ling and Mr Lee Hsien Yang, accused their elder brother and current Singapore prime minister Lee Hsien Loong of using the house to “enhance his political capital”. A back-and-forth ensued, leading to a two-day parliamentary debate on the issue.
A year before, in June 2016, a ministerial committee was set up to explore various options for the house. It is chaired by Deputy Prime Minister Teo Chee Hean and excludes PM Lee, who had earlier recused himself from all Government decisions involving the property.
On the matter of Mr Lee’s thinking and wishes for the house, the committee concluded in its report: “Having looked at the objective evidence and the views expressed by the parties, the committee’s view is that Mr Lee’s preference was for the property to be demolished; Mr Lee was also aware that the Cabinet and others, including senior journalists, were opposed to demolition given the property’s historical and heritage value as well as their reading of public sentiments.
“In view of this, Mr Lee had further reflected on the matter and was prepared to accept options other than demolition, provided that suitable arrangements were made to ensure that the property was refurbished and kept in a habitable state; and the family’s privacy was protected,” read the report.
The committee said that in considering the “objective evidence”, it had placed emphasis on contemporaneous documents and statements made personally by Mr Lee. It also noted that PM Lee had provided the committee with letters and statutory declarations, as well as a file of supporting documentary evidence - including emails and letters from Mr Lee.
Dr Lee Wei Ling and Mr Lee Hsien Yang did not provide any documentary evidence, according to the committee.
DEMOLITION CLAUSE, CABINET LETTER
The committee said it found three components of the evidence “particularly useful”: The demolition clause in Mr Lee’s last will dated Dec 17, 2013; Mr Lee’s letter to Cabinet dated Dec 27, 2011; and renovation plans Mr Lee submitted to the Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA) in March 2012.
The clause states:
I further declare that it is my wish and the wish of my late wife ... that our house at 38 Oxley Road … (“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 law, 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 ... may be publicly disclosed notwithstanding that the rest of my Will is private.
The committee noted that while the first part “clearly” sets out Mr Lee’s wish for the property to be demolished, the second “specifies his wishes in the event demolition was not possible”.
“The clause contemplates more than one outcome, and acknowledges the possibility that demolition may not take place,” added the committee.
Mr Lee’s letter to Cabinet, meanwhile, states:
Cabinet members were unanimous that 38 Oxley Road should not be demolished as I wanted. I have reflected on this and decided 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.
This was sent after a meeting in July 2011 where Mr Lee presented his views on the property and also listened to that of Cabinet members. This letter was his last formal communication to the Cabinet on the Oxley house, said the committee.
“The letter acknowledges the property may be preserved, and his views if that were to happen,” it added.
RENOVATION AND REDEVELOPMENT
The committee also included in its report a timeline of events in 2012 centred on Mr Lee’s approval of renovation plans.
In January 2012, he first okayed detailed plans to entirely overhaul the interior living areas - to protect the family’s privacy - while retaining the external structure and the basement dining room.
These were sent in an email from PM Lee’s wife Ho Ching, and addressed to Mr Lee, Dr Lee Wei Ling and Mr Lee Hsien Yang and his wife Mrs Lee Suet Fern.
“These renovation plans appear to have been specifically prepared with conservation requirements in mind,” said the committee, pointing to how Mdm Ho had mentioned consulting on the matter with an architect - introduced by Mr Lee Hsien Yang. The architect had explained that conservation requirements “typically do not mean preserving the house in its entirety”.
In Mr Lee’s reply, he said: “it is for you all to decide whether you want to refurbish and stay or to rent out … Mama would not like (it) to become a museum for people to tramp through. If it is refurbished and rented out it is OK.”
A day later he sent another email to Mdm Ho, saying: “I have confidence in your judgment. Do what gives you maximum opportunities for later use."
Mr Lee then gave the thumbs-up for the architectural plans to be submitted to URA in March. They were approved by URA a month later, and when Mdm Ho relayed the news - to the same list of family members above - Mr Lee replied: “Nothing to follow up … Permission has been granted as I had previously signed in letters to them (URA)."
The committee noted that in May 2012, Mdm Ho recommended they follow up by working through structural details for the renovation. She volunteered to work with the architect and design team as Mr Lee’s representative.
Mr Lee’s reply was: “Noted. Proceed.”
READ: Dispute over 38 Oxley Road: A timeline of events