The house that Lee built

Dec 13 — 38 Oxley Road.  This is where the People’s Action Party took shape and where for decades one man chartered the course of our entire nation. More even than the Istana, this is a symbol of political and ideological power — the home of Mr Lee Kuan Yew.

On countless occasions on my way towards River Valley Road, taxi drivers have pointed it  out — some with awe, others with real anger — but all with a degree of deference; there he lives.

Yet for all the power it held, it is just a residence – not official in any sense but instead a private and personal home.

And that is at the core of a debate that is gripping Singapore. Now that Lee Kuan Yew is no longer with us, what should become of his home?

The man himself was emphatic in his wishes: “I’ve seen other houses, Nehru’s, Shakespeare’s. They become a shambles after a while. People trudge through. Because of my house, the neighbouring houses cannot build high.So demolish my house and change the planning rules, go up, the land value will go up.”

Singapore’s first prime minister and the man credited for the island state’s fantastic development was adamant that his house not be made into some kind of museum after he died. — Picture by AFP
Singapore’s first prime minister and the man credited for the island state’s fantastic development was adamant that his house not be made into some kind of museum after he died. — Picture by AFP

The sentiment makes you smile, doesn’t it? This is the same pragmatic temperament that allowed him to take our young country so far so fast.

But while demolishing an old residential structure in an area with such commercial potential might seem practical and in line with the efficiency he always espoused — there’s actually more to the issue than that.

Regardless of the wishes of the former prime minister, 38 Oxley Road is a building of immense national significance. It’s part of Singapore’s story and pragmatically speaking, part of our brand.

A place that people from around would visit to ogle the legacy of a man whose name is now a byword for development and progress.

Veteran Singaporean journalist PN Balji makes a compelling case when he argues that this isn’t simply a matter of the will of the deceased.  He argues that the more important reason for preservation is to show that Lee and his family are not above the laws of the land that the former PM so assiduously imposed on his citizens.

A layman’s reading of the law on preservation shows that 38 Oxley Road ticks all the boxes of a building worthy of keeping. It qualifies as an ‘architectural, historic, traditional and aesthetic’ building. On these grounds it would effectively be illegal to demolish it- regardless of the ex-owner’s wishes.

LKY — being who he is — had also prepared for this eventuality and said: “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.”

So even the indomitable Mr Lee acknowledged that the law might supersede his will. It’s really as if he left a final test for the nation — choosing between the institutions and laws he put in place and his own personal will. I think I know which one he would want to triumph.

Which is why I believe the house should be preserved and eventually opened to the public — not just his descendants. As a public monument, it would truly serve the nation.

Our history is the glue that holds this city together and gives us our identity. This home is one of the key bedrocks of our national story — of our young history.

Therefore, it must stay standing because keeping it serves the interest of the nation more than it serves the interests of one man and his family.

Some say, that to respect our founding father we must respect his legacy: and I couldn’t agree more. But I ask, what better way to honour his legacy than empowering the robust and intelligent institutions he built and putting the nation first.


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