Whatever you may think of Lee Kuan Yew, Singapore’s first prime minister, the fact remains that he is and will be the symbol of Singapore for many years to come.
Lee Kuan Yew is more recognised and iconic, one might argue, than the 78-metre Control Tower at Changi Airport, or the Merlion located at One Fullerton, or the Gardens by the Bay.
The name “Lee Kuan Yew” itself is synonymous with Singapore.
And so his death has brought about an upsurge of interest in all things having to do with the man – from his books to his DVDs, from his personal belongings and personal stories, to his home and whether it should be demolished, as he had requested and indeed willed.
The last has become such an issue of public interest and concern that Lee’s younger son and daughter have issued a statement to clarify and reiterate their late father’s wishes regarding the matter.
The siblings’ statement disclosed what Lee had said in his will:
“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.”
The two children then said:
“Our father has made public this wish on many occasions, including in his book Hard Truths to Keep Singapore Going. In addition, both our parents have expressed this same wish with respect to our family home to their children in private on numerous occasions. Indeed, he stated in his Lee Kuan Yew Will that ‘My view on this has been made public before and remains unchanged’.”
You can read the full statement by Lee’s two children here: “Statement by Lee Hsien Yang and Lee Wei Ling, urging the will of Lee Kuan Yew to be respected”.
As the children’s statement said, Lee had indeed declared his preference on several occasions.
"I've told the Cabinet, when I'm dead, demolish it," Lee had said in the abovementioned book.
"I don't think my daughter or my wife or I, who lived in it, or my sons who grew up in it, will bemoan its loss. They have old photos to remind them of the past," he said.
"I've seen other houses, Nehru's, Shakespeare's. They become a shambles after a while," he said, the former referring to India's independence hero Jawaharlal Nehru.
Lee had also once decried how old British buildings cost millions of pounds a year to upkeep, and how some are so run down they are infested with termites.
What then is the reason for Lee’s insistence that his house, which clearly interests many people, be torn down?
Well, the reason seems to be quintessential Lee – pragmatism.
"Because of my house the neighbouring houses cannot build high,” he told the interviewers for his book. “Now demolish my house and change the planning rules, go up, the land value will go up.”
So, it is because Lee wants his neighbours to benefit from the potential increase in the value of their properties.
One would say it is typical Lee.
But perhaps matters are so no simple. In fact, when it comes to Lee, few things are straightforward, even though the man himself was a straight talker.
Lee’s house was the site of several events which took place at a historically significant time leading to Singapore’s statehood and thereafter.
It was, for example, the venue of many meetings of the People’s Action Party (PAP), meetings which would have momentous consequences for Singapore.
And with the passing of most of the old guards of Singapore’s founding political leadership, such historical sites have become important for what is essentially still a fledgling nation which celebrates its 50th year of independence this August.
If nothing else, the house of Lee will be a symbol of the struggle of a people for self-identity.
Lee himself, in fact, realised the importance of preserving such old buildings or sites of heritage and history.
He said in 1995:
“We made our share of mistakes in Singapore. For example in our rush to rebuild Singapore, we have knocked down many old and quaint Singapore buildings. Then we realized we were destroying a valuable part of our cultural heritage that we were demolishing what tourists found attractive and unique in Singapore. We halted the demolition. Instead, we undertook extensive conservation and restoration of ethnic districts such as Chinatown, Little India and Kampong Glam and of the civic district, with its colonial era buildings: the Empress Place, old British Secretariat, Parliament House, the Supreme Court, the City Hall, the Anglican Cathedral, and the Singapore Cricket Club.
“The values of these areas in architectural, cultural and tourism terms cannot be quantified only in dollars and cents.
“We were a little late, but fortunately we have retained enough of our history to remind ourselves and tourists of our past. We also set out to support these attractions by offering services of the highest standard.”
Ironically, Lee’s house could be one of the most important buildings in Singapore, in terms of its physical existence and its historical importance.
And he wasn’t all against its preservation, actually.
“If our children are unable to demolish the House as a result of any changes in the law, rules or regulations binding them,” Lee said in his will, “it is my wish that the House never be opened to others except my children, their families and descendants.”
One can only wonder why Lee would insist on such a condition.
Perhaps he does not want to be an idol of worship, something which he had disavowed when he was alive. Or he does not want himself and/or his house of more 70 years – an intimate home which he shared with his wife and children – to be turned into a tourist attraction to be gawked at.
These reasons would be reasonable and understandable.
Still, the question remains: should his house be preserved?
There is every reason to do so.
Should it be accessible to the public?
Perhaps not at the moment, since Lee had just passed and it is only right that we observe and respect his wish.
Perhaps in the distant future, when enough time has passed, his future generation would decide to open it to the public. It is right to leave such a decision to Lee’s family.
But it should not be demolished because the history of the house, even as it belongs to Lee, also belongs to the nation.
Thus preserve the physical house, but allow future generation of Lee’s descendants to decide to open it to the public.
“We were a little late, but fortunately we have retained enough of our history to remind ourselves and tourists of our past.”
The above article was first published on Public Opinion.