by Ngiam Shih-Tung
Many commentators have said that Lee Kuan Yew (LKY) left a ‘mixed legacy’ for Singapore. Little did we know that his house would literally be a mixed legacy. The house was left entirely to Lee Hsien Loong (LHL) but with a demolition clause and another statement in the will that ‘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, what are we to make of LKY’s intentions ? The overall estate was divided equally and Lee Weiling (LWL)’s emails suggest that she got a house in Cluny outright. It is far easier to manage a property with one owner than multiple owners, and the value of each child’s share of the overall estate can be equalised by division of other assets, so the bequest to LHL could simply have been purely a pragmatic decision, intended to make it easier for LHL to dispose of the house eventually. Or was it intended to give LHL the final say on what was to be done with the house ? Yet the inclusion of the demolition clauses suggests that LKY had strong feelings on preventing the house from becoming a museum.
Of course, the government has very far-reaching powers with regard to land in Singapore, but in this case, it may be very difficult for the government to use the Oxley Road site as a memorial to LKY, if that is its’ intention. The first legal weapon the government could use would be to declare the site a National Monument. That would forestall demolition, but it would not compel the owner – now Lee Hsien Yang (LHY) – to open it to the public. And if it is not open to the public, it cannot be used as a center for a personality cult. Hence we see the significance of LKY adding the admonition not to open the house to others except his descendants into his will.
The other problem is that by all accounts, the house is falling apart. If the public is allowed in, it’s quite likely that far from being awed, they will say, “That’s it ??” and start to lose faith. 38 Oxley Road in its current state is not suitable as a memorial. For the site to be able to inspire future generations of Singaporeans, the government would have to acquire the site and build a new memorial befitting of the Founding PM. In other words, the current house would have to be demolished. But if the house is to be demolished, it would be very difficult for the Law Minister to make a case for compulsory acquisition. Why not just build the Memorial somewhere else ? That leaves buying the house from LHY by private treaty. Except that LHY won’t sell. Unless, perhaps, means can be found to persuade him to change his mind.
The more basic question is whether preserving the house or building a memorial there would be of any political advantage to the People's Action Party (PAP). Honestly, I don’t think so. LKY’s feelings on those subjects are well-known so the only way for them to claim that it was not in violation of his wishes is to say that he got senile towards the end. But that would go against the point of a personality cult, wouldn't it ?
There are no good options for the government (or LHL - is there a difference ?) with regards to the house. If they use the Preservation of Monuments Act, LHY will lock it out of public view. If they compulsorily acquire it to build a memorial, the question will be, why there ? Why not somewhere else ?
This was first published as a FB post on Ngiam's Facebook page