The flawed agenda of the Oxley House Ministerial Committee

The flawed agenda of the Oxley House Ministerial Committee

by Jeannette Chong-Aruldoss
I am troubled by the terms of reference for the Oxley House Ministerial Committee.  It looks to me that this Committee may be serving a personal vendetta instead of the public interest. Let me explain.
According to a Statement by Cabinet Secretary Mr Tan Kee Yong issued on 14 June 2017, this Committee was set up “to consider the options for 38 Oxley Road (the “House”), and the implications of those options. These included looking into various aspects, including the historical and heritage significance of the House, as well as to consider Mr Lee Kuan Yew’s thinking and wishes in relation to the House.”
According to DPM Teo Chee Hean in his statement release on 17 June 2017, the Government has the responsibility to consider the public interest aspects of any property with heritage and historical significance, and that this applies to the House. – I have no problem with that statement.
But DPM Teo Chee Hean then went on to say: “The Committee has thus been looking at the options available for 38 Oxley Road while paying particular attention to respecting Mr Lee Kuan Yew’s wishes for his house.”
What is the relevance of Mr Lee’s wishes for the House?
In considering the historical and heritage significance of the House, what is the relevance of Mr Lee Kuan Yew’s thinking and wishes for the House?
How are Singaporean interests served to find out whether Mr Lee Kuan Yew’s really wanted the House to be demolished or not?
Has it been the Government’s policy when considering the “public interest aspects of any property with heritage and historical significance”, to give weight to the wishes of the property’s deceased owner?
On the contrary, my own impression is that the Government would place public interest over the personal wishes of any property owner, let alone the wishes of its deceased owner.
The Oxley House saga is the first time I have heard our Government saying that it wants to understand and respect the wishes of the property’s deceased occupant, even to the extent of disregarding the wishes of the property’s current owner. Our present Government is so concerned with the fate of the House and the wishes of its deceased occupant, that it has formed a special Committee comprising four Ministers to look into those issues.
How is the public interest served by our top leaders spending their time to delve into one particular property and what its deceased’s occupant wished for it?
Granted that Mr Lee Kuan Yew is no ordinary Singaporean. But then again, how much time and effort is too much to spend on figuring out Mr Lee Kuan Yew’s wishes for the House.  How much a factor should Mr Lee Kuan Yew’s wishes bear on the Committee’s decision?
What are public interests?
I would have thought that the more important questions for the Government to consider are:

  • How the public would benefit from retaining the House?
  • What national ethos or shared value(s) would be served or expressed by retaining the House?
  • Conversely, will it serve to express a shared national value to demolish Oxley House?
  • How much would it cost the Government to upkeep the House if it is retained?
  • Besides the direct maintenance costs, what are the opportunity, economic or other indirect financial costs if the House is retained?
  • What would Singaporeans lose if the House is demolished?
  • What other options are available to similarly serve the public interest or national values (e.g. preserving history, heritage) besides retaining the House?

Instead of considering such questions, the Committee looks to be conducting an inquest on who actually prepared Mr Lee Kuan Yew’s Last Will and whether Mr Lee Kuan Yew really wanted his home to be demolished after his death.
I would have thought that the question whether to retain or demolish the House (or to carry out any other intermediate end) should be decided primarily on the benefits which the public would reap from the ultimate solution. Effort should be made to articulate the value proposition to Singaporeans would be obtained for each scenario. Acquire (or gazette the House under the relevant statute) if it benefits Singaporeans. Leave the House alone if the benefits to Singaporeans are not sufficient to warrant denial and encroachment of the current owner’s full property rights.
In the interest of serving the rule of law, the state should not interfere with the legal rights of property owners, unless justified by overriding public interests.  A heavy burden should lie on the state to justify encroaching on a citizen’s property rights on the basis of public interests.
In my books, the interests of the public are in terms of jobs, security, education, elderly, housing, medical, cost of living and so forth.  Since Independence, many Singaporeans have lost their properties and livelihoods [1] through compulsory acquisition laws to serve the national interests of providing affordable housing, amenities, public roads and infrastructure to Singaporeans. [2] Also, many iconic buildings and landmarks [3] have been demolished or are even now facing demolition[4] [5], in the process of meeting the needs of Singaporeans. Even century old graves have been exhumed to make way for housing development and public works.[6] But all of a sudden, we see a newfound interest in our Government to serve and preserve heritage and history when it comes to the House.
I am all for serving Singapore’s history and heritage. But it is not right to serve Singapore’s history and heritage only when it coincides with the political ends of the ruling party and to otherwise disregard artefacts from which no political mileage can be derived from preserving them. [7] Singapore’s history is much more than the political ascendency and achievements of the ruling party.  For this reason, when making recommendations or decisions on the fate of any building or property of potential historical significance, politicians should not be involved.  How can we tell if the politician is seeking to preserve an artefact that is closely linked to late leader in order to capitalise on its political significance on the pretext of serving the public interest?  It would be a huge disservice to Singaporeans to be given a distorted narrative of Singapore’s history.
The Oxley House saga is a family dispute between two opposing sets of siblings as to what should become of their parents’ home. To serve their personal vendettas, the rival camps have appealed to the public to decide the outcome on the basis “What Mr Lee Kuan Yew would have wanted”.
Unfortunately, the narrative fed to us by the mainstream media may have led Singaporeans to conflate Mr Lee Kuan Yew’s wishes with the Nation’s Interests.  According to this false linkage, it is in the National Interest to follow Mr Lee Kuan Yew’s wishes, so we need to know his wishes.
Actually, Mr Lee Kuan Yew’s wishes are personal to him, and so they are irrelevant in the consideration of public interests. Public interests centre on the Government’s responsibility to make our lives better.
The Committee has set off on a Hunt for the Author of Mr Lee Kuan Yew’s Last Will and on the Quest to seek his True Wishes. Will the answers they find make the lives of us ordinary Singaporeans better?

[1] E.g. Sungei Road flea market will soon close
[3] E.g. the old national library building
[4] E.g. Dakota Crescent flats
[5] E.g.
[6] E.g. Bukit Brown cemetery
[7] E.g. the buried fort at Katong Park

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