Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong had considered moving into the 38 Oxley Road property with his wife Ho Ching and their children in the event that demolishing the house was not an option.
This was disclosed on the second day of the trial of PM Lee’s defamation suit against TOC chief editor Terry Xu on earlier last Tuesday (1 December).
PM Lee’s defamation suit against Mr Xu pertains to an article published on TOC on 15 August last year titled “PM Lee’s wife, Ho Ching weirdly shares article on cutting ties with family members”.
The article contained alleged defamatory statements made by PM Lee’s siblings Mr Lee Hsien Yang and Dr Lee Wei Ling in relation to the 38 Oxley Road dispute.
In his cross-examination of PM Lee on 1 December, Mr Xu’s lawyer Lim Tean questioned if PM Lee had asked Mdm Ho how quickly he could move into the house.
The incident supposedly took place in front of his family members on 22 March 2015 when they were all gathered at 38 Oxley Road, a day before his father Lee Kuan Yew passed away.
PM Lee replied: “I think that is untrue. I cannot remember the conversation, but I do not believe I would have said such a thing.”
He then shifted the focus of his answer, positing that Mr Lim could have “subpoenaed people who could have confirmed that statement” for them to testify in court as witnesses, namely his siblings.
Mr Lim brought back the court’s attention to his earlier question, asking PM Lee if PM Lee and Mdm Ho’s alleged intention to move into 38 Oxley Road was part of the factor behind the breakdown in relations between PM Lee and his siblings in 2015.
PM Lee answered that such is his siblings’ account of events.
“I think that it was not my intention to press the matter that way … The reason that it came to that is that after my father had realised that the government was very likely to acquire the house, or conserve the house after he died, he had to think how to deal with this matter and how to preserve the privacy of his private spaces in the house, the living spaces,” he said.
PM Lee added that following the above, he and Mdm Ho had “developed a plan to renovate the interior of the house in order to change the private spaces”.
He said that he notified Cabinet in December 2011 that Mr LKY had reflected on the matter, following which the ministers — according to PM Lee — “were unanimous in their view that the house not be knocked down”.
Mr LKY, said PM Lee, had decided that should the house be preserved, “it should be reinforced for its foundations” and that “it should be renovated and it should be lived in and let out”.
“That is all in the bundle of documents,” he said.
On the next day during the trial, Mr Lim questioned PM Lee again if the latter had plans to move into 38 Oxley Road.
PM Lee replied that he did not intend to do so, adding that emails from December 2011 will explain how such a matter came about.
“When it was clear where the Cabinet stood and what the Cabinet was likely to do after my father passed away with the house, we began to think about what the fallback positions were if it was not possible for the house to be demolished.
“And the most important thing which needed to be preserved was the basement dining room because that is where the important meetings had taken place of the PAP in the early days,” he said.
The “private living spaces”, in particular, were the most crucial areas of the house which ought not to be open to the public because Mr LKY and PM Lee’s mother Kwa Geok Choo “guarded their privacy”.
“Therefore, if it is not possible to knock down the house and the dining room has to be preserved, then what can we do to maintain the privacy of Mr and Mrs Lee after they have gone?
“And the answer was to redevelop inside the house, renovate, change the private living spaces so that they would no longer exist in that form but keep the structure in the basement so that you have the historical value, but you also have the privacy preserved, and that was the most important consideration,” said PM Lee.
The above, said PM Lee, was why Mr LKY wrote a letter on 27 December 2011, part of which read:
“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 fade.”
Stressing the sentence “It must then be let out for people to live in”, PM Lee testified that “this was at the time when the demolition clause still existed”, yet Mr LKY “had come to the conclusion in this situation the house should be let out”.
This meant letting out the house to “strangers, any tenant, and because an empty building will soon decline and decay”, said PM Lee.
“So in that context, we then began to think, what do we do if we let out the house? Who would be suitable tenants? Would there be unsuitable tenants? Would it be suitable to have tenants who are not Singaporeans, for example? And there could be sensitivities with Singaporeans?” He questioned.
PM Lee then explained that due to the above considerations, the possibility arose in which “if necessary, we could live in the house for some time ourselves until the sensitivities diminished or the house could be knocked down and then other possibilities open up.”
PM Lee then cited an email sent from Mdm Ho to Dr LWL and copied to the other family members, which read:
“Hi Ling, just to update you one of the ideas for Oxley renewal redevelopment. As Loong mentioned the first preference is to demolish the Oxley house and build afresh.”
“So it is quite clear what our preference was, to demolish — the first preference is to demolish the Oxley house and build afresh,” PM Lee said.
The next best alternative, said PM Lee in reference to Mdm Ho’s email, is to “renovate and redevelop parts of the house and annexe so that it is liveable and rentable or rentable for many more years, but with a new internal layout”.
PM Lee then continued citing his wife’s email, which read:
“If there is objection to renting out to say expats then the family could consider moving in at least for the initial years and explanation Ling can use one of the big bedrooms, Loong and I can use the other big bedroom …”
The prime minister also highlighted that the architect he and Mdm Ho corresponded with explained that conservation requirements “typically do not mean preserving the house in its entirety”, and that the interior
layouts “are often changed to reflect new family usage needs”.
PM Lee then pointed to an email from Mr LKY, in which the elder Lee wrote that it is “for you all to decide whether you want to refurbish and stay or to rent out” and that he was “easy as to whether you will stay in Oxley or let it out”.
According to PM Lee, Mr LKY had said that Mdm Kwa would not like 38 Oxley Road to become “a museum for people to tramp through”.
PM Lee then said that after Mdm Ho affirmed Mr LKY’s email via her email reply to the elder Lee, Dr LWL replied that while she “would be happy to eventually move back to Oxley”, it will not be possible “if you are renting it out nor does it make sense for one person just using one room in the present Oxley”.
Mdm Ho’s reply, according to PM Lee, was that the house ought to be changed “sufficiently so as to lower the risk of compulsory acquisition to turn it into a public museum of sorts and to do it in such a way that it remains clearly a family type dwelling with the option of rental or own use”.
Mr LKY, said PM Lee, had then replied that he has “confidence” in Mdm Ho’s judgement and that she could “do what gives you maximum opportunities for later use”.
Citing an email from Mr LKY dated 10 December 2011, PM Lee noted that the elder Lee had told Dr LWL that “it is not practical” for her “to live in this big house without two maids cleaning and airing” as there will be “so many empty rooms without any purpose”.
He added that Mr LKY had instructed his lawyer Kwa Kim Li to change his will to hand down 38 Oxley Road to PM Lee “without any encumbrance”.
Mr Lim pointed to a part of Mr LKY’s email on 10 December, which stated that Mdm Ho had offered a flat at Oxley Rise that Dr LWL can manage with one helper “and get a maid who can also be your driver”.
He then questioned PM Lee what his and Mdm Ho’s intention was in offering Dr LWL to stay in Oxley Rise and for him and Mdm Ho to live at 38 Oxley Road.
PM Lee replied that such was not his intention.
“If the house was to be renovated and let out then, firstly, Lee Wei Ling would not be able to live there during the renovations.
“Secondly, she would not be able to live there while it was let out, which is what my father wanted the house to be done, wanted to be done with the house.
“But if we moved in Oxley Road in order not to have to let it out immediately and cause sensitivities, then we fully envisaged Lee Wei Ling, my sister, moving in with me,” said PM Lee.
Noting the part of the email in which Mr LKY had stated to Dr LWL that “Oxley Road is too big for anyone to live alone”, Mr Lim posited to PM Lee: “So it suggests to me your dad was trying to persuade your sister to move out of Oxley Road because he is saying Oxley Road is too big for one person?”
“Well, because — to the extent that that is true, it would be, because his view was that Oxley Road should be rented out, and if it were rented out, then my sister would not be able to live there.
“Now, if I wanted to live there, I would not have suggested to him to rent it out. I did not suggest to him to rent it out. He wanted to rent it out,” PM Lee replied.
“But you said you did not suggest to him to rent it out,” Mr Lim argued.
“It was his preference, his view, and he wrote it down in his letter to Cabinet,” said PM Lee, adding: “He has always had a strong view that the house had to be lived in. Otherwise, it will go to pots.”
Both PM Lee’s and Mr Xu’s sides are expected to send written submissions to the court in January.