Ministerial Committee Has Not Made A Decision But Offers Another Option

Preserve or demolish? Early debates on the future of founding Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew’s family home at 38 Oxley Road centred on these two possibilities.

But on Monday (2 Apr), the ministerial committee set up to look into the issue has offered a third possibility: preserving just the dining room.

Leave the dining room be?

In a 21-page report made public on Monday, the Committee proposed the option of retaining just the dining room, while tearing down the rest of the single-storey bungalow.

The dining room would be gazetted as a National Monument and integrated with an alternative use for the site (e.g. park, heritage centre)

38 Oxley Road’s dining room is of significance to Singapore’s history, since it was within its walls that the ruling People’s Action Party was formed in 1954.

The Property was also the first election office for the PAP, and it was on the verandah that the party’s posters and banners were prepared. Until the PAP was able to secure its own headquarters, the Property was its de-facto office.

It was also in this room that key decisions about Singapore’s future were made.

The Property is closely associated with outstanding individuals including Dr Goh Keng Swee, Dr Toh Chin Chye, S. Rajaratnam, K.M. Byrne as well as Mr Lee, who collectively established a new post-colonial government for Singapore.

A sketch of the dining room at 38 Oxley Road in the early days of the PAP
Source

In its report, the Committee wrote:

This is one way to fulfil Mr Lee’s wishes to tear down the building, and still retain the most historically significant part of the house.

This would allow the public to access the dining room for “national education purposes” while retaining the privacy of Mr Lee and his wife, Mdm Kwa Geok Choo.

This is how the committee envisions the possible structure.

Source

Source

But the Committee also stressed that there was a possible downside to this option, namely that there may be a “loss of context” if a room alone was preserved without the rest of the property.

Demolish the entire house

Another option put forth by the Committee was is not new: for the property to be demolished and redeveloped.

This could either be done by the owner of the property, who is currently Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong’s sister Dr Lee Wei Ling (Dr LWL).

But the Committee pointed out that this could result in the “loss of a historically significant property” and the potential of that history being leveraged for commercial profit.

Alternatively the State could acquire the site and redevelop it itself, turning it into a park or heritage centre.

Retain the property

The Committee also explored what would happen if 38 Oxley Road was left as is.

It could either be gazetted and preserved as a National Monument, or gazetted for conservation.

These would be done in a way that would address Mr Lee’s concerns about privacy, such as by renovating the interior significantly or restricting access to certain areas.

And some Singaporeans would certainly be happy about this, seeing that the site quickly became an Instagram hotspot at the height of public interest about it in 2017.

Deciding by not deciding

On the second-last page of the report, the Committee revealed that it would not be recommendation on 38 Oxley Road’s future.

The Committee recognises that there is no need to make any decision on the Property now, since Dr LWL is likely to continue residing there for the foreseeable future.

Instead, all of the plans laid out above were “drawer plans” to help a “Government of the day” make an informed and considered decision about 38 Oxley Road.

A family affair

The Committee’s report devoted a whole page to the differing views among the Lee siblings of the possible demolition of 38 Oxley Road.

It said that Dr LWL and PM Lee’s brother Mr Lee Hsian Yang (Mr LHY) told the Committee that Mr Lee’s wish for demolition “cannot be compromised in any way”.

But the Committee also noted that PM Lee had a different position.

Mr LKY accepted that when the decision has to be made, the Government in office may seek to preserve the property for these reasons. (He) was “prepared to be flexible and contemplate options short of demolition”.

In reaching its views, the Committee said that it relied on the objective evidence placed before it.

Particular emphasis was placed on contemporaneous documents and statements made personally by Mr LKY.

The report also pointed out that PM Lee had recused himself from all Government decisions about the property.

Deputy Prime Minister Teo Chee Hean chairs the Committee.

Other members include Minister for Culture, Community and Youth Grace Fu, Minister for Law K Shanmugam, and Minister for National Development Lawrence Wong.

It was set up in June 2016 to consider the various options regarding 38 Oxley Road’s future, as well as their implications.

Featured Image from Prime Minister’s Office.