38 Oxley Road
|38, Oxley Road|
Furniture from 38 Oxley Road, National Museum of Singapore
|Address||38 Oxley Rd, Singapore 238629|
|Current tenants||Dr. Lee Wei Ling|
Number 38, Oxley Road was the residence of Singapore's first prime minister Lee Kuan Yew from the 1940s until his death in 2015. The house was built in the late 19th century and is an eight-bedroom two-story bungalow located near Orchard Road. The first meeting of the People's Action Party (PAP) occurred in the basement.
In 2017 it became central to a dispute in Singapore between Lee's children – the prime minister Lee Hsien Loong and his two siblings – over its use and demolition. Lee Kuan Yew had originally willed the house to Lee Hsien Loong, who later sold it to his brother Lee Hsien Yang in 2015 at market price, on the condition that both of them would donate half of the value to charity.
The area in which the house was located was named after British doctor Thomas Oxley who owned a nutmeg plantation on the location in the late 1890's. The area was acquired by a Jewish merchant named Manasseh Meyer. The house was vacated by its European owners during the Japanese occupation and taken over by Japanese civilians.
Lee Kuan Yew and his family moved into the residence after the war. In 1950, Lee's wife Kwa Geok Choo moved into the house. The meetings of the PAP were regularly held in the basement in 1954. The building continued to serve as the residence of Lee Kuan Yew throughout his tenure as prime minister and his first born son, incumbent prime minister Lee Hsien Loong, was raised here. Fortifications and a guardhouse were added to the house in 1965 after Singapore separated from the Federation of Malaysia.
Maintenance of the house was understood to be minimal. The Lees had a contractor-cum-housekeeper, Mr Teow Seng Hua, to take care of fixes and patches that were required.
Dispute over the house
In an interview in 2011, Lee Kuan Yew expressed that he wanted his house demolished after his death or kept a closed residence for his family and descendants. This view was also reinforced in his memoirs and writings. His first will was made that year in August 2011, with the estate (including the Oxley House, Cluny House and other assets) divided equally to his three children, Lee Hsien Loong, Lee Wei Ling and Lee Hsien Yang. A clause calling for the demolition of the house after his daughter moved out was included in the final (seventh) will made in December 2013.
The house was subject to a government deliberation of whether to conserve the house for historical reasons in 2011. Lee Kuan Yew had met with the Cabinet then and made known his preferred option to demolish the house. However, it was the Cabinet's opinion that the house should be preserved due to its historic significance. In later discussions with the family, Lee Kuan Yew is quoted by his son in a parliamentary debate as agreeing to preserve the building: "Demolish the private living spaces to preserve the privacy of the family, keep the basement dining room, which [is] of historical significance, strengthen the structure which [is] decaying, and create a new and separate living area, so that the house could be lived in. Documents released by the Prime Minister's Office, Ho Ching, wife of Lee Hsien Loong, emailed the family in early 2012 with detailed plans about how the house would be renovated. Ho said that if there were objections to renting out the house after it was renovated, Lee Hsien Loong's family could move in with Dr Lee Wei Ling. Development application from Urban Redevelopment Authority was granted in April that year. Lee Kuan Yew had also amended two subsequent versions of his will to remove a previous demolition clause.
In September 2012, Lee Kuan Yew was under the impression that the cabinet had decided on gazetting the house and wrote to his lawyer Kwa Kim Li: “Although it has been gazetted as a heritage house it is still mine as owner... Cabinet has opposed tearing it down and rebuilding, because 2 PMs have lived in the house, me and Loong.” His lawyer checked and informed him it was not true that the house has been gazetted.
A final will was made in 2013, to reinstate an equal share among his children. The will is a reversion to the first will, with the demolition clause drafted by his daughter-in-law Lee Suet Fern. In documents shown by the siblings, Lee Kuan Yew initialed directly beneath the demolition clause and he personally drafted an additional codicil to his will on January 2014, which they claim was witnessed by his secretary and bodyguard. Lee Hsien Yang and Lee Wei Ling were also made the legal executors of the Estate of Lee Kuan Yew.
After Lee Kuan Yew's death, the will was read in April 2015. Lee's estate was divided equally between the three siblings, the Oxley house was inherited by his eldest son, with a clause for Lee Wei Ling to stay in it for as long as she desires. Lee Hsien Loong believed the final will was made without full knowledge of the elder Lee, but did not pursue the issue through legal channels. Instead, he raised the issue to Deputy Prime Minister (DPM) Teo Chee Hean about doubts on drafting of the last will in 23 April 2015. Probate on the Will was granted in October 2015 without objections.
Lee Hsien Loong then offered to sell the house to his sister, Lee Wei Ling, for a nominal $1, with the condition that if the Government were to acquire the property later, any future sale proceeds would go to charity. She rejected the offer. Subsequently, his brother Lee Hsien Yang took up an alternative offer by PM Lee to purchase it at market valuation, conditional on both of them donating 50% each of the value to charity. Lee Hsien Loong sold the house to his brother under those terms and revealed later that he had donated 100% of his own proceeds to charity. However, according to Lee Wei Ling, Lee Hsien Loong was deceitful in his statements. As part of the agreement in 2015, Lee Hsien Loong was said to have endorsed the demolition clause in the final will and promised to recuse himself from all government decisions on the house. The siblings questioned why a ministerial committee was set up in 2016 to discuss the issue, and why PM Lee made the statutory declaration with the intent to influence the committee decision. Lucien Wong, PM Lee's private attorney, represented him in the affairs as the PM Lee and his siblings stopped talking to each other directly.
On 14 June 2017, Lee Hsien Loong's siblings made a public statement on Facebook, alleging that he had abused his office to prevent the demolition and that he wished to move into the house to inherit the political capital of his father. They also alleged that various organs of state such as the National Heritage Board, Ministry of Culture, Community and Youth, Prime Minister's Office and the ministerial committee have been involved in the private dispute. They further claimed that he had used state authorities to harass them and that they intended to flee the country. These claims were denied by Lee Hsien Loong who expressed disappointment at his family for publicizing what he called a "family matter". The Public Service Division under the Prime Minister's Office in charge of civil service confirmed on June 27 that it conducted polls with its officers to assess the their views on the dispute, saying that the allegations "go beyond private matters and extend to the conduct and integrity of the Government and our public institutions".
A special two-day Parliamentary session was called by the PM to explain his involvement in the saga, and ministers defended their positions in the feud. While past politicians have always used litigation to counter any allegations of nepotism, Lee Hsien Loong claimed that he did not want to sue his siblings, leading some to question if the "government is arbitrary when it comes to dealing with serious criticism". The younger siblings offered a truce, saying they would stop posting attacks on social media and work to resolve the matter privately with their eldest brother. In a response to CNBC in October 2017, Lee Hsien Loong remarked that he is not sure that the family feud has been resolved, and that he had not communicated with his siblings.
On 2 April 2018, DPM Teo Chee Hean, chairman of the four-member ministerial committee, said that the panel did not make any recommendations as no decision is required at this point, since Lee Wei Ling is still living in the house. He added that the decision will be made by the future government. The panel offered three options - to gazette and preserve 38 Oxley Road as a national monument, to demolish all but the dining room (which was a meeting area for PAP's founders) and convert the dining area to a viewing gallery, or integrate it to a research or heritage centre, or to demolish and redevelop 38 Oxley Road completely for residential or state uses.
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