FamiLEE saga: 10 things from the academic paper “When I’m dead, demolish it”.

Jun 18, 2017 09.30PM |

by Johannes Tjendro 

IS 38 Oxley road just a private residence or something more? Many people, including the G, think there is more to the house than just the place where the late Mr Lee Kuan Yew lived.

But many of us, it seems, are late in realising the significance of the house. Last year a thesis paper written by a then-graduate student at Columbia University, Ms Cherie-Nicole Leo, looked into the importance of the house and what it means for Singapore. We found this thesis publicly available online and thought that it was worth summarising. Here are 10 things we learnt.

1. The house isn’t just about Mr Lee Kuan Yew. It’s about colonial history and the foundation of his party.

The late Mr Lee moved into the colonial bungalow, which is now over a century old, at the end of the second World War with his mother. The house was originally built by a Jewish merchant and later occupied by Japanese forces. After the war, it came under the control of the office of the Custodian of Enemy Property, who rented it to Mr Lee for 80 Straits dollars a month.

The dining room in the basement of the house is an especially significant place, since it was where early People’s Action Party (PAP) members came up with the signature lightning logo and the party manifesto. Despite the presence of an official Prime Minister residence within the Istana, Mr Lee chose to live at 38 Oxley Road for over seventy years.

2. It’s also a key narrative in PM Lee’s upbringing and political career

One of the key reasons Mr Lee Kuan Yew chose to stay put was that he wanted to give his children as normal a childhood as possible. As reported in a 2015 article by The Straits Times (Mar 24), he did not want to give the three children “a false sense of life”, and hence had them grow up in the family home.

PM Lee also witnessed key political developments at 38 Oxley Road. During the 1955 election, postmen, union leaders and the founding members of the PAP would sit at the verandah dealing with “Vote for PAP” election bills, as documented in the book “Men in White”. In his eulogy to his father, PM Lee described feeling “excited by the hubbub at Oxley Road” when the house served as an election office during voting seasons.

3. Mr Lee Kuan Yew has publicly expressed hopes for the demolition since 2011

According to Ms Leo, the seemingly earliest documented instance of Mr Lee Kuan Yew publicly calling for the demolition of 38 Oxley Road was in 2011, during an interview with journalists from The Straits Times for the book “Hard Truths to Keep Singapore Going”. The issue came up when he was pressed on his thriftiness.

The then Minister Mentor revealed that he had owned the jacket he was wearing for over 15 years. When questioned on why the house had not been renovated or upgraded, he then volunteered that he had told the Cabinet to demolish it after his passing.

4. There are competing “values” in deciding whether to preserve the house

As Ms Leo noted at the start of her paper, the question of whether to preserve 38 Oxley Road is “emblematic of the difficult task facing heritage decision-makers, where there exists a multifaceted group of stakeholders who present competing, conflicting, or contradictory values, interests and positions”.

As illustrated in her diagram above, the house carries significance in the historic, social, symbolic, architectural and political regards. In the economic sense, it may go both ways. Mr Lee Kuan Yew, ever the pragmatist, was particularly concerned that it might be costly to upkeep a house with no foundation. He also noted that demolishing the house would probably raise the property value of his neighbours’ houses, and ease restrictions on how much they could build.

5. Taken at face value, LKY’s Will may seem incongruous with the principles that he himself espoused

In line with Singapore’s first national shared value of “nation before community, and society above self,” many stakeholders have argued that preserving 38 Oxley Road “is a matter of national interest that should take precedence over an individual wish for its demolition. The quandary here, though, is that this wish to demolish the house was put forth by the very person whose association forms the basis of those [same] values, which warrants its” preservation for future generations.

Thus, Mr Lee Kuan Yew’s wish to demolish the house may seem “out of character with his longstanding political mantra and the country’s foremost shared value of putting nation and society above self.” As Boston Globe journalist, Neil Swidey, wrote, “Lee’s demolition demand put his prime-minister-son in a jam, since it contradicts the founding father’s longstanding premise that Singaporeans should think of the state first and themselves second. Following Lee’s death, even the dutiful Strait Times [sic] quoted preservation specialists arguing that the greater good would be served by denying Lee’s last wish.” (Jun 20, 2015)

6. But upon closer look, his Will – while personal in nature – might not have been self-serving, as it was aimed at serving the collective national interest

It has become clear that his Will, while it may be seen as having “certain individual interests, is not totally self-serving after all; besides a concern for privacy, which may be seen as the most personal of his interests, Mr Lee Kuan Yew also requested the demolition of his house based on the fact that it could save public spending on renovating or maintaining it, and more importantly, that it would free up a prime downtown area for economic growth and progress.”

Ms Leo added: “Thus, even if Lee Kuan Yew’s will is, in a literal sense, an individual private wish, the underlying interests for his position on demolishing the house may equally be aimed at serving the collective national interest.”

“Just as other stakeholders argue for the preservation of the house to transfer the value narratives comprising associational, heritage tourism and branding, educational, and nation-building values to future generations, Mr Lee Kuan Yew’s economic arguments constitute a value narrative rooted in pragmatism that similarly works toward a future public good, albeit a different vision of what that might be.” She elaborated.

7. There are indications he may have been open to a “surrogate” memorial

In an interview with The Straits Times (2011), Mr Lee Kuan Yew famously said of his desire for the house to be demolished: “I don’t think my daughter or wife or I, who lived in it, or my sons who grew up in it will bemoan its loss. They have old photos to remind them of the past.”

In bringing up the concept of photos, Ms Leo notes that Mr Lee Kuan Yew may have been open to documentations and “surrogate” memorialising of the house and its history. She adds that policymakers may then strike a balance between Mr Lee Kuan Yew’s desire to demolish and the public interest in preserving the house, by working on more elaborate “surrogate” memorials.

As she writes: “While Lee Kuan Yew was strongly against personal hero-worship, he was not averse to the creation of a memorial that would honor the contributions of the team of founding figures and most importantly, the values upon which they built and governed the country.”

In his parliamentary address on Apr 13, 2015, PM Lee announced the formation of a Founders’ Memorial Committee to look at the idea of building a memorial commemorating the country’s founding fathers. He emphasised that it “need not be a grand structure” but should be “a place where we and future generations can remember a key period i n our history, reflect on the ideals of our founding fathers, and pledge to continue their work of nation-building”.

8. The outcome of reconciling the competing values has been falsely framed as a demolish vs. preserve dichotomy

This dichotomy can be seen as two different ways of protecting Mr Lee Kuan Yew’s legacy: (1) preserving physical association with Mr Lee vs. (2) forwarding pragmatic values associated with Mr Lee:

For preservation – Mr Lee Kuan Yew lived here and this is where history was made, where the nation was born. Its association to Mr Lee Kuan Yew and related historic events bring about numerous values to the site, which should be preserved.

For demolition – Pragmatism and progress over sentiment, which does not rely on or militates against that association for its transmission to the future. Instead, Mr Lee Kuan Yew’s legacy is preserved differently as forwarding different values that are ingrained in a pragmatic outlook on progress. Centred on maximising land value and economic growth, this approach relies largely on redevelopment of the 38 Oxley Road site rather than the preservation of its history.

9. A possible outcome – and the most effective in reconciling competing values – is the middle way of redevelopment with some form of preservation

Four physical scenarios:

  1. House remains on site and is preserved on site
  2. Redevelopment of the site with some form of preservation on site
  3. Redevelopment of the site with some form of preservation out of site
  4. Redevelopment with no preservation on site or out of site

The first three physical scenarios include some form of preservation and the last three include the redevelopment of the site. Scenarios 2 and 3 are therefore possible options where two goals of preservation and redevelopment overlap.

The values of the site “may be transmitted to future generations in a variety of ways that do not necessarily rely on the preservation of all or any of 38 Oxley Road’s physical attributes. Thus, an informed decision must look beyond these attributes in order to determine how these values are really spatialised in potential outcomes”.

From the above diagram, “it is evident that the most extreme physical scenario groupings had the fewest potential outcomes, while the two groupings in the middle had many more options. This immediately reveals how much potential for compromise is lost when the 38 Oxley Road case is framed as a dichotomy between preserve-versus-demolish positions as opposed to a spectrum of possibilities.”

Ms Leo further elucidated on the fact that “the options that capture the most values and most effectively negotiate between the competing value narratives are those which fall in the middle categories”. She said that “it is right between the two hybrid scenarios that the most creative and comprehensive combinations can be reached, through a redevelopment of the site with some form of” preservation occurring on site and out of site.

10. Such a compromise had been suggested before – reproduced here:

“I propose that historians and academics [A] properly document and catalogue all the items in the house. The ones of historic value should be [B] placed in a museum. Then, I propose that [C] the entire basement – which had the most historical significance due to the founding of the PAP – be recreated in the museum with the original furniture and fittings. Once that has been done, [D] the house can be demolished, and the site should be converted into a park, called the Lee Kuan Yew Memorial Park.

“This proposal will ensure that (1) the historical value is preserved and can be taught to future generations in the museum; (2) his wishes to destroy the house are respected, and (3) the address 38 Oxley Road will not be used for any other occupant and will be a place of national remembrance.”*

*This was written anonymously on the online Dialectic Forum in 2015.

In other words, in this proposal, historic associations will be upheld, while being in line with the pragmatic impulse of Mr Lee Kuan Yew’s will.


Updated June 18: The famiLEE affair has been brewing for a while now. Read our articles on the issue:

  1. FamiLEE saga: 10 things from the academic paper “When I’m dead, demolish it” (Jun 18)
  2. FamiLEE saga: Who’s involved (Jun 17)
  3. FamiLEE saga: Is a grant of probate really final? (Jun 17)
  4. FamiLEE saga: Somebody should just sue (Jun 17)
  5. FamiLEE saga: PM Lee’s version of events (Jun 16) 
  6. FamiLEE saga: Let a third party tell all (Jun 16)
  7. FamiLEE saga: The past three days (Jun 16)
  8. FamiLEE saga: How Lee Suet Fern got LWL her inheritance, according to leaked emails (Jun 15)
  9. FamiLEE saga: Singaporeans react with confusion, humour and CSI skills (Jun 15)
  10. FamiLEE saga: From 38 Oxley Road to 1 Parliament Place, not just a family affair (Jun 15)
  11. FamiLEE saga: Headlines around the world (Jun 15)
  12. FamiLEE saga: Now about that mysterious ministerial committee (Jun 15)
  13. Not just a famiLEE affair (Jun 14)
  14. Third generation Lee weighs in (Jun 14)
  15. “We do not trust Hsien Loong as a brother or as a leader. We have lost confidence in him.” (Jun 14)


Featured image by Sean Chong.

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