Don’t listen to LKY. Save his house

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By Richard Hartung

Imagine a school outing for a history class not far in the future. The teacher points to a condo and explains this was built after tearing down the home of the founding father of Singapore. “We did what former Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew told us to do,” the teacher says.

He explains that when Lee talked to the writers of Hard Truths, he said “I’ve told the Cabinet, when I’m dead, demolish it. Demolish my house and change the planning rules …the land value will go up. I don’t think my daughter or my 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.”

That house has been at the heart of the development of modern Singapore for more than half a century. In the 1950s, founders of the PAP like Toh Chin Chye and Goh Keng Swee gathered with Lee to discuss and argue about whether to set up a new political party.

After independence, meetings there — both formal and informal — helped determine Singapore’s future. The current prime minister grew up there as well, of course, and he and his family have returned there for lunch and discussions every Sunday for many years.

It will be a shame if his son and the government were to listen to Lee Kuan Yew and allow the house at 38, Oxley Road to be demolished.

There are hundreds of bungalows, schools, government offices and other buildings that have already been demolished to make way for new buildings and more continue to be torn down

Even when buildings are still standing, many bear little resemblance to their past. The former residence of the US ambassador on Grange Road, for example, houses a canteen and has largely lost the elegance of its past. What used to be a quiet and cloistered convent for nuns is now an entertainment complex at Chijmes full of restaurants and nightclubs.

The situation in Singapore is vastly different from what happens in other places. At Mt. Vernon or Monticello in the United States, for example, visitors feel a connection to the country’s founding fathers when they see where George Washington or Thomas Jefferson lived and made momentous decisions. Visitors to William Shakespeare’s home in the UK can tour his house to understand how the place where he grew up shaped his writing.

The Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA) does say that a variety of buildings, from shophouses to bungalows and local landmarks, “have been conserved to retain the different memories of Singaporeans from all walks of life.” Walk along someplace like Wilkie Terrace, however, and it can be hard to understand what is important. Buildings on the right are retained while buildings on the left are being torn down.

While some historical sites will undoubtedly continue to exist, it would be hard for the students to understand Singapore’s history fully by looking at places like a condo or an expressway that replaced truly historic sites. Perhaps even more importantly, they and their parents will have far fewer places that keep them connected to Singapore.

Indeed, pulling down historic buildings tears at the social fabric of society. As consultant Phil Rabinowitz wrote in Community Toolbox, historical buildings, neighborhoods, and landscapes “embody the intentions, assumptions, and lives of those who built or lived or worked in them. They have stories to tell about what the community was and how it became what it is, and that helps us understand who we are.”

Only by preserving the buildings and neighborhoods at the heart of our community can we truly understand where Singapore came from and feel attached to it..

Three changes may help to preserve history better and maintain connections to the country.

One is to listen to people’s input about their connections with the past and use them to decide what to do for the future. It’s fine to engage experts to consider the architectural significance of a place. It is perhaps equally, or more important, to listen to the people who live here to figure out what matters most and what to save.

As the recent Our Singapore Conversation survey found, “Singaporeans looked for heritage spaces to be preserved as far as possible.”

The second is to preserve the buildings and as much of their interiors as possible rather than just the shell, and make them come alive for people. At Chijmes, for example, showing what life was actually like for the sisters who lived there would have been a valuable lesson. The Old Parliament House could recreate history and show how the success story that is Singapore today actually happened.

Most important, of course, is actually saving the places where history happened, like Lee’s house, churches in the center of town that are crumbling or historic bungalows. Only by doing so may we really retain the soul that makes Singapore home.

Yes, it will take some funding. Yet places like Mt. Vernon in the US have relied on donations and not used government money for over a century. And the Brookings Institution in the US concluded that nearly any way the effects are measured,” historic preservation tends to yield significant benefits to the economy”.

If nothing else, that is good enough a reason to keep important parts of our past alive.

The writer is a consultant

77 COMMENTS

  1. Whose dont know its historical values ? But the building does not belong to the State…it’s private property and the owner or the late owners have the right to do what they want as they deem right.

  2. It’s where PAP was first formed and maybe it wants it preserved for the symbolism of who resides in it (probably First Lady HC and LHL do want to move in). Perhaps it’s symbolism is missed to the rest of us when we first recognize LKY as firstly Singaporean and as it’s his dying wish, we the people of Singapore have a duty to ensure its fulfilled. Last I heard, this is still Singapore and not PAPLand

  3. None of our business! Stay out of it! LKY will that it be demolished accordingly – it is their children’s responsibility to act thereof. Would you like someone to interfere or the state to acquire your property against your late parents’ will!

  4. There is no rationality to keep the house. Who will restore the house? Who will maintain it? There should not be a penny taken out from the government as these are taxpayers’ monies. It is merely a house. Many parts of Chinatown and other historical (Bukit Brown cemetery) parts of Singapore were not saved from the rich history that was systematically and insensitivity demolished. Bring in the ball and chain.

  5. Who’s this so-called consultant? A Johnny come lately Singaporean if at all. Most probably an American trying to influence Singaporeans and curry favour. Outsiders spoke cigar. Don’t interfere in our internal affairs.

  6. The house should belong to the country, S’pore not Mr Lee any more ! ! Is the hse of the Prime minister of S’pore ! A country heritage should be kept for ever to the remembrance of the Pm by the citizens n to the world !

  7. ya..ya… We should in the name of honouring someone by going against his wish in his Will. We should be disrespectful to his wish in order that we can show our respect. Nevermind what he said when he was alive and very clearly stated publicly what he wanted to do with his house… while we are enjoying the fruits of his (& his pioneer team) labour.

    • I can only agree if our nation security will be breach n people will die than personal will can be presented to court to determine if it will be void.

      Can anyhow void people’s will, else what good is having laws to safeguard people’s will?

  8. If LHL gets his way this time… a will in future will be a piece of useless paper!!! LHL cannot win this case or else the world will be chaotic in future.

  9. Present generation decision to demolish will be future generation regret that the house not preserved for them to see but can only view from photos and internet.

  10. This is a very hard decision.

    Demolish it: Follow the order of the founding father, respecting him. At the same time, profiting from his land for other use.

    Leave it as it is: Go against his will, disrespecting him, though at least you can show the future generations how PAP came about.

  11. Are you telling us that it is perfectly ok to go against the instructions of a legally drawn will? How would you like it if your children willfully disobeyed your explicit instructions after you have passed away?

  12. > Following is the extract from page 150 of Ross Worthington’s book, “Governance in Singapore”(Publisher: Taylor & Francis, Inc, Dec 2002):

    >In 1990, an incident occurred in a pre-cabinet meeting which was the beginning of entrenching further among the many in the core executive, resistance to Lee Hsien Loong’s long term ambitions for prime ministership. Prior to this meeting Lee Hsien Loong had gone to the office of Richard Hu, the Minister of Finance, and removed a number of files without Hu’s permission. At that time Lee’s office was on the 48th floor of what is now Temasek Tower and Hu’s was on the 50th floor.

    >At the pre-cabinet meeting Hu took Lee to task for doing this and was supported by Tony Tan. Lee’s response was aggressive and insulting, he directly insulted Tan and Hu, a man of his father’s age. This was a double insult to Hu, who was Lee’s superior in cabinet and a person of an age who should of itself deserve respect in Chinese society. Suppiah Dhanabalan intervened and chastised Lee for his behaviour, demanding that he apologise to Hu, withdraw his remarks and not interfere in other minister’s portfolios. A heated exchange occurred into which a number of other issues intruded and eventually Lee lost his temper, and reportedly reached across the table and slapped Dhanabalan across the face.

    >This caused an uproar in the cabinet and Lee was severely chastised by Goh Chok Tong. Dhanabalan stormed out of the room and did not return for some time. Lee, in response to a demand from Goh, subsequently apologised to Dhanabalan, Hu and Tan. Hu, Dhanabalan and Tan all initially stated that they would leave the cabinet as a result of this incident. Goh later took up the matter with Lee Kuan Yew who reportedly verbally thrashed his son over the matter.

    >This was apparently followed by a more sober, educational but equally critical assessment from Lee Hsien Loong’s mother, a talented though background political adviser. Lee Kuan Yew reportedly met later that day with Hu, Tan and Dhanabalan, apologised for his son’s behaviour and requested that they not resign, supported by a similar request from Goh Chok Tong.

    >All held out for some time, eventually Hu agreed to stay, but Dhanabalan and Tan both resolved to leave. This they did the following August 1991 elections, all without a public word against Lee Hsien Loong, continuing to subscribe to the tenet of all secrets staying within the PAP family.

  13. I really feel all this is really none of our business, and all our $0.01cent of comments don’t help in anyway.
    Put aside the owner of house 38 , is just another private property.
    And most importantly……. we don’t add salt into the wound.

  14. Imagine a school outing and you have to tell your students how the law was passed over because a government think it is above the current law, over it’s citizens’ right. I am all for saving a part of history, but I rather be told a truthful history than glorified one.

  15. just demolish it, since the old man had already stated clearly during his alive. furthermore in his will as well. wondering what so difficult to follow such a great old man’s wish”)?

  16. If they don’t demolish it, years in the future, when all the skeletons are out of the closet and all the dirt is revealed under the carpet, they will wish they did.

  17. Lhl brother & sister is good person…They both felt get threatened after their dad passed away…his sis criticize him a few time…and these time is much more strongly with his another brother…Lhy plan to leave sg immigrate to another country to excape from the threatening..His sister criticizing is correct!!!He is made using..abuse his power & position…to protect his power & position…so that why have tony tan can be president…and GRC like every year unfit location system…afraid lost election…unfairly election system..new PE relicious system loh..We also knew that all those trick is provent him lost power!!!Lhl is deny king all the way denied that his sibling mentioned!!!If really tried to let his only son to take over his position to be next pm..then is process the “Generation pass generation emporer system”is continouely to 3rd generation lee dynasty in singapore…passed from grandfather..son..and grandson is same as ancient china way!!!!Step down better that people and ur sibling think lhl greety power and pm post and uncorrectly ruling singapore!!!As lhy mention lost confident on lhl & worries singapore future!!!The whole ministeries cabinet is the right time now to gang up to force lhl to step down as same as other countries been do these before!!!!Great if these really happen!!!!!Hope these coward and useless fellow step down as soon as possible!!!Pm lhl will not sue his same blood root brother and sister..and also remain his pm throne…not willing to leave that throne!!!Unless his cancer hit him die.

  18. I agree lwl saying that it is not just simple family dispute…I understand her mean..i also same though as her!!!She mean that it is have political motive planning!!!Lwl and lhy is truth saying..they are worries that lhl have political motive would want to continous lee dynasty so that why he disagree to demolish that old house!!!Still saying to made it as musmum…and is a important building…for memoriable place for family as hiding his politicial motive reason!!!Becos he know that without dad name on him…he unable to stay on his pm role and win election!!!So he want to remain these historical building!!!

  19. Don’t blame LHL for wanting to retain 38 Oxley Road. Where in Singapore can there be such prime land for an eventual retirement home? (NB: there’s always the Select Committee to change the status quo.)

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