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Oxley Road dispute: A unique heritage test case

The dispute between Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong and his siblings about whether the house of their father, the late Mr Lee Kuan Yew, should be demolished has foregrounded an issue often pushed aside for development's sake.

Yes, I am talking about heritage.

Contrary to what some may think, heritage is not about airy-fairy sentimentalism or sheer nostalgia. Instead, preserving heritage - which the Singapore Heritage Society defines as the living presence of the past - is about keeping alive historically important places or practices which help forge the identity of Singapore and Singaporeans.

In Singapore, the ruling People's Action Party (PAP) prides itself on its "unsentimental pragmatism", a phrase used in a 1982 speech against welfarism by pioneer Cabinet minister S. Rajaratnam.

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For a long time, the mantra here has been that all can be sacrificed in the name of development and modernisation, be it homes, schools, final resting places or even the National Theatre or National Library. It is almost as if no stone has been left unturned, said geographer Rodolphe De Koninck at the recent launch of his book, Singapore's Permanent Territorial Revolution; Fifty Years In Fifty Maps.

But there's a price to be paid for this constant churn. It has weakened Singaporeans' attachment to places here, and arguably eaten away at their sense of rootedness to the country.

Now, we have a test case like never before, in the form of the house at 38, Oxley Road, near the Orchard Road shopping district.

As the home for some 70 years of Singapore's founding Prime Minister, the house is clearly of significance in the nation's history.

Deputy Prime Minister Teo Chee Hean, when giving details about the ministerial committee that is looking into what to do with the house, said: "Many critical decisions on the future of Singapore were made there by Mr Lee and our pioneer leaders."

It was in the basement of the house that meetings which led to the setting up of the PAP were held. The house, built more than a century ago by a Jewish merchant, is also where our current PM spent his formative years.

I would argue that it should be kept for the sake of current and future generations of Singaporeans.

The key consideration is this: If even the house of the nation's founding PM cannot be preserved, what hope can Singaporeans have of holding onto other places whose historical significance may be more debatable?

What implication does this then have for Singaporeans' attachment to this place that we call home? Would it breed even more apathy if Singaporeans feel they have no say in preserving places or practices the community holds dear?

What to do with the house at 38, Oxley Road is no private family matter, but one of national interest. The Lee family is no ordinary family; its members have had or still have an influential role in shaping the nation's history.

But for now, there has not been as much public support for the house to be preserved, compared with, say, the community campaign to try to preserve the former National Library building in Stamford Road, which was demolished in 2004.

This is likely because, first, the house is off limits to the public and does not hold personal memories for most people, unlike popular places like the National Library.

Second, it seems disrespectful not to follow Mr Lee's often stated wish of demolishing the house.

But the issue is larger than one man, even if the man in question is Mr Lee, whose influence on the nation is large, to say the least. The PAP's unsentimental and pragmatic outlook means that the issue should be evaluated rationally and objectively, without being swayed by emotional factors such as the wishes of one person.

The discussion over the fate of the house is a rare opportunity to re-evaluate the importance of heritage, and examine what aspects of our collective history we as a community consider important enough to be preserved.

There has to be due process, such as a thorough study and discussion of the historical importance of the Oxley Road house and consensus on what ought to be done with it.

Hopefully, the committee set up to look into the issue, chaired by DPM Teo, will canvass the views of a wide swathe of society, especially heritage experts.

Given that our sense of identity as Singaporeans and loyalty to the nation have come under increasing threat from the pull of forces like race and religion in a globalised world, it is all the more crucial that we strengthen the sense of what it means to belong to Singapore.

There can be no better chance than now to rethink how we should approach heritage issues, and discussion over what to do with the house at 38, Oxley Road promises to point the way forward for heritage preservation.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 24, 2017, with the headline 'A unique heritage test case'. Print Edition | Subscribe