38, OXLEY ROAD DEBATE: Speech excerpts

Let's get back to the business of serving the people: Swee Keat

Finance Minister Heng Swee Keat and Emeritus Senior Minister Goh Chok Tong asked the Lee siblings to make up, and Singaporeans to stay united, when they spoke during the parliamentary debate on the Oxley Road house dispute yesterday. Here are extracts of their speeches.

It has been only a little over two years since Mr Lee Kuan Yew passed away. The memory of the outpouring of grief at the time is still fresh in the hearts and minds of fellow Singaporeans. We committed ourselves then to honour the ideals and principles of Mr Lee and our founding leaders. Today, we should revisit this question calmly: What would Mr Lee's wish be? And how do we honour his wishes?

If you ask me, what were the defining wishes of Mr Lee's life, I would say: Mr Lee's greatest wish was for Singapore to remain successful beyond his lifetime.

Mr Lee said there is no simple formula for running a country, but he tried to distil and pass on as many insights as he could.

I would like to highlight just three that are relevant to this debate.

First, a sense of history.

Mr Lee said there was no textbook for running a country, and his memoirs were not a how-to manual. At different times, we would face different conditions. But he was convinced that we all need a sense of history - not just in knowing what happened in the past, but why it happened - that would help to anchor and guide us for the future.

With that in mind, 38, Oxley Road holds special historical significance because of all the things that took place there in our early history.

In his memoirs, Mr Lee had a chapter on "Widening the Oxley Road circle", recounting how the founding fathers gathered in the basement dining room of Mr Lee's house, the birth of the People's Action Party in 1954, the difficult decisions they had to take whether to contest the elections in 1955 and 1959.


Mr Heng Swee Keat yesterday reminded Singaporeans that "there is another house that Mr Lee Kuan Yew built lovingly, a greater house than 38, Oxley Road - and that is Singapore. This house, we cannot allow to be demolished". PHOTO: ST WEBSITE

 

Mr Lee also recounted how, during that tumultuous period, the Chinese school students "started turning up at Oxley Road looking for advice on a hundred and one problems they encountered whenever they came into conflict with or were obstructed by authority".

What happened in the basement dining room and at Oxley Road is relevant, not just for the history of the PAP. I was surprised to hear Mr Png Eng Huat yesterday taking such a narrow and partisan view of history. Those years marked a pivotal moment in our nation's history - in fact, they were the start of a series of events that led to independence. It is therefore right and proper that we consider this history in any decision to demolish or preserve the house, or parts of it.

In July 2011, Mr Lee came to the Cabinet meeting to set out his views on 38, Oxley Road. Mr Lee stated his preference for the house to be demolished after his passing. Despite his seniority and his role as the founding prime minister of Singapore, he did not once use his status to advance his case.

He just stated his preference, and then listened intently to the views of Cabinet members. Except for PM Lee, who did not speak, Cabinet members were unanimous in persuading him that the house should not be demolished.

All of us who spoke felt deeply that, as a young nation, we needed a deeper sense of history, and that the house was of historical significance. Mr Lee looked very thoughtful after the session.

We did not hear from him until later, when he sent the note in December 2011. To me, that note, sent five months after the meeting, showed that he had been mulling over the issue during that period, and, importantly, he had taken other views on board.

Mr Lee knew more than almost anyone the laws relating to the acquisition and preservation of property, having exercised powers over his years in office.

Mr Lee's willingness to take into account new evidence and alternative views on this issue reminded me of how he had changed his view on language education for the young...

I share this experience to show Mr Lee's willingness to change his views if he was presented with robust arguments.When he wrote to us in December 2011, it showed me two things: One, that he had taken five months to mull things over very carefully; and two, that he felt it was proper and important to inform Government of his thinking, now that he was prepared to consider the possibility that the government of the day might decide not to demolish the house.

I do not want to venture into how Mr Lee's views might have changed further if he were alive today. But we must remember that Mr Lee's lifelong and unwavering dedication was to making a success of Singapore. His efforts in his later years were about the success of Singapore beyond his lifetime.

The second principle for Singapore's success is the rule of law. From what I shared about that Cabinet meeting where Mr Lee came to give his views, you would see that he observed a strict separation between his and Mrs Lee's private wish, and the duty of government. He had a strong personality and formidable track record, but not once did he insist that only his view should prevail. I found that deeply admirable.

Members have heard both PM Lee and DPM Teo Chee Hean on how PM recused himself from deliberations relating to the house, and kept a strict separation between his private duty as a son, and his duty as the head of Government. As several MPs pointed out, the irony is that if PM were to do what Mr Lee Hsien Yang and Dr Lee Wei Ling wanted, to impose his private wishes as a son and have the house demolished, we would not have this disagreement made public, but he would have abused his power.

The third insight I would like to share that Mr Lee had for Singapore's success was to keep government honest and effective.

Mr Lee devoted enormous amounts of effort to build up the Public Service, to persuade suitable men and women to stand as MPs, and to test some out as office holders. He always put an emphasis on having a deep sense of values and service.

Members cautioned that we must keep the Government's focus on the major issues confronting Singapore and not be distracted.

As we have learnt in this debate, the family disagreement has been playing out over the last two years.

Instead of allowing this episode to distract him or government, PM has continued to focus, not just on the issues of the day, but on further laying the ground to address the medium- and longer-term challenges to Singapore. These relate to our security, foreign relations, jobs and the economy, healthcare and infrastructure, among others.

I hope these two days can help clear the air, rebuild trust and confidence, so everyone can focus fully on the key challenges we face.

Mr and Mrs Lee's three children have each made their contribution to Singapore, in different ways.

In his Facebook post this past Saturday, Mr Lee Hsien Yang wrote: "I simply hope to ensure our father's wishes are honoured when the day comes."

I believe I speak for all Members, and many Singaporeans, when I say, we all hope to do the same, to honour Mr Lee's wishes, his legacy and the ideals and principles of our founding leaders. Let us not have this difference sidetrack us from the bigger task of honouring Mr Lee's wish for a successful Singapore, and get back to the business of serving our people.

In the years to come, when Dr Lee Wei Ling is no longer living at 38, Oxley Road, it is probable a future government may agree to demolish the house, as our founding prime minister wished. But there is another house that Mr Lee Kuan Yew built lovingly, a greater house than 38, Oxley Road - and that is Singapore. This house, we cannot allow to be demolished.

 

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 05, 2017, with the headline 'Let's get back to the business of serving the people: Swee Keat'. Print Edition | Subscribe