The possible options for 38, Oxley Road

In a Facebook post last night, Senior Minister of State for Finance and Law Indranee Rajah listed the various options for former prime minister Lee Kuan Yew's house at 38, Oxley Road - from demolition to conservation to compulsory acquisition. She questioned why Mr Lee Hsien Yang is asking for the Government to immediately commit to demolishing his late father's house, and noted that Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong has no financial interest in the property. Here is her post.

Four financial things you should know about the Oxley dispute

My two previous posts covered the so-called "Demolition Clause" in the late Mr Lee Kuan Yew's last will and the circumstances in which the will came to be.

In this post I will discuss the various options for the house that a future government might consider once his daughter, Dr Lee Wei Ling, is no longer living in it.

1. WHAT FINANCIAL INTEREST DOES LEE HSIEN LOONG HAVE IN 38, OXLEY ROAD?

None.

In the will, Mr Lee Kuan Yew gave 38, Oxley Road, to Mr Lee Hsien Loong, his eldest son.

In the Summary of Statutory Declarations, Mr Lee Hsien Loong says:

•After Mr Lee's passing, his siblings, Mr Lee Hsien Yang and Dr Lee, expressed unhappiness that 38, Oxley Road had been given to him.

•Mr Lee Hsien Loong offered to transfer it to Dr Lee for the nominal sum of $1 on condition that if the property was later sold or acquired by the Government, all proceeds should go to charity. (Note: This condition, if accepted, would have meant that Dr Lee could not keep for herself the money received upon sale or acquisition.) This was not accepted.

•Subsequently, Mr Lee Hsien Loong sold the property to Mr Lee Hsien Yang.

The home of former prime minister Lee Kuan Yew at 38, Oxley Road. Until and unless Dr Lee Wei Ling moves out, there is nothing for the Government to decide, says Ms Indranee Rajah, who added that it is also a principle that the current government wil
The home of former prime minister Lee Kuan Yew at 38, Oxley Road. Until and unless Dr Lee Wei Ling moves out, there is nothing for the Government to decide, says Ms Indranee Rajah, who added that it is also a principle that the current government will not be able to bind a future government. ST FILE PHOTO

Mr Lee Hsien Loong donated the entire proceeds of the sale to charity. Mr Lee Hsien Yang also donated 50 per cent of the sale value to charity.

Hence Mr Lee Hsien Loong is no longer the owner of 38, Oxley Road.

The property now belongs wholly to Mr Lee Hsien Yang.

2. SOME FACTS ABOUT OXLEY ROAD

38, Oxley Road is a freehold site. The land area is 1,120.5 sq m (12,060 sq ft). It is currently zoned for a two-storey landed property.

Media articles cite the current estimated market value as $24 million (around $1,990 psf).

3. WHAT COULD HAPPEN TO 38, OXLEY ROAD?

There are four possible options:

Demolition

Demolition of a building requires planning permission from URA under the Planning Act and a permit from BCA under the Building Control Act.

The consequences of demolition are that:

•the land is cleared of the house;

•the path is cleared to seek redevelopment;

•demolition is irreversible. Once demolished, there is no going back. Demolition removes, once and for all, any possibility of future preservation, conservation or compulsory acquisition of the property;

•the original rationale for the two-storey zoning in the area - which was to keep neighbouring houses low in height for security reasons - is also gone as Mr Lee Kuan Yew has passed away;

•with the old rationale for two-storey zoning gone, demolition would clear the way for the owner to appeal for re-zoning and/or increase in plot ratio and eventual redevelopment. There could, of course, be other good reasons why such re-zoning may or may not be allowed;

•If re-zoning or increased plot ratio is granted, the land value will increase well beyond the market value for a two-storey property. In that event, one can expect many developers to line up to buy the property;

•For example, if a 20-storey luxury condominium can be built on the site, with one condo unit per floor, all with the address of 38, Oxley Road, it could be marketed as a unique trophy address.

Preservation

Under the Preservation of Monuments Act (PMA), property can be designated a national monument via a preservation order. If designated a national monument:

•38, Oxley Road cannot be redeveloped;

•It will be subject to stringent preservation guidelines and no works can be done to it without the approval of the National Heritage Board;

•since it is used as a residence, the property will be subject to compulsory acquisition within one year of the preservation order. (Under the PMA, if a preserved building is occupied as a residence, the Government must acquire it within one year of the preservation order, otherwise the preservation order will lapse. This relieves the occupier of having to bear over the long term the responsibilities that come with preservation. )

Conservation

Conservation is under the Planning Act. Conservation is less restrictive than preservation. Works can be done to the building as long as they fall within URA guidelines. If conserved, the land cannot be redeveloped.

Compulsory Acquisition

This would be done under the Land Acquisition Act (LAA). In this scenario:

•there is no possibility of redevelopment, as property is acquired by the Government.

•the owner, Mr Lee Hsien Yang, will get compensation under the LAA at market value at the time of acquisition. It would be valued on the basis of it being a two-storey landed property.

•the Government has several further options. It could, for example, choose to demolish the house and build a tasteful memorial or symbolic marker in a park setting.

4. WHY IS THE GOVERNMENT BEING ASKED TO DEMOLISH THE HOUSE NOW?

That is a good question.

The Government has the same question.

Mr Lee Kuan Yew wanted Dr Lee Wei Ling to stay in the house as long as she wanted. The Government has publicly stated that it will respect those wishes and does not intend to do anything until Dr Lee leaves. Letting the house stand for now does not go against those wishes. Mr Lee Hsien Yang has said Dr Lee does not want to move out and she has every intention of living a long life. That being the case, the matter may well not need to be decided for another 20-30 years. It can be decided by a future government.

So there is nothing for the Government to decide now.

The real question therefore is why Mr Lee Hsien Yang is asking for an immediate commitment on demolition now.

What is the urgency?

Until and unless Dr Lee moves out, there is nothing for the Government to decide. It is also a principle that the current government will not be able to bind a future government.

The options open to any government, current or future, are also not binary. There are a range of things it can consider.

For example, DPM Teo Chee Hean has said he personally would not support options at the extreme ends of the range: At one end, preserving the house as it is for visitors to enter and see, as that would be totally against the wishes of Mr and Mrs Lee Kuan Yew. And, at the other end, demolishing the house and putting it on the market for new private residences.

One can understand DPM Teo's feelings. A luxury condo with that address would confer bragging rights on a select few to say: "I'm living where Lee Kuan Yew lived." The history and heritage of the site would be forever lost to ordinary Singaporeans, including future generations. That is probably not the way Singaporeans will want to remember 38, Oxley Road.

Mr Lee Hsien Yang has said that "(he has)not thought about what lies beyond demolition". It would appear he has not ruled out redevelopment.

From the Government's perspective, the question is whether there is an intermediate option which will allow us to respect the wishes of Mr Lee Kuan Yew and still preserve the heritage and history of 38, Oxley Road for Singapore and Singaporeans.

As DPM Teo has mentioned, one option we are studying is demolishing the house but keeping the basement dining room where many historical meetings took place, with an appropriate heritage centre attached.

This would substantially fulfil Mr Lee's wish. His and Mrs Lee's privacy would be respected. Pictures of the basement were already made public during Mr Lee's time and are widely available. Nothing of the private spaces would be seen.

At the same time, the history and heritage would not be lost and the crucible where the hopes and dreams of a nation were forged can be kept to inspire many more generations to come.

These options need to be thought through deeply and carefully. The Ministerial Committee has tasked relevant agencies to study the range of possible options that a future government can consider at the appropriate time, after Dr Lee Wei Ling is no longer there.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 27, 2017, with the headline 'The possible options for 38, Oxley Road'. Print Edition | Subscribe