Oxley Road home was where history was made

Mr and Mrs Lee Kuan Yew at their home in Oxley Road with their three children (from left) Hsien Loong, Hsien Yang and Wei Ling.
Mr and Mrs Lee Kuan Yew at their home in Oxley Road with their three children (from left) Hsien Loong, Hsien Yang and Wei Ling.PHOTO: LEE FAMILY

At the heart of the dispute between the children of the late founding prime minister Lee Kuan Yew is the house at 38, Oxley Road where they grew up.

The pre-war bungalow sits on a plot of about 12,000 sq ft on the street named after Dr Thomas Oxley, a British medical doctor who held the post of senior surgeon for the Straits Settlements in 1844.

It is near Orchard Road, and is estimated to be worth at least $24 million. But the value of the house goes beyond the monetary - it is also where history was made.

A young Mr Lee had moved into what he later described as the "big, rambling house with five bedrooms, and three others at the back" with his wife Kwa Geok Choo in the 1940s.

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It was in its basement that a group of what Mr Lee termed "beer-swilling bourgeois" English-educated friends brainstormed the formation of the People's Action Party (PAP).

These meetings in 1954 were described in the book Men In White: The Untold Story Of Singapore's Ruling Political Party. The group would usually get together between 2.30 and 5.30 on Saturday afternoons. Some 20 participants, including the 14 founding members of the PAP, would engage in heated debate about politics and self-rule around a long table. During the party's early days, the house was also often the PAP's election headquarters to prepare for the polls.

It is while living there that the Lees' children were born: Lee Hsien Loong, then daughter Wei Ling, and younger son Hsien Yang.


Mr and Mrs Lee Kuan Yew at their home in Oxley Road with their three children (from left) Hsien Loong, Hsien Yang and Wei Ling. PHOTO: LEE FAMILY

The veranda of the house was where the three siblings received Malay and Chinese language tuition and, as young children, celebrated their birthdays with a small cake.

HOUSE WITH NO FOUNDATIONS

 
 

Those who have visited the house described its interior as spartan and unpretentious. The late Mr Lee and his wife lived there all their lives, except for a few weeks after Singapore's independence in 1965, when they moved to the Istana with their children over security concerns.

Built over a century ago by a Jewish merchant, the house has no foundations. As a result, the walls get damp, Mr Lee told a group of journalists from The Straits Times during an interview for the book Hard Truths To Keep Singapore Going. Cracks had also formed, though the pillars were sound.

An ever pragmatic Mr Lee added that it would cost too much to conserve and maintain the house. He suggested demolishing it after his death, so that planning rules in the area could change and neighbouring houses could be built higher.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on June 18, 2017, with the headline 'Oxley Road home was where history was made'. Print Edition | Subscribe