Law allows Government to preserve Mr Lee Kuan Yew's house, say experts

THE late Mr Lee Kuan Yew's explicit wish was to have his Oxley Road house demolished after his death, but heritage and legal experts say the law allows the Government to protect it by preserving it as a national monument.

Under the Preservation of Monuments Act, the National Heritage Board can ask the Minister for Culture, Community and Youth to gazette the more than 100-year-old bungalow.

This is provided the property fulfils criteria such as having historic, cultural, traditional, archaeological, architectural, artistic or symbolic significance, and being of national importance.

Senior consultant Gopalan Raman of law firm KhattarWong's litigation department said yesterday that the property is clearly of "great historical value".

"It is the house of the first Prime Minister, who has done so much to develop Singapore to the state that it is in today with his early comrades," he said.

The Act also trumps Mr Lee's wish in his will for the house to be demolished after his death - or immediately after his daughter, Dr Lee Wei Ling, who lives there, moves out

Singapore Management University heritage law expert Jack Lee said the state has "power over personal wishes".

"A will of any person cannot override the ordinary law of the land. For instance, if someone were to will that his house becomes a casino, land zoning laws would take precedence," he said.

When a property has been identified for its heritage value, the authorities generally engage the owner over their plans.

The owner's consent is sought as the task and cost of the upkeep of the monument falls on the owner, said experts. So when a declaration to preserve it is made, it is presumably with the owner's consent, they said.

In the case of an unwilling owner, the law allows the Government to step in to acquire the property, said Dr Jack Lee. But this has rarely been done.

There is also no annual budget for acquisitions, said Dr Kevin Tan, president of the International Council on Monuments and Sites Singapore.

The experts yesterday acknowledged the late Mr Lee's wishes and noted that his son, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, told Parliament on Monday that Dr Lee intends to continue living there.

"Therefore, there is no immediate issue of demolition of the house, and no need for the Government to make any decision now," PM Lee said of the property and Mr Lee's wishes, in response to questions from MPs.

Dr Tan said it was unlikely that the Act would be used to acquire the house any time soon, owing to the difficulty of doing so.

Still, most experts said the formal process of assessing its historical significance should get under way. The Oxley house is where the People's Action Party was formed in 1954 and key decisions made in the early years of independent Singapore.

Dr Tan also believes that by the time the Lee family makes a decision on the house, a Founders' Memorial would have been built. This would allow Singaporeans to commemorate Mr Lee and the first-generation leaders without the Oxley premises in focus.

Since Mr Lee died on March 23 at age 91, calls to preserve his house have grown. An online petition gathered 1,700 signatures in about a week.

melodyz@sph.com.sg