Life in Oxley: Living next to the Lees

The exterior of 38 Oxley Road, home of former Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew.
The exterior of 38 Oxley Road, home of former Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew.PHOTO: ST FILE

SINGAPORE (THE NEW PAPER) - Moving into Oxley Road 10 years ago, she first noticed the heavily guarded and double-walled two-storey house metres from her new home while out for a walk.

She had no idea who lived there.

Imagine her surprise when she found out she was living so close to Singapore's founding father, who lived in lot 38.

Speaking to The New Paper at her home last week, the 47-year-old, who works in the healthcare industry, laughed as she said: "I had no idea we lived so close to Mr Lee Kuan Yew until my husband told me. Imagine how shocked I was."

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The mother of four, who wanted to be known only as Katrina to protect her privacy, lives in a house on the most talked-about Singapore road in recent weeks.

The late Mr Lee's home at 38, Oxley Road, was thrust into the national conversation last month when his two younger children accused his oldest son, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, of using his executive powers to get his way with the property.

It erupted into fiery debates online and in Parliament.

Oxley Road is more than a place where Singapore's founding prime minister lived, of course, as TNP found out during the several visits there last week.

"It is where the late Mr Lee's house stands. But it is also a road some use as a shortcut, a road we live on, a road that is laid-back and safe," she said.

She lives there with her husband, her children - who are aged between 10 and 20 - and her mother.

Named after Dr Thomas Oxley, senior surgeon of the Straits Settlements in 1844, Oxley Road is a straight two-lane road about 500m long. It links the busy Orchard Road with the equally busy River Valley Road.

The area was a nutmeg plantation belonging to its namesake, who developed it into the Killiney estate after acquiring the land in 1837.

It was then acquired in the later part of the 19th century by Jewish merchant Manasseh Meyer, who redeveloped the area, building residences including shophouses and the famed 38, Oxley Road.

The historic road has a slight steepness, tapering at both ends and plateauing towards the centre.

A variety of flora peek out from the private homes that line the road, with bamboo shoots from one of the bungalows' gardens standing next to flowering clumps of frangipanis and periwinkles .

According to the residents, hornbills, monkeys and even the occasional wild chicken show up along the road, sometimes even entering the houses.

 

TRAFFIC

An ERP gantry towers over the end of the road before the intersection with Penang Road.

Cars often use it as a shortcut between Orchard Road and River Valley Road, and the road sees a fair share of traffic.

Taxi drivers in particular are a frequent sight in the morning, zipping through the road to avoid the rush-hour jam that plagues the surrounding area.

Today, most of the buildings in Oxley Road have been redeveloped and it is lined with several condominiums, walk-up apartments and bungalows. Together, they sport a mix of architectural styles from different eras.

"You get lots of foreigners who rent the surrounding apartments. Most of them keep to themselves, I do not think people choose to live here just to be near to the late Mr Lee's house," said Katrina.

It is not just the residents who think so.

Security guard Kartina Othman, 49, pointed to a family of Caucasians walking pass as she said: "Over here, they are all foreigners. You can count the number of locals with one hand."

One foreigner, Mr Zhang Bao Ye, 40, a cook from China, moved in three months ago.

He chose to live in the area because of the convenience and privacy.

"It is a quiet place, you do not see a lot of people walking up and down," he said.

It costs him $250 a month for a room in an apartment in Oxley Mansion which he shares with three others.

It is located at lot 26.

Another foreign resident is 29-year-old Mr Soeren Faatoft, who is from Denmark and works in the shipping industry.

He has lived in Singapore for three years, moving into one of the condominiums in Oxley Road six months ago.

"It is great to be so near Orchard Road, but I do not think there is anything too special about it.

"I know that there is the house there, but really, it is just another road," said Mr Faatoft, glancing at lot 38.

Lloyd's Inn, located beside an empty plot of land that houses a gigantic overgrown tree, best represents the road's hodgepodge of old and new.

It was built more than 20 years ago and it has gone through several changes. It is now a hip 34-room boutique hotel that attracts both foreigners and locals.

A few steps down from Orchard Court condominium sits a row of eight bungalows that make up Oxley Neo Residences.

According to property search portal 99.co, these bungalows are about 7,000 sq ft each.

Two months ago on the website, one such unit was advertised for rent at $21,000 a month.

But 99.co said that the pricing for the development of freehold properties in Oxley Road - which averages between $1,700 and $1,800 per square foot - is "extremely low", especially compared to freehold properties elsewhere in Singapore.

Property agents TNP spoke to said that other than its accessibility, a selling point for the area is the privacy.

Mr James Siaw, 43, a property agent from Knight Frank, said that demand for residences in the area is modest.

"The residences here are spacious, but they have no facilities, unlike other areas in the Orchard district," he said.

"It is mostly Westerners who get a place here because they like the greenery."

'NOT ALLOWED'

But Katrina leton a bit of insider information only a long-time resident like her would know.

Leaning in and almost whispering, she said: "If you notice, there are no windows that can face into (lot) 38 - it is not allowed. Even the house right beside it, there are blinds that I heard must not be opened."

The strict security extended beyond these windows.

Of the four speed humps found along the road, two are straddled by the remains of the barriers that used to block road access when the late Mr Lee was home - a testament to how Oxley Road was once arguably the most secure road in Singapore.

"It was very safe, and we were blessed to be on a road that had so much protection," said Katrina.

"The Gurkha guards outside the late Mr Lee's home were alert. If a car passed by more than twice, they would be stopped and questioned."

The road has since turned into a well-known photo spot.

Armed with selfie sticks and sunglasses and arriving in pairs or packs of three or more, locals and foreigners alike flock to the road to get a picture of, and with, the late Mr Lee's house.

For all the attention surrounding the road, it is the "old Singapore" vibe that Katrina's husband Adam said he appreciates most about living in the area - something he hopes will never go away.

Unsolicited, the couple both told TNP that although the decision does not lie with them, they would rather not have the house at lot 38 demolished.

"It would be sad to see it go - the road has an easygoing and laid-back feel to it now. But if a big decision like that occurs, you can bet that it will change," she said.

Neighbour: Security at Oxley Road a boon despite tricky moments

Life might have been safe on the most secure road in Singapore, but Katrina said being a resident in Oxley Road wasn't without its challenges.

She recounted to The New Paper an incident that happened 10 years ago.

"I was going into labour with my last child and it was 2am, but the barriers were up because Mr Lee Kuan Yew was home," said the mother of four animatedly.

"So we had to call the officers and wait for them to open the barriers, all while I was in all that pain."

Telephone conversations between the family and the officers were an almost daily affair because security was so tight.

She said that whenever the family came home and turned on their lights, without fail, the phone would ring and the security officers at lot 38 would call.

"They would check if it was us and not someone who had broken in," she said.

The family would also alert the officers whenever they had gatherings or big groups of guests.

PRIME MINISTER

Almost every Sunday while Mr Lee was alive, Mrs Wong would see Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong drive past to visit.

But the Lee family kept mostly to themselves and she rarely saw them.

The only times they saw the late Mr Lee was when his car passed by.

She said: "He would always smile and wave back to us."

Mr Lee's daughter, Dr Lee Wei Ling, still lives at 38, Oxley Road, and Mrs Wong does occasionally see her.

When Mrs Lee died, Katrina said her children made a card for Mr Lee and she passed the card to the Gurkha guards at lot 38 to give it to him.

Life changed for Katrina's family after Mr Lee died on March 23, 2015.

The gradual scaling down of security meant that they had to set up better safeguards for their own home.

They had security cameras and surveillance equipment installed and realised how "blessed" they had been previously.

She said: "It is not like that any more, we need to be more vigilant."

 

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