Mr Lee Kuan Yew wanted his house to be demolished: Five things about 38, Oxley Road

SINGAPORE - There have been calls to turn Mr Lee Kuan Yew's house into a museum, but in his will, he had asked for it to be demolished.

In the event that an order would be issued against his wishes, the former Prime Minister added in his will: "If our children are unable to demolish the house as a result of any changes in the law, rules or regulations binding them, it is my wish that the house never be opened to others except my children, their families and descendants."

The pre-war bungalow at 38, Oxley Road, which was built by a Jewish merchant more than 100 years ago, has witnessed some momentous turning points in Singapore's history.


1. Why demolish the house?

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Back in 2011, Mr Lee said in an interview with a team of Straits Times journalists for the book, Hard Truths to Keep Singapore Going, that he wanted the house to be demolished. Here it is in his own words:

I mean MM, I haven't been there but people who have been there say you've not done much to renovate and to upgrade it.

I've told the Cabinet, when I'm dead, demolish it.

Why?

Because I think, I've seen other houses, Nehru's, Shakespeare's. They become a shambles after a while. People trudge through. Because of my house the neighbouring houses cannot build high. Now demolish my house and change the planning rules, go up, the land value will go up.

Ever practical, one of the reasons he gave was that it would cost a lot to maintain it:

But isn't that part of Singapore history?

No, no, no. You know the cost of preserving it? It's an old house built over a hundred years ago. No foundation. The cost of maintaining it, damp comes up the wall because there's no foundation. So the piling in the neighbourhood has made cracks in my walls. But fortunately the pillars are sound.

By your comment then, you don't place great store on preserving old buildings? It's like the old National Library, no architectural significance but when it was torn down I think a lot of people still bemoan its loss today.

I don't think my daughter or my wife or I, who lived in it, or my sons who grew up in it will bemoan its loss. They have old photos to remind them of the past.


Hear what Mr Lee said about his Oxley Road house in the interview.


2. The Lees' marital home

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The house is where Mr Lee began his married life. Mr Lee grew up at 92, Kampong Java Road, but later moved to his maternal grandfather's house in Telok Kurau in 1929. He and his family moved into 38, Oxley Road in 1945.

Then in 1946, he sailed for England to study law. He had already begun dating a former classmate from Raffles College - Ms Kwa Geok Choo. They secretly married in Stratford-upon-Avon in 1947.

After their official wedding in 1950, they moved into the Oxley Road house.


3. Old furniture, and no shower

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Mr Lee once described 38, Oxley Road as "a big, rambling house with five bedrooms, and three others at the back originally used as servants' quarters."

Associate Professor Koo Tsai Kee, an MP for 20 years in Mr Lee's Tanjong Pagar GRC, who visited the house in 2002, said: "It's a very humble house. The furniture has probably never been changed. Some of the pictures are yellow already."

Mr Lee's daughter, Dr Lee Wei Ling, once described the frugality her parents instilled in her: "We had to turn off water taps completely. If my parents found a dripping tap, we would get a ticking off. And when we left a room, we had to switch off lights and air-conditioners."

Dr Lee also wrote in the 2012 column that her room has a window model air-conditioner, which fell out of favour decades ago.

Visitors to the house such as journalist Judith Tan, who was there in 2010, described how there was no shower for many years.

In an article for The New Paper on March 26, 2015, Ms Tan wrote: "The downstairs bathroom, for instance, still held a humdangong (Cantonese for barrel or tub used for making salted eggs), a large clay urn filled with water for bathing, old-school style, complete with a plastic scoop. Its mosaic tiles, some a little chipped, had been popular in the 1970s. The chairs in the house were mismatched, giving off an eclectic feel. An ancient exercise bike stood in one corner, gathering dust."

It was only after Mrs Lee had a stroke in London in 2003 that their children installed a shower before she returned home.


4. Family gatherings

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Mr Lee's grandson Li Shengwu recalled the Sunday lunches they had at Oxley Road in a eulogy he delivered for Mr Lee at his funeral on March 29.

"Sunday lunch with Ye Ye was an institution for our family. His voice and his hearty laugh would carry to the children's table, talking about matters of state, recounting meetings with foreign leaders whose names we neither recognised nor remembered.

"In a city of continual renewal, my grandparents' house never changed. Always the same white walls, the same wooden furniture, the same high windows letting in sunlight.

"The food stayed the same too - Singapore cooking that would not be out of place at a good stall in a hawker centre."

The extended family also met at the house during Chinese New Year for many years.

When Mr Lee's father Mr Lee Chin Koon was alive, the extended family would gather at Oxley Road for the first day of Chinese New Year. But as the family grew bigger, they got together for the reunion dinner and exchanged greetings then.


5. Hive of political activity

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The basement dining room at 38, Oxley Road was where the founding members of the People's Action Party discussed setting up a new party.

A group of English-educated middle-class friends whom Mr Lee himself called 'beer-swilling bourgeois', gathered in late 1954, usually on Saturdays between 2.30pm and 5.30pm.

Some 20 participants, including the 14 founding members of the People's Action Party, would engage in heated debates around a long table.

On Nov 21, 1954, the group formed the "socialist" PAP with the pro-communist trade unionists.

Mr Lee's eldest son, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, grew up in the house, experiencing his first taste of politics there.

In his eulogy at the March 29 State funeral service, PM Lee said: "Of course, growing up as my father's son could not but mean being exposed to politics very early. I remember as a little boy . . . (I) was excited by the hubbub at Oxley Road whenever elections happened, and our home became the election office."

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chuimin@sph.com.sg