SINGAPORE - The Government got involved in the matter of 38, Oxley Road, as it has the responsibility to consider the public interest aspects of properties with historical and heritage significance, said Deputy Prime Minister Teo Chee Hean.
On Monday (July 3), Mr Teo delivered a statement in Parliament and laid out the duties of the ministerial committee, which he chairs, to consider options for the house.
He said the late Mr Lee Kuan Yew's house is a key marker of the "turning point in our history" and deliberations have to be made now, before irreversible steps such as demolition and redevelopment are made.
This, he said, is especially crucial as there are only a small number of buildings from the country's era of independence still remaining.
Get The Straits Times
newsletters in your inbox
The Government has a range of powers to gazette and acquire such properties, Mr Teo noted.
"I should emphasise that Government not only has the legal powers to act, but indeed the responsibility to decide what to do," he added.
"Government cannot outsource decision-making on this. Ultimately, the Government of the day has to decide and carry the decision."
The ministerial committee has borne the brunt of attacks from Mr Lee Hsien Yang and Dr Lee Wei Ling in recent weeks.
The Lee siblings charge that the "secret" committee was set up to bypass the courts, and to to block their father's wish to demolish the Oxley Road house at the behest of their older brother, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong.
Mr Teo has spoken up in defence of the committee several times, and the siblings have fired back on social media in turn.
Hours before the debate, Mr Lee Hsien Yang took to Facebook repeat his case that the committee has no business "opining on a private dispute between the PM and his siblings".
But, said Mr Teo on Monday, the Government has to carefully consider the merits for each property to be preserved or conserved.
He noted that 72 buildings and structures - among them private residences - are currently gazetted as national monuments, and more than 7,000 buildings have been conserved.
Many of these pre-date Singapore's independence, such as the House of Tan Yoke Nee, a mansion built in 1885 by the China-born businessman who lends his name to it.
Precious few architectural mementos from Singapore's era of independence remain, noted Mr Teo, and there have been calls to conserve these, such as several blocks of Singapore Improvement Trust flats in Tiong Bahru.
From the 1960s to 1980s, whole precincts were cleared and buildings demolished for urban redevelopment. This was because, in land-scarce Singapore, "there was an urgent need for decent housing, and industrial and commercial land for jobs - all for our people," said Mr Teo.
In some cases property owners or members of the public argued to retain buildings - such as the old National Library building - but they had to make way for redevelopment needs, Mr Teo pointed out.
In other cases, owners applied for redevelopment but were directed to conserve the buildings for their historic or heritage value, often forgoing considerable financial gains they might have reaped from redevelopment.
"There is a due process for considering such matters and the decision is never taken lightly. The ultimate decision is made by Government," he said.Mr Teo said these public interests and considerations apply to the house at 38, Oxley Road as well, as it was home to Singapore's founding prime minister, and its dining room was the site where Mr Lee and his fellow pioneer leaders had important discussions and made critical decisions on the future of Singapore.
"As Mr Lee and our pioneer generation of leaders pass on, the historical significance of markers of this period has grown. 38, Oxley Road, is a key marker of this turning point in our history," he said.
"Since we do not need to decide now on how best to maintain this important historical link to the past, it might be best for the time being, to avoid taking irreversible steps such as demolition and re-development of the site, so that we have the benefit of time to consider the matter, and the merits of various options with the perspective of history."
Mr Teo on Monday also explained how the committee came about.
Cabinet approved the proposal by Minister for National Development Lawrence Wong to set up a committee to draw up the range of possible options for 38, Oxley Road, on June 1, 2016, after PM Lee recused himself from decisions relating to the house in 2015.
"Prior to this, work on this issue had been carried out at staff level with inter-agency consultations as needed, with matters being surfaced by relevant ministers to me or Cabinet - without PM - when necessary," said Mr Teo, adding that he supported the proposal as it would improve coordination and oversight.
The committee, he added, would be a useful element for a future Government deciding on the House if it had a set of options that came from ministers who had personally discussed this matter with Mr Lee.
Addressing the misconception that the Government is making a decision on the house now, he said neither Cabinet nor the ministerial committee will do so.
"It is merely preparing drawer plans of various options and their implications so that a future Government can refer to them and make a considered and informed decision when the time comes to decide on the matter," he said, reiterating a point he has made in the past weeks.
The committee has made clear this clear the to the younger Lee siblings, he said.
"There is no decision required so long as Dr Lee continues staying in the House. This is what Mr Lee wanted and expressed in his will. It might be 20 to 30 years later before a decision needs to be made," said Mr Teo.
"However, if Dr Lee chooses to leave earlier, say within a few months, then Cabinet will have to decide, and it would be useful to have studied the different options."
He also shot down Mr Lee Hsien Yang and Dr Lee Wei Ling's allegations of misuse and power and influence.
Over the weeks, the younger Lee siblings have kept up a barrage of attacks against PM Lee and the public service, alleging that "organs of state" were being abused to drive the prime minister's personal agenda. Allegations of conflict of interest have also surfaced.
Mr Teo on Monday sought to put these charges to rest, as he laid out some rules governing the conduct of ministers, political appointees and public officers. Among them is the Code of Conduct for Ministers, which has been in place since 1954 and, among other things, states that ministers should not influence or support issues in which they have a private interest.
There are also avenues for public officers to report suspected misconduct directly to their agency heads or permanent secretaries, or through the head of civil service, the Public Service Commission or to the Corrupt Practices Investigation Bureau.
Mr Teo pointed out that Singapore has been recognised for its record of integrity, and the transparency and efficiency of its public institutions by bodies such as anti-graft organisation Transparency International.
"Singapore and Singaporeans can be proud of the hard-earned reputation and long track record of integrity of our public service," he said, adding: "This is a key pillar of Government that Mr Lee Kuan Yew and our pioneer leaders have built. The Public Service staunchly believes in and commits itself to living up to the high standards set by Mr Lee and his founding team."