Members of this House,
Let me first address the questions by several Members of Parliament about the rules governing the conduct of Ministers, political appointees and public officers.
Ministers and members of this House are well aware that our conduct must always be above board. There is a Code of Conduct for Ministers which has been in force since 1954. It was last revised and laid before this House in 2005. Ministers and other political appointment holders are notified of this Code at the start of each term of office and when a new political office-holder is appointed. The Code clearly states that a Minister must not direct or request a civil servant to do anything or perform any function that may conflict with the Civil Service's core values of incorruptibility, impartiality, integrity and honesty.
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The Code sets out guidelines on what constitutes private interest, requires Ministers to disclose these private interests, and states that they should not influence or support issues in which they have a private interest. Ministers are expected to be scrupulously above board and ensure no real or perceived conflict of interest between their official duties and private interests.
As Prime Minister (PM) Lee had said in his Ministerial Statement earlier, the Prime Minister sends the Rules of Prudence after every election to all Members of Parliament of the People's Action Party. These Rules set out clearly the conduct expected of the Members of Parliament, including the need to be proper and above board in their dealings with government departments and public officers. These Rules are also released to the media.
The Public Service is also guided by a Code of Conduct that lays down the principles and rules that public officers must abide by. This is periodically refreshed, and the Code of Conduct is available to all public officers in hard copies and on the Intranet.
The Public Service takes integrity very seriously. Public officers must not undertake any activity that can give rise to any perception that official resources are being used for party political purposes. Public officers are also expected to uphold the integrity and the reputation of the Public Service and public confidence in it. This includes protecting the confidentiality of information. Any request for information from the public is not granted automatically, but would be carefully assessed on its merits. And this applies to members of the public who happen to be family members of political appointees as well.
To ensure that public officers understand and uphold these values, the Code of Conduct is discussed in induction programmes for new public officers. Permanent Secretaries and statutory board Chief Executive Officers (CEOs) also lead Townhalls to explain the Code of Conduct to their officers. These Townhalls include discussions to help officers understand how to interpret and live the Code.
As I had informed the House on several occasions, there are avenues for public officers to report suspected misconduct directly to their agency heads or Permanent Secretaries. They may also report to the Head of Civil Service, the Public Service Commission or to enforcement agencies such as the Police or the Corrupt Practices Investigation Bureau.
Singapore and Singaporeans can justifiably be proud of the hard-earned reputation and long track record of integrity of our Public Service. We are recognised for our record of integrity by Transparency International and by the World Economic Forum and IMD in their rankings on Global Competitiveness for the transparency and efficiency of our public institutions. 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.
Let me now move on to address the questions several Members of Parliament have raised about the Ministerial Committee on No. 38 Oxley Road. I will cover three areas:
First, why was the Committee formed;
Second, what is the work of the Committee; and
Third, what are our next steps.
First, why did we set up this Committee. There is a significant public interest element involved when considering options for founding Prime Minister Mr Lee Kuan Yew's house at No. 38 Oxley Road ("The House" in short). At the same time, the Government has also said that it will pay attention to respecting the wishes of Mr Lee for his House. These considerations are in addition to the due processes that take place for all buildings and structures with heritage and historical value.
There is a misconception that Government is seeking to make a decision now. The Ministerial Committee does not decide. 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. The Ministerial Committee has made clear to Mr Lee Hsien Yang and in particular to Dr Lee Wei Ling, that neither the Ministerial Committee nor Cabinet will be making any decision. 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 twenty to thirty years later before a decision needs to be made. However, if Dr Lee chooses to leave earlier, say within a few months, then Cabinet and Government will have to decide, and it would be useful to have studied the different options.
Some of us in Cabinet, including me, also felt that it would be a useful element if a future Government deciding on the House had a set of options that came from ministers who had personally discussed this matter with Mr Lee.
Following the passing of Mr Lee Kuan Yew on 23 March 2015, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong informed Cabinet on 15 April 2015 that he would recuse himself from all Government decisions to be taken on the House. This is in accordance with the guidelines in paragraphs (3) and (4) of the Code of Conduct for Ministers. It was proper for PM to recuse himself as there is a conflict of interest between his public role as the head of Government, and his private role as son of Mr Lee, and in addition, because he had been bequeathed the property.
As PM had recused himself, I chair Cabinet should any deliberations take place on this property. Cabinet had recorded this at its meeting on 15 April 2015. On 1 June 2016, at a Cabinet meeting which I chaired, Cabinet approved the proposal by the Minister for National Development to set up a Ministerial Committee to draw up the range of possible options for No. 38 Oxley Road. 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. I had supported the Minister for National Development's proposal as setting up such a Ministerial Committee would improve coordination and oversight on this matter.
I chair this committee on the property at No. 38 Oxley Road, and included the relevant Cabinet members, i.e. Minister for Culture, Community and Youth Grace Fu for heritage, Minister for Law K Shanmugam for land issues, and Minister for National Development Lawrence Wong for urban planning.
This committee is like numerous other committees that Cabinet may set up from time to time to study specific issues, for instance on Smart Nation and Digital Government, Population, National Research and on Climate Change which I chair. DPM Tharman has provided examples of other committees that he chairs such as for the Changi East Developments. We even have a taskforce now looking at infant formula. They are all part of the normal working process of Cabinet and Government, or indeed the Board of any large organisation. We would rarely need to announce the formation of such committees, as they often relate to internal working processes and coordination within Government. There is nothing unusual about this.
This is similar in approach to Cabinet Committees set up by many other governments. These committees ultimately report to Cabinet, which operates under the principle of collective Cabinet responsibility. This is an important consideration - that is, that members of Cabinet may have differing perspectives, but once Cabinet decides, members take collective responsibility for the decision. This remains a valid consideration for us.
Terms of Reference
Second, on the work of the Committee. The Terms of Reference of this Committee are to assess (i) the historical and heritage significance of the property, (ii) the wishes of Mr Lee Kuan Yew in relation to the property, and (iii) the possible plans for the property and the neighbourhood, and the options to move forward.
As we wanted to get the views of Mr Lee's children, Mr Lee Hsien Loong, Dr Lee Wei Ling and Mr Lee Hsien Yang were duly informed separately, in writing, on 27 July 2016, that a Ministerial Committee of which I was the Chairman, had been formed to consider the options for No. 38 Oxley Road (and the implications thereof), and that the Committee would look into various aspects including what Mr Lee Kuan Yew's thinking on the matter was.
I will now elaborate on these three aspects of the terms of reference.
With regard to the first aspect of the Terms of Reference for the Committee - why does the Government need to get involved in this matter? The Government has the responsibility to consider the public interest aspects of any property with historical and heritage significance, and has a range of powers to gazette or acquire such property. I should emphasise that Government not only has the legal powers to act, but indeed the responsibility to decide on what to do. Government cannot outsource decision-making on this. Ultimately, the Government of the day has to decide and carry the decision.
The Government has to carefully consider the merits for each property to be preserved or conserved. Currently, 72 buildings and structures are gazetted as national monuments, some of which were private residences. And we have conserved over 7,000 buildings. Many of these pre-date our independence and hark back to our early immigrant and colonial era, such as Admiralty House, the House of Tan Yeok Nee and the Sun Yat Sen Nanyang Memorial Hall.
We have precious few from our independence era, and there have been calls to conserve these, such as several blocks of SIT (Singapore Improvement Trust) flats in Tiong Bahru. For those who are less familiar, the SIT was the precursor of the Housing Development Board.
In the 1960s through to the 1980s, we cleared whole precincts and demolished many buildings for urban redevelopment, to make way for the new, in land scarce Singapore. There was an urgent need for decent housing, and industrial and commercial land for jobs - all for our people.
When we look back, we were perhaps in some cases over-zealous in doing so. Indeed, as fewer such precincts or buildings remained, the value of each of them as a link to the past became more salient - old shophouses and warehouses, Peranakan houses, "black and whites", and Bukit Brown. With the passing years and fading memories, more Singaporeans too began to yearn to keep these gradually dwindling remaining physical links to our past - either for their architectural typology or the history they embody.
In some cases, the property owners or members of the public argued to retain the buildings, for example the old National Library building not so long ago, but they had to make way for development needs. 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. The Minister for National Development will elaborate on this later in his speech.
These public interests and considerations apply to No. 38 Oxley Road as well. It was home to our founding Prime Minister. It was in its basement Dining Room that many important discussions and critical decisions on the future of Singapore were made by Mr Lee and our pioneer leaders. As Mr Lee, our pioneer generation of leaders and our pioneers pass on, the historical significance of markers of this period has grown. No. 38 Oxley Road is a key marker of this turning point in our history. Since we do not need to decide now 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.
A key consideration for 38 Oxley Road is Mr Lee's thinking on the property, which brings me to the second aspect of the Terms of Reference. The Committee has been paying particular attention to respecting Mr Lee Kuan Yew's wishes as we look at the range of possible options. This is the reason why we had sought views from Mr Lee's children.
When Mr Lee met Cabinet in July 2011, he expressed his wish for the house to be demolished, but also listened carefully to the views of the cabinet members. It was not a "stormy discussion" but a considered one where he presented his views and he listened to the views of the Cabinet members. While Mr Lee expressed his personal wishes, he was also very proper. He did not direct the Government. He was aware of the Government's responsibilities and how the law on this matter operated. He wrote to Cabinet five months later, informing us that he had reflected on the matter. Earlier today, the Prime Minister read out to Members of this House, the letter that Mr Lee had written to Cabinet. This was Mr Lee's last formal communication with Cabinet on this matter.
Subsequently, as we have learnt from the beneficiaries of his Estate, he had also expressed his wishes on the property in Paragraph 7 of his last will. Members will also be aware of this. This paragraph had two main limbs, with a third limb saying that this paragraph could be made public so that his wishes are known.
The Ministerial Committee wrote to all Mr Lee's children on 27 July 2016, shortly after the Committee was formed, to invite them to share with the Committee, any views they would like on Mr Lee's thinking on the property, and the context and circumstances relating to his thinking beyond what had already been stated in public, so that these could be taken into account. Indeed, it is only natural that the committee should ask the siblings for their views.
The siblings wrote to us, providing differing views, including on the drafting of the last Will. We then provided each party two opportunities to comment on the views of the other party. Indeed, the fact that the Committee received differing views showed how essential it was that we had sought the views of the siblings on Mr Lee's wishes and thinking.
Madam Speaker, Mr Lee Hsien Yang has made various allegations about the Committee which are baseless. He has repeated the same allegations today, ignoring the replies that have been provided to him in writing. If I may draw Members' attention to the response from my Press Secretary yesterday. I seek Madam Speaker's permission to circulate this response to Members.
Exchanges had happened quite rapidly and I will read out the response released on 2 July 2017.
"Mr Lee Hsien Yang (LHY)'s statement on 2 July 2017 presents a selective and inaccurate account of his exchanges with the Ministerial Committee on No. 38 Oxley Road (the House).
The Committee sought Mr LHY and Dr Lee Wei Ling (LWL)'s views on the late Mr Lee's wishes and thinking in July 2016. In its initial letters, the Committee had made clear to Mr LHY and Dr LWL the purpose and scope of the Committee's work. This includes (1) Why the Committee was formed; (2) Who it reports to (namely Cabinet); (3) What it would look into; and (4) Why Mr LHY's input would be useful.
The Committee told him clearly that:
it was listing the various options for the House, to present to Cabinet;
the Committee was not going to make any recommendations;
the Government had no intention of making any decision on the House, as long as Dr LWL resides there. Mr LHY himself had acknowledged this, in one of his subsequent replies.
As such, it was clear to all parties involved that the Government was not making an immediate decision on the House, and that no decision may be necessary for another 20-30 years.
Enclosed are letters dated 27 July 2016 and 24 August 2016 to Mr LHY which make these points clear.
The Committee has no power to decide on the validity of the Last Will. It was made clear to Mr LHY that the Committee is not the place where decisions on the legal validity of the Last Will can be made, and this is a matter between him and Mr Lee Hsien Loong (LHL).
The Committee also made clear to Mr LHY from the outset that his provision of any reply was purely voluntary. On this basis, Mr LHY proceeded to make various submissions to the Committee, both last year and into this year.
The circumstances of the Last Will became relevant because Mr LHY's representations to the Committee placed reliance on one part of the Last Will as the primary evidence of Mr Lee's intent. He wanted the Committee to focus on one part of the clause relating to Mr Lee's wishes on the House, and not its other part.
When the circumstances related to the drafting of the Last Will were brought to the Committee's attention, Mr LHY's views on this were sought. In the same vein, the Committee had also posed questions to Mr LHL, based on representations made by Mr LHY and Dr LWL.
Just because Mr LHY found some questions inconvenient to answer, that does not mean that the Committee abused its power or did wrong."
Madam Speaker, I am quite puzzled. First, Dr Lee Wei Ling and Mr Lee Hsien Yang knew about the Committee. We informed them on 27 July 2016, shortly after the Committee was formed. We also informed them what the Committee was setting out to do. This was on 27 July 2016 and in response to his questions, we elaborated our replies and gave him some reassurances as reflected in the letter on 24 August 2016. They were also invited to make representations to the Committee. This was not done in isolation. Indeed, if this were a secret Committee and they were not aware of its existence, how could they be making representations. The siblings gave their views and offered them freely and voluntarily. They were also told clearly on 25 April this year that the Committee is not looking into the validity of the will.
Madam Speaker, going through the facts and chronology, we must then ask if Mr Lee Hsien Yang and Dr Lee Wei Ling would be truthful and honest when they alleged that there is a "secret" committee which they did not know about, and which was acknowledged only after they "exposed its existence". Just because Mr Lee Hsien Yang may have some questions that he found inconvenient to answer, that does not mean that the Committee was abusing its power or doing something wrong. It gave the opportunity for all parties to express their views.
Consider if the committee had not asked the siblings for their views, it would have been a significant omission, and then in such a situation, the siblings might justifiably be upset that the Committee had not given them an opportunity to make their views known, or to make clarifications. The siblings should therefore have no reason to be unhappy with being given the opportunity to make voluntary representations to offer their views and to make clarifications.
Madam Speaker, so what is the Committee's interest? Our interest is confined to obtaining as full a picture as possible of Mr Lee's thinking on the House, and to try and determine this as best as we can.
I should emphasise that it is not for the Committee to decide whose claims are valid, in particular over the validity of the will. We had explained on 25 April 2017 in writing to Mr Lee Hsien Yang and Dr Lee Wei Ling that the legal validity of the will was a matter between the beneficiaries.
What we do try is to understand, as best we can, Mr Lee's wishes and thinking.
We had also explained that all the representations and views offered were voluntary. Mr Lee Hsien Loong provided his representations in the form of three statutory declarations. But there was no need for any party to respond if they did not wish to provide views or clarifications, and they need not submit their views in the form of statutory declarations as well. But we did inform them that any views provided would be useful. The Committee will consider all the views offered.
Madam Speaker, we should be clear that the difference of views had origins that arose before the formation of the Committee in June 2016. Indeed, soon after Mr Lee's passing, the allegations of "dynastic ambitions" and "abuse of power" were already being made, to many people, in smaller circles. I know, as several people spoke to me about having been approached and offered these allegations and views, and they had expressed concern. This was after Mr Lee's passing, and well before the formation of any Committee. In April 2016, before the Committee was formed, Dr Lee Wei Ling had made a public posting making such allegations. I do not recall that Mr Lee Hsien Yang dissociated himself from these postings either. Saying that the Committee has "pushed" Mr Lee Hsien Yang to take these allegations public, therefore does not conform to the facts and chronology. I am not in a position to opine why Mr Lee Hsien Yang now makes such a claim and his motivations for doing so.
Both parties made representations to the Committee that might have been uncomfortable to the other. Each party's views were circulated, with their permission, to the other party. Both parties were offered opportunities to respond if they wished. This is being open and transparent with all the parties. Being given the opportunity to voluntarily clarify issues even though they may be uncomfortable can hardly be considered an abuse of power.
The Committee is not the reason for these differences. Dissolving the Committee does not resolve these differences. The Committee is merely trying to get the best understanding of Mr Lee's thinking on the property. As there are differences of views, it may be useful to have a contemporaneous record of what these are so that they can be referred to if needed, when a decision is to be taken eventually.
I should also point out that the Committee carried out its work through direct correspondence in writing with the siblings, and out of the public eye. The Committee did not think that it was useful for these differences to be aired in public. But the siblings' views had relevance to the Committee's work, because it helps the Committee take Mr Lee's wishes and thinking into account, along with the public interest aspects, when drawing up the range of options for the property.
We hope that the differences of views on private matters can be resolved within the family. But ultimately, the Government of the day and its ministers cannot avoid taking responsibility for making the required decisions on matters involving the public interest.
This is why Singapore has Laws that give the Government powers, specifically the Preservation of Monuments Act and the Planning Act in this case. As Members have asked, this does not preclude consultations or the involvement of some memorial committee at an appropriate time. In fact, I think this will be useful. Members of the public have already written in offering suggestions. At the appropriate time, I will see how best to seek wider public views on this. But I also have to weigh this against those who might jump to the conclusion that doing so means that the Government is imminently going to decide what to do about the property when there is no need to decide now.
Madam Speaker, I wish to point out an irony in this matter.
If PM Lee had not recused himself, and had simply as the Prime Minister, ordered the government agencies to demolish the House without due process, that would have been an abuse of authority and power. It would have by-passed the objective due process that Mr Lee himself would have stood for. Instead, Prime Minister Lee did the proper thing, recused himself and let the Cabinet without him, chaired by me, decide on how to proceed with the matter. It is ironic that following the proper process is now being labelled, by some, as an abuse of power. Perhaps it is because they feel that their demand for a particular outcome should simply be carried out. But simply doing this would be an abuse of power. Going through the due process is the proper way of doing things.
Anyone who has run a major listed company, would or should know how companies deal with conflicts of interest, even where it involves the Chairman or the CEO. Take for example, a property company that is going to bid for an en-bloc redevelopment. If the Chairman or CEO happens to own apartment units in this development, they would have to recuse themselves. Others in the company would then have to be empowered to decide on the company's bid.
We now come to the third aspect of the Terms of Reference of the Committee - the due process to develop possible plans and options for the property.
No decision is required now on what to do with the property. The Government had stated on several occasions that it will not do anything to affect Dr Lee Wei Ling's right to continue living at 38 Oxley Road. As I said earlier, this was made clear to the siblings, in writing - that neither the Committee, nor Cabinet will make any decision on the House, and that the Committee is only listing and studying the various options, as drawer plans.
Even though no decision is needed now, it is prudent to commence that due process which is needed to consider the various options before making any decision on the House, as with all properties of significant public interest. This will take some time and the Government has to study the options in advance of any eventualities. For instance, if Dr Lee chooses to move out of the house in the near future, a decision on what to do about the House might have to be taken at that point.
On the options for the House, the Committee does not take a binary, "either or" approach. The Committee has no pre-conceived notion that the House must be kept as it is, or that it must be totally demolished. Instead, the Committee's approach is to study and prepare a range of options for the property and the neighbourhood so that a future Government can make an informed and considered decision when it becomes necessary, always taking into account Mr Lee's views. A range of intermediate options is possible.
I met Mr Lee Hsien Yang five times in 2015, between 14 April and July 2015, and a sixth time in April 2016 on a range of issues. The meetings were before the Ministerial Committee was formed. In our meeting on 27 April 2015, we talked about various possibilities for the property. I informed Mr Lee Hsien Yang that I would personally not support the options at either end of the range. At one end, preserving the House as it is for visitors to enter and see the private spaces, would be totally against the wishes of Mr and Mrs Lee Kuan Yew. And at the other end, demolishing the house and putting the property on the market to develop new private residences such as luxury apartments. This remains my view.
The latter, the redevelopment, would not only result in the loss of a historically significant property, but also allow this very history to be exploited for private profit, for example, by marketing the residences as "living at the former home of Mr Lee Kuan Yew". I am certain many Singaporeans will not approve of this. Indeed, Mr Lee Hsien Yang has also acknowledged this, and on 1 July 2017, has said that he has no "inclination" to do so.
The Committee has been studying various intermediate options such as demolishing the House but keeping the basement dining room with an appropriate heritage centre attached. The dining room was where many important historical meetings were held to discuss how a self-governing Singapore would take shape. I personally think there are merits in these intermediate options which could provide a good solution. These studies are ongoing. Mr Lee Hsien Yang has in his public statements also indicated that he is open to some of these options.
Mr Lee Hsien Yang also acknowledges that no decision is needed now as Dr Lee Wei Ling continues to live in the property. This is also the position of the Government. In his statement on 1 July, he also said that he also recognises that "no man stands above the law". Indeed, as I have explained, Government has a duty to go through due process for when a decision needs to be taken, at some future time.
So there should really be no reason to disagree with studying the possible options for the time when a decision has to be made.
Third, what are our next steps. Mr Lee Hsien Yang now owns the property. As provided for in Mr Lee Kuan Yew's Will of 17 December 2013, Dr Lee Wei Ling can stay in it for as long as she wishes. The Government has already stated on several occasions that it will not do anything to affect Dr Lee's right to continue living at No. 38 Oxley Rd.
There is no decision required of this Government so long as Dr Lee stays there and the House is properly maintained (as provided for under the Building Control Act and Planning Act). Even if this Government were to take a position today, it would not bind a future Government at the time when that future government has to make a decision and implement it. We cannot take a prospective decision as a future Government has the powers under the law to decide for itself.
The studies on the options for the House are continuing.
While there is no urgency to complete these studies within a specified time frame, these are drawer plans which will be revealed periodically. I will consult my colleagues to see if it is useful to put out a range of possibilities, to let the public ponder on the matter without having to arrive at any decision.
Emotions on these issues are still very strong, not just within the family, but also among some Singaporeans. Emotions have sadly been heightened again by this public disagreement. A period of calm would be useful for reflection.
With the passage of time, I hope that we will be able to arrive at a wise decision on this matter in an informed and considered way that takes into account the significant public interest to preserve the heritage of our young nation, while respecting Mr Lee's personal wishes for the House.
I have explained to this House the robust processes that the Government has for dealing with and avoiding conflicts of interest. I explained that the Ministerial Committee was formed to examine (i) the historical and heritage significance of the property, (ii) the wishes of Mr Lee Kuan Yew in relation to the property, and (iii) the possible plans for the property and the neighbourhood, and the options to move forward. These are all matters which the Government has to take responsibility for, and has to plan for. This is just the normal process of Government doing its work in a calm, objective and proper way.
In the coming days, we will fully debate the specific allegations that have been made against the Government, and examine whether there is any substance behind them.
Even as we do so, I hope that Members will leave enough room for the private issues to be worked through within the family.
But we must not shy away from dealing decisively with the public issues and the allegations which go to the heart of our system of clean and honest Government for the good of Singapore.
I urge Members to ask me and my Cabinet colleagues probing questions on any aspect of these allegations which you feel is relevant. Clear any doubts that you may have.
We must keep our public institutions neutral and not have allegations hurled at our public officers without basis. At the end of this session, Singaporeans should have their confidence in the honesty of our Government and our public officers strengthened.
We make decisions and act in the public interest of Singaporeans. We do not bend to the private demands of individuals, no matter who they are, or what family connections they can claim. This is the foundation upon which Mr Lee Kuan Yew and his team built our Singapore for all of us. Mr Lee would have expected no less from us. This is the Singapore that we want to continue living in. And this is the Singapore that Prime Minister Lee, my Cabinet colleagues and I, and all our public officers in our agencies will fight to uphold and take forward.
We have many real challenges, and much to do. Let us all focus together on these and work together to continue to serve Singaporeans and bring Singapore forward. That is what Mr Lee would have wanted us to do, more than anything else.
Thank you Madam Speaker.