Four things to know about Oxley dispute

As Singaporeans we are all saddened by the Oxley dispute. I am particularly saddened because I looked after Minister Mentor (MM) Lee Kuan Yew's constituency in his final years and got to see at close quarters what a great man he was. I know how much this would have grieved MM and Mrs Lee.

People have expressed confusion about the things which have been said. Many are trying to make sense of it all. The key to understanding this matter is first to get a handle on the issues and some important facts.

Here are four things you should know about the Oxley dispute.

1. WHAT DOES THE SEVENTH WILL ACTUALLY SAY?

Serious questions have been raised as to how Mr Lee Kuan Yew's seventh will was prepared. However, leaving those aside for the moment, and taking the seventh will at face value, what does it actually say about 38, Oxley Road?

The relevant part is in paragraph 7 of the will. It was read out by the Prime Minister in Parliament on April 13, 2015, and this is what it says: "I further declare that it is my wish and the wish of my late Wife, KWA GEOK CHOO, that our house at 38 Oxley Road, Singapore 238629 ("the House") be demolished immediately after my death, or if my daughter Wei Ling would prefer to continue living in the original house, immediately after she moves out of the House. I would ask each of my children to ensure our wishes with respect to the demolition of the House be carried out.

"If our children are unable to demolish the House as a result of any changes in the laws, rules or regulations binding them, it is my wish that the House never be opened to others except my children, their families and descendants.

"My view on this has been made public before and remains unchanged. My statement of wishes in this paragraph 7 may be publicly disclosed notwithstanding that the rest of my Will is private."

Based on the seventh will, several things are instantly clear:

  • Demolition was not the only option contemplated by Mr Lee Kuan Yew;
  • There are two parts to the clause. The first part expresses his and Mrs Lee's wish, which was for demolition;
  • However, the second part recognises that the house may not be demolished for a number of reasons. Mr Lee accepted that the house may not be demolished and, in such case, expressed his wishes on what should happen. Essentially, he did not want the House to be opened to the public.

Much of the recent public discussion on this issue has been premised on the assumption that the seventh will contemplates only one outcome - demolition. But this is not the case. The will specifically accepts and acknowledges that demolition may not take place.

2. WHY DOES THE GOVERNMENT NEED TO BE INVOLVED IN WHAT HAPPENS TO 38, OXLEY ROAD? ISN'T THIS A PRIVATE MATTER?

Mr Lee Kuan Yew's estate and who inherits what is a private matter, but what is to be done with 38, Oxley Road is not purely a private matter: 38, Oxley Road is closely bound up with the history of Singapore. It is the site where our founding fathers first came together and set Singapore on the path to its future destiny. It is where important and historical decisions were made that led to internal self-government, merger and eventually independence. The strategies to outflank the communists were developed there. It is where the People's Action Party was formed.

People will recall that after Mr Lee's death and before this dispute was made public, there were many calls to turn 38, Oxley Road into a museum or memorial. At the parliamentary session of April 13, 2015, the Prime Minister also recounted how when Mr Lee mentioned demolition in his book Hard Truths, there was a public reaction as some people wanted the house preserved.

Why is this so? It is because Singaporeans understand the historical significance of the site - 38, Oxley Road is not just any old piece of property. It is intertwined with the history of the nation. For this reason, what happens to 38, Oxley Road is not purely a private family matter. It is also a matter of public interest. This is also reflected in the fact that paragraph 7 of the will provides for public disclosure.

Because it is a matter of public interest, the Government has to be involved. As Deputy Prime Minister Teo Chee Hean has explained, the Government has a duty to take a view from the public interest, historical and heritage perspective, while taking very seriously into account the wishes expressed by Mr Lee in paragraph 7 of his will.

3. WHAT IS PM'S INVOLVEMENT IN GOVERNMENT DELIBERATIONS ON 38, OXLEY ROAD?

None. He has taken himself out of the equation.

Mr Lee Hsien Loong is the eldest son of Mr Lee Kuan Yew. But he is also our Prime Minister. As a son, he would like to see his parents' wishes carried out. He stated this in Parliament on April 13, 2015.

However, as Prime Minister, he would have to consider whether it is in the wider public interest to demolish the House given its historical significance. The answer to this may be different from his parents' or his own personal wishes. It is a very difficult dilemma for him. For this reason, the Prime Minister has recused himself from taking part in any government consideration or decision regarding 38, Oxley Road.

At the same time, the Government cannot avoid considering the matter. Hence, DPM Teo set up the ministerial committee to consider issues in connection with 38, Oxley Road. Like any other ministerial committee, it reports to the Cabinet, except that in this matter, it is Cabinet minus PM for the reason stated above.

4. CAN WE DEMOLISH THE HOUSE NOW?

No, because Dr Lee Wei Ling is still living there. Mr Lee's wish, as expressed in the seventh will, is that the house should not be demolished so long as Dr Lee is still living there.

The Government has said that it will not do anything to the House while Dr Lee is still living there.

Mr Lee Hsien Yang has said that: "My sister is living there and has every intention to live a long life."

There is, therefore, no need to make a decision on demolition now. It may be decades before a definite decision needs to be taken. The Cabinet, at that time, will have to make the decision. Most of the current Cabinet ministers are unlikely to be in Cabinet then.


  • The writer is Senior Minister of State for Law and Finance.
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 24, 2017, with the headline 'Four things to know about Oxley dispute'. Print Edition | Subscribe