The house at 38 Oxley Road: 3 questions you may have about the ministerial committee report

The ministerial committee set up to consider the future of 38, Oxley Road has laid out three options for the house, and says the decision on which to take will be left to a future government.
The ministerial committee set up to consider the future of 38, Oxley Road has laid out three options for the house, and says the decision on which to take will be left to a future government.PHOTO: ST FILE

SINGAPORE - A ministerial committee has outlined three possible options for the house at 38, Oxley Road: retaining it in whole, retaining just the historic basement dining room, and allowing it to be demolished.

In a report issued on Monday (April 2), the committee said the decision on which of the options to adopt should be taken by a future government, as no decision is currently required.

The house was the home of founding prime minister Lee Kuan Yew for many decades until his death in 2015, and has since been the subject of a heated dispute involving his three children - Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, Dr Lee Wei Ling and Mr Lee Hsien Yang.

At the heart of the disagreement among the Lee siblings is the question of whether to retain or demolish the house - a question the committee headed by Deputy Prime Minister Teo Chee Hean has left open.

The Straits Times answers three questions you may have about the report:

1. Why is there a report being published now on 38, Oxley Road?

Given the public interest on the issue of what should happen to the house, the Cabinet decided in June 2016 to set up a ministerial committee to prepare "drawer plans" on various options for the house. PM Lee, having recused himself from the matter, was not involved in this Cabinet decision.

 
 

The committee was chaired by Mr Teo, and included Minister for Law K. Shanmugam, Minister for Culture, Community and Youth Grace Fu and Minister for National Development Lawrence Wong.

Having completed its work, the committee published its report on Monday. It was considered and approved by Cabinet.

To prepare the report, the committee invited representations from each of the Lee siblings and undertook a detailed assessment of the house.

Three questions set out in the committee's terms of reference are addressed in the report: One, what is the significance of the house? Two, what were the wishes of Mr Lee Kuan Yew? And three, what options are possible when it is time to decide what should be done with the house?

With this report, the committee hopes to "close the chapter on this topic, and focus on other pressing national issues ahead of us", said Mr Teo.

2. What conclusions did the committee reach on the fate of the house?

The committee fleshed out three options that are open to a future government.

First, the house can be retained, either by gazetting it for preservation as a National Monument, or gazetting it for conservation. Generally, preserving a property reflects its greater national significance, compared to conserving it, the committee noted.

If it is preserved, the Government would have to acquire the property and rezone it for other uses - for example, to convert it into a museum or a research institute.

If it is conserved, the current owner of the house, Mr Lee Hsien Yang, can continue to live in it, make changes to its interior and even sell it.

Either way of gazetting the house could be combined with measures to address Mr Lee Kuan Yew's concern that the family's privacy should be protected. This can be done, for example, by refurbishing the private areas of the house and/or restricting access to the house.

The second option is to retain just the historic basement dining room of the house, where Mr Lee Kuan Yew hosted meetings important to the political history of Singapore.


The historic basement dining room of the 38, Oxley Road house, where Mr Lee Kuan Yew hosted meetings important to the political history of Singapore. PHOTO: ST FILE

Under this option, the state would preserve the dining room as a National Monument and acquire it, while allowing the rest of the property to be demolished.

The retained dining room can become part of a park or incorporated into a new building.

A third and final option is to allow the house to be demolished and redeveloped.

This could be done by the owner, who could convert it into a residential development with two or more storeys. The preliminary assessment of the Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA) is that the site's gross plot ratio can be raised to 1.4, which would allow for a five-storey apartment block containing about 16 flats.

The committee observed that doing this would result in "the loss of a historically significant property", as well as the possibility that the history of the site would be "leveraged for commercial profit".

One alternative way to demolish the building is for the Government to acquire it, tear it down and build something else in its place, such as a park or a heritage centre.

No decision is needed now, since "Dr Lee Wei Ling is likely to continue residing there for the foreseeable future", the committee said.

"The various options outlined in this report are drawer plans to help a future government make an informed and considered decision about the property when it becomes necessary," it added.

3. What were the committee's findings on the significance of the house and Mr Lee Kuan Yew's wishes?

On the question of the significance of the house, the committee was of the view that the property has "architectural, heritage and historical significance".

Built in the late 19th century, the house is of an "Early style" bungalow design and of an architectural type dating back to 18th century colonial India. It was also inspired by elements in local architecture, like the Malay House.

The property at 38, Oxley Road is "among the few remaining houses built in this style", and is "testament to (Singapore's) cosmopolitan past", the committee said.

Apart from its architecture, the house also holds historical significance, the report noted.

Meetings held in the basement dining room of the house led to the formation of the People's Action Party, which in 1959 formed Singapore's first government under self rule.

Mr Lee also allowed the house to be used as the PAP's first election office, with party posters and banners prepared on the verandah of the house. The house was also the PAP's de-facto office in its early years in opposition, as landlords were afraid to rent premises to the party.


People's Action Party posters and banners were prepared on the verandah of the house at 38, Oxley Road. PHOTO: ST FILE

On the issue of Mr Lee Kuan Yew's wishes for the house, the committee agreed that Mr Lee's personal preference was for the property to be demolished, as stated in his final will.

But the committee added that Mr Lee was aware that the Cabinet was unanimously opposed to demolition, as were others - such as senior journalists - and that he was hence "prepared to accept options other than demolition", provided that these options were done in a way that kept the house in a habitable state and protected the family's privacy.

While recognising that there were different views on Mr Lee's thinking about the house, the committee said it reached its own view on Mr Lee's wishes from examining the objective evidence placed before it.

Key among this evidence were Mr Lee's last will, a letter he wrote to the Cabinet on Dec 27, 2011, and renovation plans he submitted to URA for approval in March 2012.

In the letter to Cabinet, Mr Lee wrote that "if 38 Oxley Road is to be preserved, it needs to have its foundations reinforced and the whole building refurbished". He added that it should be "let out for people to live in", as "an empty building will soon decline and decay".

In the renovation plans he submitted to URA, Mr Lee appeared to have conservation requirements in mind, as he planned for a house that was completely refurbished except for its external structure and the basement dining room.