Oxley Road dispute: Time to reflect, and seek the common good

Those in family dispute should set aside hurt feelings and self-interest

Disagreement over whether to demolish the Lee family home at 38, Oxley Road, or have it conserved for history is central to the ongoing spat. ST PHOTO: LIM YAOHUI

On my Facebook, some people are saying that the ongoing feud within the Lee family is like a multi-episode TV drama, with plot twists and characters that could have come straight from a scriptwriter's most overwrought imagination.

There is intrigue; a will - in fact, several wills; accusations and counter claims among siblings; money - always, there is money; feuding women; and a whiff of dynastic ambitions, swiftly denied. Politics, power, money, family drama.

They add to a potent mix. And as accusations levelled at Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, the eldest son of founding prime minister Lee Kuan Yew who died in March 2015, swirl, many Singaporeans are following the statements and Facebook posts put out by his sister, Dr Lee Wei Ling, brother Lee Hsien Yang and third-generation Lees, with a mix of prurient interest and concern.

On Facebook, people talk of this being a popcorn moment, like when you settle down for a movie.

It would all make for great entertainment.

Except, of course, it is not.

Because this is clearly not just a "family matter" being played out in public. Matters of public interest have arisen.

Disagreement over whether to demolish the Lee family home at 38, Oxley Road, or have it conserved for history is central to the ongoing spat. ST PHOTO: LIM YAOHUI

First is whether to preserve the Lee family home where the patriarch Mr Lee and his wife Kwa Geok Choo raised three children. This house was also the site of meetings that led to the founding of the People's Action Party, and a frequent meeting place for the first generation of leaders. It has historic value.

Disagreement over whether to demolish the house or have it conserved for history is central to the ongoing spat. It turns out, too, that inheritance shares and value are also involved.

My former colleague Cherian George summed up the issue well in a post on Thursday, when he said of the senior Mr Lee's wish to demolish his house:

"This was in line with his well-known abhorrence of emotional pulls in politics, whether in the form of race, religion, language or charismatic personality. He wanted to build legitimacy around performance, not identity, and to train Singaporeans to exercise a more clinical, legal-bureaucratic rationality.

"You don't need to be a disciple of Lee Kuan Yew to recognise this as a worthy principle for Singapore governance. Nor do you have to be a traitor to Lee Hsien Loong to acknowledge the risk, red-flagged by his siblings, that this principle will be compromised by preserving their house as a monument, against their father's wishes."

I was part of a team that interviewed Mr Lee for the book Hard Truths. His frugal habits and simple house came up in an interview in August 2009. He immediately said he had told the Cabinet: "When I am dead, demolish it." We probed him for a few minutes on this. But he was quite insistent, citing the cost of preserving it, and the fact that many historic abodes turn into "shambles" after a while.

According to PM Lee, Mr Lee had first stated he wanted the house demolished in earlier wills, but took out that requirement in later wills. In his final will read out after his death, there was a clause which specifically stated that he wished for the house to be demolished.

PM Lee has raised questions about the circumstances in which that last will was made and if Mr Lee was fully aware of the content when he signed it, including the reinstatement of the so-called "demolition clause".

While much is now made of trying to determine what Mr Lee's final, authentic wishes were for the house, ironically it might not matter very much. At least, it should not be the final word on the matter.

Mr Lee believed community and society's needs took precedence over the individual's claims. Just as his Land Acquisition Act rode roughshod over other families' wishes, it is perfectly consistent with the ethos of Mr Lee's regime that the state has power to override Mr Lee's own wishes and those of his family.

This is not to say it should or must.

Whether one comes down on one side or the other of the save-it-or-demolish-it divide, most would agree that the process of deciding this is as important as the outcome.

Mr Lee himself, after all, as a leader and a lawyer, believed in the rule of law and proper government process for all manner of things, including gazetting of national monuments. As for who gains and by how much, should the house be demolished and redeveloped for sale, that is no one's business but the Lees'.

Issues of public interest, such as whether to conserve the house of the founding prime minister, can be resolved calmly, over the long term, by rational discussion and public consultation. There is little value in Facebook wars.

The other issue of public interest that has arisen is the charge made by Mr Lee Hsien Yang and Dr Lee that PM Lee "misused his position".

In words carefully crafted to raise questions without making specific accusations, the post said: "Since the passing of Lee Kuan Yew on March 23, 2015, we have felt threatened by Hsien Loong's misuse of his position and influence over the Singapore Government and its agencies to drive his personal agenda. We are concerned that the system has few checks and balances to prevent the abuse of government.

"We feel big brother omnipresent. We fear the use of the organs of state against us and Hsien Yang's wife, Suet Fern. The situation is such that Hsien Yang feels compelled to leave Singapore."

The post mentions the writers' fear of the use of organs of state, and their concerns over the lack of checks and balances. The one specific accusation made is that PM Lee "misused" his position and influence over the Singapore Government.

These are serious allegations to make, albeit sweeping and vague. Whatever the differences among the Lee siblings, casting doubts and aspersions on the system that Mr Lee had worked his whole life to build with Singaporeans must surely be an unfortunate, even if unintended, blow to his legacy.

Yet, no doubt many will say that the fact that members of the Prime Minister's own family fear that the organs of state might be improperly used against them is not insignificant, especially in view of the Singapore state's past reputation as a police state.

In 2017, that reputation is receding, as citizens have more rights and feel more empowered, and as the Government also becomes more responsive and accountable. But that might be due to voluntary restraint by the executive.

To be sustainable and iron-clad, checks on executive power must reside in institutional mechanisms, such as laws, regulations and scrutiny by other arms of government, not in voluntary self-restraint by those in power.

Many other issues are being thrown into the mix - some of major public interest, many of nothing more than prurient interest.

Maybe it is because I have met Mr Lee many times as a journalist, sat across from him, watched his face, seen his eyes and heard the intonation of his words, as he spoke about the country he so loved and the family so close to his heart.

I can't view this as a popcorn moment; I can't watch this family drama unfold as pure entertainment. As a political journalist, I had the rare, unusual duty of being present at the Mandai crematorium for both Mr Lee's last journey, and that of his wife.

Mr Lee was not only the Lee siblings' father, but also the Founding Father of Singapore, and many of us as ordinary citizens claim a small - no matter how small - part of him and want to honour his memory.

The public fighting would have grieved him so.

There is a time for everything, and the time for family feuding is not now, when the country faces multiple challenges on the terrorism front and in foreign policy; when we all fear our jobs and livelihoods disappearing as technologies disrupt the workplace.

There is a place for everything, and the place for fighting over a family will and inheritance is not via Facebook and social media.

Singapore is a mature country with a mature polity. There are probate courts. There are family courts. There has been much effort to promote mediation as a means for dispute resolution in tricky cases. There are men and women of integrity and influence who can be appealed to, to mediate.

What is required is that those involved set aside hurt feelings, pride, fears and self-interest and seek to find a common good.

Mr Lee used to talk about "knocking heads" whenever people proved intractable or unyielding to reason. I think he would say that his children need a dose of that right now.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 17, 2017, with the headline Oxley Road dispute: Time to reflect, and seek the common good. Subscribe