The ongoing Lee family feud is not about whether to preserve or demolish 38 Oxley Road. It never was.
This is a fight over narrative. It’s a fight over the story that the elite will tell Singaporeans, and that we might subsequently tell ourselves.
Lee Kuan Yew’s desire for 38 Oxley Road to be demolished is pretty clear; he’s stated it time and again. But that’s not even the point here, because national interests can supersede an individual’s will, and the law allows for the government to identify heritage sites and issue preservation orders.
If Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong or the government were inclined to preserve the house – and the existence of this dispute makes it look like they are – processes already exist for them to go about it. The matter could simply be handed to the National Heritage Board to look into and make the appropriate recommendations to the relevant Minister, as laid out in the Preservation of Monuments Act. The government could also declare 38 Oxley Road a conservation area under the Planning Act. All of this would be above board and following the proper channels.
But that, apparently, is not enough. Preserving the house that way might be in accordance with due process, but would also be seen as dishonouring Lee Kuan Yew’s wishes. And such is the man’s outsized presence in the Singaporean consciousness as Lee Kuan Yew, our Founding Father and the Nation’s Ah Kong, that setting aside his personal wishes for the public interest of the state seems unpalatable. After all, how could we not listen to and respect our collective father/grandfather/hero?
That’s why we’re seeing this back-and-forth over what Lee Kuan Yew’s last wish actually was. Perhaps he wasn’t that committed to demolishing his house? Perhaps he actually didn’t mind it not being demolished at all? Perhaps we can preserve the house and still be seen as honouring his wishes? Is there a way to bake a cake out of LKY’s legacy and eat it too?
Ultimately, all this jostling is about the message to be presented to Singaporeans. All sides are claiming to be the true defenders of Lee Kuan Yew: Lee Wei Ling and Lee Hsien Yang are accusing Lee Hsien Loong of betraying their father’s values, Lee Hsien Loong says their public statement has “hurt our father’s legacy”, Tharman Shanmugaratnam reassures all Singaporeans that Lee Hsien Loong’s government is continuing to do the good work started by Lee Kuan Yew, Ho Ching appeals to her brother-in-law to “remember what papa and mama would have wanted most for the family and for Singapore”.
It’s emotional blackmail writ large across the country. Who loves Ah Kong the most?
The irony, of course, is that we couldn’t possibly get any further from Lee Kuan Yew’s wishes with this public fight. But it’s certainly been useful in surfacing issues that need to be closely examined and openly discussed in Singapore: due process, control, authoritarianism, conflict of interest. These are the matters that we should be focusing on; they matter far more than what Lee Kuan Yew actually wanted to do with his house.