Recently, there is an extensive coverage of the 38 Oxley Road issue on the Singapore sociopolitical landscape. We can agree on why this issue has made its way into the public realm, but we can’t agree on anything else pertaining to it. Should it be a private matter? Should the house be preserved or demolished? Buried among these questions is an age-old principle-based disagreement that most Singaporeans are probably unaware of. This disagreement is, in fact, the heart of the matter.
Why was this issue made public & Why does it seem like such a big deal?
We all know this began with a 2am Facebook post on 14th June which denounced our prime minister. Still, that does not explain why it is now dominating the headlines. There is, actually, a high value in this piece of news and it’s due to 2 reasons: corruption and entertainment. Singapore prides itself as a corrupt-free society. Hence, when there is even an insinuation of corruption accusation made against the head of state, it becomes a pretty big deal. However, that’s the lesser driver of this saga’s publicity. The main reason why this issue was made public is probably because of its entertainment value. Some were, indeed, entertained by this saga as it is like a Taiwanese family drama – the ones that feature hundreds of episodes and heavy recycling of actors. With the advent of social media, politics was already slowly descending into a theatre of sort (This idea of politics as theatre was explored by this Wisecrack’s video analysis of House of Cards). That’s probably why this mix of drama and politics is so potent today; not even Singaporeans can escape the urge to grab some popcorn and watch the Lee v Lee Saga unfold. The media takes advantage of this, gives Singaporeans what they want and poof! Extensive media coverage.
Should this be a private matter?
Many accusations were made against our prime minister, but they are all centered around the decision of demolishing late Mr Lee Kuan Yew’s house at 38 Oxley Road. To simplify the conflict, one side wants to demolish the house as the will of LKY explicitly stated so but the other side is obviously reluctant to do so. As the whole issue can be seen as a sibling spat involving a classic disagreement over the will of their father, one would immediately wonder: Why are the Lee siblings airing their dirty laundry? The Prime Minister obviously wanted to keep this matter private but the siblings chose not to – supposedly because they thought they would need the public on their side to stand a chance against their politically “unassailable” brother. That aside, this issue matured for a few days, and the two sides of the issue began to crystallize. The question remains: Should the house be preserved or demolished? The preserve camp argues that the house has a historical and heritage value that contributes to our national identity. This dilemma shed light on a new set of considerations where this can no longer simply be seen as a sibling spat. Instead, the demolition of the house is now becoming a matter of public interest. Just as Lee Kuan Yew himself was collectivistic – a principle that prioritizes country’s interests over the individual’s interests – we should be handling the issue with the same mindset to reasonably simulate what he would have done if he was still around. This is, after all, about his estate and his will. If we keep this a private matter in hope of advancing LKY’s private interests, we’d be smearing his legacy with hypocrisy.
Should the house be preserved or demolished?
Here’s the summary of both side’s arguments for and against demolition:
For demolition of LKY’s house:
- It has been expressed before by LKY that he does not want the house to be preserved. His wishes as expressed in his will should be respected as the property belongs to him.
- LKY did not want to be glorified as a national hero, which the preservation of the house would contribute to. To prevent this, it was the wish of LKY to demolish the house.
- The current prime minister might conspire to make use of the house to shore up political capital for himself and/or the People’s Action Party. The politicization of such sentimental and delicate issue borders on insensitivity.
Against demolition of LKY’s house:
- The house has a heritage and historical value as it was the place where the founding fathers often met to make important decisions about Singapore’s future.
On the surface, it might be true that, at this point, there are more reasons to demolish the house than to preserve it. However, the one reason to preserve the house holds considerable weight. Almost all of Singapore had been urbanized in the name of economic development and lack of land, leaving places of heritage or historical significantly scarce. By this logic, LKY’s house suddenly has an inflated historical and heritage value. One could, of course, posit that we are just giving special treatment to this case, insinuating that this is just a pretext to veil another unspeakable motive to preserve the house. Nevertheless, it remains a fact that we are lacking in the heritage aspect while doing urban planning. Perhaps it was the lack of foresight and a realization by the government that they screwed up, but this has become too far-fetched for a case to be made.
There is a point of interest that was recently revealed – the demolition clause in the will was stated as such:
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 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.
The first part of the will explicitly stated LKY’s desire to demolish the house. However, the second part also revealed his awareness of the conflict we have right now. This is a valuable evidence for the preserve camp, or the government, to make its case as it reflected LKY’s lack of resolve in demolishing the house. One can argue that LKY understands that public interests may precede his own private interests, and he is OK with that. We must remember that LKY co-created and helmed the Singapore government. The policy of the Singapore government has been characterised by collectivism / communitarianism. Meaning to say, the national or greater societal interests will always precede the individual’s interest. If we take this fact into account, we will understand that, as much as we want to respect LKY’s wish given how much he contributed to our country, we must still give public interests considerable weight in order to honor his work. But there is still a problem in concluding this issue with an argument like that: LKY explicitly stated in the last part of the demolition clause that he does not want the house to be opened to public. If we were to respect this part of the clause, then all of a sudden, the house would lose a huge chunk of its heritage value. What’s the point in preserving it if we can’t make a museum out of it?
The debate to demolish or preserve the house remains complex and difficult to conclude. I can’t help but feel that this could have been easier if LKY had left a will that did not reflect his conflicted mind. That, however, is a meaningless thought to have.
The Heart of the Matter
I laid out both sides of the debate above based on the currently known facts. Where you stand on this issue, however, depends not on how credible your arguments are. The arguments presented on both sides are, in my opinion, all valid. The thing that will separate you from another’s stand on this issue is, in fact, a disagreement on principle. The dichotomy of individualism and collectivism lies at the heart of this issue. If you are more of an individualist, you will lean towards respecting the private wishes of LKY. If you are more of a collectivist, you will then lean towards preserving the house in the interests of all Singaporeans. This is an age-old disagreement which lies at the heart of many issues that are stuck in a stalemate. Take the LGBT issue between the Pink Dot and Wear White movements for instance. If you are more of an individualist, you would support the “freedom to love”. However, if you are more of a collectivist, you will think that supporting LGBT would threaten traditional family values and destabilize the society. Both sides are not wrong, they just disagree on principles. The same can be said for the death penalty. If you think that criminals should be given a 2nd chance, you are more of an individualist. If you think that the death penalty serves as a deterrence for the greater good of the society, then you are more of a collectivist. The 38 Oxley Road saga is just one of these issues that pop up with this principle-based disagreement which constitutes the crux of the matter.
This saga is healthy for Singapore as a society?
If we can see the 38 Oxley Road saga as a disagreement on principle, then as much as this issue is damaging to the reputation of Singapore, it is a healthy civil engagement to develop our civil society. Rather than having Singaporeans be herded like sheep by the government, Singaporeans are now able to voice out what they think and this issue is another context available for them to do so. To paraphrase Hegel,
In order for progress to happen, there must be a conflict between a Thesis and an Anti-Thesis. Only through this can there be a Synthesis, which becomes synonymous with progress.
George Yeo posited that Singapore is analogous to a Banyan Tree that requires pruning for the civil society to grow. This whole saga can be seen an indicator of successful pruning, and thus it is something that we can celebrate about instead of simply seeing it as “airing of dirty laundry”.
What do you think about this on-going saga? Do you think the Lees should keep this matter private? Do you think the house should be demolished? Is the issue fundamentally about differences in principle? Is this actually good for Singapore? Leave your comments down below and we can have a civilised discussion about it 🙂
P.S: If you think there are any factual errors, feel free to point it out in the comment section as well. I am open to correction of mistakes 🙂