Edgar Su / REUTERS

The Oxley Road Dispute and Singapore's Future

Life After the Lee Family

Lee Hsien Loong, Singapore’s prime minister, is facing the toughest test yet of his 13 years in office. In June, his two siblings publicly accused him of abusing his power to prevent the demolition of the home of their late father—Singapore’s first prime minister, Lee Kuan Yew. Although Lee Hsien Loong will probably emerge from the controversy mostly unscathed, the scandal has increased public scrutiny of Singapore’s leaders. That is a good thing, since it could herald a turn toward more transparency and public engagement in the country’s politics.

Lee Kuan Yew lived in a prewar bungalow at 38 Oxley Road for most of his life. It was there that the founding members of the ruling People’s Action Party (PAP) met to discuss the formation of the party in 1954. Under the PAP, Singapore gained independence from Malaysia in 1965 and grew from a colonial trading port into a metropolis. As urban development has transformed Singapore’s landscape, the house—with its weak foundations, tiled floors, and mid-century furniture—has remained mostly unchanged, a symbol of modern Singapore’s origins and of Lee Kuan Yew’s commitment to simple living.

Some Singaporeans believe that the house holds important historical value. Yet Lee Kuan Yew wanted it demolished once Lee Wei Ling, his only daughter, moves out. Lee had little interest in being memorialized by historic sites. (He once told an interlocutor who mentioned that Singaporeans wanted to build monuments in his honor to “remember Ozymandias,” the pharaoh whose ruined statue Percy Shelley commemorated in a poem on the transience of worldly power.) But that aversion was tempered by his belief that the state’s interests should take precedence over his own. So he included a caveat in his will: if 38 Oxley Road could not be demolished “as a result of any changes in the law, rules or regulations … the house [should] never be opened to others except my children, their families, and descendants.

Vadaketh_OxleyRoadSingaporesFuture_LeeFamily_rtx29d1p.jpg David Loh / REUTERS

Lee Kuan Yew (second from left) and his family celebrating his 80th birthday in Singapore, September 2003. From left: Lee's daughter Lee Wei Ling, wife Kwa Geok Choo, son Lee Hsien Loong, and daughter-in-law Ho Ching. 

Lee Kuan Yew (second from left) and his family celebrating his 80th birthday in Singapore, September 2003. From left: Lee's daughter Lee Wei Ling, wife Kwa Geok Choo, son Lee Hsien Loong, and daughter-in-law Ho Ching. Lee Kuan Yew (second from left) and his family celebrating his 80th birthday in Singapore, September 2003. From left: Lee's daughter Lee Wei Ling, wife Kwa Geok Choo, son Lee Hsien Loong, and daughter-in-law Ho Ching.

DOMESTIC POLITICS

The Lee siblings’ disagreement in April 2015. A court granted probate on the will in October 2015, which Lee Hsien Loong did not challenge. Instead, his siblings say, he oversaw the formation of a special ministerial committee in June 2016, staffed by his key allies, charged with considering alternatives to demolition. (The existence of this committee was kept secret from the public until recently; its work is ongoing.) The prime minister, his siblings allege, seeks to exploit Lee Kuan Yew’s legacy for his own political benefit and for that of his son, Li Hongyi, a potential successor.

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