38 Oxley Rd- An Ozzymandian Monument Long in the Making (Part 1 of 3)
This post first appeared on the Facebook Page of Ong Ying Ping ESQ on June 18, 2017. You can view the post here.
The LKY – Singapore development story has exemplified the best of 2 worlds: the English notions behind the Rule of Law and the (largely) Confucian precept of the Sage(philosopher) king.
To a scientist, the 2 ideas are diametrically opposed, or even mutually exclusive. Either enduring principles prevail (Rule of Law) or the word of the Wise man (Rule of Sage/Rule of Man).
Not so for LKY, and the pragmatic Singaporeans who voted his party to power repeatedly.
Thus, Singapore hewed to the conviction that you must exert tremendous effort to find – and then retain – capable and dedicated persons to lead the country, even if additional privileges or patronage if necessary to secure their services. The accounts of civil service mandarins like Goh Keng Swee, Sim Kee Boon, Michael Fam, Philip Yeo and JY Pillay abound with instances of how much powers were vested without accounting to oversight committees speak volumes.
Such measures were deemed necessary for the future of Singapore, in as much as western institutions of accountability were held up to demonstrate PAP’s legitimacy to rule the country.
Ultimately, at an instinctively human level, what is wrong with having Sage rulers wielding just laws? After all, laws are meant to curb the excesses of lawbreakers, right? Singapore is utilitarian: if it yields the greatest good for the greatest number, trampling over a small minority is acceptable loss.
Thus, the Internal Security Act(ISA) and Criminal Law Temporary Provisions Act (CLTPA), draconian laws suspending a citizen’s democratic rights remained very much in force unchanged for scores of years. More remarkably, they retained the apparent admiration of conservative supporters of the status quo who believed that “whoever governs Singapore must have that iron in him. Or give it up.” More plainly, who can forget the quote about knuckle dusters needed to “govern a Chinese society”?
“We have to lock up people, without trial, whether they are communistic, whether they are language chauvinists, whether they are religious extremists. If you don’t do that, the country would be in ruins.”
Another pithy quote: “I am often accused of interfering in the private lives of citizens…we wouldn’t be here…would not have made economic progress, if we had not intervened on very personal matters – who your neighbour is, how you live, the noise you make, how you spit, oe what language you use. We decide what is right. Never mind what the people think” (Straits Times, 20 April 1987).
At the heart of it, these are the “Asian values” which justified overriding or suspending “western liberal traditions” (a less salutary aspect of the Rule of Law).
How does this relate to 38 Oxley Road?
The late epitome of the modern Sage Ruler himself explicitly said that he did not wish monuments to be made for him. “Remember Ozymandias”, grandson Li Sheng Wu’s poignant eulogy said. Directly with reference to the house at 38 Oxley Road, LKY said in an interview for the book, Hard Truths to keep Singapore Going (2011), he cited several reasons, the costly maintenance it entailed being among them.
Other memorable excerpts from the interview :
(when asked why he told the Cabinet of PM Lee Hsien Loong that he wanted the house demolished when he is dead):
“…I’ve seen other houses…(like Nehru’s and Shakespeare’s)…(t)hey become a shambles after a while. People trudge through. Because the neighbouring houses cannot build high. Now demolish my house and change the planning rules, go up, the land value will go up…”
Q: But that is part of Singapore history?
LKY: No, no no…cost of preserving it?…No foundation…”
Q:…you don’t place great store on preserving ld buildings…like the old National Library…a lot of people still bemoan its loss today..
LKY: I don’t think my daughter or my wife or I, who lived in it, or my sons who grew up in it, would bemoan its loss. They have old photos to remind them of the past.
To quote paragraph 7 of his last Will:
“I further declare that it is my wish, and the wish of my late wife…that…(38 Oxley Road)…be demolished immediately after my death …or after…she (daughter Lee Wei Ling) moves out of the house…If our children are unable to demolish the House as a result of any changes in the law…binding them, it is my wish that the House never be opened to others except my children, their families and descendants…”
Grandson Lee Sheng Wu puts LKY’s sentiment best: “I think his meaning was that if Singapore does not persist, then a monument will be no help. And if Singapore does persists, then a monument will be unnecessary”.
No ambiguity then, as to what the Sage ruler wanted.
But, as democratic processes demand, one can do little better than repeat the perspicuous observations of Cherian George in his blog “Air Conditioned Nation”, regarding the utilitarian needs of the nation overriding the wish of a single person, however great he was:
“…the system he (LKY) built never allowed individual preferences to stand in the way of the public good, as interpreted by the government of the day.
Nowhere is this principle more apparent than in Lee’s land policies. Countless patriarchs’ plans for their property holdings have been dashed by Lee’s all-powerful land acquisition laws—freehold leases be damned. Countless others, who would have undoubtedly preferred their final resting places to be exactly that, have been dug up from their graves when the state decided their cemetery plots were needed for other purposes. If everyone else’s voice from the grave can be vetoed by the government, it’s not clear why Lee Kuan Yew’s should be the exception—especially when the government’s hard-nosed, unsentimental approach to such matters is utterly in Lee’s own image.
By Singapore standards, therefore, it’s not necessarily sacrilegious for the government to consider the option of conserving Lee’s storied bungalow, no matter how firmly Lee would have opposed the idea. Part of the challenge of maturing our polity is to get used to the idea of operating by the rule of law, not the rule of Lee.”
Here, then, is the riddle. Having lived by the Rule of Man more often than the Rule of Law, the government of the day appears to want to invoke the rule of law to override no less than the Man who championed the interests of the many over the loss of rights for the very few.
The very Cabinet Ministers who now deliberate the options in the government were personally interviewed (if not hand-picked for their positions) by the testator whose Will has been granted probate by our Courts of law. Apart from asking if this is a good time to depart from LKY’s guiding precept – follow the Sage Leader, a further question to be raised is: shouldn’t the Cabinet have deliberated on it before allowing the executors of LKY’s Will, Messrs Lee Hsien Yang and Lee Wei Ling, to obtain and extract the probate from the Courts of the land?
Our leaders now want us to unite firmly behind the country and its leaders in this time.
But who’s leadership is to prevail? The Rule of Man exemplified by LKY, or the Rule of Law invoked by the Cabinet (personally groomed, if not selected by LKY)?
Whose leadership are we to follow?
The point of this piece is that the issue at stake reflects the change of leadership style which has become inevitable with the passing of the old guard. It’s also a little bit disappointing (if not disconcerting) that the present leadership was not able to stand up to LKY when he was alive regarding their prerogative to preserve the heritage of 38 Oxley Road when he was confidently announcing that the family home would not be open to public if they could not tear down the building.
At the rate the lobbying has proceeded, this unspoken dialogue about leadership will be continued, even up to or beyond part three…
This feature article is the first of a three part series, as Mr Ong Ying Ping shares his thoughts on the recent dispute over 38 Oxley Road. You can read the second part here.