5 takeaways from the Parliament Debate on 38 Oxley Road

It's not over yet and we are unsure when it'll be over.

By Chan Cheow Pong | July 5, 2017

The Lee family saga arising from the disagreement among the three siblings over founding Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew’s wish to demolish the house at 38 Oxley road has captivated the attention of Singaporeans for nearly three weeks.

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong delivered a ministerial statement in Parliament on Jul 3 and participated the debate on Jul 4 to address questions on his alleged abuse of power as his siblings claimed.

For Singaporeans who desperately hoped to get their lives back to normal, we also know that the issues are far from being fully resolved.

Here are 5 takeaways after following the intense two day debate, to make sense of it all before new developments make this article irrelevant.

1. There is actually common ground among the siblings despite the public disagreement

This was the conciliatory message that Deputy Prime Minister (DPM) Teo Chee Hean sent out, as expressed in his closing speech on July 4, had stated four areas of agreement with Lee Hsien Yang (LHY):

i) He personally would not support the options at either end of the range: Preserving the House as it is for visitors to enter and see the private spaces or demolishing the house and putting the property on the market to develop new private residences such as luxury apartments.

“Mr Lee Hsien Yang in his statement on 1 July 2017 stated the same thing.”

ii) He personally thinks there are merits in the intermediate options under study which could provide a good solution.

“Mr Lee Hsien Yang has in his public statements indicated that he is open to some of these options.”

iii) There is no disagreement on allowing Lee Wei Ling (LWL) to continue living in the property.

“Mr Lee Hsien Yang also acknowledges that no decision is needed now as Dr Lee Wei Ling continues to live in the property…This is also the position of the Government.”

iv) Government has a duty to go through due process for when a decision needs to be taken, at some future time

“In his statement on 1 July, Mr Lee Hsien Yang also said that he also recognised that ‘no man stands above the law’. There is no disagreement here either. “

2. PM Lee does not want to sue his siblings, but there is no guarantee that they won’t sue him

The ball is now in his siblings’ court.

Averaging one Facebook post a day, LHY and LWL have continued to wage a social media campaign, seeking to undermine PM Lee’s personal and political standing.

But it is unclear how they can take their case further, besides making repeated accusations against PM Lee to further hurt his reputation and cast aspersions at the government and its institutions, which some observers see as being deliberately provocative.

PM Lee has stated explicitly that suing his siblings “cannot be my preferred choice”, but he has also taken steps to show that he is prepared to go to court to defend his positions. This include making sworn Statutory Declarations (SDs) and also separately issuing what he said in the parliamentary debate as a statement by him outside the House which will not be covered by Parliamentary privilege.

“I voluntarily made my submissions to the Ministerial Committee in the form of sworn Statutory Declarations (SDs), or as they say in the coffee shops, sumpah. That means that if what I put down is proven to be false, I can go to jail for perjury. The statements cannot be taken back – they are done, sworn and irrevocable.”

“I stand by what I swore in the SDs and published in the statement, but really I do not want to go further along this way if I can help it. I did not, and still do not, want to escalate the quarrel. At each point, I decided not to try to enforce my full legal rights. My priority was to resolve the matter privately, and avoid a collision.”

LHY who had expressed his intentions to leave Singapore seemed to be going nowhere, and LWL has not indicated that she has plans to relocate.

More Facebook posts is almost a certainty, and more likely than not, they may turn to foreign media to give a more extensive account of their story.

One would not be surprised if the siblings decided to use the “nuclear option” and take out a civil suit against PM Lee.

3. The Lee family name has lost its aura

In his statement on 3 July, PM Lee used the word “aura” to describe the house and its impact on his premiership.

“Regarding the house (Lee Kuan Yew’s house along 38 Oxley Road), and how its continued existence enhances my aura as PM, if I needed such magic properties to bolster my authority even after being your PM for 13 years, I must be in a pretty sad state”.

But the aura surrounding the Lee family, a special family of high-achievers nurtured by a wise and capable father, is now gone.

As what Workers’ Party (WP) chief Low Thia Khiang said, the Lee family is “not any ordinary Singapore family.”

The sight of three past President Scholars and eminent Singaporeans in their own fields unable to settle their differences with kindness and compassion for each other as siblings has shocked and baffled Singaporeans.

Discussing deeply private family matters is awkward and embarassing. Over the last two days PM Lee had laid bare the dysfunctionalities within what we would have thought was a picture perfect family.

For many Singaporeans who look up to Lee Kuan Yew (LKY), he led an exemplary and full life, balancing his family committments and his service to the country to achieve extraordinary success for himself and Singapore.

In fact, he was a towering figure in post-colonial Singapore for more than half a century, and had inspired confidence in many generations.

When asked what were the most important things to him in life, LKY had said “my family and my country”, reflecting the importance he placed on both. Today, the reputation of both have suffered blows, as private grievances between his children escalated into a full blown national controversy.

Given PM Lee’s decision not to sue his own siblings, it is a clear departure from how his father would have responded when faced with similar attacks by political opponents. In future, there will be questions raised on how PM Lee can sue other individuals for similar “baseless allegations”.


4. The road to reconciliation, if at all possible, will be be long

From the drawn-out nature of the saga, it is clear that the undercurrents between PM Lee and his siblings over the years run deep, but what happened had still caught PM by surprise.

With the feud showing no signs of abating, it is the role of taking care of his siblings as the eldest son in the family, a responsibility he remembered his father had entrusted to him when he was 13 during a period of uncertainty in Singapore, that is sustaining PM Lee’s hope to resolve their differences privately.

“He (Lee Kuan Yew) brought up the family and I thought we had a happy family and he lived a long and full life. Little did I expect that after my parents died, these tensions would erupt, with such grievous consequences and after so many years I would be unable to fulfil the role which my father had hoped I would.”

“So I hope one day, these passions will subside, and we can begin to reconcile. At the very least, I hope that my siblings will not visit their resentments and grievances with one generation upon the next generation and further, that they do not transmit their enmities and feuds to our children.”

In all likelihood, PM Lee knows that taking his siblings to court will most likely destroy any chances of mending his relationship with them, and more importantly, it will further affect the next generation.

As what ESM Goh said:

“My view remains that when a Minister thinks that an allegation made against him is without basis, he has to sue. PM has explained in his speech why he would prefer not to sue. I can well understand his dilemma. Being the eldest in the family, he must harbour hopes of reconciliation, however remote it seems now, even at a cost to his own political standing. Indeed, I have urged him as well as Lee Hsien Yang to sort out their differences, misunderstanding, and reconcile. It is surely not worth the feud being passed on to the next generation.”

5. Neither money nor the house is the real issue, the goal is to bring down PM Lee

This was the bombshell conclusion Emeritus Senior Minister Goh Chok Tong revealed in his speech on Jul 4, when he called out LHY and his wife Lee Suet Fern for it.

“The dispute over 38 Oxley Road is only a fig leaf for the deep cracks within the family, cracks which perhaps started decades ago. What then is the agenda of PM’s accusers?

Are they whistleblowing in a noble effort to save Singapore, or waging a personal vendetta without any care for the damage done to Singapore? I have kept my ears open. From what Lee Hsien Yang and his wife are freely telling many others, it is clear that their goal is to bring Lee Hsien Loong down as PM, regardless of the huge collateral damage suffered by the Government and Singaporeans.

It is now no more a cynical parlour game. If the Lee siblings choose to squander the good name and legacy of Lee Kuan Yew, and tear their relationship apart, it is tragic but a private family affair. But if in the process of their self-destruction, they destroy Singapore too, that is a public affair.”

Without going into details about what LHY and his wife had been “freely telling others”, he appealed to Singaporeans not to be “manipulated as pawns”.

In fact, there were already earlier signs that the two younger siblings were planning to hurt their elder brother politically, as hinted by PM Lee in his own closing speech:

“In August 2015, I dissolved Parliament and called the General Election. My siblings then issued me an ultimatum, to accept their terms by 1 September 2015, which perhaps coincidentally was Nomination Day. I told them I was very busy; they would surely understand that I had many things on my plate and I would respond as soon as the elections were over, which I did. I could not allow myself, the Government or the PAP to be intimidated by such threats. I decided to ask my siblings to clarify the circumstances surrounding the last will. After that, for whatever reason, the 1 September deadline passed uneventfully.”

All this trouble because of sibling rivalry or jealousy?

We expect better from the children of LKY.

Top photo from PM Lee Facebook

About Chan Cheow Pong

It took Cheow Pong two decades to recover from the trauma of memorising General Paper essays before he was ready to be an English writer. In between affliction and recovery, he thoroughly enjoyed his time writing in Chinese and doing Chinese translations.

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