38 Oxley Road's basement witnessed the birth of PAP & the shaping of S'pore's political history

The meetings held there also left it stinking of cigarettes.

Tanya Ong | June 20, 2017, 02:02 PM

If you've been following the ongoing public feud between the Lee siblings over the fate of their late father's house at 38 Oxley Road, you'd be aware of the calls to demolish it versus preserving it.

Last Saturday (Jun. 18), Deputy Prime Minister Teo Chee Hean said that the ministerial committee, which he formed and chairs, is studying various options for the fate of the house, while factoring in Lee Kuan Yew's (LKY) wish for it to be demolished.

Teo shared that one of the possible options that the committee is considering includes demolishing the above-ground section of the house while preserving the basement.

Why preserve 38 Oxley Road's basement only?

Now, you might be wondering what's so special about this house along Oxley Road that is so special, especially its basement?

Well, for starters, the house itself is more than 100 years old, was home to LKY and his family since 1945, and in the home lived two prime ministers of Singapore (the present one, PM Lee, was born into it and grew up there) in the past.

Other than being a private residence for the Lees, 38 Oxley Road was also the nexus of political activity during the PAP's earlier years. It served as election headquarters during the 1955 elections when the PAP first contested.

If that isn't enough history to make the house significant, then there is its basement, which witnessed the birth and formation of the People's Action Party (PAP).


PAP's formation in the basement

In the 1950s, LKY and his wife Kwa Geok Choo, took up residence in the Oxley Road house.

As a young lawyer, LKY had represented workers and trade unions, and was keen to enter politics. He wanted to form a political party to fight Singapore's British colonial masters.

In late 1954, a group of English-educated middle-class friends began gathering at the basement dining room of the Oxley Road house on Saturday afternoons to discuss setting up a new political party. This group consisting of LKY, Goh Keng Swee, Toh Chin Chye, S Rajaratnam, and K M Byrne would be part of Singapore's first-generation Cabinet.

In his memoirs The Singapore Story, LKY described these meetings:

"Our small group - Keng Swee, Chin Chye, Raja (S. Rajaratnam), Kenny (K. M. Byrne ) and I - had meanwhile been meeting on Saturday afternoons in my basement dining room at Oxley Road to consider the feasibility of forming a political party. The room was in a hot, uncomfortable part of the house facing the setting sun, and even with three wide-open windows, two open doors, and a powerful ceiling fan whirring it could become extremely muggy. But if the atmosphere was soporific, we were not."

Those meetings and discussions in the Oxley Road house's basement progressed over time, and the number of attendees expanded to include people such as Devan Nair, Kum Swee Yee, Samad Ismail, Chan Chiaw Thor, and left-wing trade unionist Lim Chin Siong.

Mrs LKY, who had attended the initial the meetings but was kept out later on, recounted those meetings in her home's basement in Men in White. She said that the Oxley Road group would meet to discuss the specific details of starting a political party, including its manifesto, programme and party organisation.

But when the group dispersed, they would leave "a room stinking of cigarettes", she said.

As many as 20 participants, including the 14 founding members of the PAP, would engage in debates on politics and self-governance around a long table.

After all the meetings and discussions hosted in the basement of 38 Oxley Road, the PAP was eventually inaugurated on Nov. 21 1954. The party would go on to form the government in 1959.

In essence, a large aspect of Singapore's political history took place at that venue.

And, as always, keep up with the Lees here:

Photo by Tan Guan Zhen.

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