Mr Lee's house a chance for due process

Mr Lee's house a chance for due process

The fate of the late Mr Lee Kuan Yew's house at 38, Oxley Road has been the subject of recent debate.

On the one hand, members of the public have petitioned for it to be preserved.

They argue that the house was a meeting point for many first- generation leaders who went on to form the People's Action Party, thus cementing its role in the political history of our country.

On the other hand, Mr Lee himself had wanted it demolished for several reasons.

He neither wanted a personality cult to be built around him, nor did he and his wife, Madam Kwa Geok Choo, wish for strangers to be wandering around their private spaces.

He also believed that demolishing his house would result in the easing of zoning restrictions, thus releasing the economic potential of the area.

Nevertheless, the debate over 38, Oxley Road should go beyond simple deliberation between preserving a building and respecting the wishes of a property owner.

We believe that this debate is an opportunity to, first, strengthen our state heritage institutions and due process, and, second, consider the ramifications of carrying out the wishes of the owner of a potentially important building at the expense of national heritage.

Let us ask the most obvious question: If we are to preserve 38, Oxley Road, who decides if it is, indeed, a heritage-significant house?

The straightforward answer is that a state agency must decide in order to trigger legal protection for the house. In this case, there are two state agencies, the first of which is the National Heritage Board (NHB).

Under Paragraph 4(a) of the Preservation of Monuments Act, NHB is empowered "to identify monuments that are of such historic, cultural, traditional, archaeological, architectural, artistic or symbolic significance and national importance as to be worthy of preservation under this Act, and to make recommendations to the Minister (of Culture, Community and Youth) for the preservation under this Act of the monuments so identified".

To add another level of complexity, according to Paragraph 12 of the Preservation of Monuments Act, even if the state issues a preservation order for 38, Oxley Road, such an order will cease to be valid if the state does not acquire the house within a year of its issuance because the house will be seen as a "dwelling-house", that is, someone is living in it.

The second state agency in question is the Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA).

If URA deems an area worthy of conservation, it may recommend to the Minister of National Development that this area be conserved.

For instance, under Paragraph 9(1) of the Planning Act, "where in the opinion of the minister, any area is of special architectural, historic, traditional or aesthetic interest, the minister may approve… a proposal to amend the master plan to designate the area as a conservation area".

So does 38, Oxley Road hold any "architectural, historic, traditional or aesthetic interest"?

The house is over a hundred years old and, architecturally speaking, is a rare and unique type of bungalow.

It used to have a "twin" bungalow (No. 40) which was, unfortunately, demolished, leaving No. 38 the only type of its kind left along Oxley Road.

Furthermore, a case may be made that it is worth preserving because there have been very little, if any, renovations or alterations made to 38, Oxley Road, thus leaving it largely in its original state.

The point that we are making is not that 38, Oxley Road should or should not be preserved.

Rather, it is that state agencies like NHB and URA have the legal tools and institutional capacity at their disposal to ensure that due process is carried out.

Expert panels comprising historians, architects and social scientists can be established to determine if, indeed, the house possesses historical, national, architectural or even aesthetic importance.

It may be the case that such panels may find that it does not.

However, in our opinion, the actual verdict of such panels would be of less importance than the demonstration of institutional due diligence, adherence to heritage best practices, and abidance by transparent decision-making processes.

The deliberations and findings of experts should be made public, needless to say.

Observing due process would also instill public confidence that all cases under consideration for preservation or conservation, regardless of owner, will be viewed in accordance with established principles and procedures, as empowered by the respective Acts.

This would, in turn, strengthen our heritage institutions and deepen local expertise.

What then of respecting the owner's wishes?

We acknowledge that this raises an emotional dilemma for loved ones.

However, leaving this dilemma aside for a while, acceding to individual wishes without undergoing due process may establish an unwanted precedent for future preservation or conservation cases.

For example, what if an owner of a historical temple or architecturally important house decides to tear it down?

What if the owner cites the case of 38, Oxley Road as precedent for the primacy of the individual over the community?

What impact will such cases have on these two Acts?

Do we then abide by his or her wishes and watch the destruction of our national heritage?

Or do we want to consider alternative forms of compensation in order to save such buildings?

These are heritage concerns that go beyond 38, Oxley Road. Discussing them openly and objectively would be to our benefit.

stopinion@sph.com.sg

The first writer is a sociologist and the second is an architectural historian and conservator. They are vice-president and honorary secretary of the Singapore Heritage Society, respectively.


This article was first published on April 24, 2015.
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