Straddling fine line between public and private wishes

The biggest struggle for any public figure is the sacrifice of some personal desires.

It was a trade-off that the late Mr Lee Kuan Yew faced over and over again, from missing out on seeing his children grow up while he was busy building a nation, to arguing with the Cabinet in 2011 over whether his house should become a museum - against his and his wife's wishes - after his death.

Now, the task of balancing public interest with private preferences has fallen on his son, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, who yesterday reiterated in Parliament that his father had strenuously opposed preserving 38, Oxley Road as a relic to his memory.

The late Mr Lee had "seen too many other houses of famous people 'kept frozen in time... as a monument with people tramping in and out'. They invariably 'become shabby'," PM Lee recalled his father saying.

In front of a packed House, he also recounted his mother's distress at the thought of strangers traipsing through her private spaces long after her death. Noting that his father had asked in his will for his house to be "demolished immediately" after his death, PM Lee said: "Speaking as a son, I would like to see these wishes carried out."

Yet, PM Lee has his own fine line to toe between his filial responsibilities as a son and his official obligations as head of government.

Since his father's death on March 23, the calls to preserve 38, Oxley Road have grown louder, with an online petition to save the house gathering 1,700 signatures in about a week and polls showing strong support for such a move.

These calls are not disrespectful or deliberately dismissive of the late Mr and Mrs Lee's wishes.

They simply reflect the desire to preserve an irreplaceable artefact: the house where Mr Lee and his colleagues founded the People's Action Party and decided to contest the 1955 elections, setting Singapore on the path to independence.

It was also where Mr Lee, who chose to live there instead of moving into Sri Temasek, worked into the night on issues that shaped the country.

And it was where PM Lee and his siblings grew up and gained their first exposure to politics, with a young PM Lee absorbing the excitement whenever his home was turned into election headquarters to prepare for the polls.

At yesterday's sitting, Nominated MP Chia Yong Yong suggested that memorials have little impact on citizens' lives and national identity, and proposed focusing instead on how to pass down Mr Lee's ideals to the next generation, such as by teaching them in schools.

But this underestimates the power that physical symbols hold in education and nation-building.

A country's history and values are difficult to absorb from even the best textbooks.

They are better imbibed when brought to life, such as through museums or conserved buildings - including the Shakespearean houses in Stratford-upon-Avon, where the late Mr and Mrs Lee were married in 1947.

Indeed, PM Lee's response to Ms Chia noted the need for a solid "form for abstract ideals to focus the mind, to generate the emotion and to bond people". The national mourning and state funeral service for the elder Mr Lee made this clear, he added.

"It's a form, right? But it meant something to the participants and it left an indelible mark and it changed them," he said.

In a year packed with SG50 events celebrating Singapore's heritage, Mr Lee's death has catalysed an organic groundswell of interest in national history that no orchestrated initiative can match.

Many younger Singaporeans said they had learnt more about the country's past from the eulogies and newspaper articles over the week of national mourning than they ever did in school.

Other suggestions yesterday by MPs Ang Wei Neng (Jurong GRC) and Irene Ng (Tampines GRC) to create a virtual tour of 38, Oxley Road, or to donate its furniture to a museum, would help keep the memory of the house alive in some way.

But they would not create the same immersive and participatory experience future generations could have walking through the rooms where history was made, and seeing the simple furniture and fittings that embodied Mr Lee's lifelong ideals of pragmatism and thrift.

Barriers could be erected to keep Mr and Mrs Lee's private rooms closed, with only the significant common spaces - such as the basement dining room in which many seminal political discussions were held - opened to the public.

Such real-life history lessons are especially key for a young country that has always looked forward, sometimes at the expense of remembering the past, and that tends to prize progress over sentiment.

In some ways, the directive to demolish his house is classic Lee Kuan Yew. He had said that demolishing it would raise property values for all who lived in the area.

But Singapore has torn down enough buildings rich in history to know that demolition can lead to permanent regret.

And since it is not uncommon for private properties to be gazetted for government use in the name of national interest, this rule could theoretically be applied to 38, Oxley Road too.

The decision has been deferred as PM Lee's sister, Dr Lee Wei Ling, is still living in the house. Significantly, PM Lee said he would leave the decision on whether to tear down the house to the "government of the day" when Dr Lee stops living there.

It will be a difficult decision to make, for PM Lee in particular, having to honour his father's wishes while also bearing in mind the wider, longer-term national significance of the house where so much history was made.


This article was first published on April 14, 2015.
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