The news trending last week has been the fight between the Lee siblings, the offspring of our first Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew, over social media and other online media. While there are probably many issues and past hurts involved, at the heart of the fight has been their family home at Oxley Road.
It seems obvious that both feuding sides care intensely about what happens to the house. There are strong sentimental value attached to the house and, more importantly, what it represents.
One side seems to believe that the house is a physical reminder and monument to a man who has, probably more than any other, affected the course of history in our island state. This is not unusual. Old girls petitioning to save their former school buildings, conservationists calling to save old shophouses, streets and even trees, also feel similarly about their special buildings. These buildings have meanings for their supporters, and it’s not always about the monetary value. Less important structures have been gazetted and preserved on accounts of their historical significance, however that is defined.
The other side probably has similar sentiments but feels that it is more important to respect the wishes of their father, which has been publicly stated on many occasions, that the house be demolished and not kept for posterity. He never wanted any monuments or buildings in his name.
Thus, the two sides faced off, using whatever resources available to them. Can’t be helped that one is the standing Prime Minister and has greater access to resources than most of us. Whether he overstepped the line is something which lawyers, judges, and history will have to determine.
But the other siblings are no pushovers either. The second son is a prominent business leader, his wife a formidable corporate lawyer, and the sister, former head of a national medical agency and occasional newspaper columnist. They all have their own supporters.
To us, the public feud over the familial house is the basic struggle faced by property owners and conservationists magnified. Do property owners have the right to decide absolutely what happens to their building? Or does the state have the right to intervene and take action on behalf of what they feel is the greater good, or for what they believe might benefit future generations? Who decides what gets preserved and what structures – though old – do not have the historical significance to warrant preservation? Is historical significance tied to the individuals involved then and now, or can historical significance be divorced from the political narrative?
Are there right and wrong answers? Can there be? History is not just about what has happened to whom, and when, but also about how narratives are shaped. And we all know that narratives are not shaped in a vacuum; they don’t come “as is”. So it is, for generations, historians (professional and armchair) have argued till they go blue and purple in the face about “truths”, “facts” and “what actually happened”. How can we ever know, when the private lives of people are involved?
The outcome to episode of “The Old House” will probably be decided by who has the greater power and is willing to exert it. So we, like many fellow Singaporeans, can only stand by the sidelines, waiting to see what happens next.
~ Stephanie & Jaime