The problems with Teo Chee Hean’s MC on Oxley

Over the past few days, I’ve had to respond to some misrepresentations of my work last Thursday in Parliament. I’ve done so through one statement here on Thursday night, and three posts on Facebook.

I am also grateful to Today and CNA for offering me the chance to respond, and for accurately covering my position. Good to know that mainstream media journalists are also eager to put out unbiased narratives. This will be my final piece on the matter. (Err. I hope.) 

But first, why the fuss now? The battle over Lee Kuan Yew’s last will was published last July. There was no response from the government then; no newspaper critiqued the book, as might have been expected if somebody took issue with it. Instead, last Thursday, Zhulkarnain Abdul Rahim, the PAP MP for Chua Chu Kang, who has suddenly developed a keen interest in Oxley Road, asked Teo Chee Hean (TCH), senior minister, a random question out of the blue, offering him a chance to say whatever he wants about me and my work. 

Minister hantaming ordinary citizen in a protected setting—a uniquely Singaporean way of debating. Yes, most likely I’m collateral damage in some bigger fight between the Lees, with the presidential election (due this year), and possibly even to do with the general elections (due by 2025).

“When elephants fight, the grass suffers, but when they make love, the grass suffers also,” LKY apparently used to say, playing on an African proverb. As I said in the book’s conclusion, I hope that Hsien Loong, Hsien Yang, Wei Ling, Ho Ching and Suet Fern eventually kiss and make up—sorry to put that thought in your head—but for now, I’ll assume the elephants are fighting.

And all I, a blade of grass, can do is try to elak, while also nurturing our plot. On that note, it’s great that over this past weekend Jom, the weekly magazine about Singapore that I co-founded last year, has seen a spike in our paid subscriptions. Thanks for the support: we now count well over 700 people of many nationalities as subscribers (I make the point only because some worry that foreigners can’t subscribe. Of course you can. We’re like any other subscription product. Forget Netflix; get Jom.)

Jom is a proud, Singapore-incorporated independent media company. Our only source of revenue is reader funding—we believe this is the best way to guarantee our independence. 

Some readers of my free e-book have asked how they can contribute. The best thing you can do is to get a paid subscription to Jom—there are different price points for people of different means. Every dollar counts. Jom publishes weekly, but we also have three big investigative projects planned for this year: one social, one political, and one corporate investigative, which I believe is the big gap in Singapore.

We’ve got a great team. Read about our values here. We are only a quarter of the way to breaking even. Before you continue reading about TCH’s Ministerial Committee, take a minute to help us get there.

So, why was the formation of the Ministerial Committee on 38 Oxley Road (MC) problematic? Readers will know that this was a tangential topic, which is why I relegated it to the book’s appendix. But since TCH is again so interested in the affair, it’s only fair that we talk about the MC that he led.

First, it’s important to note my book’s statement on this controversial point: did LHL orchestrate the formation of the MC by directing his ministers, as his siblings suggest? I found no evidence of this. The available evidence, in other words, supports Hsien Loong’s perspective on this, not Hsien Yang’s or Wei Ling’s. And the book says so (p. 22-23).

Still, there are three problems I found:

1. The formation of the MC in private appears to contradict LHL’s public statements

2. There is a clear conflict of interest with TCH and K Shanmugam being on the MC

3. The very purpose and need for this MC is unconvincing

1. The formation of the MC in private appears to contradict LHL’s public statements

On 13 April 2015, shortly after LKY’s passing, LHL told Parliament: “If and when Dr Lee Wei Ling no longer lives in the house, Mr Lee has stated his wishes as to what then should be done. At that point, speaking as a son, I would like to see these wishes carried out. However, it will be up to the Government of the day to consider the matter [emphasis mine].”

But a little over a year later, with LWL still living comfortably in the house, LHL’s own government began its investigation into the matter.

On 27 July 2016, in separate letters to the three siblings, Lawrence Wong said that a Ministerial Committee had been formed, with TCH as the head, to “consider the options [emphasis mine] for 38 Oxley Road (and the implications thereof).”

Wong later clarified to LHY/LWL that “the Government has no intention or plans to do anything with the property now…The basic point is that the government should prepare ahead to understand its options [emphasis mine], and their implications.”

If not for LHY/LWL releasing a statement on 14 June 2017—the famous one that brought to light the sibling feud—Singaporeans may never have known about the MC, and this contradiction between public and private statements.

On 3 July 2017, once the MC’s existence was public knowledge, TCH used new wording: “It is merely preparing drawer plans of various options and their implications so that a future Government can refer to them [emphasis mine] and make a considered and informed decision when the time comes to decide on the matter.”

To surmise:

“If and when Dr Lee Wei Ling no longer lives in the house…it will be up to the Government of the day to consider the matter.” – LHL, in public, 13 April 2015

“…consider the options for 38 Oxley Road (and the implications thereof).” – Lawrence Wong, in private, 27 July 2016

“…the government should prepare ahead to understand its options, and their implications.” – Lawrence Wong, in private, 24 August 2016

“…merely preparing drawer plans of various options and their implications so that a future government can refer to them…” – TCH, in public, 3 July 2017

As I stated in the book, to give the MC the benefit of the doubt, perhaps this is a semantic argument. Even when Lawrence Wong had originally said that the government needs to “understand its options”, he might have actually been referring not to the present government but a future one.

The facts are there. Readers can decide. And maybe TCH can also familiarise himself with the notion of giving others the benefit of the doubt.

2. There is a clear conflict of interest with TCH and K Shanmugam being on the MC

The MC was chaired by TCH, then deputy prime minister, and included K Shanmugam, law minister, Grace Fu, then minister for culture, community and youth, and Lawrence Wong, then minister for national development.

The two senior most members of the MC were also key members of the cabinet in July 2011, the same one that, in LKY’s words, was “unanimous” in wanting to preserve the house. In 2012 LKY said in an e-mail that “…the cabinet has opposed tearing it down and rebuilding, because 2 PMs have lived in the house, me and Loong…” 

(Aside: it’s a very important e-mail, I think, because it offers us an insight into the why. Why does the PAP want to keep this house?)

We thus know that since at least 2011 TCH, the MC’s chair, and Shanmugam, its other senior member, were against demolition. Put another way, a committee that was already seemingly in favour of preservation was tasked with assessing the late LKY’s thinking on preservation. 

3. The very purpose and need for this MC is unconvincing

In his July 2016 letters to the three siblings, Lawrence Wong stated that a Ministerial Committee had been formed in order to “look into various aspects [of 38 Oxley Road], including what Mr Lee Kuan Yew’s thinking on the matter was.”

Yet LHL’s parliamentary statement the year before indicated that LKY had already clearly stated his wishes with regards to the house. What additional information about “Mr Lee Kuan Yew’s thinking” on 38 Oxley Road warranted an investigation by ministers? 

Singapore certainly does not need a Ministerial Committee to make decisions about conservation and preservation. As academics Terence Chong and Yeo Kang Shua pointed out in 2015, “…state agencies like NHB and URA have the legal tools and institutional capacity at their disposal to ensure that due process is carried out.”

Aside from the procedural question, there is also a financial one. Instead of the Lee siblings paying the legal fees for an investigation in the courts into LKY’s final wishes, the Singaporean taxpayer has had to pay for the MC’s work.

TCH, who was probably earning over S$6,000 per day then, declined to inform me of the MC’s running costs.

Note: I have left out the footnotes here, just for stylistic reasons, but everything is referenced in the book (see “Appendix: Why the formation and findings of the Ministerial Committee are problematic”). 

Do note that in April 2022, I wrote to TCH seeking his comment on these issues. He declined, through his press secretary. Last week, he found his voice. I think he’s counting on Singaporeans to simply soak up the propaganda, to be blurred out by the numerous confusing details. It’s the same old story, they think we’re so stupid.

I believe Singaporeans can review the facts, laid out in the book and above, and make up their own minds about the issue. Of course I welcome different interpretations of the collected facts, would love to hear from you. That’s what will help discourse in SG.

Before you go, one last plug: do subscribe to Jom to support independent journalism in Singapore.

All my writing is now there…except of course when pesky politicians dig up my old work for their agendas…aiyoh.

5 thoughts on “The problems with Teo Chee Hean’s MC on Oxley

  1. So much cognitive power, oodles of dollars, a national angst and an international soap show favored on a house with no architectural aesthetics and maybe a little historical significance. Why for Pete’s sake can’t we leave it to the lawful owner to decide on the fate of his property?

  2. Sudhir: First, to “surmise” or “summarise”? Second, this whole saga over 38 Oxley Road and LKY’s will is indeed a Chinese soap opera on a grand scale and not at sll worth your lengthy comment. Third, it smacks purely of the overbearing familial greed and oversized egos being played out to show what capitalist Rasputins and Rumpelstiltskins of Singapore’s political class and dynasty are capable of getting up to in full public view if they need a gallery.

  3. “Why the fuss now”???

    This is how I see this saga being ‘resurrected” given that this ebook has been published online since July 2022 (more than 9 months now). If anyone has been paying attention in the last three or more months, TWO issues relating to the government has surfaced and many questions have not been answered pertaining to the two issues which is far more important and relevant to the public than the ‘idolising of Oxley’. Here are the two issues:

    1. SPH (now fully government ‘owned’ with tax payers money) and their ‘massaged’ circulation numbers – how long has this been going on given that this in some form or another affects the revenue of the organisation over the years before it was delisted and government had to rescue this sinking ship that’s become irrelevant as far as news dissemination and journalism is concerned..

    2. KEPPEL and their Brazil ‘escapade’ – where’s the investigation over the corruption they have been accused of by Brazil and the USA?

    I just get the feeling that the government is saying “look here and don’t look there.”

    Just saying.

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