Debate on PM, DPM Statements – Speech by Png Eng Huat

(Delivered in Parliament on 3 July 2017)


Madam, I am not here today to debate on how the last will of Mr Lee Kuan Yew was made or who drafted it. I am not even bothered why the current owner of 38 Oxley Road would want it demolished as soon as possible. These are really none of my business. These are private matters for the Prime Minister to settle with his siblings and they do not concern the state.

I was not a bit affected by this issue until when other ministers started to weigh in on the matters.  The whole episode then took a cringing turn, and allegation of abuse of power began to flow in.  That’s when the real embarrassment starts. Why are the ministers taking side in a private dispute on a house that is still legally in the hands of a private individual?

In recent statements made by ministers on social media, the fate of 38 Oxley Road seems to hinge on whether the house should be demolished completely according to the last will of Mr Lee Kuan Yew or preserved, in whole or in part, as a political heritage. One can easily infer from the tone set by these ministers that the government is tending towards the latter option, and that, sadly, will drag the government into the picture to decide on the fate of 38 Oxley Road, in the guise of public interest. Madam, if this government had had not the slightest interest to take side and form a secret committee to explore other options for the house in the first place, none of these would have happened.

Some ministers seemed to allude to the sanctity of the house from a historical context and that it deserves preservation. Some ministers had commented that many important meetings and critical decisions on the future of Singapore took place at 38 Oxley Road. While that is not a far-fetched statement since it is the birthplace of the only ruling political party in Singapore since 1965, what other roles did the house play in our march from Third World to First? What official and history making decisions and declarations affecting Singapore were made in the basement of this house, other than it had always been the private abode of Mr Lee Kuan Yew and Mdm Kwa Geok Choo?  Did the Cabinet of the day hold its first post-1965 meeting at Oxley Road?  Did the Cabinet meet regularly at the house rather than at the old Parliament House or Istana?

One thing is very clear to me – a political party was founded in the basement dining room of 38 Oxley Road, not modern Singapore. Modern Singapore was thrust into existence, not by its own free will, on 9 August 1965, under circumstances that are well documented in our history book, and 38 Oxley Road hardly gets a memorable mention anywhere. As the Prime Minister has just described earlier, it is just an old house.

38 Oxley Road probably holds so much intimate and private memories for Mr Lee Kuan Yew and Mdm Kwa Geok Choo that none of us in this chamber, maybe with the exception of the Prime Minister, should even attempt to try to understand or question why they would want their house to be demolished immediately after they are gone. From the accounts given by the Prime Minister earlier, the fate of the house is really a family affair and it should not be outsourced to the government to decide.

I wish to put on record that I do not support the effort or intention of the government to gazette 38 Oxley Road for whatever reason.  A reported poll on 23 Dec 2015 indicated that 77 per cent of the people said they would want to see Mr Lee Kuan Yew’s wish for the house be carried out, although I am of the opinion that such a poll is not even necessary, as this is completely a private matter for the immediate family members to sort out.

Even if the balance of the fate of the house is tending towards preservation in the name of public interest, and the Prime Minister recuses himself in this matter, the buck still stops with him. Surely, the Prime Minister is not a lame duck commander-in-chief in this matter.  He has the power to have the final say, and take this whole matter off the government’s hand and resolve it privately or in court as it should.  The surviving members of the Lee family should not outsource this decision to the government or any secret committee.

Madam, what is more troubling about this private saga is found in the statement released by Mr Lee Hsien Yang and Dr Lee Wei Ling in the wee hours of 14 Jun 2017.  The statement contains disturbing revelations of undisclosed facts and allegations of abuse of powers.

As highlighted by Ms Sylvia Lim, Singaporeans woke up in the morning to find out that our newly appointed Attorney General, Mr Lucien Wong, was also the personal lawyer of the Prime Minister previously. The fact that the Prime Minister and our current AG had a commercial relationship was never publicly disclosed until now.  How long has Mr Wong been the personal lawyer for the Prime Minister?  While such relationship may not allude to anything, the personal and commercial relationship between the Prime Minister and appointed AG should be publicly disclosed in the name of transparency. When I sought the advice of someone from the charity sector about mundane disclosure, this person said when in doubt, more disclosure is better than less, so err on the safe side.  Could the Prime Minister explain why the public disclosure of his relationship with the AG is not necessary?

Singaporeans also found out the same morning that the wife of the Prime Minister was alleged to have exerted her influence on the government and civil service in a pervasive manner and “well beyond her job purview.”  Neither the Prime Minister nor his wife have come out to refute the allegation in no uncertain terms.  Dr Lee Wei Ling wrote, “Singapore has no such thing as the wife of the prime minister being a ‘first lady’. Lee Kuan Yew was Prime Minister from 1959 to 1990. During those many years, his wife (our mother) consistently avoided the limelight, remaining his stalwart supporter and advisor in private. She lived discreetly, and set a high bar for the conduct of a prime minister’s wife. She would never instruct Permanent Secretaries or senior civil servants. The contrast between her and Ho Ching could not be more stark. While Ho Ching holds no elected or official position in government, her influence is pervasive, and extends well beyond her job purview.”

Mr Lee Kuan Yew, in his own words about his relationship with his wife, said, “I made a point, however, not to discuss the formulation of policies with her, and she was scrupulous in not reading notes or faxes that were sensitive.”  (From Third World to First, Pg 748) From both accounts, it is a given that the wife of the Prime Minister, and for that matter, the wife of any minister, would have easy access to information and the inner workings of the government. While there are Code of Conduct to govern Ministers, what safeguards are there to prevent their family members from abusing their positions of influence in their engagement with the Civil Service?  The Prime Minister has said it is the duty of the ministers to correct any abuse of power committed by their family members. Nonetheless, these safeguards should still be spelt out clearly so that the core values of the Civil Service would not be compromised.  Surely, family members of ministers and political appointees cannot act with impunity just because they are private individuals and the Code of Conduct only deals with public officer holders.  So what are the safeguards for the Civil Service if such family members decide to go beyond their call of duty for all the wrong reasons?

So what prompted Dr Lee Wei Ling to allege that the wife of the Prime Minister is throwing her weight around with the Civil Service?  What pervasive influence did she exert that are well beyond her job purview?

In a National Heritage Board (NHB) document released on Facebook, a certain “Ms Ho Ching” was listed as a contact person for the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO), and Mr Lee Hsien Yang had alleged that this person is the wife of the Prime Minister, Mdm Ho Ching, of which, she did not deny.  So what official role does the wife of the Prime Minister have in government that would allow her to act as a contact person for PMO? Would NHB dare to ask the wife of the Prime Minister to show proof that the items on loan were obtained legally?  Between state agencies, did they not know that PMO does not have a contact person named “Ms Ho Ching”?

And what business did the Ministry of Communication and Information have in photographing and cataloging a private house? Was the government working on a secret project?  These are allegations that need to be addressed.

In my dealings with the Civil Service, many Civil Servants are neutral and we must protect them from being put into positions of conflict against their values, personal and professional. Does the Prime Minister not agree that this allegation of abuse of position of influence by family members needs to be addressed urgently and emphatically in a transparent manner?

In conclusion, madam, years from now, how do Singaporeans want to remember 38 Oxley Road? A place where Mr and Mrs Lee Kuan Yew once raised their family, or a house where bitterness resides. The choice lies with the Lee family and not the government.