House at heart of Singapore’s Lee family feud has no foundations, cracks in walls

38-Oxley-RoadSINGAPORE: In property-obsessed Singapore, the future and value of one house has gripped the nation due to an extraordinary feud between the children of the island state’s founding father.

Lee Kuan Yew died in 2015, but a bitter row over his will, specifically what to do with the old family home, broke into full public view this week, prompting the eldest son, current Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong to issue a statement saying he was “disappointed” and “deeply saddened”.

Lee Kuan Yew moved into the five-bedroom house, formerly owned by a Jewish merchant, in 1945, as the Japanese Occupation ended and the island returned to British colonial rule.

Over the next decade 38 Oxley Road became a hub of political activity, and it was in the basement that the People’s Action Party, which has led Singapore since independence, was conceived.

Four years before he died, LKY, as he was popularly known, said the bungalow should be demolished once he’d gone.

He said it lacked foundations, suffered from damp, had cracks in the walls and was costly to maintain.

“But fortunately the pillars are sound,” he joked to the Singapore Straits Times.

According to Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong’s siblings, their older brother wants the house to be preserved as a symbol of modern Singapore’s history. The prime minister said he had recused himself from all government decisions involving the house, but has raised questions over how his father’s will was drawn up.

The sister, 62-year-old Lee Wei Ling, still lives in the bungalow, just a short walk from the city’s main shopping district at Orchard Road.

She and her brother, Lee Hsien Yang, insist it should be demolished in accordance with their late father’s wishes, and have accused their elder brother of using “organs of the state” to intimidate them as the row, waged over social media and through the Singapore press, escalated this week.

Their father, in the newspaper interview, had disdained the idea of tourists trickling through the tired, old house, with its retro furniture.

“I’ve seen other houses, Nehru’s, Shakespeare’s. They become a shambles after a while. People trudge through,” Lee said.

Not only that, he said the zoning regulations should be changed to let all owners on Oxley Road build higher than the current two-story limit to boost the value of the real estate.

Private home prices in Singapore have risen 15 times compared to 1975, government data shows. The price of bungalows in the central region, like the Lees, have doubled in the last ten years, according to real estate services firm Cushman and Wakefield.

Any demolition or redevelopment can happen only after the daughter moves out, so it could be years before any changes are made.

As things stand, if the bungalow were to be knocked down, the property could only be redeveloped as a modern residential house, or a row of terrace houses, experts suggest.

Estate agents estimated that the 12,060-square foot plot was currently worth around S$24 million (US$17 million).

“You can’t build 20 storeys on it, so that puts a cap on the land value,” said Ku Swee Yong, CEO of International Property Advisor Pte Ltd.

“Depending on how you design the two-floor mixed-landed project the land value could be worth a little bit more, so let’s say S$25 million.”

Christine Li, director of research at Cushman, provided a similar valuation, but added that it could fetch more due to its “special address”.

“For instance, if it is sold through an auction, this address is likely to fetch a much higher value, just like how art does,” Li said.