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Speech by Minister for Finance Mr Heng Swee Keat at Parliament on 4 July 2017

04 Jul 2017

1.    Like many fellow Singaporeans, I am deeply saddened that the differences in views between PM and Mr Lee Hsien Yang and Dr Lee Wei Ling, over how to honour their father’s wishes regarding 38 Oxley Road, have been made so public, with Mr Lee Hsien Yang and Dr Lee Wei Ling accusing PM of abuse of power.  

2.    I served as Mr Lee’s Principal Private Secretary, or PPS, when he was Senior Minister, from mid-1997 to early 2000.  During this period, I had the benefit of many interactions with Mr Lee.  I also interacted with Mrs Lee, both in Singapore and on several overseas trips. I learnt that both of them, especially Mrs Lee, valued their privacy deeply. They would be deeply anguished, if they were alive, to see the siblings’ disagreement played out so publicly. 

3.    The issue before Parliament, as several MPs have pointed out, is not about the preservation or demolition of the house, but rather, the allegations, directed at PM and the government by Mr Lee Hsien Yang and Dr Lee Wei Ling, of an abuse of power.  PM and DPM Teo have addressed these allegations. Many MPs have also given their views on this. I hope Members of this House and fellow Singaporeans will reflect on these, and decide for themselves if any abuse has taken place.  My own view is: No, there has been no abuse of power. We have heard no specific allegations of acts of abuse against the PM and the government, that demand a deeper inquiry. What has been levelled are general allegations and aspersions cast. The two days of this Parliament sitting bear this out. No Member, including from the WP, has articulated any specific allegation of abuse of power.

4.    I will, therefore, not dwell on the issues that have already been discussed quite extensively.  

What would Mr Lee’s wishes be?

5.    It has been only a little over two years since Mr Lee passed away. The memory of the outpouring of grief at the time is still fresh in the hearts and minds of fellow Singaporeans. We committed ourselves then to honour the ideals and principles of Mr Lee and our founding leaders.  Today, we should revisit this question calmly –What would Mr Lee’s wish be? And how do we honour his wishes?

6.    When I was PPS, Mr Lee was in the midst of writing his memoirs.  He was almost 75 years old, and Mr Goh Chok Tong had been Prime Minister for 7 years.  Despite his age, Mr Lee worked with an amazing intensity. Over and above his daily work, he would labour deep into the early hours of the morning, every day, on the memoirs.  I asked myself: Why? 
7.    During that time, Mr Lee met with many local and foreign visitors.  From time to time, the visitor would ask Mr Lee what he was most concerned about. Over and over again, I heard Mr Lee say that he feared that the younger generation of Singaporeans might not understand what got us here, and what we would need to do to continue to succeed.  That was why he was labouring hard to distil the lessons of Singapore’s development and share these with young Singaporeans.

8.    So, if you ask me, what were the defining wishes of Mr Lee’s life, I would say: Mr Lee’s greatest wish was for Singapore to remain successful beyond his lifetime.  He dedicated his entire life to making a success of Singapore, against the odds.  The best way to honour him, and to fulfil our duty to future generations of Singaporeans, is to continue to work for the survival and success of Singapore.

9.    What would that take?  Mr Lee said that there is no simple formula for running a country, but he tried to distill and pass on as many insights as he could.  We can spend many hours debating the principles for Singapore’s success.  I would like to highlight just three that are relevant to this debate – a sense of history, the rule of law, and honest and effective government.

10.    First, a sense of history. Mr Lee said that there was no textbook for running a country, and his memoirs were not a how-to manual.  At different times, we would face different conditions.  But he was convinced that we all need a sense of history -- not just in knowing what happened in the past, but why it happened -- that would help to anchor and guide us for the future. 

11.    In 1980, at the 25th anniversary of the founding of the PAP, Mr Lee said: “To understand the present and anticipate the future, one must know enough of the past, enough to have a sense of the history of a people. One must appreciate not merely what took place but more especially why it took place and in that particular way. That is true of individuals, as it is for nations.” 

12.    With that in mind, 38 Oxley Road holds special historical significance because of all the things that took place there in our early history.  In his memoirs, Mr Lee had a chapter on ‘Widening the Oxley Road circle’, recounting how the founding fathers gathered in the basement dining room of Mr Lee’s house, the birth of the People’s Action Party in 1954, the difficult decisions they had to take whether to contest the elections in 1955 and 1959. Mr Lee also recounted how, during that tumultuous period, the Chinese school students “started turning up at Oxley Road looking for advice on a hundred and one problems they encountered whenever they came into conflict with or were obstructed by authority”.  What happened in the basement dining room and at Oxley Road is relevant not just for the history of the PAP.  I was surprised to hear Mr Png Eng Huat yesterday take such a narrow and partisan view of history. Those years marked a pivotal moment in our nation’s history – in fact, they were the start of a series of events that led to independence.  It is therefore right and proper that we consider this history in any decision to demolish or preserve the house, or parts of it.

13.    In July 2011, Mr Lee came to the Cabinet meeting to set out his views on 38 Oxley Road.  Mr Lee stated his preference for the house to be demolished after his passing. Despite his seniority and his role as the founding Prime Minister of Singapore, he did not once use his status to advance his case.  He just stated his preference, and then listened intently to the views of Cabinet members.  Except for PM who did not speak, Cabinet members were unanimous in persuading him that the house should not be demolished.  All of us who spoke felt deeply that, as a young nation, we needed a deeper sense of history, and that the house was of historical significance.
14.    Mr Liang Eng Hwa asked earlier, if any cabinet member had put any pressure on Mr Lee. The answer is no. Mr Lee looked very thoughtful after the session.  We did not hear from him until later, when he sent the note in December 2011 that PM presented yesterday.  To me, that note, sent five months after the meeting, showed that he had been mulling over the issue during that period, and, importantly, he had taken other views on board.  

15.    Yesterday, Ms Chia Yong Yong spoke on the rule of law and what it meant to Mr Lee.  She said, “I cannot imagine Mr Lee banging tables and insisting on the demolition of his House.… I cannot imagine Mr Lee insisting that his individual interest must prevail over the communitarian interest… I cannot imagine Mr Lee insisting that the government cannot acquire its own property.” She has put it very well.  Mr Lee knew more than almost anyone the laws relating to the acquisition and preservation of property, having exercised powers over his years in office.  I was at that Cabinet meeting, and can attest that Mr Lee put his views to us, and then listened seriously to Cabinet members.  I was struck at the time by how scrupulously he presented his case, without once invoking his seniority or contributions, and how he listened so intently to what we had to say.  

16.    Mr Lee’s willingness to take into account new evidence and alternative views on this issue reminded me of how he had changed his view on language education for the young.   Bilingual education was Mr Lee’s lifelong challenge and he studied the matter deeply. When I was PPS, there were those who advocated that children acquire languages better if they were exposed to them earlier, in their preschool years.  But, based on his own readings and experiences, he believed that the benefits of early exposure washed out as the child grows.

17.    More than a decade later, when I was Education Minister, Mr Lee asked to see me.  He told me that, after evaluating the evidence over the years, he was now convinced that there were benefits in giving young children early exposure to languages. In 2011, he decided to set up a fund, with his own money, and brought in several other donors.  He asked that I guide MOE to use the fund to boost bilingualism across all levels, with special attention to the preschool years. With his approval, I named it the Lee Kuan Yew Fund for Bilingualism. 

18.    I share this experience to show Mr Lee’s willingness to change his views if he was presented with robust arguments.  His note to Cabinet on 38 Oxley Road, five months after he saw us, was an important change.  Cabinet had stated our case to Mr Lee, and we did not expect to hear back from him.  Each time he had written on this issue to Cabinet before, had been of his own volition, not at Cabinet’s request.  

19.    So when he wrote to us in December 2011, it showed me two things: One, that he had taken five months to mull things over very carefully; and two, that he felt it was proper and important to inform Government of his thinking, now that he was prepared to consider the possibility that the government of the day might decide not to demolish the house.  

20.    Until PM shared it yesterday, I did not know that Mr Lee then went on to apply for URA approval to reinforce the foundations and renovate the house.  This shows that Mr Lee had a plan, and he put it into action. 

21.    That letter of December 2011, in which he said the whole building should be refurbished “if 38 Oxley Road is to be preserved”, was the last communication Cabinet received from Mr Lee on this subject. I do not want to venture into how Mr Lee’s views might have changed further if he were alive today.  But we must remember that Mr Lee’s lifelong and unwavering dedication was to making a success of Singapore. His efforts in his later years were about the success of Singapore beyond his lifetime.  

22.    I talked about Mr Lee’s belief that we need a sense of history to keep Singapore successful.  The second principle for Singapore’s success which I would like to highlight and is relevant in this debate is the rule of law.  From what I have shared about that Cabinet meeting where Mr Lee came to give his views, and about his letter to Cabinet five months later, you would see that he observed a strict separation between his and Mrs Lee’s private wish, and the duty of government.  He had a strong personality and formidable track record, but not once did he insist that only his view should prevail – exactly like Ms Chia Yong Yong said. I found that deeply admirable, for someone who was the founding Prime Minister of Singapore, and who had been PM for 31 years.  

23.    In this regard, Members have heard the speeches of both PM and DPM Teo on how PM recused himself from deliberations relating to the house, and kept a strict separation between his private duty as a son, and his duty as the Head of Government.  As several MPs have pointed out, the irony is that if PM were to do what Mr Lee Hsien Yang and Dr Lee Wei Ling wanted, to impose his private wishes as a son and have the house demolished, we would not have this disagreement made public, but he would have abused his power.

24.    A sense of history.  Rule of law.  The third insight which I would like to share that Mr Lee had for Singapore’s success was to keep government honest and effective. 

25.    In the preface to his memoirs, Mr Lee wrote, “I wrote this book for a younger generation of Singaporeans who took stability, growth and prosperity for granted. I wanted them to know how difficult it was for a small country of 640 square kilometres with no natural resources to survive in the midst of larger, newly independent nations all pursuing nationalistic policies. … we cannot forget that public order, personal security, economic and social progress and prosperity are not the natural order of things, that they depend on ceaseless effort and attention from an honest and effective government that the people must elect.”

26.    An honest and effective government is a simple and powerful idea, but one that is achieved only by years of dedicated effort.  Mr Lee devoted enormous amounts of effort to build up the public service, to persuading suitable men and women to stand as MPs, and to testing some out as office holders.  He always put an emphasis on having a deep sense of values and service. Mr Lee believed profoundly in doing the right thing, the necessary thing.  In this vein, both his sons took up SAF scholarships, and both returned to serve in different ways.  The young Lee Hsien Loong was a Senior Wrangler at Cambridge University – the top mathematics student in his year.  Trinity College offered him a fellowship.  He could have devoted his life to Mathematics and probably have great success. But he wrote to his tutor: “It is absolutely necessary that I remain in Singapore, whatever I do… because Singapore is where I belong and what I want to be.” In fact, the young Lee Hsien Loong never told his parents about this; he simply came home and got to work in the SAF.  Mr Lee Kuan Yew only learnt about it later.  This is a deep sense of service for a young man in his early 20s. 

27.    Many Members have cautioned that we must keep the government’s focus on the major issues confronting Singapore, and not be distracted. I fully agree.  As we have learnt in this debate, the family disagreement has been playing out over the last two years. Instead of allowing this episode to distract him or government, PM has continued to focus, not just on the issues of the day, but on further laying the ground to address the medium and longer-term challenges to Singapore.   These relate to our security, foreign relations, jobs and the economy, healthcare and infrastructure, among others.  Various Cabinet meetings and other forums have been deliberating on these various issues.  I hope these 2 days of debate can help clear the air, rebuild trust and confidence, so that everyone can focus fully on the key challenges that we face. 


28.    Mr and Mrs Lee’s 3 children have each made their contribution to Singapore, in different ways.  PM has been in public service all his life and is still in public service.  Mr Lee Hsien Yang served in the SAF and later Singtel.  Dr Lee Wei Ling has been a passionate paediatric neurologist, and built up the National Neuroscience Institute well when she was heading it.   I appreciate Dr Lee’s care and concern for me when I was hospitalised last year. She remains Senior Advisor at the NNI, and made the effort to visit and advise me on my medical condition.  

29.    All of us -- the children of Mr and Mrs Lee, as well as fellow Singaporeans -- share one goal, which is to honour the legacy of Mr and Mrs Lee.  In his Facebook post made this past Saturday evening, Mr Lee Hsien Yang wrote, “I simply hope to ensure our father’s wishes are honoured when the day comes.”  I believe I speak for all Members in this House, and many Singaporeans, when I say, we all hope to do the same, to honour Mr Lee’s wishes, and furthermore to honour his legacy and the ideals and principles of our founding leaders. 

30.    我曾经担任李光耀先生的首席私人秘书。我为他工作时, 他已经是内阁资政了。然而,他依然用他全部的精力来思考新加坡的未来。他的每一个想法和行动都是为了确保新加坡的福祉和成功。

31.    如果李光耀先生还在, 我想他会希望新加坡能继续成功下去。所以,我们不能让这场纠纷转移我们的注意力, 影响新加坡的未来。

32.    有国才有家。李光耀先生以毕生精力建设了比欧思礼路38号更重要的家。那就是我们的家园新加坡。请大家守护这个家园, 继续传承李先生为新加坡鞠躬尽瘁的奉献精神,巩固他所打下的基础,创造一个更美好的新加坡。
33.    Madam, I said earlier, we all wish to honour Mr Lee’s wishes and legacy.  To do so, it is important to understand what he stood for, what he devoted his life to. Mr Lee has devoted his entire life to achieving the survival and success of Singapore. Let us not have this difference sidetrack us from the bigger task of honouring Mr Lee’s wish for a successful Singapore and get back to the business of serving our people.  

34.    In the years to come, when Dr Lee Wei Ling is no longer living at 38 Oxley Rd, a future government may agree to demolish the house, as our founding Prime Minister wished. 

35.    But there is another house that Mr Lee Kuan Yew built lovingly, a greater house than 38 Oxley Road – and that is Singapore. This house - we cannot allow to be demolished.