Mimi Kirk is a contributing writer to CityLab covering education, youth, and aging. Her writing has also appeared in The Washington Post, Foreign Policy, and Smithsonian.
The question of whether to demolish the home of the city-state’s former leader raises questions in a country that paves over the past.
When Singapore broke away from Malaysia in 1965 and became independent, it was a country of slums, illiteracy, and poverty, with a per capita GPD of $500 USD. By 2014, that figure had reached $56,000 USD—a little more than that of the United States. In only 50 years, the country transformed itself into one of glittering skyscrapers, tidy housing estates, and shopping malls, largely due to the vision and leadership of Lee Kuan Yew, or LKY, Singapore’s prime minister from 1959 to 1990.
LKY’s unsentimental approach to progress was partly responsible for this incredible growth. His government cleared dilapidated houses and hawker stalls to make way for a new Singapore—and the clearing didn’t stop once the country’s infrastructure was well developed. In 2005, for example, authorities demolished the beloved Old National Library to make way for a tunnel.
When LKY died in 2015, it seemed fitting that his will called for the demolition of the colonial-style bungalow he had lived in since 1945. He told a group of journalists in 2011, “Because of my house, the neighboring houses cannot build high. Now demolish my house and change the planning rules [for height, and] the land value will go up.”
But now, a complicated feud is underway between the current prime minister, Lee Hsieng Loong, who is the eldest son of LKY, and his two younger siblings about the fate of the house. While the siblings support demolishing it, a ministerial committee is considering other options, such as leveling the home but preserving the basement, where LKY and his political allies formed the People’s Action Party—the party that runs the country to this day. Though Prime Minister Lee has recused himself of any dealings with the house, his siblings accuse him of having plans to preserve it.
The debate over what to do with LKY’s home comes at a time when Singaporeans are growing increasingly interested in conserving their heritage. The demolition of the Old National Library is often referred to as the point at which more citizens began to question the government’s lack of interest in historic preservation.
The recent fight to save Bukit Brown cemetery, an enormous and historic graveyard through which the government is putting a highway, has seen some wins for civil society groups. Though plans to radically develop the space are still moving ahead, authorities now plan to move fewer graves—3,700 instead of 5,000—and the affected gravestones will be catalogued and stored rather than destroyed.
Another preservation controversy centers around the Sungei Road flea market, where vendors have been selling quirky wares since the 1930s. The market was already reduced to half its size in 2011 to make way for a subway station, and the government, which has plans to build housing on the site, will shut the entire operation down on July 11.
Though citizen groups have appealed to authorities to relocate the market, they have not received a response. The opposition Singapore Democratic Party has even gotten involved. Its leader Chee Soon Juan wrote on Facebook, “This is the tragedy in modern Singapore with a government that knows the price of everything but the value of nothing.”
The fate of LKY’s house will be linked to the current squabble in Singapore’s leading family. But if it is conserved in some fashion, it may signal a greater concern for the preservation of the country’s history on the part of the government. The next step would be for the government to engage more fully with civil society on heritage decisions regarding sites not associated with the party in power.
As Terence Chong and Yeo Kang Shua of the Singapore Heritage Society argue, whether or not LKY’s home is demolished, it provides an opportunity to strengthen due process when it comes to assessing a historical building or site. They suggest official engagement with historians, architects, and social scientists on such decision-making, and to make the dealings public. “These are heritage concerns that go beyond [LKY’S home],” they write in the Straits Times. “Discussing them openly and objectively would be to our benefit.”