No one walks around Singapore in the sticky heat of midday. At least that’s how it seems to me, as I climb the empty sidewalks of the hilly streets overlooking the famed Orchard Road shopping district, with cars whizzing past me and the fibers of my drenched shirt becoming one with my chest hair. It’s all part of my pilgrimage to a five-bedroom bungalow that is permanently entwined with this Southeast Asian island nation’s history but which may not be standing for much longer.
I’m making my way to the nondescript house that for six decades belonged to Singapore’s founding father, Lee Kuan Yew, who died in March at 91. But on my hajj across this pulsating, ultra-modern city-state of skyscrapers, I find myself thinking about the pastoral grounds of a former plantation in Virginia.
I’m trying to imagine the ire that would have erupted if George Washington had insisted that Mount Vernon be torn down after his death. As far back as the middle of his presidency, Washington was already anticipating the tire-kicking patriot-tourists who would be beating a path to his plantation door after he was in the ground. “I have no objection,” he wrote a friend in 1794, “to any sober or orderly person’s gratifying their curiosity in viewing . . . Mount Vernon.”
Yet Lee Kuan Yew was explicit in his wishes about his homestead, telling both the government and his family, “When I’m dead, demolish it.”
As Singapore’s first prime minister, Lee transformed a shabby Third World port city into a shiny First World economic powerhouse. He was every bit the towering figure hovering over his nation as our founding father has hovered over ours.
Singapore will celebrate its 50th anniversary as an independent nation in August, and has a packed calendar of events to mark the milestone. But it’s impossible to understand the history and character of this remarkable, outlier nation without first understanding Lee. Their stories are indivisible.
In preservation terms, his cream-colored bungalow at 38 Oxley Road is probably even more significant than Mount Vernon. Not only did Lee live there for most of his life, but in its basement he led activists in hatching the movement to break away from the British Empire.
In 1963, Lee persuaded his new nation to join neighboring Malaya in the formation of the federation of Malaysia. Two years later, in a rare moment of public emotion and vulnerability, Lee tearfully addressed his countrymen on television to announce that Singapore had been kicked out of Malaysia – the result of Malay fears that Singaporeans would dominate the federation.
In embarrassment and fury, Lee doubled down on his drive to make his small, resource-starved country thrive. Before long, its booming economy and affluent, well-educated populace had made it the envy of Asia.
Lee served as prime minister for three decades. Then, as leader-emeritus for two decades more, he wielded enormous influence over his successors, including the current prime minister, Lee Hsien Loong, who also happens to be his oldest son. Throughout, Lee ruled with relentlessness, pragmatism, and clear-eyed efficiency. “We cannot go backwards in time, to the old trading port of Singapore,” he once said. “We have to move forward and upwards.”
An exhibit on Lee unveiled after his death at the National Museum of Singapore has already attracted more than 150,000 visitors and been extended twice. After it closes on June 28, many of the artifacts will be incorporated into the museum’s revamped permanent history gallery.
The signage for the exhibit appears in all four of the nation’s official languages – English, Mandarin Chinese, Malay, and Tamil. On the day I visit, the crowd includes representatives of all the country’s major ethnic groups, some saluting or bowing before blown-up photos of Lee, others snapping smiling selfies in front of them.
The respectful crowd is a testament to the effectiveness of Lee’s aggressive social engineering to manage Singapore’s multiethnic, multireligious population. Instead of trying to stamp out ethnic identity, in the Soviet manner, or allowing it to erode national identity, as in Iraq and countless other riven countries, Lee’s Singapore managed to embrace and neuter ethnicity at the same time. Citizens are required to learn both English and their ancestral language. But there is no doubt that their primary allegiance is to the state.
The government blanketed the landscape with high-rise residential buildings and mandated that the ethnic breakdowns of residents within each building more or less match the country’s overall ethnic percentages: about 74 percent Chinese, 13 percent Malay, and 9 percent Indian.
Despite all of Singapore’s economic success, most Americans associate the place with two things: its intolerance of gum-chewing and its infamous 1994 caning of a young American who had been caught vandalizing cars. While hardly representative, these two overblown issues fit into Lee’s overall pursuit of perfection for his country and zero-tolerance of petty crimes. Minor infractions here have always been dealt with swiftly and seriously, with the goal of heading off major ones. And it’s hard to argue with the results. In what other big city in the world (Singapore’s population is about 5.4 million) would you feel safe walking around by yourself at 2 in the morning? The government’s rigorous enforcement of health codes means visitors can enjoy a surfeit of tasty and inexpensive food-court options without having to worry about getting sick.
Even though Singapore’s war against gum has begun to relax a bit, the country’s raft of prohibitions against petty offenses remains robust. A popular T-shirt reads “Singapore Is a FINE City,” and then lists the levies for various infractions, from failing to flush a public toilet ($120) to feeding the birds ($1,000).
Personal freedoms are limited — the press is deferential, and Lee, a lawyer by training, went so far as to sue his political opponents for libel. But unlike so many other powerful leaders, he usually seemed to have the best interests of his people at heart, rather than his own enrichment. In fact, if there was one thing that Lee was less tolerant of than litter and gum, it was graft in his government.
Photos of the interior of his house reveal tired furniture and worn carpets, hardly the lair of a leader who had been lining his pockets. Ironically, Lee’s fear that his home would fall into disrepair after his death was one of his stated reasons for wanting it demolished. “I’ve seen other houses, Nehru’s, Shakespeare’s,” he told the Singaporean newspaper The Straits Times in 2011. “They become a shambles after a while. People trudge through.”
Perhaps more telling, he feared that preserving his house would prevent the march of progress for the neighborhood. “Because of my house, the neighboring houses cannot build high,” he said. Just a block away, a sign advertises the planned construction of yet another high-rise residential and retail development.
Lee’s demolition demand put his prime-minister son in a jam, since it contradicts the founding father’s longstanding premise that Singaporeans should think of the state first and themselves second. Following Lee’s death, even the dutiful Strait Times quoted preservation specialists arguing that the greater good would be served by denying Lee’s last wish.
Still, almost every Singaporean I discussed this with had the same reaction: The house was his property, and demolition was his desire, so it should be honored.
When I finally turn onto the stretch of Oxley Road where the house sits, I see a high metal face out front, with security guard booths at each end. As soon as I stop on the sidewalk directly across the street, a slightly built, middle-aged security guard in a navy uniform zeroes in on me.
I hold up my iPhone and ask, “Is it OK to take a picture?”
“No photographs,” he says, smiling but swiping his finger in the air, tick-tock style. “Since the first day, no photographs.”
I cross the street to explain myself and my interest in Lee. “Did you know him?” I ask.
He raises an eyebrow. Then he nods, and softly says, “Of course. He was a good man. A tough man, but he had to be. He built up Singapore. Look around!”
“Will the house remain?” I ask.
“Don’t know. It’s in the process,” he replies. Then, after a long pause, he says, “I hope it stays.”
For the time being, it will. The prime minister announced that his sister and Lee’s only daughter, Dr. Lee Wei Ling, will continue for a while to live in the house, tabling all the talk about demolition. That’s the same daughter who, after hearing of plans to erect memorials to her father around the country, wrote, “If Papa were not cremated, he would be turning over in his grave in shock and distress.”
Although the house is still standing, tourists should not expect to ever get inside. The compromise produced a delay in the bungalow’s demise, but not a commuted sentence. In his will, Lee stipulated that if his family was not able to honor his desire for demolition, the house should never be opened to the public.
In the end, that’s probably OK. To understand Lee is to understand Singapore. But rather than struggling to gain access to an old house that he was determined never to let you see, it’s probably enough to walk around this bustling island and soak up its unmistakable aura of if-you’re-not-moving-forward-you’re-falling-behind.
Neil Swidey can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @neilswidey.