What do Lee Kuan Yew, Osama bin Laden and Wu Zetian have in common?

Lee family house Oxley Road

If you answered memorials – or more correctly a lack thereof – you’d be correct.

While Osama bin Laden was controversially burried at sea so as to provide no physical memorial that may become a focus of discontent (ironic, given that his own branch of Islam hates them anyway), the other two made a conscious choice to go un-memorialised into that dark night.

Wu Zetian, for her part, is popularly supposed to have considered herself so badass that no epitaph would be adequate, and thus was buried beneath a stele with no inscription. (There is a slight problem with this version of history, in that it was relatively common at the time to put up blank gravestones, making Wu’s wuzi bei less exceptional than it seems. Nevertheless, it’s such cool story that we’re going to endorse it anyhow.)

Similarly, Lee Kuan Yew specifically requested no statues or memorials, and even specified in his will that the family home on Oxley Road in Singapore should be torn down following his death. He said this was because he disapproved of personality cults, though one can’t help but suspect that a certain part of him had Wu Zetian’s reasoning in mind as well.

And besides, when you come down to it, the entire city functions as a better memorial than anything else we could cobble together.

Nevertheless, as we already discovered with Lee’s do-not-ressuscitate order, respect and admiration do not necessarily lead to compliance, and already commentators in the media have begun calling for Lee’s last wishes to be ignored:

This should be an open and shut case in a country that has been run in a rational, practical and pragmatic way. But here comes an issue where the state is asked to listen to the heart and support what is essentially an emotional decision.

Lee Kuan Yew and his immediate family want their pre-war bungalow at 38 Oxley Road torn down despite its deep historical and heritage value. It was there where modern Singapore’s destiny was made. It was in the basement of the house where more than half a  century ago that the momentous decision to give birth to the ruling People’s Action Party was made.

It was also there that Lee and other founders of modern Singapore met to discuss and plan the country’s self autonomy and subsequent independence from Britain.

That in themselves are good enough reasons why the Lee family’s wish  should not be granted. With misty-eyed Singaporeans caught in the grip of a heritage hysteria which coincided with the country’s golden jubilee joy, a request like this seems misplaced.


Interestingly, just after Lee’s death, the Singaporean NGO Choson Exchange had a group of North Koreans in the city for a study trip. They happened to be passing by Oxley Road and decided to stop and take some pictures of the house. You can’t actually see much more than some roof tiles from the road, as the picture above shows, but hey, they’re North Koreans: paying respects to the houses of dead leaders* is what they do. Given that it was a sensitive time, the local police and soldiers were on the qui vive, and one of them ran out to order them to stop behaving so suspiciously.
“They must have felt right at home,” I said to the CE guy who told me the story.

*Kim Jong Il was probably born in Russia. Nevertheless, the Paekdusan Secret Camp version of the tale is more romantic and also provides a location that is more practical for North Koreans to visit on pilgrimages. In light of the fact that we quite happily repeated that Wu Zetian story above, we do not feel ourselves to be in a position to criticise them.


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