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Bid by Lee Kuan Yew’s estate for control of oral history transcripts dismissed

SINGAPORE — A High Court has dismissed a bid by Mr Lee Kuan Yew’s two younger children to gain control of oral history transcripts of the Republic’s founding Prime Minister from more than 30 years ago.

Dr Lee Wei Ling and Mr Lee Hsien Yang. TODAY file photo

Dr Lee Wei Ling and Mr Lee Hsien Yang. TODAY file photo

SINGAPORE — A High Court has dismissed a bid by Mr Lee Kuan Yew’s two younger children to gain control of oral history transcripts of the Republic’s founding Prime Minister from more than 30 years ago.

In his judgment released on Thursday (Sept 29), Judge of Appeal Tay Yong Kwang ruled that the content of the interviews was of a politically sensitive nature that Mr Lee himself had wanted to safeguard the confidentiality of, going by an agreement that he had signed after the interviews.

And since these interviews were conducted between July 8, 1981 and July 5, 1982, when Mr Lee was Prime Minister, and were part of a Government project to document the history of Singapore, they would fall under the Official Secrets Act (OSA), Justice Tay added.

The court application was filed in September last year by Dr Lee Wei Ling and Mr Lee Hsien Yang, who are executors of their father’s estate. They had argued that Mr Lee’s estate is entitled to use, and have copies of these transcripts, as well as have control over access to the material.

Justice Tay disagreed. Although he granted Mr Lee’s estate copyright to the transcripts, but “only for the purpose of ensuring the Government’s compliance with the terms of the interview agreement”. The transcripts were also to remain in the custody of the Cabinet Secretary, he added.

The interviews were part of a Government project to document the political development of Singapore from 1945 to 1965, and on Singapore’s pioneers, through the personal account of several individuals, including Mr Lee.

After his interviews, Mr Lee sought the then Attorney-General’s suggestions on how to safeguard the politically sensitive transcripts. The proposal was for these materials to be kept by the Cabinet Secretary, while those that were not sensitive could be kept with the director of the Archives and Oral History Department.

Mr Lee signed an agreement in 1983 with the then-Secretary to the Cabinet Wong Chooi Sen and the Director of the Archives and Oral History Department Lily Tan, where he would retain the copyright of the transcripts but the material would be kept by the Cabinet Secretary. The conditions in the agreement would be in force until the year 2000, or five years after Mr Lee’s death, whichever was later. Mr Lee died on March 23 last year, which meant the moratorium would last till 2020.

Justice Tay said it showed Mr Lee wanted to safeguard the confidentiality of the transcripts via a “two-key” system, where copyright ownership and physical possession of the transcripts were separated.

The judge added that records of the parliamentary debates prior to the interviews showed that the interviews were not “a personal enterprise” by Mr Lee to record his observations for his benefit. Instead, they were part of the Government’s project then to document the history of Singapore. 

Although the transcripts were not revealed in court, Justice Tay said that based on the correspondence on the agreement, the transcripts dealt with “politically sensitive” matters. 

Since the transcripts fell under the OSA, the Government’s authorisation was needed for access to the material, he added. Justice Tay also noted that correspondence on the agreement did not mention Mr Lee’s estate nor family, and there was no known will by Mr Lee before the 1990s or at the time of the agreement.

“Under the circumstances, and given (Mr Lee’s) obvious concern as Prime Minister about the confidentiality of the transcripts’ contents as shown in the correspondence, it is unreasonable to believe that (Mr Lee) intended that some unknown person in the future after his death would be able to exercise his right in (clause 2(c) of the agreement) with the power to grant access or use of the transcripts,” he added.

Justice Tay also ordered the Government to inform Mr Lee’s estate whether Mr Lee had ever given express written permission to anyone for access to and use of the transcripts.

The estate will also have the right to prevent any exploitation of the transcripts, he added.

During the hearing, the Government acknowledged that there was a “technical breach” of the agreement when they allowed Mr Lee Hsien Yang to go through the transcripts at the Ministry of Home Affairs.

But Justice Tay said he accepted the explanation that they allowed this because it was a request made by the estate. “The technical breach was therefore minor and does not change my belief that this Government will act honourably and in accordance with the spirit of the interview agreement,” he added.

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