Mystery deepens over secret tapes of Lee Kuan Yew

Sep 30, 2016 02.00PM |

There’s a full page of reports in The Straits Times today about a court case over some old interviews. It is more interesting for what was not revealed than what was. And for who the protagonists are. Bertha cuts through the tangle of arguments over who should have control of the late Mr Lee Kuan Yew’s interviews.

by Bertha Henson

FORMER Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew had recorded his views and recollections (something like memoirs), which included “political sensitive” material on affairs of state, for the Oral History Archives in 1981 and 1982.

After he died last year, those tapes and transcript were found in the family’s Oxley Road house by an unnamed family member. That person passed the stuff to the Cabinet Secretary because he or she thought they were G documents. More on this later.

The late Mr Lee had named his two other children, Dr Lee Wei Ling and Mr Lee Hsien Yang, as executors of the estate. So, they thought that those tapes and transcript should be in their keeping.

They should own the copyright, rather than with the G. Anyone who wants to use the material should get their permission first.

The G said no, because of an interview agreement in 1983.

So, they went to court to argue about how that agreement should be interpreted. The hearing was on July 14. The day before, the G produced correspondence between the late Mr Lee and other officials to back up its case.

The written agreement was signed by three (now dead) people – Mr Lee, Cabinet Secretary Wong Chooi Sen and Mrs Lily Tan, Director of the Archives and Oral History Department, Ministry of Culture, about the tapes. It was drafted by the (now dead) Attorney-General Tan Boon Teik. Then the G argued that the document showed that Mr Lee didn’t want the stuff to be used anyhow by anyone, and that included the estate.

In the agreement, Mr Lee said that he was the copyright owner and no one should have access to the recordings or transcripts until the year 2000 or five years after his death, whichever was later, unless he had already given his express written consent.

The agreement said that until then, they were to be in the safekeeping of the Cabinet Secretary “when it may, at the discretion of the Government, be handed over to the custody of the Director, Archives and Oral History Department”. He added that they may be made available for G-approved research then.

It seems the “five years” after death clause wasn’t in the draft agreement but included later. Since all the parties are dead, nobody knows why the timeline was set.

There was plenty of tangle about copyright law in front of Justice Tay Yong Kwang.

The G raised the spectre of the Official Secrets Act being breached if anyone saw the tapes or transcript.

On this point, the judge agreed. What this means: Even the late Mr Lee can’t compel the G to give him a copy actually!

And Mr Lee Hsien Yang who had the G permission to take a look at the transcript shouldn’t have been given the go-ahead! And the judge can’t read it either, whether it was under OSA or the terms of the agreement!

The bottom line is this: The judge said that the Lee estate held the copyright, but not the physical possession of the recordings and transcripts.

That copyright is limited to making sure no one, including the G, uses the material in the meantime. Now the G has to inform the estate if the late Mr Lee had given any “express written consent” to anyone for its use. It has two weeks to tell the estate.

It’s an interesting tangle over the ownership of history between the Lees and the G. But what was it really all about anyway? Is this really a family fight? What was so politically sensitive about what the late Mr Lee said?

What was interesting was that he had actually stated the year 2000 or five years after his death, which seemed to imply that he wouldn’t have minded the material being out in the open 15 years ago.

But the most interesting thing is this statement from the estate: “The estate is also considering seeking leave to appeal against the court’s decision to expunge parts of the affidavits and documents filed for the purpose of the hearing.”

What parts? Read this from the judgment:

“During the initial stages of this matter, there was an application by the Plaintiffs in Summons No 5810 of 2015 to admit a further affidavit setting out the circumstances as to how the Transcripts, then kept at 38 Oxley Road (LKY’s home) while LKY was alive, came into the possession of the Cabinet Secretary after LKY passed away.

“In my view, those details were unnecessary and quite irrelevant to my decision on the issues before me. The details would only serve to distract from the real issues. The real issues were the interpretation of the Interview Agreement and whether the OSA had any bearing on its interpretation.

“Accordingly, I dismissed the Plaintiffs’ application and expunged those parts of any affidavits and other documents which set out or referred to the same details.”

Hmm. The plot thickens.


Featured image by Sean Chong.

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