National Development Minister Lawrence Wong yesterday explained why the National Heritage Board (NHB) initially decided to hold off displaying items from 38, Oxley Road for an exhibition on Singapore's founding fathers, even though it had signed a legally binding deed of gift.
Mr Wong, who was minister for Community, Culture and Youth when the exhibition was being planned in 2015, told Parliament that NHB was "caught in a difficult position" after it found out that there were questions about the agreement's validity.
Chief among its concerns was whether the will's executors, Mr Lee Hsien Yang and Dr Lee Wei Ling, could enter into the deed without consulting all its beneficiaries - in this case, their older brother Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong.
PM Lee had been informed about the exhibition and donation in his official capacity. He then told Mr Wong that as a beneficiary of the estate, his consent for the donation had not been sought.
Mr Wong's explanation comes after an earlier Facebook post from Mr Lee Hsien Yang criticising NHB's about-turn after signing the deed.
Yesterday, Mr Wong said PM Lee had also found the deed's terms "onerous" for NHB, as it included "highly unusual" clauses like the right to buy back the donated items at $1 as long as the house was not demolished.
A second condition was to display only the first part of the demolition clause in Mr Lee Kuan Yew's will during the exhibition, but not the second part which stated that the house should be kept off limits to the public should demolition not be possible due to changes to the law.
Mr Wong then set out the sequence of events after PM Lee took issue with the deed.
He and then NHB chief executive Rosa Daniel decided "it would be better to take a pause and not rush the Oxley Road items for the August exhibition", and display them later after the issues were resolved. NHB had no intention to breach any legal obligations, and was simply carrying out its duty to check whether the deed of gift was in order, Mr Wong said.
Mr Lee Hsien Yang subsequently said that while the executors had not obtained probate for the will, they did not need probate to have the power to offer the deed of gift.
"He also said that NHB should not be concerned about the position of the beneficiaries under the will," said Mr Wong.
He added that Deputy Prime Minister Teo Chee Hean was concerned about displaying only part of the demolition clause, which did not fully reflect the late Mr Lee's wishes. However, he and DPM Teo eventually agreed that the pluses of having the exhibition with the Oxley Road artefacts "outweighed the potential controversy that was likely to arise".
NHB proceeded with the exhibition after PM Lee told Mr Wong on June 25 that he had, in his capacity as beneficiary, informed his siblings he would not object to it.
In his statement, Mr Wong also revealed that Mrs Lee Suet Fern, Mr Lee Hsien Yang's wife and a director on NHB's board at the time, was also involved in the discussions between NHB and the executors. She supported the conditions stipulated in the deed, and her law firm Morgan Lewis Stamford helped in the process of finalising the deed, he said.
Mr Wong also reiterated that the deed was shown to PM Lee in his official capacity, and that he would have been entitled to it in his private capacity as the eldest child and a beneficiary of the estate.