SINGAPORE - Mrs Lee Suet Fern, the sister-in-law of Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong and a National Heritage Board board director, had reached out to help facilitate a donation deal between the estate of the late of Mr Lee Kuan Yew and the NHB.
As part of this deal, items from the 38, Oxley Road house would be donated as artefacts for an exhibition that the NHB was putting up on Singapore's founding fathers in late 2015.
But Mrs Lee's involvement has prompted questions from several MPs, who wondered over the course of the two-day debate on the Oxley Road dispute if there was a conflict of interest, since she is also the wife of PM Lee's brother, Mr Lee Hsien Yang, an executor of Mr Lee Kuan Yew's will.
"With the benefit of hindsight, some of these roles should have been better clarified and NHB has strengthened these roles internally," National Development Minister Lawrence Wong said in Parliament on Tuesday (July 4).
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At the time, the NHB had thought Mrs Lee would be "useful as an intermediary" between NHB and the Lee family, he said.
"Later, as NHB had to engage in more extensive discussions with the executors to resolve the legal issues, the chairman of NHB approached her on 12 June to recuse herself on matters concerning the Deed, which she did," Mr Wong said.
Mr Lee Hsien Yang had previously put up a Facebook post criticising NHB's about-turn to delay putting up the items at the exhibition after signing a legally binding deed.
But on Monday, Mr Wong explained that PM Lee had found the deed's terms "onerous" for NHB, as they 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 - citing his wish to demolish the house. But the second part of the clause, which concedes the possibility that the house may not be demolished for a number of reasons - was not to be displayed.
"No one realised there was these sharp differences of views... The executors spoke for all the beneficiaries - this was my assumption too when NHB updated me on the discussion, and I only realised the situation was very different when I spoke to PM," he said on Tuesday.
He also tackled questions from MPs about the due process all sites with architectural or heritage merit have to go through.
In particular, he was cautious about some MPs' suggestions to open up such properties to a public debate, adding that such decisions cannot be "solely based on public referendum".
He noted that after Mr Lee Kuan Yew's book, Hard Truths To Keep Singapore Going, was published in 2011, in which he stated his wish to have the house demolished, it appeared that the majority of Singaporeans wanted it preserved.
But after his death, most seemed to want it demolished, in accordance with Mr Lee's wishes, Mr Wong added.
"The public mood on these things can shift depending on the circumstances, and I'm not saying we should not consult (them)... but the Government's job is to be ready with all the options, to have drawer plans fully prepared, so that the government of the day is able to make decisions as and when the time comes," he said.