Court of Appeal reserves judgment in appeal over Lee Kuan Yew's interview transcripts

Mr Lee Hsien Yang walking out of the Supreme Court on April 10, 2017.
Mr Lee Hsien Yang walking out of the Supreme Court on April 10, 2017. ST PHOTO: LIM YAOHUI

SINGAPORE - The apex court on Monday (April 10) heard the final arguments in the appeal against a ruling on an interview agreement the late Mr Lee Kuan Yew had made with the Government.

The estate of the late Mr Lee filed an appeal last year, after the High Court ruled that while the estate held the copyright over the interview transcripts, it did not have custody over them or have the rights to freely use them.

The transcripts contain accounts of affairs of state as observed and experienced by Mr Lee, who was prime minister when he gave the interviews as part of a government oral history project in the 1980s.

On Monday, lawyers representing the estate argued that it should be allowed to make copies of the transcripts.

They said that in addition to Mr Lee's work as prime minister, the interviews also contained personal information about himself and his family. Some of this information had also been published by the media, they added.

In this context, they said, it was not unreasonable for the estate to gain access to the material and make copies.

The Attorney-General's Chambers (AGC), representing the Government, argued that only limited rights to the transcripts had passed on to the estate following Mr Lee's death on March 23, 2015.

The AGC added that some of the material in the interviews is politically sensitive and concerns affairs of the state.

To this, lawyers for the estate said it would be bound by the Official Secrets Act as well, and will be liable for prosecution under the law if the material is disseminated.

The three Court of Appeal judges - Chief Justice Sundaresh Menon, Justice Chao Hick Tin and Justice Andrew Phang - decided to reserve judgment after hearing the arguments of both sides.

Dr Lee Wei Ling and Mr Lee Hsien Yang, as executors of the estate, had gone to court in 2015 to seek a declaration that all rights to the interview transcripts belong to the estate following Mr Lee's death .

The late Mr Lee had signed an agreement with the Cabinet Secretary and the Director of Archives in 1983 specifying terms for the transcripts' use and administration.

Under these terms, they would be kept in the Cabinet Secretary's custody until 2000, or five years after Mr Lee's death, whichever is later.

During this moratorium period, no person should have access to, supply copies or be able to use the transcripts without the late Mr Lee's express written permission.

After this period, the Government may hand the transcripts to the Director of Archives.

The estate had argued that it should have all rights over the transcripts after Mr Lee's death.

But the Government countered that Mr Lee's right to grant permission for use of the transcripts, access to them, or for copies to be made, was personal to him.

Justice Tay Yong Kwang, in his judgment last September, ruled that it was not the late Mr Lee's intention for his estate to have free use or custody of the transcripts.

The judge said that while the estate does hold the copyright to transcripts, it was only for ensuring the Government's compliance with the terms of the agreement.

Based on the agreement, the transcripts were also to have been kept by the Cabinet Secretary.

But after the late Mr Lee's death, they were found at his Oxley Road home.

A member of his family handed them to the Cabinet Secretary sometime between March 23, 2015 and May 5, 2015, without the knowledge or consent of the estate.

During the High Court hearing, Dr Lee and Mr Lee had wanted to submit an account of how this happened, but Justice Tay did not allow it, saying the details "would only serve to distract from the real issues" and were unnecessary and quite irrelevant to the case.

Dr Lee and Mr Lee had originally applied to appeal against this particular decision, but withdrew the application on Oct 21 last year.