SINGAPORE - National Development Minister Lawrence Wong on Monday (July 3) explained why the National Heritage Board initially asked to delay 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, told Parliament that NHB was "caught in a difficult position" after it found out there were questions about the validity of the agreement.
Chief among its concerns was whether the will's executors, Mr Lee Hsien Yang and Dr Wei Ling, could enter into the deed without consulting all its beneficiaries - in this case, their 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 of gift.
On Monday, Mr Wong said PM Lee had also found the deed's terms particularly "onerous" for the 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 the late Mr Lee Kuan Yew's will during the exhibition, but not the second part for the house to be kept off-limits to the public should demolition not be possible due to changes to the law.
Mr Wong then discussed with Mrs Rosa Daniel, then chief executive of NHB, what could be done. They decided "it would be better to take a pause and not rush the Oxley Road items for the August exhibition", and exhibit them later after the issues were resolved.
But Mr Lee Hsien Yang said this was unacceptable.
Mr Wong said NHB had no intention to breach any legal obligations, and was simply carrying out its to duty to check whether the deed of gift was in order, given the different views of the beneficiaries. The NHB then wrote to the lawyers of the executors to clarify the matter.
A day later, Mr Lee Hsien Yang told NHB 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.
"But this response still left open the question of whether there were other beneficiaries and whether their consent had been sought for the donation of the items to NHB," he said.
He added that Deputy Prime Minister Teo Chee Hean, who was handling the dealings between NHB and the executors on the deed of gift, was concerned about displaying only part of the demolition clause, which did not fully reflect the late Mr Lee's wishes.
"He felt that NHB as a public institution, should remain neutral, and should not be drawn into a private disagreement, or be used to present a particular point of view which was incomplete," Mr Wong said.
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".
On June 25, PM Lee told Mr Wong he had written to his siblings in his capacity as beneficiary, to say he would not object to the exhibition as he did not want to put NHB in a difficult position.
NHB was thus able to proceed with the exhibition.
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 by the executors in the deed, and her law firm Morgan Lewis Stamford LLC helped in the process of finalising the deed, he said.
Mr Wong also reiterated that the deed of gift was shown to PM Lee in his official capacity.
Responding to Non-Constituency MP Daniel Goh, he said that even if Mr Lee had asked for the deed in his private capacity, he would have been entitled to it as eldest son and beneficiary of the estate.
"Despite his personal reservations over how the artefacts were conveyed to NHB by the executors in the deed of gift, the Prime Minister did not instruct me to stop the display of the Oxley Road artefacts in the exhibition," said Mr Wong.
"Instead, he asked me to take instructions from DPM Teo on the matter. So contrary to this being an abuse of power, the matter was handled correctly and above board."