Court dismisses application by Lee Kuan Yew’s estate over ‘sensitive’ oral history transcripts

(Photo: Reuters)

The High Court has dismissed an application against the Singapore government made by Lee Kuan Yew’s estate, which claims that it is entitled to use and own copies of the late Lee’s oral history transcripts from the early 1980s.

According to a Straits Times report, the court said on Wednesday (28 September) that the right to grant permission for access, copies and use of the transcripts was personal to him and that it was not Lee’s intention “for his estate to have free use or custody of the transcripts”.

The court said the transcripts were covered by the Official Secrets Act and that government authorisation would be required in order to access, copy or use them. Lee’s emphasis on the political sensitivity of the material and the need to safeguard its confidentiality was also noted by the court.

Signed agreement

Produced as a part of a government project in the early 1980s, the transcripts contain accounts of state affairs as observed and experienced by Lee, who was Singapore’s Prime Minister at the time.

A “two key” system had been put in place to control usage of the material. This entailed Lee retaining the copyright to the material, while the government would be in physical possession of the tape recordings and transcripts.

Lee also signed an agreement with the Cabinet Secretary and Director of Archives in 1983, which specified that the transcripts would be kept in the Cabinet Secretary’s custody until the year 2000 or five years after Lee’s death – whichever is later – following which the government could choose to hand the material over to the Director of Archives.

No person would have access to, supply copies of or be able to use the material during the moratorium period without Lee’s express written permission. 

The court said that while Lee’s estate does hold copyright to the transcripts, this was “only for the purpose of ensuring the government’s compliance with the terms” of the agreement Lee had signed.

Lee, who was Singapore’s founding Prime Minister, died on 23 March 2015 at the age of 91. His two younger children, Lee Hsien Yang and Dr Lee Wei Ling, are the executors of the the late Lee’s estate and filed the application in September 2015 to clarify their father’s agreement regarding the transcripts.