SINGAPORE: The Court of Appeal has reserved judgement on the rights and access to interview transcripts of the late Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew after lawyers representing both the Government and the estate made their arguments on Monday (Apr 10).
Senior Counsel (SC) Lee Eng Beng said on Monday the estate of the late Prime Minister should be allowed to “step into his shoes” to exercise “all rights”, including the right of publication, relating to transcripts of a series of interviews he gave to the Government’s Oral History Department in the early 1980s.
SC Lee is acting on behalf of daughter Dr Lee Wei Ling and son Mr Lee Hsien Yang – executors of their father’s estate – who have sued the Government for rights and access to the transcripts, which contain some “politically sensitive” material.
But State Counsel Hui Choon Kuen said it was “clearly never (Mr Lee’s) intent that upon his death, his estate would wield the same rights as he did”.
SC Hui pointed to an Interview Agreement inked to give Mr Lee “personal control over its access and use during his lifetime, and by the introduction of a period of moratorium to allow the passage of time to diminish the political sensitivity of his comments”. It was agreed Mr Lee would retain copyright until the year 2000 or until five years after his death, whichever is later.
“Given the personal control (Mr Lee) wanted to have over his politically sensitive transcripts, it is inconceivable that the intent was for his estate … to be able to grant permission for access, use and supply of copies, and to use the transcripts freely to the same extent that he could,” SC Hui said.
He added: “He had full and personal control over access and use during his lifetime and thereafter the Government had control but limited to the purposes of research. It simply could not have been the intent that his estate would have greater control over access, use and publication than the Government.
“His right to grant permission for access, supply of copies and use is personal to him and does not devolve to his estate.”
SC Lee argued the result of the High Court’s dismissal of the estate’s claim to full rights and access has left Dr Lee and the younger Mr Lee with an “empty copyright”.
“The only utility is the negative one of preventing others from using the transcripts, but without holding … any right of access to the transcripts or supply of copies,” SC Lee said, calling the High Court’s interpretation of the contract a “tortured” one.
“It is an attempt to revise, vary or contradict the plain words of the contract,” he said.
SC Lee argued the late Mr Lee had “intended to benefit his estate” by vesting copyright in his executors – his children – for five years after his death. He also argued there is “no concern” about the divulging of state secrets, or Mr Lee’s “politically sensitive” comments, since these were protected by the Official Secrets Act.
SC Lee also said most of the interview material is “personal” in nature anyway, relating to Mr Lee’s childhood, education and family life.
According to a court document, transcripts contain “personal, unedited thoughts on many issues of great sensitivity, in the realm of foreign relations and domestic political and social issues … at the time between Jul 8, 1981, and Jul 5, 1982, on these affairs of state and matters of national interest as the sitting Prime Minister of Singapore”.