Court of Appeal reserves judgement over LKY's transcripts

In his lifetime, founding prime minister Lee Kuan Yew had allowed media outlets to access selected transcripts of interviews he gave in the early 1980s for research and publication.

Lawyers for the late Mr Lee's estate argued that this proves that an agreement governing the transcripts' use and administration had not been made to preserve their confidentiality and secrecy.

They were appealing against a High Court ruling that the estate held a limited copyright over the transcripts.

The copyright only lets the estate ensure that the Government complies with the terms of the agreement signed by Mr Lee.

But the Attorney-General's Chambers (AGC), arguing on behalf of the Government, said the estate had the right only to deny others the right to publish material from the transcripts.

In essence, the case, brought by Dr Lee Wei Ling and Mr Lee Hsien Yang as executors of their father's estate, centres on whether the estate can use or make copies of the interview transcripts.

Yesterday, a three-judge panel of Chief Justice Sundaresh Menon and Judges of Appeal Andrew Phang and Chao Hick Tin heard the arguments of both parties for two hours. It decided to reserve judgment.

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.

The agreement dictates that the transcripts would be kept in the Cabinet Secretary's custody until 2000 or five years after Mr Lee's death, whichever is later.

During this 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 High Court ruled last September that Mr Lee's estate held the copyright insofar as ensuring the Government complied with the terms of the agreement.

Yesterday, Mr Lee's estate's lawyers said the Government had sought to describe the agreement signed by the late Mr Lee as one to "protect secrecy".

But the late Mr Lee's actions to make the transcripts available to media outlets showed the opposite, they argued.

He did not have to be concerned with his estate "freely giving out" state secrets as the information would be bound by the Official Secrets Act, said lawyer Lee Eng Beng.

But Justice Phang noted during yesterday's hearing that doing so would ignore the reality that Mr Lee was also prime minister and would have discussed affairs of state in these transcripts.

He added that Mr Lee was quite different from an ordinary private citizen, and any agreement signed would likely have taken this into account.

The AGC reiterated its argument that Mr Lee's rights to grant access to, supply copies of and use of the transcripts was vested in him alone.

It added that his estate could deny others the right to publish the material. If Mr Lee's estate wanted to make copies of or use the transcripts, they would need authorisation from the Government under the Official Secrets Act, the AGC said.

This article was first published on April 11, 2017.
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