SINGAPORE: Minister for National Development Lawrence Wong said on Tuesday (Jul 4) that the National Heritage Board (NHB) viewed Mrs Lee Suet Fern, wife of Mr Lee Hsien Yang and a director on NHB's board in 2015, as “an intermediary to reach a satisfactory outcome with the executors” during the discussions on the Deed of Gift involving artefacts from 38 Oxley Road.
He was responding to questions raised on Monday by several MPs in Parliament over the involvement of Mrs Lee during the discussion between NHB and the executors. Many MPs, including Chua Chu Kang GRC MP Zaqy Mohamad, Nee Soon GRC Lee Bee Wah and Jurong GRC MP Rahayu Mahzam, questioned the “potential conflict of interest” in the involvement of Mrs Lee.
Mr Wong was the Minister for Culture, Community and Youth when the Deed of Gift was issued in 2015 between executors of the estate of the late Mr Lee Kuan Yew and NHB. The deed involved a donation of 38 Oxley Road artefacts to an SG50 exhibition about Singapore’s founding leaders.
According to Mr Wong, the NHB did not approach Mrs Lee. It was Mrs Lee who had reached out to NHB “to assist in the negotiations”.
“NHB thought that at that time as a board member, she could be useful as an intermediary to reach a satisfactory outcome with the executors,” he said. "And indeed, she helped to raise some of NHB’s concerns with them."
However, after “more extensive discussions with the executors to resolve the legal issues”, NHB’s chairman approached Mrs Lee on Jun 12 to request for her to “recuse herself on matters concerning the deed, which she did”.
Mr Wong also clarified the conditions in the deed, which some MPs have described as “strange".
One of these was the requirement for NHB to display only the first part of the demolition clause in Mr Lee Kuan Yew’s will, which sets out his wish to demolish the house, but not the second - which sets out his wishes if the house could not be demolished due to any changes in the law, rules or regulations. The other was the right to buy back the donated items at S$1 as long as the house was not demolished.
Mr Wong noted that throughout the process of negotiations, the executors stood firm on these clauses, with the S$1 buyback provision being “non-negotiable”. Given the executors’ position, NHB was left with two choices which was to “sign the deed on the stipulated terms or do without the artefacts completely”, said Mr Wong.
Mr Wong then shared a copy of the deed with Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, who felt that the terms of it were onerous on the NHB. “He told me that as a beneficiary of the estate, his consent for the donation had not been sought,” Mr Wong revealed during his Monday speech in Parliament.
On that, he said: “We see all of these now with the benefit of hindsight but it’s important to recognise that at that time, no one realised that there were these sharp differences of views between the beneficiaries.”
But the signing of the deed was “not a rash decision” by the NHB, which did so based on several considerations.
“First, (the) artefacts had heritage significance. Second, several objects were in a deteriorated condition and required immediate care and conservation. Third, all things considered, NHB felt it would be in public interest to exhibit these artefacts in the major SG50 exhibition,” he explained.
In response to a clarification from Nominated MP Chia Yong Yong on why the relationship of Mrs Lee with the executors, which was a “conflict red flag”, was not highlighted earlier and what could be done to prevent this from happening in future, Mr Wong said: “On the benefit of hindsight, some of these roles ought to have been better clarified and NHB has indeed strengthened its own processes internally to make sure that conflict rules are observed within the board.”
PUBLIC PARTICIPATION NOT PRECLUDED: WONG
Touching on the assessment process that is taken to decide whether a property or site should be conserved or preserved, Mr Wong noted the suggestions from several MPs for more participatory processes to engage and involve the public.
Mr Wong had on Monday said that the Oxley Road family home of founding Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew is a property with architectural or heritage merit, and should follow the due process of conservation or preservation.
Regarding the involvement and engagement of the public, Mr Wong said the Government does not “preclude” that, but decisions on whether to conserve or preserve a building should not end up being made “solely based on a public referendum”.
“After the publication of Hard Truths, it appeared that a majority of Singaporeans wanted the house preserved. After Mr Lee Kuan Yew’s passing, surveys indicate the majority want the house to be demolished. Nothing has changed with the house… but the opinions have shifted,” said Mr Wong, adding that public emotions can shift depending on circumstances and emotions.
“So I’m not saying we shouldn’t consult but architectural and heritage merits are careful and rigorous assessments that ought to be done by professionals and subject matter experts.
"For Oxley Road, this research work is ongoing among various agencies and the work as we've discussed is being overseen by the ministerial committee, which will ensure that the due dilligence work done is comprehensive and rigorous,” he added.