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THE National Heritage Board (NHB) was caught in a "difficult position" when coming into an agreement with executors of the late Lee Kuan Yew's estate to receive items of significance for an exhibition, said National Development Minister Lawrence Wong.
After NHB had signed the deed of gift in June 2015, doubts were raised about the validity of the agreement. But NHB also had to prepare for the SG50 exhibition which was just two months away, said Mr Wong in his statement delivered in Parliament on Monday afternoon.
Mr Wong was responding to allegations made by Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong's younger siblings late last month. PM Lee's brother Lee Hsien Yang had questioned whether PM Lee acquired, in June 2015, the deed in his public capacity, or his private capacity.
Mr Wong had spoken out on this dispute as he was then the minister of Culture, Community and Youth, and was involved with NHB's preparations for the SG50 exhibition.
On Monday, Mr Wong elaborated on a point made by PM Lee's statement that the deed of gift was "unusual". It stated that Lee Hsien Yang and sister Lee Wei Ling reserved the right to buy back the items at S$1 so long as Lee Kuan Yew's house at 38 Oxley Road was not demolished.
They also wanted to display the wishes of the late Mr Lee's to demolish the house, but only partially.
"While the terms were unusual, NHB proceeded to sign the deed with the executors because it recognised the heritage significance of the artefacts and felt that it would be in the public interest for them to be exhibited," said Mr Wong. The signing happened on June 8, 2015.
After Mr Wong updated PM Lee on plans for the exhibition and shared a copy of the deed with him, PM Lee shared that the terms of the deed were onerous on NHB. "He told me that as a beneficiary of the estate, his consent for the donation had not been sought. The executors had not informed him of the donation, nor the terms of the donation," said Mr Wong.
As such, after consultation with NHB's chief executive officer Rosa Daniel, Mr Wong agreed that they would put off the display of the Oxley Road artefacts from the SG50 exhibition. NHB then went on to clarify with the executors, namely the siblings, on the deed.
After weighing all the factors, and considering that NHB had already signed the deed, Mr Wong, together with Deputy Prime Minister Teo Chee Hean, "agreed that the pluses of having the exhibition with the Oxley Road artefacts in accordance with the deed outweighed the potential controversy that was likely to arise."
PM Lee also subsequently informed Mr Wong that notwithstanding his position on the deed of gift, he would not object to the exhibition.
"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," said Mr Wong.
For more stories on the Lee family feud, go to bt.sg/leefeud.