Contract Law

Citation(2004) 5 SAL Ann Rev 162
Published date01 December 2004
Date01 December 2004

9.1 As with past volumes, the task of selecting cases for review in this section was immense. Given the extremely large number of decisions which touched on contract law, it would not be feasible to comprehensively discuss all of them. Therefore, in general, decisions focusing on specialist areas of contract have not been discussed in this section as they will be better dealt with in the appropriate section elsewhere in this Annual Review. In consequence, the bulk of the cases discussed herein have been selected on the basis that they address contractual issues which are of general interest and application.

Intention to create legal relations

9.2 The trite principle that the intention to create a binding contract is determined objectively was repeatedly affirmed in numerous decisions (see, for instance, Chwee Kin Keong v Pte Ltd[2005] 1 SLR 502, Compaq Computer Asia Pte Ltd v Computer Interface (S) Pte Ltd[2004] 3 SLR 316, Chia Ee Lin Evelyn v Teh Guek Ngor Engelin[2004] 4 SLR 330 (which has been affirmed on appeal — see Teh Guek Ngor Engelin née Tan v Chia Ee Lin Evelyn[2005] 3 SLR 22), and Midlink Development Pte Ltd v The Stansfield Group Pte Ltd[2004] 4 SLR 258). The raison d”etre for the objective approach, as the Court of Appeal observed in

Chwee Kin Keong v Pte Ltd at [30], is the need to promote commercial certainty.

9.3 Where a signed document is alleged to constitute or evidence a binding contract, the parties” objective intention in relation thereto is largely determined by the construction of that document. In this connection, the interpretative difficulties associated with the phrase ‘subject to contract’ (and other similar expressions) are well known. The Court of Appeal had the occasion to consider the effect of such a phrase in Compaq Computer Asia Pte Ltd v Computer Interface (S) Pte Ltd (supra para 9.2). The appellant in this case had issued a Letter of Award (‘LOA’), which was ‘subject to final terms and conditions being agreed’, to the respondent company, with a view to appointing the latter as its subcontractor for a period of three years. The respondent commenced work after the issue of the LOA and continued to do so for a period of 18 months, whereupon the appellant sought to terminate the arrangement. The respondent claimed damages from the appellant for wrongful breach of contract and succeeded before the High Court (see [2003] SGHC 239) but the decision was reversed on appeal.

9.4 The Court of Appeal”s decision rested primarily on two interpretative observations. First, the LOA lacked certainty in that the essential terms of the alleged contract were not sufficiently addressed (at [32]). Second and more importantly, the Court of Appeal took the view that the qualifying ‘subject to’ phrase, properly construed and read together with the general text of the LOA, deprived the LOA of the qualities of completeness and finality that were characteristic of a concluded contract. Of the nature of such qualifying phrases, Chao Hick Tin JA observed (at [35]):

The authorities are almost of one view that the expression ‘subject to contract’ means that until a formal agreement is drawn and executed between the parties, there would be no binding contract between them.

9.5 Although Chao JA acknowledged (at [35]) that the issue was essentially one of construction, and that a binding contract could (notwithstanding any such qualification) arise in ‘a very strong and exceptional context’, the present case was not of such exceptional character. Here, the ‘subject to’ phrase in the LOA ought to be ascribed its plain meaning, ie, that the award was conditional upon the parties” agreement on final terms and conditions.

9.6 It is also significant to note that the Court of Appeal did not accept the contention that a binding contract ought to be found by reason only of the fact that the respondent had acted in reliance on the LOA (at [31]):

While there are authorities which show that where the parties have acted upon the faith of a written document, the court would be inclined to assume that the document embodies a firm contract, eg Sweet & Maxwell Ltd v Universal New Services Ltd[1964] 2 QB 699, this would not apply where there is contrary intention.

Such ‘contrary intention’ was present in this case as the text of the LOA appeared to have contemplated an ‘interim arrangement’ pending the conclusion of the final agreement.

9.7 It may be observed that the Court of Appeal”s reliance on a literal construction of the document has the obvious advantage of promoting certainty by ascribing a clear meaning to the family of ‘subject to’ phrases. Correspondingly, contracting parties who succumb to the pressure of rendering goods or services prior to the conclusion of contracts ought to appreciate that they do so with the dice loaded against them.

9.8 The Court of Appeal”s approach in Compaq Computer Asia Pte Ltd v Computer Interface (S) Pte Ltd may be contrasted with that of the High Court in Mohamed Bassatne v Rifaat El Gohary[2004] SGHC 63, where the parties”post-agreement conduct was found to be a relevant and important factor in determining whether an agreement was contractually binding. In this case, Lai Siu Chiu J found that a memorandum of understanding gave rise to binding contractual obligations because the plaintiffs and the defendants had at all material times conducted themselves in the belief that it was so binding. That they had so acted gave rise to an estoppel by convention (discussed at infra para 9.26), which precluded the defendants from pleading the absence of contractual intention, see also infra para 9.49 with regard to ‘Privity of contract’. Similarly, a letter of intent for the lease of a property which contemplated the execution of an ‘official lease’ (which was not eventually signed) constituted a binding tenancy as the parties had, by their conduct, acknowledged and accepted the existence of the same: Khng Thian Huat v Riduan bin Yusof[2005] 1 SLR 130. See also Econ Corp Ltd v So Say Cheong Pte Ltd[2004] SGHC 234.

Offer and acceptance

9.9 Clearly, no contract can arise where the purported acceptance is qualified or conditional: see Stuttgart Auto Pte Ltd v Ng Shwu Yong[2005] 1 SLR 92 and Compaq Computer Asia Pte Ltd v Computer Interface (S) Pte Ltd (supra para 9.2). Similarly, no inference of assent can be drawn from the exchange of draft agreements, if the said drafts contain substantial amendments to which the parties have yet to agree. That does not, however,

preclude the finding of a distinct oral contract, where the essential terms of such an oral contract are sufficiently certain, see Excel Golf Pte Ltd v Allied Domecq Spirits and Wine (Singapore) Ltd (No 2)[2004] SGHC 162 (see infra para 9.56 with regard to ‘Discharge of the contract’).

9.10 The interesting question of whether a party”s silence can constitute acceptance arose in Midlink Development Pte Ltd v The Stansfield Group Pte Ltd (supra para 9.2). The plaintiff”s property had for several years been leased to the defendant and the contractual relationship was governed by written agreements until June 2002. Although the parties had commenced negotiations on the renewal of the lease prior to that date and had agreed on a reduced rent, no written agreement was executed due solely to the defendant”s omission. However, the defendant continued to occupy the leased premises after June 2002, and made regular payments of the adjusted rent. The question arose whether the parties were bound by a two-year term lease in such circumstance. Notwithstanding the absence of a signed agreement, V K Rajah JC (as he then was) found, on the facts, that an oral contract had been formed, as the parties had agreed to all the important terms of the contract, including the term of two years. That being the case, the execution of the written lease was a mere formality and the failure to do so was inconsequential.

9.11 Although strictly unnecessary, Rajah JC responded to the defendant”s contention that its silence, ie, the non-execution of the lease agreement, was inconsistent with and precluded any inference of assent or acceptance. Rajah JC acknowledged (at [50]) the intrinsically equivocal nature of silence:

It is also hornbook law that silence per se is equivocal and does not amount to a clear representation. … Silence is a midwife that may ultimately deliver a contractual offspring that is stillborn or live. Silence and implicit acceptance are not invariably antagonistic concepts. Silence can signify affirmation at one end of the spectrum, disinterestedness or abandonment at the other end of the spectrum. It is a chameleon utterly coloured by its contextual environment.

It did not follow, however, that a party”s silence was devoid of any inferential value, as the learned judge explained (at [50]—[51]):

Silence will usually be equivocal in unilateral contracts or arrangements; in bilateral arrangements or negotiations on the other hand, there will usually never be true or perfect silence. In many such cases, while there may not be actual communication of acceptance, the parties” positive, negative or even

neutral conduct can evince rejection, acceptance or even variation of an existing offer.

To say that silence can never be unequivocal evidence of consent may be going too far: see Cheshire, Fifoot & Furmston”s Law of Contract: Second Singapore and Malaysia Edition(1998) by Professor Andrew Phang Boon Leong at 112. It is always a question of fact whether silent inactivity after an offer is made is tantamount to acceptance.

[emphasis in original]

9.12 Indeed, the learned judge was of the view (at [51]—[52]), citing relevant passages from Buckley LJ”s judgment in Spiro v Lintern[1973] 1 WLR 1002 and G Bower & A Turner, The Law Relating to Estoppel by Representation (Butterworths, 3rd Ed, 1977), that there could be instances where a party is...

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