Ang Thean Soon v Swee Kow Kuan Temple

CourtMagistrates' Court (Singapore)
JudgeSeah Chi Ling
Judgment Date29 July 2015
Neutral Citation[2015] SGMC 26
Citation[2015] SGMC 26
Docket NumberMC 31681/2012
Hearing Date04 March 2015,15 April 2015,01 April 2015,12 June 2015,23 January 2015,03 March 2015
Plaintiff CounselMs Kang Yi Xian and Ms Gooi Chi Duan [M/s Donaldson & Burkinshaw LLP] - Plaintiff
Defendant CounselMr Abraham Teo [Abraham Teo & Co] - Defendant
Subject MatterContract,Remedies,Declaration,Damages,Debt Claim - Jurisdiction of Magistrate's Court,Authority - Consideration,Practical benefits - Contractual terms - Interpretation
Published date22 August 2015
District Judge Seah Chi Ling: Introduction

When the Management Committee (the “MC”) of a temple issues a letter to the temple’s caretaker, who has lived at the temple premises for the last 30 years, promising him a monthly allowance if he leaves his abode at the temple, knowing that the caretaker would not voluntarily leave otherwise, and the caretaker leaves on the faith of such assurance, should the MC then be allowed to go back on its words? Stripped of all peripheral facts, this is the central issue raised in the present action.


The Defendants are a registered society operating the Swee Kow Kuan Temple (the “Temple”), presently located at 46 Ang Mo Kio Street 61, Singapore 569161 (the “temple premises”). The temple premises were built in or about 1980, on a 30-year lease of land from the Housing and Development Board (“HDB”).

The Plaintiff is 78-years of age. He was the former attendant and caretaker of the Temple. The Plaintiff performed this role for more than 30 years, from around 1978 to September 2011, when he vacated the premises under the circumstances described below.

Since about 1985, the Plaintiff and his wife had been residing at the temple premises. The Plaintiff used various rooms on the first floor of the temple premises as his living quarters and family residence. He used the temple’s address as his and his family’s NRIC address. The Plaintiff did not pay any rent to the Temple.

On or about 12 January 2011, the lease for the temple premises was renewed by HDB for another 30 years, subject to the terms and conditions that the temple premises shall be used “as a Chinese temple [and not] for any other purposes” (the “HDB Covenant”).

From about May 2011, various members of the MC – including, the Chairman of the MC, Mr Ang Ka San (“DW4” or the “Chairman”), and the Temple’s adviser Mr Ang Kian Teck (“DW2”) – started approaching the Plaintiff, requesting that he and his wife move out of the temple premises. The MC claimed that the Plaintiff’s wife and sons had carried out preparations for their “Kway Chap” business at the temple premises. 2 refrigerators, 3 washing machines and the kitchen area on the ground floor of the premises were allegedly used for this purpose.

When the Plaintiff refused on several occasions to vacate the premises, on 5 July 2011, the Defendants, through their lawyers, served on the Plaintiff a Notice to Vacate by 31 July 2011. The Plaintiff denied receiving the letter, and did not vacate the temple premises on 31 July 2011.

Plaintiff’s departure from the Temple premises

The Plaintiff did eventually vacate the temple premises on 7 September 2011, after the Plaintiff, the Chairman and DW2 signed a letter agreement in Chinese.

The full text of the English translation of the letter agreement (the “Agreement”) signed by the parties is as follows:

“On account of the old age and poor health condition of the caretaker of this temple, Mr ANG THEAN SOO, the committee of this temple had a meeting and agreed to the retirement of Mr. Ang, however the committee hoped that Mr. Ang could come back to the temple to assist in the handling of temple affairs and contact of devotees whenever his health condition permits, so that the affairs of this temple could continue to advance and a large number of devotees could be attracted.

In consideration of Mr. Ang’s contribution and devotion to this temple in the past 30 years, the committee members agreed to pay him a monthly allowance of $1500.

Mr. Ang Thean Soo also hoped that the committee would consent to his moving out of this temple on 07 September 2011 (the tenth day of the eighth month of the lunar calendar) in order to go home for a reunion with his family.

We hereby express our heartfelt gratitude to Mr. Ang and his family, and wish him good health and peace in the years ahead.

(signature affixed)

(signature affixed)

Mr. Ang Ka San

Mr. Ang Thean Soo

Chairman of Swee Kow Kuan Temple

Temple Caretaker

(signature affixed).

Mr. Ang Kian Teck

Advisor of Temple Affairs”

[Emphasis added]

I should note that the Plaintiff and Defendants had each procured their own English translations of the Agreement from private translators. The 2 translations differed in material respects. The English version of the Agreement reproduced above was based on the Defendants’ translation. Having heard the testimonies of both translators, it was clear to me that the Plaintiff’s translator (“PW3”) did not attempt a literal translation of the document. On key terms, she had tried to guess the drafter’s intended meaning of certain key Chinese words, by rationalizing them with terms appearing in other parts of the document. It is a fundamental principal of construction of contracts that the words of the contract must be construed as they stand (see paragraph 60 below). Questions of interpretation should be reserved to the court. Translators ought, as nearly as possible, translate non-English documents literally, which was the approach adopted by the Defendant’s interpreter (“DW3”)i, an ex-court interpreter. I therefore preferred and adopted the Defendants' interpreter’s translation of the Agreement for the purposes of the present proceedings.

Circumstances leading to the signing of the Agreement

The circumstances leading to the signing of the Agreement were not in dispute: Following the Plaintiff’s refusal to vacate, the MC held a committee meeting to discuss how to negotiate with the Plaintiff to persuade him to vacate the temple premises. The MC appointed and authorised the Chairman and DW2 to negotiate with the Plaintiff, and thereafter, to sign the Agreement with the Plaintiff. The Chairman and DW2 in turn instructed the Temple’s consultant, one Ang Chee Yam, to draft the Agreement. After the Agreement was drafted, Ang Chee Yam showed and discussed the draft with the Chairman. The Chairman then instructed Ang Chee Yam to bring the document to the Plaintiff for his signature. The document was eventually executed by the Plaintiff, the Chairman and DW2, and affixed with the Temple’s seal. After the Agreement was signed between parties, the Plaintiff moved out of the Temple premises on 7 September 2011. The Defendants on their part paid the Plaintiff the monthly sum of S$1,500 from September 2011 to January 2012, totalling S$7,500. Thereafter, the monthly payments were stopped.

While the circumstances leading to the execution of the Agreement were not disputed, the legal effect of the Agreement was.

Plaintiff’s case

The Plaintiff’s pleaded case was that the Agreement contained a valid and binding agreement between the parties, with the following terms: In view of the Plaintiff’s 30 years of dedicated service to the Temple, the Temple would pay a monthly allowance of $1,500 to the Plaintiff; The monthly allowance would be payable to the Plaintiff for as long as he shall live; and The Plaintiff and his family would cease to reside in the Temple from 7 September 2011 onwards.

The Plaintiff argued that the he provided consideration for the Agreement by retiring and vacating from the Temple’s premises. This constituted a practical benefit to the Defendants, and provided the requisite consideration to support the Agreement.

Defendants’ case

The Defendants, on the other hand, contended as follows: The Agreement was not enforceable as it was not supported by consideration. Alternatively, the Agreement was invalid and unenforceable as it was not approved or ratified by the MC, and was further unconstitutional under the Temple’s Rules of Association. Alternatively, if the agreement was valid and binding, the terms of the agreement were as follows: The document was only a “letter of appreciation”, and the sums of $1,500 were ex gratia payments made out of good will, at the Defendants’ sole and absolute discretion. The Defendants would only continue to give the Plaintiff the monthly sum during his period of recuperation, which they envisaged to be 2 to 3 months. Subsequent to the Plaintiff’s recovery, he would be entitled to the monthly allowance of $1,500 only if he returned to the Temple to further assist and advance the affairs of the company. As the Plaintiff did not return to work at the Temple after recuperating from his illness, the Defendants was not obligated to continue payment.

The Action

The Plaintiff sought the following reliefs in this action: A declaration that the Agreement is valid and binding on the Defendants (the “Declaratory Order”). Payment of the sum of S$15,000 outstanding under the Agreement as at the date of the writ (the “Debt Claim”). Further or in the alternative, damages for breach of the Agreement.

The Defendant originally brought a counterclaim for, inter alia, a declaration that the Agreement is “invalid, non-binding and legally unenforceable”, a refund of all monies paid to the Plaintiff under the Agreement, an account of all water and electricity utility bills incurred by the Plaintiff and/ or his family since the time they resided at the Temple premises, an inquiry as to damages to be assessed and an order for payment by the Plaintiff of the damages assessed including his apportioned share of water and electricity bills. On the 1st day of trial, the Defendants withdrew their counterclaim. No further mention will be made of the Defendants’ counterclaim in this judgement

My decision

At the end of the trial, I found as follows: This court did not have the jurisdiction to grant the Declaratory Order sought by the Plaintiff. The action was commenced as a Magistrate’s Court Suit. Without a definitive payment end date, the aggregate amounts payable under the Agreement was likely to exceed $60,000, the Magistrate’s Court’s monetary limit. The...

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