Canadian Imperial Investment Pte Ltd v Pacific Century Regional Developments Limited

CourtHigh Court (Singapore)
JudgeLai Kew Chai J
Judgment Date18 September 2000
Neutral Citation[2000] SGHC 189
Citation[2000] SGHC 189
Plaintiff CounselDavinder Singh SC, Hri Kumar and Siraj Omar (Drew & Napier)
Subject MatterBreach,Contractual terms,Whether evidence of factual matrix and mutual understanding of parties admissible in interpreting written contract,Whether damages to be assessed at time of breach or date of judgment,Time of assessment of damages,Factual matrix,Contract
Defendant CounselK Shanmugam SC, Edwin Tong and Prakash Pillai (Allen & Gledhill)
Published date19 September 2003
Docket NumberSuit No 1091 of 1999
Date18 September 2000

: This is a trial of a claim for massive damages for an alleged breach of a `tag along` clause in a joint venture agreement.


The plaintiffs claim substantial damages against the defendants for breach of a shareholders` agreement (`the agreement`) made between them on 31 January 1997.

By the agreement the plaintiffs entered into a joint venture agreement with the defendants. Under it, a joint venture company called Quinliven Pte Ltd (`Quinliven`) was incorporated with the purpose of participating in the development of a massive underground car-park in Shanghai, People`s Republic of China. The plaintiffs owned 25% of the shares in Quinliven. As for the defendants, until 3 August 1999, they owned the remaining 75%. The directors of Quinliven included directors from the plaintiffs and the defendants.

Clause 11(E) of the agreement is hotly contested. It provides:

11 Transfer of shares


(E) If PCRD receives from a third party an offer to acquire its shares (together with the related Shareholder`s loans) and such offer when accepted would result in PCRD holding less than 51 per cent of the issued capital of the Company, before accepting such an offer (the `first offer`) it shall forthwith inform OFPL of the terms and conditions of the first offer and it shall procure for OFPL an offer for an equivalent proportion of the Shares held by OFPL (together with the related Shareholder`s loans) on the same terms and conditions as those contained in the first offer so that after OFPL`s acceptance of the offer, the ratio of OFPL`s shareholding in the Company to PCRD`s shareholding in the Company shall always be 1:3.

The other controversial term of the agreement is cl 11(A)(i). I will set it out later.

Sometime in 1997, the defendants and their parent company Pacific Century Group Holdings Ltd (`PCG`), embarked on a series of transactions which involved the transfer of all of their property within the People`s Republic of China including Hong Kong to Newco (`later named as PCCW Properties Ltd`), a company incorporated in the British Virgin Islands. This included a transfer of all of the defendants` shares in Quinliven to Newco. In return, the defendants and PCG received shares in Newco, the aggregate total being 100% of the shareholding in Newco. Thereafter, Tricom Holdings Ltd (`Tricom`), presently known as Pacific Century CyberWorks Ltd, acquired all of Newco`s shares from the defendants and PCG. In return, the defendants and PCG received shares and convertible bonds of Tricom. These various transactions (`the Tricom transaction`) were the result of an agreement made between the defendants, PCG, Tricom and Star Telecom International Holding Ltd. The Acquisition Agreement was dated 30 April 1999.

The consequences of these transactions were as follows:

(1) almost all of the defendants` assets and interests in the People`s Republic of China including Hong Kong are now held through Tricom;

(2) Tricom is a subsidiary of the defendants; and

(3) Quinliven remains a subsidiary of the defendants.

The flowchart below depicts the consequences:

The claims

The plaintiffs allege that the defendants have breached cl 11(E) of the agreement by failing to obtain from Tricom, an offer to purchase the plaintiffs` shares in Quinliven on the same terms and conditions as Tricom`s offer to acquire the defendants` shares in Newco (which included the shares in Quinliven). Subsequently, the price of Tricom`s shares rose and the plaintiffs were consequently deprived of the opportunity to benefit from the same by disposing of their shares in Tricom, as they would have sold their shares in Quinliven to Tricom in exchange for shares in Tricom.

In addition, the plaintiffs also claim the sum of US$1.025m, being the amount they had injected into Quinliven for the period from August 1999 to January 2000. This sum is made up of shareholder`s loans to Quinliven. The plaintiffs were obliged to extend these loans under the agreement.

The plaintiffs allege that if the defendants had in accordance with cl 11(E) obtained from Tricom an offer to acquire the plaintiffs` shares in Quinliven, then the plaintiffs would have transferred their shares in Tricom on 3 August 1999 being the date of the transfer of the defendants` shares in Quinliven (via Newco) to Tricom and consequently the plaintiffs would not have had to extend the loans after 3 August 1999.

The defence

The defendants, on the other hand, deny any breach of cl 11(E). They contend that a plain reading of the agreement clearly show that cl 11(E) did not apply, as the transfer of the defendants` shares in Quinliven was carried out pursuant to cl 11(A)(i). They also argue that the Tricom transaction did not fall within the ambit of cl 11(E).

In addition, the defendants dispute the plaintiffs` calculation of the quantum of damages in the event the defendants are found to have breached cl 11(E).

As for the plaintiffs` second claim regarding the US$1.025m, the defendants were silent on this in the event they were held liable for having breached cl 11(E). They do not deny the plaintiffs` entitlement to a refund of US$1.025m.

The issues

The issues in this case are:

(1) whether, on or by 30 April 1999, the defendants had received an offer from a third party for their shares in Quinliven which, when accepted, would result in the defendants holding less than 51% of the issued share capital of Quinliven; and

(2) if the answer to (1) is `yes`, what damages are the plaintiffs entitled to.

An offer within cl 11(E)?

Both parties agree that the interpretation of cl 11(E) would entail a consideration of the background or factual matrix. The defendants, however, disagree with the plaintiffs as regards the evidence the latter sought to admit under the phrase `factual matrix`.

The legal basis for the admission of evidence of the `factual matrix` in the interpretation of written contracts is found in the House of Lords` decision in Investors Compensation Scheme Ltd v West Bromwich Building Society (`the ICC case`) [1998] 1 All ER 98. Lord Hoffman, whose judgment was adopted by three other Law Lords who together constituted the majority, set down the following principles of interpreting contractual documents:

(1) Interpretation is the ascertainment of the meaning which the document would convey to a reasonable person having all the background knowledge which would reasonably have been available to the parties in the situation in which they were at the time of the contract.

(2) The background was famously referred to by Lord Wilberforce as the `matrix of fact`, but this phrase is, if anything, an understated description of what the background may include. Subject to the requirement that it should have been reasonably available to the parties and to the exception to be mentioned next, it includes absolutely anything which would have affected the way in which the language of the document would have been understood by a reasonable man.

(3) The law excludes from the admissible background the previous negotiations of the parties and their declarations of subjective intent. They are admissible only in an action for rectification ...

(4) The meaning which the document (or any other utterance) would convey to a reasonable man is not the same thing as the meaning of its words. The meaning of words is a matter of dictionaries and grammars; the meaning of the document is what the parties using those words against the relevant background would reasonably have been understood to mean. The background may not merely enable the reasonable man to choose between the possible meanings of words which are ambiguous but even (as occasionally happens in ordinary life) to conclude that the parties must, for whatever reason, have used the wrong words or syntax (see Mannai Investment Co Ltd v Eagle Star Life Assurance Ltd [1997] 3 All ER 352[1997] 2 WLR 945.

(5) The `rule` that words should be given their `natural and ordinary meaning` reflects the commonsense proposition that we do not easily accept that people have made linguistic mistakes, particularly in formal documents. On the other hand, if one would nevertheless conclude from the background that something must have gone wrong with the language, the law does not require judges to attribute to the parties an intention which they plainly could not have had.

The plaintiffs seek to admit the evidence of Dr Steven Funk (`PW1`) a director of the plaintiffs, who was their representative in the discussion with Mr Patrick Cheung (`Cheung`) the defendants` representative, on the terms of the agreement and, in particular, how cl 11(E) came about. The plaintiffs argue that PW1`s evidence would greatly assist the court in the interpretation of cl 11(E) in its proper context. The plaintiffs contend that PW1`s evidence would reveal the mutual understanding of both parties as regards the intent of cl 11(E); the present cl 11(E) being the product of much discussion and negotiations between PW1 and Cheung.

The defendants, on the other hand, argue that PW1`s evidence of what Cheung had allegedly said is hearsay evidence and therefore inadmissible. Furthermore, PW1`s evidence on the intent of cl 11(E) was merely PW1`s subjective intention and hence irrelevant.

In applying the highly persuasive decision of the House of Lords in the ICC case to the present case and in particular principles (2) and (3), other than previous negotiations of the parties and PW1`s subjective intent of the rationale of cl 11(E), any evidence which `would have affected the way in which the language of the document would have been understood by a reasonable man` would thus be admissible as evidence. Accordingly, PW1`s oral and affidavit evidence of the mutual understanding which led to the insertion of cl 11(E) constitute admissible evidence. The remaining portions of PW1`s evidence regarding the negotiations of the parties are, using the same line of...

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