Mok Kah Hong v Zheng Zhuan Yao

CourtCourt of Three Judges (Singapore)
JudgeSundaresh Menon CJ
Judgment Date04 February 2016
Neutral Citation[2016] SGCA 8
Citation[2016] SGCA 8
SubjectPrinciples,Contempt of Court,Court's powers,Sentencing,Criminal and non-criminal contempt distinguished,Civil contempt
Publication Date10 March 2016
Plaintiff CounselBernice Loo Ming Nee and Sarah-Anne Khoo Seok Leng (Allen & Gledhill LLP)
Defendant CounselRagbir Singh s/o Ram Singh Bajwa (Bajwa & Co)
Docket NumberCivil Appeal No 177 of 2013 (Summons No 240 of 2015) Sundaresh Menon CJ, Andrew Phang Boon Leong JA and Steven Chong J
Date04 February 2016
Steven Chong J (delivering the judgment of the court): Introduction

The family justice regime in Singapore rests on the power of the court to achieve a just and equitable division of matrimonial assets upon the breakdown of a marriage. This objective, however, cannot be equitably achieved if parties are allowed to conceal assets and act in wilful disobedience of judgments or orders of the court. The former is generally addressed by way of drawing adverse inferences in the exercise of the court’s power to divide matrimonial assets. The latter falls to be dealt with by the law of contempt, where contemnors may be committed to prison or fined for failing to comply with judgments or orders of the court. Regrettably, this was an unfortunate case involving both elements, where the husband had concealed assets and had embarked on a course of conduct in wilful defiance of several judgments and orders made by the court.

At the hearing of the substantive appeal, we agreed with the High Court Judge (“the Judge”) that an adverse inference ought to be drawn against the husband for the wholly unsatisfactory manner in which he had disclosed his assets in the course of the matrimonial proceedings. We applied an uplift of 40% to the known value of the husband’s assets and awarded the wife a share of 35% of the gross value of the husband’s assets (ie, after the application of the uplift). We also affirmed in full the Judge’s orders as regards the lump sum maintenance that the husband had been ordered to pay the wife. The husband failed to comply with our orders and the wife applied for the husband to be committed to prison for his contempt of court. After a series of applications which culminated in the committal proceedings, we held the husband in contempt and sentenced him to eight months’ imprisonment, suspended for a period of four weeks to enable the husband to effect compliance with the order. Even then, the husband failed to comply and he has since commenced his term of imprisonment on 9 October 2015. We now set out the reasons for our decision at each stage of the committal proceedings, from the wife’s application for the insertion of a penal notice against the husband up to the sentencing of the husband after holding him in contempt of court.

The facts The marriage

The parties were married on 25 July 1983. They have a son, Mr Tay Daxian, who is now 24 years old. Throughout the marriage, the husband was the sole breadwinner, while the wife was the homemaker. She was primarily responsible for raising the son and she managed the household with the aid of domestic helpers.

The husband has had a mistress, Madam Pok Poh Choo (“Mdm Pok”), since 1989. He has two children by Mdm Pok and he successfully kept this secret from the wife and the son for many years.

The husband first wrote to the wife on 22 August 2008 through his solicitors, proposing a divorce on account of the irretrievable breakdown of their relationship. This was followed by another letter dated 30 December 2009, also through his solicitors, stating that he intended to commence divorce proceedings.

The divesting of assets

The husband eventually commenced divorce proceedings on 26 February 2010. At that point in time, in anticipation of the inevitable divorce, the husband engaged in a course of conduct to divest himself of his assets. These findings are detailed in the judgment of the High Court dealing with the ancillary matters of the divorce (see Zheng Zhuan Yao v Mok Kah Hong [2014] SGHC 84 (“the Judgment”)). For present purposes, we will provide a brief summary of the facts that are relevant to the contempt proceedings before us.

The husband owned, inter alia, a property at Stevens Court (“the Stevens Court property”), a freehold development located along Stevens Road. It appears from the evidence that the parties had lived at the Stevens Court property with their son from around 1994 onwards. Therefore, although the husband had maintained throughout the course of the matrimonial proceedings that the Stevens Court property was a gift from his father, it could not be seriously disputed that it was in fact a matrimonial asset pursuant to s 112(10) of the Women’s Charter (Cap 353, 2009 Rev Ed). On 19 January 2010, the husband mortgaged the Stevens Court property to the Oversea-Chinese Banking Corporation Limited (“OCBC Bank”) without informing the wife. This was about one month prior to the husband’s filing for a divorce. Prior to this, the Stevens Court property appeared to be unencumbered.

On or about 21 January 2010, the husband allegedly pledged his 1m shares in First Grade Agency Pte Ltd (“First Grade”), a company he was a director of, to his father’s sister, Madam Tay Ban Geok (“Mdm Tay”) in return for a loan of S$1m. This occurred only two days after the husband had mortgaged the Stevens Court property. The husband claimed that the proceeds from the loan had been used to pay off his business debts. No documentary evidence was, however, adduced by the husband in support of such an assertion.

On 11 June 2010, which was after the commencement of divorce proceedings, the husband transferred his 3m shares in Tay Aik Leng Holding Investment Pte Ltd (“Tay Aik Leng”) to his father, Mr Tay Jui Chuan (“Mr Tay”). According to the certificate of stamp duty, the transfer was made for a consideration of S$3m. The husband, however, claimed that he did not receive any consideration for the transfer and that the form was merely filled up as a formality. He alleged that he was only holding the shares in Tay Aik Leng as a nominee of his father, Mr Tay.

This was followed by a transfer of his 1m shares in Inhil Investment Pte Ltd (“Inhil”) to his father’s brother, Mr Teh Jui Kern (“Mr Teh”), on 1 September 2010. With reference to a consolidated summary of share transfers adduced by the husband, the transfer was made for a nominal consideration of S$1. As with the case in Tay Aik Leng, the husband maintained that he was only a mere nominee of the Inhil shares.

The injunction

On 15 September 2010, the wife obtained an injunction against the husband from dissipating, disposing and/or dealing with, in any way, the Stevens Court property and the husband’s shareholdings in various companies, including First Grade, Tay Aik Leng and Inhil. The husband, subsequently, in breach of the injunction, further mortgaged the Stevens Court property surreptitiously. This was only revealed when the husband produced a printout at a hearing before the Judge on 4 September 2013, wherein it was reflected that there was an additional mortgage loan account which was not reflected in his earlier affidavit.

The proceedings before the High Court

The dispute concerning the division of matrimonial assets and maintenance came before the Judge, who delivered his oral judgment with brief reasons on 28 November 2013. The written grounds of decision (ie, the Judgment) were thereafter released on 29 April 2014.

The Judge made a number of adverse findings as regards the husband’s conduct in divesting himself of his assets. First, in relation to the Stevens Court property, the Judge observed that the husband had obtained a further mortgage in breach of the court injunction. The Judge also rejected the husband’s claim that he had used the loan proceeds to pay off his business debts. It was observed that the husband was unable to adduce any documentary evidence of the purported losses or transactions entered into by the company. Apart from his self-serving bare allegations, the husband also gave contradictory accounts under cross-examination and in his various affidavits regarding the use of the loan proceeds and the quantum of the losses suffered from his business venture. The Judge also observed that the initial mortgage with OCBC Bank was “rather conspicuously registered” on 28 January 2010 (at [22]), which was just within a month before the husband commenced divorce proceedings on 26 February 2010 and within a month after he had expressed his intention to seek a divorce in the letter dated 30 December 2009. Accordingly, the Judge drew an adverse inference against the husband and found that the OCBC Bank mortgages were not bona fide liabilities. They were therefore to be excluded in determining the value of the Stevens Court property.

In relation to the husband’s pledging of his 1m shares in First Grade, the Judge found the husband’s evidence that the loan proceeds (amounting to S$1m) were allegedly used to pay off his business debts was “far from clear or convincing” (at [40]). The husband constantly vacillated between the position that the pledge was for a loan already disbursed to him and that the cash advances from Mdm Tay and/or First Grade to him (or his creditors) were disbursements out of the S$1m loan. In addition, the Judge also observed that the pledge was “rather conspicuously executed just a month prior to the [husband]’s filing for a divorce” (at [40]). In summary, the Judge found that the pledge was not genuine and had been fabricated for the purposes of the matrimonial proceedings.

As regards the husband’s claim that he did not receive any consideration for the transfer of his 3m shares in Tay Aik Leng to Mr Tay (ie, his father), the Judge observed that the husband had given different explanations to account for the transfer. The Judge acknowledged that the husband’s vacillations cast “a long shadow of doubt” on his evidence that he was merely a nominee of the shares in Tay Aik Leng for his father (at [47]). After finding that the shares did form part of the pool of matrimonial assets, the Judge rejected the husband’s claim that he was only a nominee shareholder and proceeded to attribute a value of S$3m (ie, the stated consideration on the share transfer form) to the shares.

In relation to the husband’s transfer of his 1m shares in Inhil to Mr Teh (ie, his father’s brother), the Judge found that the shares had been placed in the...

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