Quek Hung Heong v Tan Bee Hoon (executrix for estate of Quek Cher Choi, deceased) and others and another suit

CourtHigh Court (Singapore)
JudgeVinodh Coomaraswamy JC (as he then was)
Judgment Date27 January 2014
Neutral Citation[2014] SGHC 17
Citation[2014] SGHC 17
Docket NumberSuit No 722 of 2011 consolidated with Suit No 24 of 2012
Publication Date03 February 2014
Plaintiff CounselMr Burton Chen, Mr Han Kee Fong and Ms Millie Yeo (Tan Rajah & Cheah LLP)
Defendant CounselMr Hee Theng Fong and Ms Clare Lin (RHTLaw Taylor Wessing LLP),Mr Johnson Loo (Drew & Napier LLC)
SubjectTrusts,Resulting trusts,Presumed resulting trusts,Constructive trusts,Equity,Estoppel,Proprietary estoppel,Defences,Laches
Vinodh Coomaraswamy J: Introduction

8A Coronation Road, Singapore 269412 (“the Property”) is just over 1,000 square metres1 of freehold land off Bukit Timah Road. In consideration of the sum of $66,000,2 the Singapore Trading Co Ltd as vendor conveyed the Property together with the new two-storey bungalow erected upon it to all five members of one family on 7 October 1966.3 They took the conveyance of the Property as tenants in common in equal shares. They have held the Property in that manner without interruption for over 47 years.4

The plaintiff, now 72 years old, is the youngest child of that family. The other four members of that family are:5 Quek Cher Choi, the father of the family (“the father”). He died on 8 November 1981.6 Heng Sai Kee, the mother of the family (“the mother”). She died on 20 November 1986.7 Kwek Hann Song, the plaintiff’s older brother (“the brother”). He died on 7 January 2006.8 Quek Yang Eng, the plaintiff’s older sister (“the sister”). She is now 77 years old.

In the consolidated actions before me, the plaintiff lays claim to the entire beneficial interest in the Property. He claims it by reason of a resulting trust, alternatively a constructive trust, alternatively a proprietary estoppel in his favour. He therefore seeks to compel each of the other four members of his family (or their estates) to transfer to him what he says is their bare legal interest in the Property.

For the reasons given below, I dismiss the plaintiff’s action with costs. In summary, I find that the plaintiff has failed to establish the factual elements necessary for his claim on any one of the three legal bases on which it is put.

The sister consents to judgment

The consolidated actions before me comprise Suit 722 of 2011 (“S722”) and Suit 24 of 2012 (“S24”). The plaintiff commenced S722 on 14 October 2011. The three defendants in S722 are the father’s estate, the brother’s estate and the sister. The plaintiff commenced S24 on 11 January 2012. The sole defendant in S24 is the mother’s estate. S722 and S24 were consolidated by an order of court dated 26 March 2012.

The sister did not contest the plaintiff’s claim. On 24 November 2012, a few weeks after S722 was commenced, she consented to the plaintiff entering judgment against her. That consent judgment declares that she holds her one-fifth interest in the Property on trust for the plaintiff and compels her to transfer it to him.9 The plaintiff therefore now holds, or is entitled to hold, two one-fifth shares in the underlying beneficial interest in the Property.

As a result of the consent judgment, the sister ceased to be an active party to these proceedings on and after 24 November 2012. The only parties contesting the plaintiff’s claim in the trial before me were the father’s estate, the mother’s estate and the brother’s estate. When I refer to the “defendants” in this judgment, therefore, I refer only to those three remaining parties and leave out the sister.

The witnesses

Two witnesses gave evidence for the plaintiff: the plaintiff himself and his wife, Mdm Tan Suan Poh.

The only witness for the father’s estate and the mother’s estate was Mdm Tan Bee Hoon. She is the sole surviving executrix of both those estates and is the brother’s widow.

The only witness for the brother’s estate is Mr Guo Charng Haw. He is one of the brother’s sons and a co-administrator of the brother’s estate. He was 2 or 3 years old when the Property was purchased in 1966.10 He has no personal knowledge of any of the material disputed events and offers no admissible evidence on those events. As a result, the defence advanced by the brother’s estate rests principally on submissions of law and on the evidence of Mdm Tan Bee Hoon.

But even Mdm Tan Bee Hoon has no personal knowledge of the material disputed events. She has personal knowledge only of certain circumstances surrounding those events. From those circumstances, she invites me to draw certain inferences that contradict the plaintiff’s case. The only one of the four witnesses at trial who was in a position to speak from personal knowledge on all of the material disputed events was the plaintiff.

I therefore begin by setting out from [13] to [61] – largely without comment – facts which are either undisputed or which form part of the plaintiff’s case or evidence. I then turn to consider the defendants’ evidence, the disputes of fact which that evidence gives rise to, the parties’ case on the law and my findings.

The plaintiff’s case on the facts The family company

The father carried on the family business through a company known as Chin Thye Chiang Limited (“the Company”). The Company was incorporated in 1949 and became the vehicle for the family business then or shortly after its incorporation.

As at 10 October 1966, all five of the family members were shareholders in the Company.11 The mother held 40% of the Company’s shares, the father held 26.5%, the plaintiff and the brother held 13.5% each and the sister held 6.5%.12 The three directors of the Company as at 10 October 1966 were the father, the mother and the brother. The father was therefore in a minority not only on the Company’s board of directors but also in general meeting. But that was a simpler age. As was then typical, patriarchal authority and filial piety prevailed over the corporate form and over strict legal rights. Through a combination of the other family members’ tacit acquiescence and their express consent, therefore, the father controlled and managed the Company as though he was its absolute owner.13

The father ran the Company with the assistance of the brother, as the older of the family’s two sons.14 The father did not involve the mother, the sister or the plaintiff in the family business.15 By 1973, the brother had come to be principally in charge of the Company.16 The father nevertheless continued to be peripherally involved in running the Company until his health deteriorated around 1980. He then withdrew entirely from management of the Company, leaving it in the hands of the brother.

Mdm Tan Bee Hoon’s involvement and the Company’s accounts

Mdm Tan Bee Hoon initially had no involvement in the family business. But in or around 1961, at the father’s request, she began to assist the father, principally by tallying and recording the Company’s daily transactions and updating the Company’s books of account.17

On 17 August 2012, after the parties had filed their pleadings, Mdm Tan Bee Hoon disclosed in S722 on behalf of the father’s estate the Company’s accounts18 for the period from 1 January 1968 to 31 July 1970.19 They revealed that the Company maintained separate running accounts for each male member of the family: the father, the brother and the plaintiff. Each running account comprised credits (money which that member paid to the Company) and debits (money which that member drew from the Company). Each running account showed the net position on any given date as between the Company and that member. Both parties accepted and relied on the accuracy of these accounts.20

The plaintiff finds the Property

At the end of 1965, the plaintiff finished his university studies in Australia and returned to Singapore. He decided to buy a home for himself and his future family. He was then a civil servant. His intention was to borrow money at concessionary rates of interest from his then employer, the Ministry of Finance, to pay for his home.21 However, the father feared that if the plaintiff did so, he would be tied to the civil service forever.22 Further, the father told the plaintiff that the family business was in a position to lend the necessary money to the plaintiff and to lend it to him interest-free. The father told the plaintiff that there was therefore no reason for the plaintiff to pay interest at all, even at a concessionary rate. He asked the plaintiff to consult him again before committing to a loan from the Ministry of Finance. The plaintiff was hesitant about accepting the father’s offer.

In 1966, the plaintiff viewed the Property and decided to buy it.23 He negotiated the asking price down from $67,500 to $66,000. He told the father about the Property and took him to view it. The father approved. The plaintiff again told the father that he intended to finance his purchase of the Property with a loan from the Ministry of Finance. The father again offered the plaintiff an interest-free loan from the family business. The plaintiff acquiesced to his father’s wish and accepted his offer of funding.

The family meeting in 1966

Shortly thereafter, the father called a family meeting. The father, the mother, the brother and the plaintiff attended the meeting. The sister did not. At the meeting, the father said he would finance the plaintiff’s purchase of the Property on the following terms:24 The loan would be funded substantially by the Company; The Property was to be registered in the name of all the shareholders of the Company, namely the five family members, for convenience; The loan would be interest-free and would have no fixed period for repayment but it had to be repaid; and When the plaintiff had repaid the loan in full, each family member was to transfer his or her one-fifth share in the Property to him.

The father told the sister of this arrangement on a separate occasion in the presence of the plaintiff. She initially declined to be a co-owner of the Property as she was afraid that co-owning private housing would breach the conditions of her existing co-ownership of public housing with her husband.25 She changed her mind, however, when the father explained that she would hold her one-fifth share on trust for the plaintiff rather than in her own right, and that she would bear no part of the financial burdens of co-ownership.26

The father did not at this time discuss with the plaintiff exactly how the loan would be funded or exactly how the plaintiff was to...

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