Brother poached business, apex court rules

Madam Ngoi, Singsung's managing director, took over the lawsuit after her husband was killed in a car crash last July. The company, which sells products to overseas markets, celebrates its 10th anniversary this year.
Madam Ngoi, Singsung's managing director, took over the lawsuit after her husband was killed in a car crash last July. The company, which sells products to overseas markets, celebrates its 10th anniversary this year.ST PHOTO: DESMOND WEE

Mr Johnny See Lam Huat had sued his younger brother for encroaching on his business by trying to sell products that were nearly identical to his in markets that he had already cultivated, such as Africa.

The High Court disagreed he had a grievance, but the Court of Appeal has now reversed that decision.

But the 55-year-old businessman was not there to hear the good news - he was killed in a car crash in Johor last July. His fight was continued by his widow, Madam Ngoi Mei Lan.

Madam Ngoi, 43, who now runs the firm, said yesterday: "My husband, Johnny, would be very happy with the judgment of the Court of Appeal, coming when Singsung, the company he founded, is celebrating its 10th anniversary."

The Court of Appeal, in judgment grounds released yesterday, found that the younger brother, Mr See Lam Seng, "was seeking to latch on to and take advantage of (Johnny's company's) efforts not just in selecting profitable devices, but also to appropriate to itself the value which (Johnny's company) had created through its marketing activities by misrepresenting an association with (Johnny's company)."

Both brothers were partners in a company called S H Econ Electrical Trading, formed in 1998 to sell electrical goods to customers abroad. The two split and, in 2006, Johnny set up Singsung, operating the same sort of business.

Three years later, Mr See Lam Seng, working in a nearby shophouse, incorporated LG26 Electronics. Adopting the brand name, LS, he sourced similar products from China to sell in Africa as well.

The appeal court noted that the younger Mr See had intended to enter "those export markets where (Johnny) was already successfully trading and to sell goods which looked identical in appearance to the Singsung products, save that a different brand name was applied".

The court, comprising Chief Justice Sundaresh Menon and Judges of Appeal Chao Hick Tin and Andrew Phang, found he intended to deceive end-users and pass off its goods as being those of the appellant's.

LS products were "inherently deceptive, in that by adopting indicia distinctive of the appellant, they tell a lie about themselves," wrote the Chief Justice on the court's behalf.

The court also overturned the High Court ruling and held that Mr See Lam Seng, defended by lawyer Philip Ling, had breached copyright in the use of two of three items in dispute. The court set aside a High Court order against the late Mr See for making a groundless threat under the Copyright Act against his brother, and suggested this area of the law could do with possible reform. The court, among other things, ordered damages payable to Singsung to be assessed.

Madam Ngoi, represented by lawyer Adrian Tan said: "We developed Singsung to one of the most famous brands in Africa. Although he has since passed away, we know that he would have been very grateful to the court for protecting his brand that he built from scratch."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 25, 2016, with the headline 'Brother poached business, apex court rules'. Print Edition | Subscribe