SINGAPORE - In a change of courtroom roles, Senior Counsel Philip Jeyaretnam took the witness stand on Thursday (Jan 12) to testify how he had uncovered circumstances which led him to suspect that a distant relative, a retired doctor, had been exploited into giving more than $5 million to her maid, a construction worker and an engineer.
In his capacity as one of the two executors of Dr Freda Paul's estate, he is suing the trio and two others in a bid to get back the money she had given away in 2010. Mr Jeyaretnam, whose grandfather is a cousin of Dr Paul's father, is not a beneficiary of her estate.
"The reason we brought the suit is because there's a whole plethora of suspicious circumstances," he said under cross-examination.
Among other things, he noted that Dr Paul's written instructions to a lawyer in 2009 was uncharacteristically peppered with spelling errors and that a "sudden and abrupt change" was made to her will in 2010, despite medical reports stating that she lacked the required capacity.
He also found it "deeply suspicious" that the $9,000 she received each month from NTUC Income, as part of a reverse mortgage facility in 2007, was cashed out immediately. No one knew where it went, he said.
Dr Paul, a paediatrician at Singapore General Hospital, never married and died in August last year at the age of 87. Her sole asset was a house on Haig Road, which was sold in 2009 for $15.4 million.
In 2001, Dr Paul had befriended Mr Kulandaivelu Malayaperumal, a worker at a neighbouring construction site, and his superior Gopal Subramaniam, both of whom were originally from India. At the time, she was living with her mentally disabled sister and a Sri Lankan maid, Ms Arulampalam Kanthimathy.
In 2007, Dr Paul willed the bulk of her wealth to be used to set up a bursary fund for needy female medical students at the National University of Singapore. Four cousins in Malaysia were the other beneficiaries.
By May 2009, Mr Malayaperumal was staying over from time to time.
In September 2009, after her sister died, Dr Paul told her lawyer to prepare a power of attorney, authorising Mr Subramaniam to sell the Haig Road house.
Under the power of attorney, Mr Subramaniam deposited $10 million into her bank account, paid $1 million to Mr Malayaperumal, $1 million to Ms Kanthimathy, and $912,000 to himself. He also used $2.4 million to buy a smaller house in Ceylon Road for Dr Paul.
Six months later, Mr Malayaperumal and Ms Kanthimathy each received another $1 million. Property agent Parvathi Somu, who handled the transactions, received $500,000.
The maid was also added as a joint account holder of Dr Paul's bank account.
At around the same time, even though she was medically certified as lacking the capacity, Dr Paul made a will, this time leaving most of her assets to Mr Malayaperumal and Ms Kanthimathy. There was no bequest for the bursary fund.
In his testimony, Mr Jeyaretnam said, in 2012, another relative - Dr Ruhunadevi Joshua- told him she had tried to visit Dr Paul but the maid refused to let visitors in. Ms Parvathi, the property agent, also came to see him, and asked him to look after Dr Paul. Mr Jeyaretnam said that when he visited Dr Paul, whom he had known since he was a child, she could not recognise him.
He learnt about the sale of the house and the payment of the proceeds from Mr Malayaperumal. When he insisted on seeing Dr Paul's bank statements, he noticed that the maid was a co-signatory.
In 2013, he successfully applied, together with Dr Joshua, to be appointed as deputies to safeguard Dr Paul's assets, under the Mental Capacity Act. While carrying out his duty, Mr Jeyaretnam found out, among other things, that the 2010 will was made even though Dr Paul was certified unfit. This gave him reason to suspect she had been exploited, he said.
Mr Jeyaretnam and Dr Joshua then applied to court to reinstate the terms expressed in the 2007 will. They also sued the maid, the two men, the property agent and the lawyer who had prepared the power of attorney, to recover the $5.4 million.
A default judgment was obtained against the maid, who has returned to Sri Lanka, after she failed to respond to the suit. The claims against the property agent and the lawyer were settled out of court, under confidential terms.
Mr Malayaperumal and Mr Subramaniam contested the suit, maintaining that Dr Paul was not mentally incapacitated at the time.
Mr Malayaperumal contends that they were "well wishers and carers" of Dr Paul and her sister, and Dr Paul had willingly given the money to him. He said Dr Paul had asked him to stay in the house to help her whenever she needed it.
Mr Malayaperumal denied exercising any undue influence on Dr Paul.