Court overturns ruling in temple spat

District judge erred in deciding case based on doctrine not put forward: High Court

Tuan Kong Beo (Teochew) Temple and Tian Kong Buddhist Temple are both sited in a compound in Bedok North. The Teochew temple had filed a lawsuit in 2018, arguing that the Tian Kong Buddhist Temple had prevented it from holding important events at the
Tuan Kong Beo (Teochew) Temple and Tian Kong Buddhist Temple are both sited in a compound in Bedok North. The Teochew temple had filed a lawsuit in 2018, arguing that the Tian Kong Buddhist Temple had prevented it from holding important events at the premises. •ST FILE PHOTO

A temple that sued another temple in the same compound for obstructing its annual religious celebrations has lost its case in the High Court.

The legal spat centred on a 2011 agreement between Tuan Kong Beo (Teochew) Temple and Tian Kong Buddhist Temple over the use of their joint premises in Bedok North.

A district judge had earlier concluded that the agreement was legally binding and ruled in favour of the Teochew temple. But Justice Choo Han Teck overturned the decision yesterday.

In a written judgment, he said the district judge was wrong to have decided the case based on a particular legal doctrine that was not put forward in the Teochew temple's lawsuit.

The temple "cannot rely on that which it has not pleaded, and it must be made to bear the consequences of its own errors", said Justice Choo. He said this was "unfortunate" because the Teochew temple may have succeeded if the relevant facts had been pleaded and proved at the trial.

However, ordering a retrial would entitle the Teochew temple to have a second attempt, which would be "grossly unfair" to the other side. "If this were allowed, the courts would be inundated with fresh trials by failed litigants," the judge added.

The two temples operated on Pulau Tekong until the 1980s, when the Government resettled residents to the mainland.

Both temples received compensation and were allocated a piece of land to allow devotees to continue to worship, but disagreements over the use of the premises surfaced in 2016.

The Teochew temple filed a lawsuit in 2018, arguing that the Tian Kong Buddhist Temple had prevented it from holding important events at the premises.

It alleged that Tian Kong chairman Chin Tiam Soy parked his car in the area where the tentage was to be set up for the event.

It also complained that Mr Chin had locked the main gate to hinder the contractor and prevented the use of electricity and water.

These acts forced the celebrations to be scaled down in 2016 and 2017 and moved to another location altogether in 2018 and last year.

The Teochew temple argued that under the 2011 agreement, it was allowed to carry out these activities at the premises.

Tian Kong challenged the validity of the agreement, arguing that Mr Chin was not authorised by its trustees or board members to sign it.

In August, a district judge found that Mr Chin had "ostensible authority" to sign the agreement and that Tian Kong was bound by it.

Tian Kong appealed to the High Court.

Lawyer Lim Chee San argued that the district judge was wrong to make a ruling based on the doctrine of ostensible authority when the Teochew temple neither pleaded this claim in its suit nor produced evidence to support it.

Justice Choo agreed, noting that the failure to plead this claim caused prejudice to Tian Kong, which did not have the opportunity to mount a response.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 12, 2020, with the headline 'Court overturns ruling in temple spat'. Subscribe