Settlement reached over sculpture dispute

Venerable Guojun offered to pay Mr Lee Boon Teow $30,000 to settle the lawsuit.
Venerable Guojun offered to pay Mr Lee Boon Teow $30,000 to settle the lawsuit.

A defamation suit brought by a trustee of a Buddhist monastery against its former abbot was settled in court yesterday and will not go to trial.

Venerable Guojun offered to pay Mr Lee Boon Teow $30,000 to settle the lawsuit, without admitting to any defamation.

The 42-year-old monk will also be allowed to collect a religious sculpture from Mr Lee, 65, who has been storing it for nearly 10 years. The item - a 213cm-wide and 91cm-tall agarwood sculpture, comprising about 70 Buddhas and Bodhisattva - was at the heart of the dispute. It has been stored with Mr Lee since the Bukit Timah monastery underwent redevelopment from 2008 to 2014.

Ven Guojun stepped down as abbot of the Mahabodhi Monastery in February. He remains the president of its management committee. Mr Lee was a former vice-president.

According to court documents, in March 2015, Ven Guojun asked Mr Lee to return the sculpture to him. But Mr Lee questioned the monk's basis for claiming to be the owner of the sculpture.

Ven Guojun then sent messages in a group chat with 14 other participants, including management committee members, that Mr Lee deemed defamatory. They include Ven Guojun saying Mr Lee's construction company was in financial difficulties and asking if his cancer relapse was affecting his ability to think clearly. In Mr Lee's defamation suit, he contended that the monk's words imputed he was dishonest and was trying to keep the sculpture for himself, that his company was in debt and incapable of taking on a major project and that he was mentally sick. Ven Guojun countersued Mr Lee, asserting that he is the owner of the sculpture.

An eight-day trial into the claims was scheduled to start yesterday but both agreed to settle the dispute after more than two hours of talks. Mr Lee said the outcome was "within my expectations", while Ven Guojun said: "In Buddhism, we advocate peace and harmony. As a monk, we do not engage in fights or conflicts."

Mr Lee has two other pending legal actions against Ven Guojun.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 25, 2017, with the headline 'Settlement reached over sculpture dispute'. Print Edition | Subscribe