Spat between 2 temples: High Court overturns ruling that 2011 pact on use of shared site was legally binding

Tian Kong Buddhist Temple and Tuan Kong Beo (Teochew) Temple are both sited in a compound in Bedok North. PHOTO: ST FILE

SINGAPORE - 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 suit brought by the Tuan Kong Beo (Teochew) Temple centred on a 2011 agreement between it 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 on Friday (Dec 11).

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 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.

In 2011, negotiations to form a new temple body led to an agreement, which, among other things, stated that the Teochew temple would be permitted to carry out all religious activities. However, 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 2019.

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.

"I disagree with the district judge's conclusion that (the Teochew temple) was entitled to rely on the doctrine of ostensible authority, even though I acknowledge that this could potentially have been a strong case of ostensible authority - had that been pleaded," said Justice Choo.

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