Teochew Building dispute goes to open trial after apex court dismisses Ngee Ann Kongsi's appeal

At the centre of the dispute is the six-storey Teochew Building in Tank Road. PHOTO: ST FILE

SINGAPORE - A high-profile spat between two rival Teochew groups over a historic building is set to proceed to trial after a decision by the Court of Appeal on Monday (May 4).

The apex court dismissed the application for leave to appeal by the Ngee Ann Kongsi, which had petitioned against an earlier ruling to allow a trial to take place over the dispute on the Teochew Building with rival Teochew Poit Ip Huay Kuan.

In doing so, the Court of Appeal upheld the decision by the High Court in March not to grant the Kongsi leave to appeal against the ruling for a trial.

WongPartnership, lawyers for the Huay Kuan, told The Straits Times it was notified by a letter from the court that said the application for leave to appeal had been "dismissed with costs".

This means the Kongsi pays the Huay Kuan the cost of the application.

Minutes of the court's decision will be available only after the circuit breaker ends on June 1. A date for the trial has not been set.

"Our client is happy to have the opportunity to present their side of the story," said WongPartnership. The Kongsi has not responded to ST's request for comment.

At the centre of the dispute is the six-storey Teochew Building in Tank Road, which both organisations had occupied together for 55 years.

In December 2018, the Kongsi served an originating summons for the Huay Kuan to vacate the building in the River Valley area, so that it could be redeveloped. The Huay Kuan refused to budge, saying the redevelopment was a unilateral move.

In a ruling last October, Senior Judge Andrew Ang had allowed the Huay Kuan's application to convert the current originating summons by the Kongsi into a writ action.

This meant the case would be heard in an open court involving a wider scope, including witness evidence, if available.

He noted that the Huay Kuan had occupied the building since 1963, and held it likely that a substantial dispute of fact will arise in relation to legal claims involved in the rights to use the property.

The judge added that while discovery of documents - which is the seeking of relevant evidence from documents - is also available in an originating summons, the discovery obligations on both parties are wider in a writ action, which would enable "a fairer resolution of the dispute".

The Kongsi feared that an open court trial would "needlessly protract" the proceedings.

But Senior Judge Ang said that this could be addressed by applying for summary judgment or by striking out pleadings and endorsements under prescribed court rules.

On March 23 this year, he affirmed his earlier decision for the dispute to go to trial.

Legal heavyweights are on opposite sides of the battle, with Senior Counsel Davinder Singh and lawyer Jaikanth Shankar from Davinder Singh Chambers leading a team of lawyers for the Kongsi, while Senior Counsel Tan Chee Meng and lawyer Josephine Choo from WongPartnership are acting for the Huay Kuan.

This article has been edited for clarity.

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