Mandai house owner who sought $2m settles for $200,000

90-year-old was served eviction notice by landlord, in case involving unusual arrangement dating back to 1950s

Mr Low Ban Lai, who moved out of the house in Mandai years ago to live with one of his children, has agreed to hand it over to Mr Ong Beng Tit in eight weeks.
Mr Low Ban Lai, who moved out of the house in Mandai years ago to live with one of his children, has agreed to hand it over to Mr Ong Beng Tit in eight weeks. ST PHOTO: JONATHAN CHOO

Served an eviction notice by his landlord, the 90-year-old owner of a decrepit single-storey terraced house in Mandai wanted $2 million in compensation.

Landowner Ong Beng Tit had offered $85,000.

They settled at $200,000 yesterday, abruptly ending their court fight after half a day of trial in the High Court.

Mr Low Ban Lai, who had moved out of the Meng Suan Road house years ago to live with one of his children, agreed to hand it over to Mr Ong in eight weeks.

The case involves an unusual arrangement dating back to the 1950s, in which a person buys a house, but not the land on which it sits, and pays monthly "ground rent" to the landowner.

Mr Low Ban Lai's unit at 48, Meng Suan Road (centre, between two trees) is one of 37 terraced houses built around 1960 on land owned by the late Mr Ong Tiau Seng and five other investors. Those who bought the houses did not own the land, but paid monthly "ground rent" to the landowners. In 2014, Mr Ong's son Beng Tit, the current owner of the land on which Mr Low's house stands, sought to evict the home owner. Mr Low, who is now 90 and moved out years ago, wanted $2 million to hand over the property, described as "uninhabitable" by Mr Ong's lawyer. ST PHOTO: JONATHAN CHOO

In other words, the house comes without a land title.

Mr Low, a Chinese medicine shop owner, said he paid $10,000 to build the house in 1962.

He paid "ground rent" of $20 each month until 2005.

His house sits on a piece of land with a 999-year lease originally owned by Mr Ong's late father, Mr Ong Tiau Seng, and five others.

Mr Ong Tiau Seng's construction company built three rows of 37 terraced houses on the land.

Between 1976 and 1984, his son, Beng Tit, bought over part of the land. An older son owns another part and sued in 2008 and 2010 to evict the owners of three of the nine houses on his plot.

Yesterday, Mr Ong Beng Tit testified that he had planned to evict all his tenants and decided to start with Mr Low, whose house had been vacant for years.

In 2014, Mr Ong's lawyers gave Mr Low notice of termination of the tenancy and told him to hand over the property. Mr Ong offered $85,000, based on the recommendation of a valuer.

But Mr Low said there was no tenancy agreement and hence the termination was unlawful. He wanted $2 million.

Mr Ong sued Mr Low, contending that as the legal owner of the land, he was entitled to terminate the tenancy.

"The plaintiff has always been fair and reasonable in wanting to compensate the defendant a sum of $85,000 to give up his dilapidated and presently uninhabitable house built almost 60 years ago," his lawyer, Mr Deepak Natverlal, told the court yesterday.

Mr Low's lawyer, Mr P. Padman, said the compensation must allow him to pay for a replacement house on freehold land.

Mr Low produced a handwritten contract to support his claim that Mr Ong's father had agreed to let him stay there permanently. But Mr Ong's forensic expert cast doubts on the authenticity of the document.

Mr Low also produced invoices showing the cost of renovation works to the house. But Mr Ong alleged that these were faked to bolster his inflated claim for compensation.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 25, 2017, with the headline Mandai house owner who sought $2m settles for $200,000. Subscribe