Trustee and ex-abbot of monastery settle dispute over religious sculpture

Venerable Guojun, abbot of the Mahabodhi Monastery in Lorong Kilat, at the annual general meeting in the monastery on Mar 6, 2016. PHOTO: LIANHE ZAOBAO

SINGAPORE - A defamation suit brought by a trustee of a Buddhist monastery against its former abbot was settled in court on Tuesday (Oct 24), and will not go to trial.

Venerable Guojun offered to pay Mr Lee Boon Teow, 65, $30,000 to settle the lawsuit, without admitting to any defamation.

The 42-year-old monk would also be allowed to collect a religious agarwood sculpture from Mr Lee, who has been storing it for more than 10 years.

The item - a 213cm wide and 91cm tall agarwood sculpture, comprising 70 Buddhas and Bodhistava - was at the heart of the dispute. It has been stored by 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 the monastery's management committee. Mr Lee was the 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 Guo then sent a message in a group chat with 14 other participants, including office holders of the monastery's management committee. In his text on March 21, 2015, Ven Guo said two friends visiting Singapore want to see the sculpture at the monastery.

He wrote: "They are worried that it's not in my hands for so long, almost 10 years and will not come back in the end."

In another text message the next day, Ven Guojun said he heard that Mr Lee's construction company, which had been awarded a major project, was in financial difficulties.

The monk asked Mr Lee to tell him if he was in need of money, and said that he was "ok" to let him sell the sculpture. Ven Guojun also asked Mr Lee if his cancer relapse was affecting his ability to think clearly.

In Mr Lee's defamation suit, he contended that the monk's words in the messages imputed that he was dishonest and 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 and is asking for its return.

An eight-day trial into Mr Lee's claim and Ven Guojun's counterclaim was scheduled to start on Tuesday. But both sides reached an agreement to settle the dispute after more than two hours of negotiations.

The terms of the settlement were recorded in open court by Justice Woo Bih Li. Ven Guojun and Mr Lee were ordered to pay their own legal costs.

Speaking to reporters, Mr Lee said the outcome was "within my expectations".

Ven Guojun said: "In Buddhism, we advocate peace and harmony. As a monk, we do not engage in fights or conflicts."

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