Judge rules in favour of dead man's estate in tussle over $7m house

Apr 5, 2018

K.C. Vijayan
Senior Law Correspondent

A tussle over a $7 million house in which the judge expressed suspicion that a 97-year-old widow had been coached to testify for one side ended in favour of the other.

The High Court ruled the Glasgow Road property, though registered in the name of the family company, belonged to the estate of one sibling, Mr Tan Tiong Luu, who had died in 2012. His widow had claimed the house, which Mr Tan Tiong Luu had bequeathed her in his will.

Mr Tan Tiong Luu's siblings, however, contended that their father had intended the house for all of them to share.

"This was a case in which documentation and objective evidence on both sides were lacking in many respects," Judicial Commissioner Pang Khang Chau wrote in judgment grounds issued on Monday.

"In the end, after evaluating the evidence and considering parties' submissions, I came to accept the plaintiffs' version of events on the balance of probabilities."

The house had been bought in 1975 by the family's patriarch, Mr Tan Geok Chuan, for Mr Tan Tiong Luu. However, the patriarch had put the legal title in the company's name, Geok Hong Co, because he did not want Mr Tan Tiong Luu's wife, Madam Koh Ai Gek, to get a share should their marriage break down.

The patriarch had arranged this for Mr Tan Tiong Luu, the son who had stayed behind to help with the company's business, thus enabling his younger siblings to study abroad.

Mr Tan Tiong Luu played a key role in the company and drew a salary similar to his father's. He and his wife made major improvements to the house during the 40 years they lived there. They have three children.

In 2012, he contracted cancer. In the final fortnight of his life after a visit by some of his siblings, he became agitated, telling his children that his siblings had refused to return the property to him.

His father had died in 1990, and only his siblings who were fellow directors of the company could transfer the legal title to him. Nine days before he died, he made a statutory declaration of his version of events.

His wife argued it was known the house would go to Mr Tan Tiong Luu, pointing out that the company failed to claim ownership while they lived there.

The company countered that there was no credible evidence of Madam Koh's claims. Among other things, they argued the patriarch ensured each of the children had a similar share in ownership of the company's assets through shares.

The elder Tan had eight children, three of whom had died at the time of these proceedings.

The company called his widow, Madam Ong Bah Chee, 97, who testified he had bought the house not for Mr Tan Tiong Luu only, but for all her children to share.

The judge observed her "general incoherence and haziness" when on the witness stand, but noted she was "surprisingly clear, firm and adamant" that the property belonged and was meant for everyone in the company to share.

"Her evidence on the witness stand directly contradicted her own Affidavit-Evidence-in-Chief, and her behaviour made me strongly suspect that she had been coached and drilled to say certain things by the company's representatives," he said.

In assessing the evidence overall, he found the property was held on trust by the company for Mr Tan Tiong Luu, and ordered its return to the dead man's estate.

The company is appealing.

Madam Koh, when approached at the Glasgow Road house yesterday, referred the matter to her son, who declined comment.

The 9,708 sq ft dwelling is estimated to be worth more than $7 million.