Niece of UOB chairman loses battle for late husband's assets

The niece of United Overseas Bank chairman Wee Cho Yaw has lost her last legal bid to wrest her share of about US$25 million in assets from her children and stepdaughter.

The assets were part of the estate of Ng Hock Seng, who was divorced from Anna Wee Chiaw Sek.

In a 104-page judgment released yesterday, the Court of Appeal dismissed Ms Wee's appeal with costs, having found that her case had "failed on so many levels".

Specifically, the Court of Appeal upheld the High Court's findings that Mr Ng had made no active attempts to hide his assets from her prior to their divorce.

Instead, it found that she had waived her rights to a division of matrimonial assets because she had decided that Mr Ng was "a man of straw".

Significantly, the appellate court found that Ms Wee could not prove that, even in a division of matrimonial assets, she would have been entitled to a portion of the monies in trusts he set up.

Judge of Appeal Andrew Phang Boon Leong, who delivered the ruling, said: "What proportion of assets the division would have given her, and whether it would have entitled her to more than the assets she already had as her contribution to the pool, is a matter of speculation, not certainty."

Ms Wee, represented by Senior Counsel Hri Kumar Nair, had sued Genevieve Ng Li-Ann, Mr Ng's daughter from his first marriage and the executrix of his estate, and BNP Paribas Jersey Trust Corp.

She claimed that her husband had pretended to be poor so that she would not ask for a division of matrimonial assets at the time of their divorce.

But after his death from tongue cancer in 2004, she discovered that he had amassed assets that he funnelled into four Channel Islands, Jersey-based trusts (1999 and 2002 BNP Trust, ML Hock Seng Trust and ML Hock Trust).

Notwithstanding the fact that she was an "excluded person" - which means she was precluded from being a beneficiary - Ms Wee claimed that she was entitled to assets in the 1999 and 2002 BNP Trusts, of which her two children, Joshua and Azura, and Ms Ng are beneficiaries.

Specifically, she claimed that Mr Ng had misled her through correspondences after their separation that he was "in no financial position" to provide RM3,750 (S$1,500) per child in monthly maintenance.

In finding that her claim of fraud against Mr Ng not made out, Justice Phang said this was a case where the veracity and credibility of Ms Wee, in particular, was "critical", given that Mr Ng could no longer give evidence.

Concurring with the High Court's finding that Ms Wee was not a reliable witness, Justice Phang noted that her position in relation to what representations were made to her "shifted from the start of her case to the close of it", and that her allegations of Mr Ng's intention to mislead were "purely speculative".

Citing documentary evidence showing that Mr Ng had not hidden the fact that he was a man of means, Justice Phang noted that a 1998 separation agreement had stated that he was to be "solely responsible for all the costs and expenses of the children's education through primary, secondary and tertiary levels, both locally and/or abroad including the fees, deposits and charges of boarding schools".

This was a heavy financial commitment which Mr Ng indicated that he was willing and able to undertake, Justice Phang noted. Mr Ng had also told Ms Wee that he was buying private property in Singapore for Joshua and Azura's benefit, and had assured her that their financial needs would be taken care of.

In dismissing Ms Wee's claim of unjust enrichment against BNP, the appellate court found that even if she could establish that Mr Ng had deceived her, she still could not succeed in her claim against BNP.

Justice Phang said: "At best, she has a personal claim for loss of a chance against the deceased.

This personal claim does not grant her a legal entitlement to the monies transferred to (BNP)."

Ms Ng was represented by Deborah Barker SC of KhattarWong LLP; BNP Paribas was represented by Edwin Tong and Tham Hsu Hsien of Allen & Gledhill LLP.

Mr Tong described the judgment as a landmark decision because it clarifies, for the first time, key legal principles in the law of unjust enrichment.

This, the appellate court noted, is an area of law that is "still developing and there remains . . . many unresolved issues (and even controversies)".