Property owner regains 'temple' house after appeal

A woman has won an appeal to regain ownership of a house that she converted into a temple and charitable trust decades ago, after the Court of Appeal ruled the trust invalid.

The three-judge court comprising Chief Justice Sundaresh Menon, Judges of Appeal Chao Hick Tin and Andrew Phang on Monday reversed a High Court decision that had rejected her bid to resume ownership of the property and deal with it in her will.

If her bid had failed, Madam Koh Lau Keow, 96, would have no right to decide what to do with the property, as its use would have to follow what was stated in the trust.

Last August, Madam Koh, the creator of the trust, had gone to court to try to terminate the trust, citing her advanced age and limited mobility, and the reluctance of her two adopted daughters to continue running the temple, the subject of the trust.

The 6,000 sq ft property in Rangoon Road, for which she paid $3,500 in 1948, is believed to be worth several millions today.

China-born Madam Koh came here to work here as a seamstress in 1936 and undertook religious activities. She converted the house where she lived into the Chee Teck Kwang Im temple and turned it into a charitable trust in 1960, appointing as trustees three close friends whom she regarded as aunts. All have since died.

Madam Koh argued in the High Court last year that the trust was invalid as it was of no charitable benefit, but the court held that it was charitable in nature as it promoted religion and was of public benefit.

State counsel from the Attorney-General's Chambers, as the guardian of charities, opposed Madam Koh's appeal, argued by lawyer Suresh Damodara.

The Court of Appeal, however, noted that the trust allowed the trustees to use the property for all or any of three listed purposes in the trust deed. This was different from a trust for an established religious entity whose main purpose was to promote religion.

It was accepted that two of the three purposes prescribed by Madam Koh were charitable in nature.

But a third allowed the trustees the freedom to use the property as a residence for Chinese women who were Buddhist and vegetarian, chosen at their discretion.

The Appeal Court found that Madam Koh's use of the property before and after the trust was executed showed she had meant to use it as a residence and not a charitable home.

"The reason why the trust fails the public benefit requirement is that the (stated purpose) benefits only the handful of Buddhist Chinese vegetarian women who need not be poor, chosen in the absolute discretion of the trustees to live on the property," wrote Justice Chao.

The women who lived there were Madam Koh's close friends and relatives.

The Court added that although the property was named Chee Teck Kwang Im temple, the trustees were empowered to use the property for "all or any" of the listed purposes.

This meant they could decide not to use it as a temple despite its name. It could not be said thus that the trust's key aim was to advance religion which would have qualified it as a trust, said the court.

Get a copy of The Straits Times or go to for more stories.