Woman fails in bid to revoke temple trust

The Chee Teck Kwang Im Temple in Rangoon Road was converted into a temple by Madam Koh Lau Keow from a house she bought in 1948.

SINAGPORE - In 1948, a vegetarian Buddhist used her savings to buy a house and converted it into a temple. Now 96, Madam Koh Lau Keow can no longer tend to activities at the Chee Teck Kwang Im Temple in Rangoon Road, which she turned into a charitable trust in 1960. After more than half a century of holding daily prayer and worship sessions, she wants to resume ownership of the property and deal with it in her will.

She asked the High Court to declare the trust invalid, arguing it was of no charitable benefit.

But her suit failed because, according to judgment grounds released on Wednesday, Justice Tay Yong Kwang said the trust is charitable in nature as it promotes a religion and is of public benefit.

China-born Madam Koh came to Singapore in 1936 to work as a seamstress and undertake religious activities. She became close friends with three elderly women, treating them as aunts.

Madam Koh paid $1,900 in cash and took a loan for another $1,600 to buy the property in the Farrer Park area. She named the three "aunts" as joint tenants and they became trustees of the temple in 1960. Two aunts have since died and the third retired as a trustee more than 30 years ago.

Madam Koh has lived on the property with two adopted daughters and a granddaughter - none of whom wanted to take over management of the temple, also a home for Buddhist women.

Her lawyers Leonard Kumar Hazra and Tang Hang Wu argued that its operations did not qualify the temple as a legal charitable purpose because it involved a limited category of people and did not satisfy the public-benefit test.

The court was asked to decide whether the trust had been set up to promote religion and if its purpose benefits the public.

State counsel Zheng Shao Kai and Fu Qi Jing from the Attorney- General's Chambers, as the guardian of charities, opposed Madam Koh's application and argued the trust was meant to promote religion. Justice Tay found that using the property either as a home or sanctuary for Buddhist Chinese vegetarian women "directly advances Buddhism".

He said: "The persons residing in the property would certainly have benefited from passive advancement and personal spiritual contemplation as it was being used as place of worship."

The judge added that the benefit would at least be indirect as it is "ancillary" to the religious activities at the temple. He also said the trust captured a "sufficiently broad segment of the public" given that Buddhism was a major religion here and Chinese women formed a significantly large part of Singapore's population.

Justice Tay cited the National Kidney Foundation as an example of a charitable trust that benefits the wider public - even though the number of actual beneficiaries is relatively small. "It would be absurd for such a gift to be struck down on the basis that only sufferers of kidney disease benefit."

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