Ex-chairman of temple sues for return of $1m loan; defendants say sum was a donation
Source: Straits Times
Article Date: 16 May 2023
Author: Selina Lum
Nan Bei Dou Mu Gong temple was registered as a society in September 2016.
The former chairman of a Taoist temple who contributed more than $1 million to set it up and to organise its events has sued the temple for the return of his money.
In a case that opened in the High Court on May 2, Mr Richard Lim Swee Joo alleged that the sum he had contributed between 2016 and 2018 was a loan that was to be repaid.
The temple, Nan Bei Dou Mu Gong, was registered as a society in September 2016.
Mr Lim also named current temple secretary Eric Goh Joo Heng as the other defendant.
He claimed Mr Goh had proposed setting up a temple that “would make a lot of money from organising events”, and told him that whatever amount he loaned to the temple would be repaid from donations collected from devotees.
The defendants denied this, arguing that the sum was not a loan, but a donation to the temple.
On Wednesday, Mr Goh said during cross-examination that he had submitted a false statement to the Registry of Societies (ROS).
This came after he was questioned by Mr Lim’s lawyer over the temple’s audited financial statements for 2017 that he submitted to the ROS.
Mr Jenson Lee, from JL Law Chambers, pointed out that Mr Lim’s contributions for the year were clearly stated as loans in the statements.
Mr Goh replied that there was a discussion to change Mr Lim’s donations to loans. “In my view, donations constitute as income, loans also constitute as income,” he said through a Mandarin interpreter.
Senior Judge Chan Seng Onn then noted that Mr Goh had been running temples for years, and asked if he knew the difference between a loan and a donation. Mr Goh said he did.
When Justice Chan asked if he knew he had submitted a false statement, Mr Goh said yes and that it was “very urgent” at the time.
Mr Goh added: “At that point in time, I was only considering that these two sums constitute as income, and I must admit to Your Honour that it was a wrong judgment of mine.”
Mr Goh testified that he has been actively involved at various Taoist temples over the years, and has helped to organise events such as lion and dragon dances, and temple celebrations.
He was introduced by a mutual friend to Mr Lim, whose father was the founder of a temple.
Mr Lim said that during their meeting at an Ang Mo Kio coffee shop in April or May 2016, Mr Goh proposed setting up a temple featuring popular deities known as the Nine Emperor Gods.
He said Mr Goh suggested holding events at a popular spot next to Eunos MRT station, where another temple became successful after making more than $1 million per event.
Mr Lim said he agreed to extend loans to set up the temple and to organise events. He said Mr Goh agreed that the loans would be repaid and assured him that another temple made a lot of money under his management.
As evidence of the agreement, Mr Lim relied on the minutes of the temple’s first annual general meeting on Dec 6, 2018, which acknowledged his contributions as a loan.
The acknowledgment, signed by Mr Goh and two other committee members, stated that the amount was to be repaid with future collections.
Mr Lim said he had asked for an acknowledgment because he was stepping down as the chairman and wanted a proper record of the loan.
When the temple failed to repay him despite numerous chasers, he started legal action in 2022 to recover his money, he said.
However, the defendants, represented respectively by Mr Steven Seah and Mr Too Xing Ji, said the loan acknowledgment was just a facade to placate Mr Lim’s wife.
They said Mr Lim’s wife became unhappy after she discovered how much he had donated to the temple, so he asked for a written acknowledgment to show her that the sums were loans.
The temple said Mr Lim repeatedly asked for a signed acknowledgment and stressed that it would not be used to make a claim for payment; several committee members refused to sign as they were uncomfortable with the request.
On Wednesday, Mr Goh said: “I helped him out of gratitude, as he had sponsored huge sums of money... We were trying our best to help to placate his wife. Whether or not she would be happy, it would be beyond us.”
The trial continues this week.
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