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Mareva order against Tang's wife 'justified'

Straits Times March 2, 1999

PAP leaders suing Mr Tang Liang Hong for defamation were justified in getting the High Court to include his wife in an order to freeze his assets, said Justice G.P. Selvam.

He said this in a written judgment dismissing the claim by Madam Teo Siew Har that she should not have been named as a co-defendant in the order obtained on Jan 27, 1997.

The judge ruled that the People's Action Party leaders, including Senior Minister Lee Kuan Yew, had an unassailable right to target any equitable interest Mr Tang had in properties held in his wife's name.

Referring to the Tangs' family bungalow at 75, Hua Guan Avenue, he said that the property in the name of Madam Teo, who is a housewife, was bought with funds provided by her husband, who was a lawyer here.

He fled Singapore after he was defeated in the battle for Cheng San GRC, between the PAP and the Workers' Party, in the last general election.

He lost the suits filed against him by the PAP leaders, who obtained the order to prevent the couple from dissipating assets to avoid paying damages to the plaintiffs.

In his judgment, the judge made it clear that Mr Tang had an equitable interest in the property in Madam Teo's name which was mortgaged to the Oversea-Chinese Banking Corporation for an overdraft worth $3.2 million.

On June 3, 1996, the overdraft was virtually exhausted by Mr Tang when he transferred a substantial sum from his wife's OCBC bank account to his own account in Johor Baru.

Madam Teo had no knowledge of the withdrawal and transfer, the judge said.

This came a day after Mr Tang had given an interview to a Hongkong newspaper in which he made remarks which he expected would attract a defamation suit against him.

"It was a clear piece of evidence of a devious mind," the judge said.

"But what is of immediate relevance to this case is the control he had over the bank account.

"In name it was hers. In reality it was his.

"It at once sustained the plaintiffs' contention that the assets in Madam Teo's name at least belonged partly to Mr Tang and his propensity to put away his assets from the arm of the law.

"I, therefore, conclude with moral certainty that Mr Tang had a substantial interest in the property owned nominally by Madam Teo.

"The frontline argument of Madam Teo, therefore, falls to the ground. The extension of the Mareva order against her was amply justified."

Justice Selvam also noted that the order was too wide in enveloping everything that she owned, including her personal assets, ornaments and clothing.

But although the last three items were not excluded, Madam Teo was not deprived from using them, despite what he described as an oversight by the lawyers involved.

Justice Selvam also dismissed her claim for damages after he had released her from the order following a request from the plaintiffs for him to do so as a gesture of compassion to her.

He gave these reasons: The Mareva order, he said, was properly obtained against her.

She was not prevented from selling the property before its value plummeted due to the decline in property prices in recent months.

"The truth of the matter was that she postponed action in the expectation that the value would escalate," the judge said.

"An order of sale could have been obtained if she and her lawyers had applied their minds to it properly.

"As regards the order catching Madam Teo's personal effects, she suffered no loss or inconvenience."

Published in the Straits Times. March 2, 1999

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