Columbarium in Sengkang: FAQ on death-related facilities and sites in Singapore

Artist's impression of the columbarium in Fernvale Link. Some residents of Fernvale Lea, an upcoming Build-To-Order (BTO) HDB project in Sengkang, have protested against the housing of a columbarium within a Chinese temple near their flats. -- P
Artist's impression of the columbarium in Fernvale Link. Some residents of Fernvale Lea, an upcoming Build-To-Order (BTO) HDB project in Sengkang, have protested against the housing of a columbarium within a Chinese temple near their flats. -- PHOTO: LIFE CORPORATION LIMITED

SINGAPORE - Some residents of Fernvale Lea, an upcoming Build-To-Order (BTO) HDB project in Sengkang, have protested against the housing of a columbarium within a Chinese temple near their flats.

Some said that they did not know about the columbarium plans. Others pointed out that a mention of it was in fine print in a brochure.

Here are answers to some commonly-asked questions about the issue.

Q: What are the sort of death-related facilities and sites in Singapore?

There are basically four:

Funeral parlour: A place where the dead are prepared for burial or cremation.

Crematorium: Where a body is cremated.

Cemetery: Where the dead are buried.

Columbarium: A room or building with niches for funeral urns to be stored.

Q: Which authority is in charge of these sites/facilities?

The Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA) decides how land can be used through its Master Plan, which takes into account the overall planning considerations in an area. Land that is zoned for death-related facilities and sites are then put up for tender by agencies that are allocated these land plots. In the case of land where BTO flats are built, the agency that does this is the Housing Board.

The National Environment Agency manages cemeteries in Singapore and also four columbaria in Mandai, Yishun, Mount Vernon and Choa Chu Kang.

Private columbaria are managed by the businesses or organisations behind them.

Q: Where can I get more information on land use?

The latest URA Master Plan 2014 shows how land is zoned.

Land uses are marked according to colour. For example, light blue denotes a "water body", light yellow denotes a "reserve site" and red with a "H" denotes "health and medical care".

The Master Plan is reviewed every five years.

It does not give details on actual development. For example, a site marked "place of worship" could be a mosque, church or temple.

Q: What does it mean if a parcel of land is marked "reserve site"?

URA defines it as such: "These are areas the specific use of which has yet to be determined. Interim uses that are compatible with the uses in the locality may be allowed subject to evaluation by the competent authority."

Land parcels that are zoned "reserve site" may be put into any use in future, including for death-related facilities.

However, the future use of a reserve site will take into consideration how it can complement surrounding developments. For example, it is unlikely that a land zoned reserve site located in the middle of a housing estate will be used for a cemetery in future.

Q: What do the rules say about the development of columbaria?

According to URA guidelines in place since 1999, columbaria can be part of free-standing buildings being used as places of worship, clan associations, homes for the aged, nursing homes and religious schools.

There must be a 4.5m buffer between the sites where the columbaria are housed and other buildings.

The URA guidelines allow space of up to 20 per cent of the total gross floor area to be set aside for columbarium use.

The columbarium must be located inside the main building, out of sight from the surrounding developments and preferably in the basement.

If it has to be located above ground, it should be screened from public view.

All death-related facilities must also be well integrated with the surroundings and other boundaries.

Q: What sort of land-use information does a person applying for a BTO project normally get?

HDB Build-To-Order projects are launched on HDB's website.

A sales brochure will be made available to the public. It will contain the project's location map, site plan, unit distribution, typical floor plan, layout ideas and general specifications.

The location map will show future roads and facilities including MRT lines and schools.

If at the time of launch details are available on proposed buildings, they will also be shown.

Q: When was Fernvale Lea marketed?

Fernvale Lea, which will have 1,150 units in eight 26-storey high blocks, was launched under the HDB Build-To-Order exercise in January 2012. It will be ready this year.

Q: What information exactly was given out to residents?

Some residents referred to the hard-copy sales brochure, which contained information specific to Fernvale Lea and another BTO project in Sengkang. The brochure came with a map which showed the site of the Chinese temple and other facilities in the area. Residents said the possibility of the temple housing a columbarium was mentioned only in fine print at the bottom of the page.

The fine print read: "The information contained herein is subject to change at any time without notice and cannot form part of an offer or contract. The proposed facilities and their locations as shown are only estimates."

It went on to say: "The proposed facilities may include other ancillary uses allowed under URA's prevailing Development Control guidelines. For example, places of worship may also include columbarium as an ancillary use, while community centres may also include childcare centres."

A HDB webpage which displayed information on four BTO projects launched in 2012, including Fernvale Lea, also had the same disclaimer in fine print.

An electronic sales brochure specific to Fernvale Lea and typically released at the start of BTO application, however, has a more general disclaimer. It stated: "The proposed facilities, their locations and surrounding land-use shown in the maps and plans are indicative only and subject to change or review. These facilities may include other ancillary uses allowed under URA's prevailing Development Control guidelines."

The site plan in the e-brochure showed an area marked out as "Site Reserved for Chinese Temple". 

Q: When was the tender for the Chinese temple site put up?

HDB put up the tender on May 27, 2014. The tender closed on July 8 and was awarded on July 17.

Q: Who won the Chinese Temple site bid?

Singapore company Eternal Pure Land Pte Ltd, which is wholly owned by Life Corporation. It had put up a bid for $5.2 million.

Life Corporation is an Australian company which was originally set up as a cord blood banking company named Cordlife in 2001. In 2013, it sold off Cordlife and re-established itself under its current name, with a new focus on funeral services.

It acquired Singapore Funeral Services, which provides funeral and casket services, in December 2013 for $8 million, according to its annual report last year.

Life Corporation has offices in both Australia and Singapore.

Eternal Pure Land was set up on June 12 last year, 16 days after HDB put up the site for tender.

There were two other bidders for the site: Peng Hong Association, which had a bid of $4 million, and Xing Guang Maitreya Society, which had a $1.8 million bid. Both are Buddhist societies. It is not clear what their plans were.

What has Life Corp revealed of its plans for the site?

Life Corporation intends to use the land for a Chinese temple with an integrated columbarium.

In an announcement posted to the Australia Securities Exchange on Nov 21, 2014, Life Corporation said the land was "integral to Life Corporation's expansion plans and strategic direction to provide a full suite of premium funeral services".

It also stated that the land will be used for the construction of a "Chinese temple with an integrated state of the art automated columbarium".

It added that "this represents a major step forward in Life Corporation's intention to become the leading provider of funeral and funeral-related services in Singapore".

Q: Why are Fernvale residents unhappy?

Residents cited various reasons for their unhappiness.

Some did not like the idea of living next to the dead. According to a petition put up by angry residents, some said they did not want their children to be exposed to "these kinds of things so young in their lives".

Others were annoyed that the site was not clearly marked as being used for a columbarium. They said the possibility of a columbarium at the site of the temple was in fine print, and HDB did not also make that clear to them.

Others were worried that the proximity of a columbarium would affect the resale value of their flats.

Some were also unhappy that a profit-driven organisation won the tender.

Q: How have the authorities responded?

HDB has maintained that it is within URA guidelines for the temple to develop a columbarium, as long as it comprises only up to 20 per cent of the total area.

URA and HDB also said they will ensure that the proposed temple will integrate well with the surrounding developments, the same way other existing places of worship with columbarium space have been integrated in many residential estates.

They also added that "to allow for flexibility in the choice of operating model, the tender was open to both private companies and religious organisations".

MP for Sengkang West, Dr Lam Pin Min, addressed the issue in a Facebook post on Dec 30 last year. He reassured residents that there will be no crematorium or funeral services on the site. The columbarium will also be kept within the complex, screened from public view.

He also pointed out that similar setups can be found at the Puat Jit Buddhist Temple in Anchorvale and the Church of St Francis Xavier in Serangoon Gardens.

He held a dialogue on Jan 4, 2015 with the residents, HDB, URA and Life Corporation to discuss the issue.

Some residents want to give up their flats and are waiting to see if they will be allowed to get a refund from HDB.

jalmsab@sph.com.sg

lesterh@sph.com.sg