Sengkang columbarium: Khaw Boon Wan takes questions from MPs

Several Members of Parliament had questions for National Development Minister Khaw Boon Wan, after he announced on Thursday that a place-of-worship site in Sengkang should not have a commercial columbarium. -- PHOTO: ST FILE 
Several Members of Parliament had questions for National Development Minister Khaw Boon Wan, after he announced on Thursday that a place-of-worship site in Sengkang should not have a commercial columbarium. -- PHOTO: ST FILE 

SINGAPORE - Several Members of Parliament had questions for National Development Minister Khaw Boon Wan, after he announced on Thursday that a place-of-worship site in Sengkang should not have a commercial columbarium.

The site, which was marked "Chinese temple", was awarded to a commercial company called Eternal Pure Land, which had bid $5.2 million for it in June last year. It said it would develop a temple and columbarium there.

Residents of an upcoming HDB Build-to-Order project, Fernvale Lea, were up in arms. Among other things, they did not like living next to a columbarium, felt their property resale value would be affected, and did not like how a religious site was given to a commercial entity.

Extracts of the debate in Parliament:

MP Seng Han Tong (Ang Mo Kio GRC): What lessons can HDB and other government agencies learn from this incident?

Mr Khaw: I think one takeaway for me from this episode is that times have changed and some of our tender procedures have not caught up with time.

For example, for 20-odd years, we would never have thought that a for-profit company would participate in a non-profit making venture like building a Chinese temple. But, of course, in this instance... the motivations are very different.

But having reached such a situation, I'll find a way to try to unwind this. The key point is, for that Sengkang site we want the Chinese temple and we will deliver that. We do not want a commercial columbarium and we won't have one.

Mr Seng: How clear are URA's plans for development of places of worship?

Mr Khaw: Reservation of place-of-worship sites and so on are clearly marked in our Masterplan. Every five years, MND reviews the Masterplan. If we find that adjustments are needed, we publish those and seek public consultation before we confirm them. So there is full transparency in that regard.

Likewise, HDB's BTO brochures are very clear. In this instance, for example, that there will be a site reserved for a Chinese temple was clearly marked. There was no ambiguity about that.

But I can understand some of the residents' unhappiness because of this indication that there will be a commercial columbarium cropping up in their neighbourhood. So I think those concerns are legitimate and reasonable.

We all make a strong distinction between a commercial columbarium and an incidental columbarium service which is provided by temples and some churches.

MP Lee Bee Wah (Nee Soon GRC): Will the ministry consider disqualifying the company and recalling a tender?

Mr Khaw: A review is ongoing and has in fact been going on for several months. We've been doing many rounds of consultations and the consultation will continue to see how best to tighten some of these tender rules to achieve our planning objectives.

If we want a temple, we really get a temple and not suddenly have a commercial columbarium crop up.

So this review is ongoing and in fact, the reason that triggered the review wasn't this (the Sengkang columbarium). It was that we have gotten quite a number of feedback from some of our temples and churches. They found that when they take part in tender, they often lose out to some bidders whose congregation is much smaller and who already own an existing place of worship.

So they ask: should we not build in a criteria assessment that tries to ascertain needs, rather than whoever happens to have the deepest pocket?

And often some of these deep pockets have an external linkage; they are foreigners, so they were more able to win the tender. So that was what triggered the review.

But as you know, it's not easy to assess needs, especially when different kinds of religious organisations are involved, but we will find a way. We will seek religious wisdom. We will meditate on it.

Dr Lee: Will the ministry disqualify this tender and recall it so that temples, especially smaller temples, can take part in... and make it more affordable? Because many say that if we allow commercial companies to tender for such land, it will drive up the (prices of the) place and then they will have difficulty in getting land.

Mr Khaw: Yes, that is the intent. We are in discussion with the company to see how we can restore this site to its original purpose. Their plans and our plans do not coincide. So we're in discussion. I don't want to go into too much details, but we will find a way to restore this site to its original intent.

MP Lee Li Lian (Punggol East): How can such an incident take place or be overlooked, and what other safeguards are there in place to prevent it from happening again?

Mr Khaw: As I said, this is a case where for many years the tenders are open to commercial companies, with the assumption being the companies are affiliated to some religious organisations and it is a convenient vehicle for the religious organisation to take part and to execute the project.

In fact, some of us recall that the request to include commercial company came from the religious organisations because some of them found it more convenient to do so.

And because temples or churches are non-profit making, we just assumed that (for-profit) making companies will not be taking part in a non-profit making venture. So that was how things cropped up.

... Mr Seng will know a very popular Chinese opera, Butterfly Lovers, or Liang Zhu. It describes the period of old China when girls, unfortunately no matter how talented they were, were not allowed to join schools. So there was this very young, beautiful, talented young lady, Zhu Yingtai, who wanted to study, so she disguised herself as a boy and succeeded in attending the school for three years.

... People just assumed that girls won't turn up, and because they made the assumption, they discovered it only later and (asked) 'why didn't you know'.

So they thought this one looked a bit girlish - but it turned out (she was) a girl.

So it's a similar situation here, that the officers assessing the tender just assumed that it must be a company affiliated to some religious organisation.

And because (Eternal Pure Life) made the highest bid, it was awarded to them. But as I said, we will find a way to forge a middle path forward. The key point is we will restore the planning objective.

MP Baey Yam Keng (Tampines GRC): When the agency assessed the bid and the tender, didn't information about the parentage of the bidder, and the fact that it was incorporated only recently in Singapore, arouse some suspicion or checks?

What is the due diligence that was taken in assessing this tender, and whether lessons learnt could be applied to prevent such instances from happening - not only just for religious sites, but other land use tenders as well?

Mr Khaw: Certainly, out of this incident we learnt some lessons which Mr Seng asked about just now. But as I said, for a quarter of a century we never had a for-profit company taking part in such temple tenders.

Therefore, it never crossed the mind of the officials evaluating the tender. But never mind, having ascertained the situation now, it's not too late to unwind the situation.

MP Fatimah Lateef (Marina Parade GRC): Since (MND) is looking at the review, can you also look at extension of lease for some of the religious organisations, like those competing for land? Some of those temples and religious organisations in my constituency have actually bid for a long time and have waited many years where they really have no choice, and their hands are tied.

Mr Khaw: All right. As I said, you know, the review was meant to look at larger issues and various aspects that have cropped up.

Shortage of land for places of worship is indeed a real issue because unfortunately in Singapore, we are very handicapped as far as land provision is concerned. And that is why in recent years, we have allowed existing places of worship to intensify their land use, (so that they are) able to meet the demand they are now facing.

But at the same time, we are reserving enough sites; but there is always a need to intensify land use, and we will bear those points in mind.

MP Zaqy Mohamad (Chua Chu Kang GRC): On the issue of transparency, one of the sticking points from many of the residents or potential buyers of these flats was that the columbarium was seen to be a fine print. So moving forward, from a URA perspective or sales perspective, how does HDB plan to change this practice?

Mr Khaw: In this instance, there was no question of lack of transparency. The site was clearly marked as a temple.

And in fact, for completeness, the HDB put in a footnote to indicate there may be a columbarium because we cannot assume that the temple will build a columbarium.

I am closely associated with three temples which I visit quite regularly, and out of the three, two have columbarium service. So it's not all three or all zero. And so, some do (have columbariums), some don't.

And even for this new temple that will eventually crop up... we do not know whether they want to put up a columbarium service or not. So we cannot make the assumption.

But I think the unhappiness of the residents over the last few weeks was that they thought we were going to allow a commercial columbarium to be built - and this is quite a different creature from an incidental columbarium service.