Never thought a for-profit firm would vie for non-profit venture, says Khaw

National Development Minister Khaw Boon Wan was pressed on the Sengkang columbarium controversy by six other MPs in Parliament yesterday. Here are some highlights:

ON THE FINE PRINT IN BTO BROCHURE

Both Mr Seng Han Thong (Ang Mo Kio GRC) and Mr Zaqy Mohamad (Chua Chu Kang GRC) highlighted residents' concerns that potentially sensitive information, such as the presence of a columbarium, should not be hidden in the fine print of the Housing Board's sales brochures.

Mr Zaqy: One of the sticking points from many of the residents or potential buyers of these flats was that the columbarium was (mentioned in) the fine print. So, moving forward, from a URA (Urban Redevelopment Authority) perspective or sales perspective, how does HDB plan to change this practice?

Mr Khaw: HDB's BTO (Build- to-Order) 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 would 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.

ON THE REVIEW OF THE TENDER PROCESS FOR RELIGIOUS SITES

Ms Lee Bee Wah (Nee Soon GRC) asked if the tender process for religious sites would bar commercial companies from bidding.

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

We have gotten (quite a lot) of feedback from some of our temples and churches. They found that when they take part in tenders, they often lose out to some bidders, whose congregations are 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 pockets? But, as you know, it is not easy to assess needs, especially when different kinds of religious organisations are involved, but we will find a way.

ON LESSONS LEARNT

Mr Seng asked what the Government can 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 will 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.

ON CHECKS AND BALANCES

Mr Khaw was also questioned by Mr Baey Yam Keng (Tampines GRC) on why the HDB did not perform its due diligence in assessing the Sengkang tender.

Mr Baey: 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?

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 minds of the officials evaluating the tender. But never mind, having ascertained the situation now, it is not too late to unwind the situation.