Sengkang plot not for commercial columbarium: Khaw

SINGAPORE - No commercially-driven columbarium will be built on land set aside for a Chinese temple, National Development Minister Khaw Boon Wan told Parliament yesterday.

He explained that the project in Sengkang was awarded to funeral services firm Eternal Pure Land (EPL) because Housing Board officers assumed that the company was acting for a religious group.

"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," said Mr Khaw, adding that a review of the tender process was ongoing. "The key point is... we do not want a commercial columbarium, and we won't have one.

"But having reached such a situation, I will find a way to try to unwind this."

While a commercial columbarium was ruled out for the site, an incidental columbarium offered as a service by a temple was acceptable, he said.

Mr Khaw added that the Ministry of National Development is in talks with EPL, whose parent company, Life Corporation, had raised $20 million to fund the project.

Soon after the company's plans for the columbarium were shot down yesterday, it asked the Australian Securities Exchange, on which it is listed, to stop trading in its shares for 48 hours.

The controversy ignited last month after a Straits Times article highlighted that a new columbarium was going to be built next to the Build-to-Order project Fernvale Lea, catching future residents by surprise. At first, the authorities said the columbarium could go ahead as it met guidelines.

Yesterday, MPs Lee Bee Wah (Nee Soon GRC) and Fatimah Lateef (Marine Parade GRC) questioned if it was fair for a purely for-profit company to challenge religious organisations for scarce land.

Mr Baey Yam Keng (Tampines GRC) and the Workers' Party's Ms Lee Li Lian (Punggol East) asked if enough checks were done before a site reserved for a place of worship was awarded to a commercial firm.

Mr Khaw explained that private companies have always been able to bid for such sites. However, these firms were either set up by or in joint ventures with religious organisations. EPL was the first to break the mould.

"The officers assessing the tender just assumed (EPL) must be affiliated to some religious organisation, and because it made the highest bid, (the tender) was awarded to it."

He said the government had been looking to tighten tender rules even before the controversy broke. Some religious organisations had complained about losing bids to groups with smaller congregations or to those with deeper pockets.

"It is 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."

lesterh@sph.com.sg