Politics of memorial spaces

It is in the public interest that HDB's agreement with a firm relating to a temple site in Sengkang has been unwound in a businesslike way. Considering the disconcerting circumstances surrounding the award of what started out as a routine tender, the resolution was expedient. Had the company insisted on taking a judicial path, after National Development Minister Khaw Boon Wan ruled out the building of a commercial columbarium, little would have been gained from an airing of, say, issues of fact relating to the tender process or of law relating to the doctrine of frustration. The mutuality of the contract's termination allows the company, Eternal Pure Land, to pursue its columbarium business in another spot; and it preserves the planning objective of creating a place of worship at the Sengkang site.

Unfortunate as this episode was, it serves to demonstrate the State's responsiveness to rational objections raised by groups. And as a civil service case study of how even seemingly durable operating principles can be tripped up by assumptions, it can help to strengthen the detailed processes managed by agencies with onerous portfolios. What is at stake is the safeguarding of the Government's reputation for honouring agreements and respecting legal rights owed to firms or individuals. Flip-flop decisions are not associated with Singapore where consistency, forethought and sound management are distinguishing marks of governance.

Another facet of the Sengkang controversy worth noting is the aversion among some towards a columbarium in the neighbourhood. The reality is that the need for bereavement and interment services is growing everywhere as the baby boom generation enters its twilight years. In Hong Kong, the persistent undersupply of burial places has led to unapproved columbaria springing up even in industrial and commercial buildings. When governments cannot cope with the demand, it's natural for commercial operators to step in to not just provide funeral parlours but also develop burial and columbarium sites, as in Malaysia.

Meanwhile, in Britain and elsewhere, the notion of "green" departures is finding favour so the dead can return to nature unobtrusively at sea or at sites mostly managed as nature reserves.

In land-scarce Singapore, one might consider efficient systems of organising columbarium niches and automated retrieval for private viewing. Whatever their design, these facilities must be located in places that are relatively accessible. Of course, elaborate memorials and lengthy public rituals belong to a bygone era, but to go the other way and consign commemoration to a distant site would be wrong. Memories, too, deserve a place in the heartland.