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Tuesday, 6 January 2015


MP Dr Lam Pin Min had his hands full these days.  The public announcements of Life Corp winning the tender to develop a Chinese Temple with an integrated Columbarium is located well within his Dr Lam's Sengkang West constituency that is part of the larger Ang Mo Kio GRC, Dr Lam has been stretched thin to find a resolution that will be pleasing and acceptable to residents both current and future.  Let's take a look at some of the different angles of the issue of what is not so straight forward a matter.

Upon the public announcement of the successful tender, buyers and would be future residents of the Fernvale Lea, a Built-To-Order project located next to the proposed Chinese Temple had accused the the HDB of not being forthcoming in their sales brochure.


The above is a site plan of the Fernvale Lea development inside a typical HDB sales brochure.  Buyers or applicants of the BTO project rely on the information provided in the brochure before deciding as to whether they would subscribe to the project or forgo for another.  Typically buyers look first at the block layout plan and the floor plans and select their desired type of flat to subscribe to.  Amenities and other peripheral facilities do influence their decision, but by and large they do not go into details as to ask what kind of school, or community institution, or in this particular case the Chinese Temple before purchase takes place.

On the part of HDB or even URA, it is important as well as being fair to know that they do not have any material information available to offer when proposing the project to members of the public before tenders of the adjacent sites take place.  Having said that, HDB and/or URA do have some fundamental criteria that is affixed to the specific use of land parcels up for tender.  So whether the HDB had or had not been forthcoming remains rather subjective.

Looking at the layout, it seems that HDB planners had in fact acted quite sensibly and sensitively in locating the temple plot at the corner and being shielded by a Multi-Storey-Car-park, and also incorporating a stretch of green buffer.  What that means is that the Chinese Temple is virtually out of sight from the residential blocks, and sound transmission could also have been substantially insulated.  


The saga may not have emerged and gets heated up had LIfe Corp, the successful tenderer not made a public announcement about their intention to provide full suite premium funeral services on top of the integrated columbarium of which they will eventually market on a per niche basis.

With a surely aging and affluent population, Singapore is green pasture for funeral service providers from abroad, and in this case Life Corp which is based in Australia.  Yet, funerals are not something welcoming for Singaporeans who are still flowing with hot Asian blood, no matter what race or religion you belonged to or how well exposed to the world.

Residents hate the idea of constantly having dead bodies lying in the backyard, and the imagination of people crying over dead bodies being a daily routines.

Thereafter, the souls of the dead are said to find their rest at the same place.  What if some of these were reluctant souls and cannot find rest at all?  And they are so near me?

Can you imagine the unsettling fear residents have with that big idea from a company that is not ever Singaporean?

Actually both having funerals and columbarium in close proximity to our home have been part and parcel of HDB living for as long as HDB existed.  Don't we get occasional funerals happening in our void-decks and nearby temples that are also housing ashes of the dead within the neighbourhood for years without complain?  What is so unique about the Life Corp tender that sparks the raising of blood pressure?  Let's put this last question to be answered lower down the scroll.

To mitigate matters, Dr Lam had put together an eye-to-eye meeting for all stakeholders involved.  What came out of this meeting was an assurance that "funeral services" will not be conducted.  With one taboo eliminated, that left one more in the chest.


Residents are said to have demanded for a refund for the purchase of Fernvale Lea.  With the issues of funeral services gone and columbarium well on the side of the authorities and Life Corp, do resident still have sufficient reasons to win the negotiation to stall the project or to have their purchase contract rescinded and get a refund?  

No matter how the negotiations go, the thorn-in-the-flesh will always remain with the authorities (Life Corp not included) that is "politics" with General Elections possibly happening this year or next.  The fingers are pointing at the "Tender Process" noting that URA had allowed a private profit entity to bid for the tender of the land parcel which is clearly stated for "Religious Use" only.  

Dr Lam had also told the media that current regulations did not restrict the types of company that can develop places of worship, but he reiterated that in view of residents' strong view against it, he will reflect it to the authorities......which may take to mean respective Ministers.


Were there flaws with the "tender process" as claimed by disgruntled residents?  As far as we know from Dr Lam, the current regulations do not restrict the type of companies tendering for land parcels designated for "places of worship", in this case a Chinese Temple.

Also, as far as we know, URA that comes under the Ministry of National Development oversees public tender of government land that includes putting in place tender documents that widely covers matters that involves physical development.  The successful tenderer is expected to fully comply with all requirements stipulated in the tender document.  What is left to be answered is : Should URA stipulates the legal entity for which land parcels are tendered for places of worship?

There was a case before the courts about development of a columbarium in 2009 CASE

The case background showed that one of the conditions as laid out in the public tender to develop a columbarium is that the tenderer had to be a "Religious Organization".

While the specifications of the two public tenders are different, with one being a Chinese Temple, and the other a Columbarium, the logical deduction is that it makes more sense that a Religious Organization should have been dictated by the authorities to operate a Chinese Temple, and not the other way round as in the other case.

Was there a change in rules in public tender for land parcels designated for places of worship and for columbarium since 2009?

What is a Chinese Temple and who can operate a Chinese Temple?  By convention, temples in Singapore are mostly run as "Societies" that come under the Societies Act.  Others may do so through a "Company Limited by Guarantee".  Bottom line of both sees individuals taking personal responsibilities and liabilities over the running of the organization, that typically are funded by donations from members and well wishers and as such will also render the organization coming under the scrutiny of the IRAS' Charities Act having being classified as "Charities".

By far, no information about the intended Chinese Temple had been released by Life Corp, inviting more questions.  Have they already registered as a temple prior to the tender or they will only do so after the tender becomes successful?  Who are the trustees of the temple and what corresponding relations do they have with the owners of the "building"?

The biggest question is : If they had not registered themselves as a temple, have they also at material time when they submitted the tender placed themselves in a questionable position of the law when they have not gotten themselves the satisfactory conditions and official approval?


By having no restrictions built into the tender documents, did URA or HDB actually allowed a backdoor entry for a commercial, for profit entity to gain unfair benefits of what the government may have given special grace for community benefits and mutual help?

Religious organizations by way of their operations and coming under strict regulatory controls are restricted from financial activities that a commercial entity enjoys, and so are the difference in risks and responsibilities.  Thus my view of this tender had been unfairly conducted.


So what should be the best outcome of the ongoing negotiation?  In my opinion, the best outcome for everyone is to have the "Tender" annulled as a result of separate negotiation between the authorities and the successful tenderer.

For buyers of Fernvale Lea, rescinding the purchase contract will sure set them back at all ends with no refund going by the contract.  If they chose to live on they will end up being unhappy Singaporeans and thus unhappy voters at the General Elections for which they may be forced to vote for some that in truth not suitable to rule.  NO ONE GAINS.  Not the residents, not the government.

Is it going to be a lost of face for the government and seen as backing down by popular pressure, something the PAP is proud to say that they will never?  Not at all.

The Magic Wand is given into the hands of MP Dr Lam Pin Min to wield it to his and his party's benefit.


Returning to a previous question, "Why is this case so unique?"

Singaporeans now felt empowered through social media.  Popular sentiments can cause a lot of good as well as destruction.  No longer are we living in the days when things simply gets by easily, unquestioned.

Much of the ways we do things remain in the old mode even as gradual change has begun.  This case has provide the unique opportunity for the government to relook, re-calibrate the way, those mundane things that lower rung civil servants do day in and out.  More zest can be added into these when officials begin to see how far fetched the implications of what used to be the old normal can be, and learn to stretch their imaginations and thinking farther than before.

On politics, no longer are we living in the days when the Minister will always be the boss of the MP.  The segregation of roles and duties are expected to be visible by a whole new generation of Singaporeans.  One question that brought up by alternative media was "Why was Dr Lam seated with the panel?".

Even with my bad blood with alternative media, I have to agree that Dr Lam should be seated opposite the panel and be on the side of residents questioning the authorities.  Dr Lam is the elected MP by the people and that is the role he should be playing during that meeting.

I have broken my own rule of keeping articles short.  But as the question goes, this is an unique case that requires unique treatment.

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