The exchange that the Minister for National Development Khaw Boon Wan had with fellow parliamentarians on the Sengkang columbarium issues deserves a closer look, not least because the key thrust of the debate seems to be conveniently lost in headlines that declare, “there will be no commercial columbarium in Fernvale”.
Also not helpful is what I can only best describe as a serious misrepresentation of the concerns brought up by residents about the columbarium, which some media outlets put it rather simplistically as 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.”
Mr Khaw’s responses in Parliament yesterday can basically be distilled into three key points: The tender with for-profit company Eternal Pureland Pte Ltd (EPL) to build a temple on land for non-profit purposes will continue; MND acknowledges that the land was meant for non-profit uses, and is “in discussions with EPL” to build a temple rather than a “commercial columbarium”; and there are serious gaps in the MND tendering process, which will be reviewed.
Is MND’s approach to the whole issue sufficient in answering the concerns of the residents directly involved, and the confidence in the public about MND’s ability to deal with such issues?
First, the portrayal of how residents reacted to the whole issue had stuck with the not-in-my-back-yard formula – that they did not want the columbarium because it affects them personally. Even Mr Khaw could not resist saying:
“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.”
A closer read of the open letter from the residents, sent to the Minister himself, would reveal that their concerns are nowhere near this NIMBY hypothesis. Concerns about the devaluation of their property never entered the letter.
Instead, what we see are their concerns that the award of the tender to a commercial company would set an unfortunate precedence for unfair competition between for-profit businesses and non-profit organisations. They also took issue with how the Housing Development Board “hide critical material information under ultra-fine prints and vague uncertain phrases” in what they see as an attempt to inflate the price of the property by being opaque with the full details.
They made a call for HDB to effectively and unconditionally cancel their deal for the homes they have paid a deposit for, or to cancel the tender to EPL in favour for more non-profit purposes.
In his reply, Mr Khaw never addressed these issues directly. In fact, we are to understand that EPL would continue to be the valid tenderer for the temple/columbarium project, with Mr Khaw suggesting that the move will be from a “commercial columbarium” to an “incidental columbarium”.
There will be no lack of raised eyebrows for this preposition. Assuming that a for-profit entity would even entertain doing things in a non-profit way, such a “middle path” as Mr Khaw would likely call it lends itself to issues of drawing very thin lines on what a for-profit entity might be permitted to do as a non-profit outcome.
Why would anyone have faith that MND and HDB would be able to draw those lines, given that the current situation was a result of the agency “just assuming that it must be a company affiliated to some religious organisation”? Who would police EPL? Why not start on a clean slate to eradicated such ambiguity, rather than offer any opportunity at by-passing the rules?
In fact, MPs Lee Li Lain and Baey Yam Keng both identified that this lack of due diligence on the part of the tendering agency needs to be checked and amended, not just for MND but also for future tenders which involve land use.
Unfortunately, Mr Khaw made two statements that would have most baffled, if not question the capacity of MND and its statutory boards to do it right again:
“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.”
“Their (EPL’s) plans and our plans do not coincide.”
It is only right that Mr Khaw should call for a review of the tender processes, which he did. But beyond demanding for accountability by calling on MND to follow up and reveal the eventual results of the review, what we should be concerned about is how MND seems to have taken a flippant attitude towards the whole matter.
That EPL’s commercial intention for a non-profit site was allowed to pass because they “made the highest bid”, as Mr Khaw has admitted, speaks volumes about the government’s approach towards tenders, particularly those for land use.
So one might wonder what Mr Khaw meant when he said that the review would “tighten tender rules to achieve MND’s planning objectives”. A holistic approach would necessarily need to consider matters of transparency, not just for how the tendering agency can be accountable to the people by building in more specific tender requirements, but how bidders need to disclose their interests and business affiliations.
Unfortunately, letting EPL proceed with the project, regardless of any new terms and conditions imposed by MND, will continue to be a sting in the hide of the whole issue. It is emblematic of a system that penalises citizens, even if unintentionally, because it is unable to distinguish between social and commercial interests.