On 6 July, thousands of devotees thronged the Toa Payoh stadium to celebrate the Ratha Yatra festival, or the Chariot Festival, where Hindus mark the journey of Lord Jagannath, from his temple in Puri, India, to his garden palace in the countryside.
The festival is celebrated in various parts of India as well, especially in Odisha, Manipur and West Bengal.
Jagannath, which means “Lord of the Universe”, is also recognised or worshipped as a form of the Hindu god Vishnu, or Krishna.
The celebration at Toa Payoh stadium was organised by the Sri Krishna Mandir, also called the Hare Krishna Temple, a religious society registered with the authorities since 1997.
The name is a little of a misnomer because the society does not have a proper temple, which is why it had to hold the Ratha Yatra at a stadium, as indeed it has done since 2006.
This year’s festivities saw some 15,000 devotees turn up, organisers told The Online Citizen (TOC).
This has lent urgency to the society’s plans to build a proper temple for worship and other activities.
In fact, the society has been appealing to the authorities for 14 years, even going to the courts earlier this year, to seek answers to its predicament of not being able to operate and to serve its adherents through a proper temple.
At the moment, the society holds its devotional and outreach activities on two floors in a small building in Geylang.
“We are unable to fully engage in our welfare activities due to space constraints,” Sundar Gopal Das, president of Sri Krishna Mandir, told TOC. “When we were located at a much bigger premises in Norris Rd from 2002 to 2007, we used to feed 20,000 free meals every month to the poor, needy and the unfortunate through our sister society named Sri Krishna Mandir Welfare Society. We cannot realize that at our current premises in Geylang owing to space constraints.”
He also said that the lack of a permanent temple premises does not give the society the visibility and identity it needs to reach out to the needy.
Denied by HDB
On 24 March 2000, the Housing and Development Board (HDB) announced that it was “inviting tenders for the purchase of a land parcel at Bedok North Avenue 4 for Hindu temple development.”
Elated that it might finally be able to build its own temple, the Sri Krishna Mandir submitted a bid for the 1,875 sq m plot on 4 May 2000, the deadline for the tender.
The society also provided a deposit of S$100,000 with the bid.
However, about two weeks later, on 17 May, the HDB informed Sri Krishna Mandir that its bid was unsuccessful.
No reasons or explanation were given by the HDB.
The temple then offered to raise its bid but this was rejected by the HDB which said that tenders submitted cannot be amended or withdrawn, and as such it could not consider Sri Krishna Mandir’s offer to up its bid price.
There were only two bids submitted for the purchase of the plot of land in Bedok North, with the amount by Sri Krishna Mandir being the higher one.
Search for answers
This rejection by the HDB sparked a 14-year search for answers by the society to the question of why the HDB had rejected the bid. The society said it “had made several attempts through the years to seek some clarification beyond the cursory response from HDB” but all these attempts were in vain.
Among those the society had sought help from were the president of Singapore, SR Nathan; the Deputy Prime Minister and Law Minister, S Jayakumar; and the Member of Parliament for Jalan Besar GRC, Lee Boon Yang.
The answer finally came – in June 2007 – from the permanent secretary of the Ministry of Law.
“According to our records,” Mr Ng Chiu Chin, the permanent secretary, said, “Sri Krishna Mandir was not awarded the site in May 2000 as its bid was below the Government’s reserve price for the land.”
The tender notice put out by the Government had not revealed what this reserve price was.
The permanent secretary then said he was unable to help the society with its request to purchase the land as there were “currently no plan by the Government to re-launch” the site for sale.
About 3 weeks later, also in response to the society’s appeal, Mr Ng reiterated that “the Government has no plans to launch new sites for a Hindu temple.”
In 2011, Sri Krishna Mandir wrote to Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong about the matter, seeking his help to secure land for a temple.
The PMO referred the case to the HDB which in turn referred it to the Singapore Land Authority (SLA).
The SLA’s Commissioner of Lands repeated the reason why the society’s tender bid was rejected – because it was below the Government’s reserve price for the land.
However, the SLA also explained that “there are currently sufficient temples in Singapore to cater to the religious, cultural and social needs of the Hindu community.”
It added that it will consult with “community stakeholders” and “continue to monitor the demand from the Hindu population” for such temples.
Undeterred, in 2012, the society wrote to Deputy Prime Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam, who promised to look into the matter – but this too was apparently to no avail.
In 2013, it sought the help from Member of Parliament for Marine Parade GRC, Fatimah Lateef, who had earlier helped the society with its organisation of an event.
The SLA again responded to Sri Krishna Mandir’s appeal and rejected its plea.
“Under our policy,” the SLA said, “State land capable of independent development has to be sold via public tender for fair play and transparency.”
In perhaps its final attempt to secure land to build a temple, after all its unsuccessful attempts to seek help from the government, the Sri Krishna Mandir filed a court case against the HDB in July this year, asking the court to review the tender process of May 2000 when the plot of land was first put up for bidding.
The court, however, dismissed the case.
The society, alas, feels at a lost, especially since there have been no land put up for Hindu temple development since.
“There [have been] no tenders for Hindu Temples since 2000,” Sri Krishna Mandir told TOC, “[although] there was one relocation of a Hindu Temple in Sengkang after 2001.”
The society said they “were told” in 2004 by the then Ministry of Community Development and Sports (MCDS) that “most of the temples registered with the Hindu Endowment Board (HEB) already have premises (temples) permanently sited.”
When asked why the society was not registered with the HEB, Sri Krishna Mandir explained, “We tried to get ourselves registered with the HEB in 2003. HEB is a statutory board under the then MCDS. But we were informed in writing from MCDS after almost a year of our inquiry that we were not eligible to be registered under the HEB because we were not one of the ‘more established temples’, according to them.”
It would thus seem that the society is caught in a no-win situation – it cannot secure tendered land because its bid was deemed to be too low although it was willing to up its bid; and that the Government has no plans to re-launch the site for sale. It was also told that there are already “sufficient temples” in Singapore for Hindus.
It begs the question of why land was put up for tender specifically for “Hindu temple development” in the first place, if there were already enough such temples, as the authorities claimed.
Why also did not the government re-launch the site for sale after the first (unsuccessful) tender exercise, given that the land was already designated for “Hindu temple development”?
Besides the logistical and outreach limitations, there is also a spiritual and religious reason why the society needs a proper temple.
“The temple deities have to be housed in a proper, permanent temple structure and are not to be moved about here and there randomly,” Sundar Gopal Das explained to TOC. “It constitutes a great offence in the worship of the Lord.”
While the Sri Krishna Mandir continues its search for answers, the plot of land in Bedok initially put up for tender in 2000 has been sitting vacant ever since.