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Stalemate between authorities and residents over planned Chinese temple and columbarium

dialogsession at sengkang

Dialogue session came to a stalemate between authorities and the future residents of Fernvale Lea after 3 hours of conversation on the issue of the planned Chinese temple and columbarium at Fernvale Link.

Over 400 residents attended the dialogue session called by Dr Lam Pin in, MP of Seng Kang West SMC after concerns from the residents came up to him about the planned Chinese temple and columbarium at Fernvale Link. The dialogue session also had representatives of the Life Corporation Pte Ltd, Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA) and Housing Development Board (HDB).

Many of the Fernvale Lea's future residents were alarmed to know from news that their estate or soon-to-be-completed homes are to be situated next to a Chinese temple, which would house a columbarium within its premises.

Life corp ltd
Planned columbarium in Fernvale Link. Photo from Life Corporation Pte Ltd

The temple, which is set to be completed next year, will be located next to Fernvale Lea, a Build-to-Order (BTO) project which is expected to be ready for occupation later this year.

An online petition was created last Tuesday to stop the development of the columbarium. The petition has since garnered more than 900 signatures, prompting Dr. Lam to call for a dialogue session on Sunday to address the concerns of the future residents.

The dialogue session was closed to the media coverage, and the organisers of the dialogue session had tried numerous times to direct members of the media to the conference area. Reporters had to listen through the gaps of the doors to listen what was happening inside the session.

Dr Lam said URA guidelines did not restrict the type of company that can develop a religious institution. He also said that it is understood from the URA that it has been done before and shared that the Chinese temple to be build is not a full cremation centre as with places such as Guang Ming Shan Temple at Sim Ming Avenue.

He added that the residents should have known that there was a Chinese temple to be built in the area and that the fine prints on the brochure had already indicated that the facilities may include other ancillary uses such as columbarium which are allowed under URA's prevailing Development Control guidelines.

fine print on brocedure

Mr Simon Hoo, chief executive of Life Corp tried to assure the residents that the planned Chinese temple will not have anything of the columbarium in sight of the residents. The Chinese temple would also ensure that no burning of offerings and incense papers in the vicinity. He also said that measures would be made to manage the expected traffic which would come during the festive seasons.

Tension and exhaustion started to kick in for the participants of the dialogue when the Dr. Lam kept skirting around the key issues which the residents brought up in the Question and Answer (Q & A) session.

One resident even commented to Dr. Lam that he wonder if Dr. Lam would continue to be the MP of the constituency after the next general election.

Misrepresentation by press? 

Dr. Lam in his address to the residents had said that the press and social media had misrepresented the whole issue about the Chinese Temple and columbarium as mentions of funeral palour and cremation at the premises by the media were untrue.

A resident stood up during the Q & A session and asked for the company representatives to clarify if the report by Straits Times on 30 December was indeed nonfactual and to clarify the misrepresented points.

Mr Simon said that the press had taken the issue out of context but did not clarify on the points further.

Hard to please residents regardless what was built?

Dr. Lam further went on in the dialogue session to say that it is a difficult situation for the authorities as residents would complain no matter what was built at the estate. Even if it was a childcare centre, there would be people who say that they do not want it. His comment was immediately met with an out-roar of disagreement by the residents.

Mr John stood up and said, "If you have a dry market, wet market or anything else, we would say yes", the residents clapped in agreement to his comment.

"How did you decide that it is acceptable to have a columbarium for all of us?" , asked the residents. Dr. Lam again referred to the guidelines by URA about its planning.

One resident also added that HDB or the MP should have conducted a survey with the residents to understand if the columbarium is to be an issue or what facilities would the residents want.

"Most of us are young families with young children, why would we want a columbarium at our estate?", added another resident.

A private company awarded the tender for building a Chinese temple?

Ms Sharon Toh asked if the company that will be running the Chinese temple is a non-profit organisation, an entity registered with the Buddhist Association, a charitable organisation registered as IPC to the panel. Mr Simon replied "No" for all the questions asked.

Her point was that, why is a Chinese temple run by a private company which sole purpose would likely be for profits and not charitable and religious purposes.

Dr. Lam's subsequent reply to similar questions was that the tender was open to both private companies and non-profit organisations with no further elaboration.

One of the families noted to the panel that while the representing company, Life Corporation Ptd Ltd is a listed company, the company which won the tender bid at $5.2 million dollars is Eternal Pureland Pte Ltd, a company which was set up just weeks before it won the tender by HDB/URA on 8 July 2014.

The family added that the company is a company with $1 paid up capital owned by another company with $3 paid up capital. The company lists its services in ACRA as funeral services, embalming, managing of cemetery and, etc. They also pointed out that this essentially means the company provides a one-stop funeral service with nothing related to religious activity.

A spokesperson from HDB said that it was perfectly normal for companies to set up just weeks before a tender to bid for the project but did not elaborate further. Dr. Lam also did not comment on this point raised by the family.

Another resident questioned if the Chinese temple would eventually consider adding on additional services, five years from now and if anyone could put their word to it.

After a long silence from the panel, Mr Simon said that they would have to abide by the guidelines set by the URA standards in their operation even if another company takes over the operation.

However, through the questions by the residents. It was made known that the company has not tied in with any religious body to run the temple and still in talks with religious groups on the issue.

One resident mentioned that it is clear that the Chinese temple is meant for the purpose of columbarium and not for religious purposes. This is shown by the fact that the private company has not even confirm which will be religious group that will be using the premises for religious purposes.

The residents whom TOC spoke to said, does it mean that this will mark a trend of private entities bidding for land marked for religious activities with the intention to profit?

tender amount for fernvale

The residents also asked the panel on how could non-profitable religious groups outbid commercial entities like Life Corporation Pte Ltd and whether HDB had scrutinised the background of the tendering companies. Their questions were not replied by the panel.

Residents feel cheated by HDB/URA

Residents said that they felt cheated. One couple said that if HDB/URA had intended to build a Chinese temple/Columbarium at the estate, it should have put it in clear wordings and not in fine prints. He and his wife only got to know of this when news broke out about the issue in December.

One resident said during the Q&A session, "If you have put that (the building of columbarium) into the brochure, you see how many of us would buy the place." His comment was met with cheers of agreement by the rest of the residents.

"We have paid a deposit of $40,000 to HDB and if we were to forfeit the BTO flat, we have to pay a 5% forfeit charge as well as a 1 year ban on BTO selection. We also would have to wait another 3,4,5 years before we can get the new BTO flats. How can we start our family like this?", Said another agitated lady, Ms Velu (not her real name) at the dialogue. She was angry at the fact that HDB only sent their sales service officer down for the dialogue instead of a director who could make decisions.

Residents whom TOC spoke to said that they would be ok with a Chinese temple to be build at their HDB flat as they understand that Singapore is a multi-cultural country though they were Muslims or Hindus. However, they found it unacceptable for a columbarium to be situated right next to their home.

"What will happen when 7th Month comes?" asked an Indian resident to the panel. He further said that columbarium is a sensitive place and asked Dr Lam to imagine if the road signs at Sengkang were all pointing to a Chinese temple / columbarium. "The next time I call a taxi to my home, I would tell the driver to bring me to the columbarium."

"Out of sight yes, but not out of mind," said the residents.

The residents are also concerned that their flat would devalue upon resale should they choose to sell their flat.

It is not fair for them, said one resident, "We can surely not get the amount we paid for our flat when we sell our flats. The columbarium would be a factor as with amenities."

There was no information nor mention about how many urns would the columbarium hold in its premises by the representatives of Life Corporation Pte Ltd.

As the columbarium would be utilising a high-tech system from Japan to store and retrieve urns from its storage, the residents have estimated that based on the floor area allocated to the storage of urns, the columbarium could hold up to 90,000 urns. This rough estimation that is spreading among the residents added to the discontent that a columbarium would be build right next to their home.

A "win-win" solution preferred

The residents are looking at two possible remedy actions for their predicament.

Either HDB to shift or cancel the plan to build a columbarium at the estate; or to allow full refund of their deposit, waiver of the 1 year ban due to cancellation and to assist to find another BTO flat with high priority as many of the flat owners are young couples forming their own families.

"How do you expect us to form a family if you are going to ask me to take a year ban from bidding for BTO and another 4 years for the flat to be completed?" said Ms Pan. The unit that she and her husband choose will be facing straight at the Chinese temple and could easily see the insides of the temple as the temple will have a glass roof.

Case to case basis

Many of whom TOC spoke to were annoyed by HDB's stance that their cases will be handled on a case-to-case basis. "What case to case basis? This is just one incident involving many residents!" exclaimed the resident who has just spoken to the HDB representative at the dialogue session.

Residents were told to write down their name with the representative from HDB if they would want to get a refund.

 

HDB representative
HDB representative speaking with the future residents of Fernvale Lea

Helplessness and disappointment on the issue

Speaking with the residents who were at the dialogue, they expressed mixed feelings about the dialogue session with Dr. Lam.

Some said that they expected the authorities to go ahead with their plans but came down to hear what they had to say. While some were very disappointed and angry at the lack of possible remedy actions on their situation as well as the non-replies to their questions.

Some felt that Dr Lam was avoiding the questions posed by the residents and kept diverting to attempt to address other questions that the residents did not have. Residents can be seen leaving halfway through the dialogue session before it ended as no resolution was in sight.

It also seems that there is no intention to address the issues by the residents, as the organisers of the dialogue session did not provide any contact person from HDB nor any authorities to contact in regards to this issue. The worry of the residents is that they would have to repeat their whole story with anyone from the authorites whom they manage to get hold.

With many of the families looking to settle down in their new home at Fernvale Lea with all the paid up deposit and after waiting years for the completion of their flat. Their options remain limited if HDB do not offer any alternatives for them to take up.

The residents have said that they will wait till next Friday for a reply from HDB and would consider other options subsequently if there are no actions taken.

"Let this incident be a lesson for all future flat owners," said Ms Velu.