By Andrew Loh
Australian company Life Corporation’s venture into the death business in Singapore may be the precursor of bigger things to come, as far as funeral services are concerned.
The successful bid for a plot of land in Sengkang by Life Corporation’s subsidiary, Eternal Pure Land Pte Ltd, to build a Chinese temple and columbarium has been in the news since 30 December, when would-be residents who had purchased build-to-order flats there protested that they were not informed of the columbarium at the point of sale.
After much controversy and an intervention by the precinct’s Member of Parliament, Lam Pin Min, the authorities have apparently stuck to their guns and declined to budge on their position.
Instead, the Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA) and the Housing Development Board (HDB) issued a joint-statement on Tuesday that they will “ensure that Life Corp adheres to the planning guidelines set for the land which has been zoned as a ‘place of worship’ in URA’s master plan since 2003.”
The two government agencies also said that Life Corp “has affirmed its commitment to run the temple to serve the community.”
The URA and the HDB also reiterated that the temple-cum-columbarium will be integrated into the surrounding environment.
In other words, the authorities seem to have avoided residents’ concerns entirely, as their joint-statement ignored the points raised by those affected by the development.
Besides their questions of why such an important fact – that a columbarium would be included in the temple – was relegated to the fine prints in a footnote in the sale brochure, the residents also asked how a foreign and private for-profit company could be allowed to bid for land in Singapore which is set aside for religious worship or purposes.
This, said the residents and other religious organisations, will put the (local) religious organisations in direct competition with private companies which often are better endowed financially.
Life Corp’s bid, for example, was a million dollars more than the second highest bid, and about 3 times the third highest bid. The latter two bids were from religious organisations.
Life Corp eventually won the rights to the land, at a cost of S$5 million.
The company said it will have to fork out a further S$15 million to build the temple-cum-columbarium.
The URA and the HDB joint-statement virtually reaffirming the government’s approval of private companies, including foreign ones, bidding for land designated for religious worship, has now opened up the sector to other private companies to compete with religious organisations to offer death care services.
And one such company which has its eyes set on the Singapore funeral or death business is Taiwan’s Lung Yen Life Service.
Set up in 1992 by David Lee, Lung Yen’s operation has grown to dominate Taiwan’s cemetery and funeral services business.
“Today, Lung Yen runs seven cemeteries in Taiwan and offers sophisticated funeral services,” reports Asia Nikkei last April. “It has some 3,000 employees. One of the company’s big selling points is quality control — it has adopted similar methods to those used in manufacturing to ensure customers receive consistent service.”
One of the company’s biggest projects was the construction of “a 20-storey columbarium — a structure with vaults for urns — at its main cemetery on the outskirts of Taipei” called True Dragon Tower.
“The tower, which is more than 100 meters tall, has a spacious lobby and luxurious interiors resembling a high-end hotel,” Asia Nikkei says.
The company has become so successful that Mr Lee, also known as Lee Shih-Tsung, was featured on the cover of Forbes magazine in 2013, as one of Taiwan’s richest persons, with a fortune of some US$850 million.
Lung Yen is the world’s third largest funeral services company, according to Forbes, after America’s Service Corporation International, and Hillenbrand Incorporated.
However, while it dominates Taiwan’s funeral service sector, Lung Yen is now casting its sights further, given “the limited prospects for expansion on its home island of 23 million people.”
Bloomberg reported in January last year that Lung Yen “plans to expand to Hong Kong and Singapore as populations across the region age.”
“The company is in talks with the respective governments to obtain licenses and will invest at least NT$10 billion ($331 million) in each market,” Bloomberg said.
The company expects to receive government approval to enter Hong Kong and Singapore in two years, Bloomberg says, and its “investments will include cemeteries, columbariums — or vaults with niches for urns containing the ashes of cremated bodies — and funeral services.”
Mr Lee also disclosed that his company has formed a unit to study overseas markets including Malaysia and China.
“We plan to become the world’s largest brand among the Chinese community, with a focus in Asia,” Mr Lee said. “We are also optimistic on the China market because of its large population.”
“Prices at Lung Yen’s True Dragon Tower range start at NT$300,000 for a one-person niche and a space for a family of 24 can go for as much as NT$12.5 million, Lee said.
“Lung Yen’s top line porcelain urns manufactured by Okura Art China, a favorite brand of the Japanese royal family, according to the company’s marketing materials, sell for as much as NT$500,000.” (Bloomberg)
One of its premium services include spa treatment for the dead.
“The company also offers a spa service for the deceased, where the embalmer follows a 35-step process including hair and body washing, massage, hair dying and manicure, he said. Families can watch the process. A two-hour spa treatment costs about NT$25,000.” (Bloomberg)
With foreign companies like Lung Yen and Life Corp setting their sights on the death care business in land-scarce Singapore, how will this change the landscape for the sector?
And perhaps more importantly, how will less financially endowed religious organisations compete with these for-profit companies with hefty financial clout?
In light of the Sengkang columbarium saga, some religious leaders in Singapore have expressed dismay that a private and commercial company was allowed to bid for land designated for religious worship.
The only shield from such potential one-sided competition is perhaps the government and its policies on land use for religious worship or purposes in Singapore.
As Lung Yen’s Mr Lee says, “The key is to win support from local governments.”
Last month, National Development Minister Khaw Boon Wan said his ministry “is exploring the idea of housing multiple groups of the same religion in multi-storey buildings that will likely be located within or at the fringe of industrial areas.”
“Mr Khaw noted that while the Government has released land sites for places of worship, many small temples and churches find them too big for their needs and hence, unaffordable,” the Straits Times reported.