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Fancy paying HDB studio price for a columbarium niche?

Life corp ltd
Planned "Chinese Temple" at Fernvale. Image from Life Corp Pte Ltd

By TR Emeritus

The recent Sengkang columbarium saga shows that “properties” for the dead may be mirroring the development trend of properties for the living in Singapore.

TRE examined HDB’s past land tender records for building Chinese temples and found that the recent Fernvale Link land parcel tender was, for the first time, successfully won by a public listed company (Eternal Pure Land Pte Ltd, a subsidiary of Australian listed company Life Corporation Ltd).

Since 1991, HDB has successfully awarded its land parcels to 20 entities for building Chinese temples. As per URA’s Development Control guidelines, these places of worship are allowed to include ancillary uses such as columbarium service (‘Deciphering HDB’s Fernvale Lea brochure‘).

The past 20 HDB land tenders for building Chinese temples have seen 102 bids. All of these 102 bids to build a Chinese temple were made by religious societies, associations and individuals. Only 3 were from companies but they are private companies. Just one of the private companies won a tender but it was a joint tender with a temple. In any case, that tender was meant for building a Chinese temple with funeral parlour service.

Hence, the only time a public listed company has been involved and won a HDB land tender for building a Chinese temple cum columbarium is the recent case at Fernvale Link in Sengkang.

This sets a dangerous precedent because public listed companies have considerable financial muscle. They can easily raise money from the public through bonds, right issues, warrants etc to outbid individuals, temples, religious associations and societies in any land parcel tender.

If more public listed companies are involved in a tender, the land parcels can be bid up to a sky high price, with HDB laughing all the way to the bank.

The winning company, in order to recoup its land and other costs, will have to sell the columbarium niches (spaces) at sky high prices too. This is similar to HDB tendering out land to private developers to build Design, Build and Sell Scheme (DBSS) flats, and later the developers will sell them to “living” Singaporeans. In the case of columbarium niches, it is the “living” paying the “developer” to house the “dead”.

Fernvale residents concerned over public listed company operating temple

At a town hall meeting between MP Lam Pin Min and Fernvale residents last Sunday (4 Jan), a resident by the name of Sharon Toh questioned why a public listed company was allowed to bid for a land parcel meant for a temple: (see here)

Sharon: Personally, I do not object to the building of any temple or monastery, even church, but now I am very doubtful of the usage of this piece of land by the relevant departments and company that tendered and bid for it.

She then addressed Life Corp MD Simon Hoo.

Sharon (in Mandarin): On 30 December, you had stated in the Straits Times and Chinese papers about providing one-stop funeral services. Also, it is stated very clearly in Life Corp’s circular to shareholders. After being awarded the land tender, there will be a series of development plans to provide funeral parlour services, columbarium, and one-stop funeral services, etc, earlier it was said to have a crematorium. However, after you met up with Dr Lam, you claimed that only columbarium services will be provided and no funeral services. I wish to clarify your operations.

What sort of assurance are you giving to the residents that one-stop funeral services will not be provided?

After providing this assurance, how do you account to Life Corp shareholders?

If at a later date, your shareholders insist on providing one-stop funeral services, then will one-stop funeral services be provided in future?

Simon: Please allow me to reply in English. Thank you for your questions and these are valid questions. First, I need to clarify about the article that came out in the Straits Times on 30 December, I did not give an interview. A reporter called me when I was on my way for holidays with my family. I informed that it was not the right time to answer the queries. It was a 2-minute conversation. After that investigative journalism came into play. They read our annual reports and announcements, and the story gelled. It was published without verification or confirmation from us. In terms of what Sharon said, our shareholders’ announcement contains a statement of a full swing of funeral services right up to columbarium, that is true. It is a business model but not necessarily to be carried out in Fernvale area.

Sharon: It seems like my questions are not answered. Is this land operated by Life Corp or Eternal Pure Land?

Simon: Life Corp is the parent company. Eternal Pure Land will be the operator. However, the management team will be the same.

Sharon: Is Life Corp or Pure Land registered as a religious organization in Singapore?

Simon: No.

Sharon: Is it a non-profit organization?

Simon: No.

Sharon: Is it registered as a charitable organization?

Simon: No.

Sharon: If it is not anything of that nature, supposedly you are also not an organization registered with the Singapore Buddhist Federation or Singapore Taoist Association?

Simon: Right.

Sharon: If that is the case, how could you use the identity of a Chinese temple to bid for this land? If you have used Life Corp, I think it is a very serious problem, because Life Corp is a public listed company. Can we say that you have used religious services as a disguise to cover up your real identity of a public listed company?

(Thunderous applause)

At this moment, Dr Lam Pin Min interrupted the conversation and said that there is a need to separate the questions. First, the concern of a Chinese temple with columbarium services. Second, the tender and operation details of the Chinese temple.

Sharon: Dr Lam, if it is not a religious organization, how can it claim to be a Chinese temple?

Dr Lam: URA and HDB will answer these questions later…..

Even the secretary of Amitabha Buddhist Society, Ben Lee, told the media that he believes business should not mix with religion.

He said, “The needs of worshippers should be at the heart of any expansion effort. I don’t think it is right for a company to profit from religious groups.”

URA and HDB’s responses

What exactly did URA and HDB say? Both agencies released a joint statement on Tuesday (6 Jan) promising to ensure that the proposed temple at Fernvale Link will “integrate well with the surrounding developments, the same way other existing places of worship have been integrated in many residential estates”.

In their statement, URA and HDB said the land had been zoned as a “place of worship” in URA’s Master Plan since 2003. The agencies said Eternal Pure Land, which won the tender for the site, has affirmed to HDB its commitment to run a Chinese temple to serve the community.

“URA works closely with HDB and other agencies to ensure that towns are planned comprehensively to be self-sufficient, with a wide range of facilities and amenities to serve the needs of residents. Places of worship can be successfully integrated into the design of residential estates to serve the needs of our people,” HDB and URA stated.

The agencies also reiterated URA’s guidelines that only 20% of the total gross floor area for a place of worship can be set aside for columbarium use. It must also be inside the main building and away from public view. This policy has been in place since 1999, they said.

But they did not address the issue of potentially sky-high prices of columbarium niches due to competitive over-bidding from public listed companies over HDB land parcels in the future.

30-year lease ending for some temples

Looking at the HDB tender records, one can see that some of the temples’ leases are coming up for renewal. For example, these 2 temples have 7 years of lease left:

What is HDB going to do after their leases end?

Re-tender? Note that these 2 temples secured the land for less than $1 million. We can expect when the land is up for re-tender and especially if public listed companies are involved, it will hit millions at least.

Assuming these temples are holding columbarium urns, what will happen to those urns? Are the relatives expected to pay tens of thousands of dollars per columbarium niche to the new temple cum columbarium operator because of the high cost incurred in acquiring the land from HDB?

And if the land parcel is bid up to tens of millions of dollars, Singaporeans may have to be prepared to see a columbarium niche selling at the price of a HDB studio apartment.

“What’s wrong with collecting more money?”

It is very wrong indeed to think of collecting more money through the dead!

What do you think?