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The Sengkang columbarium saga – problems of an “open market” approach for “religious purpose”

Lam Pin MinBy Fervent Citizen

“The Housing and Development Board and Urban Redevelopment Authority indicated that plans for a columbarium at a Chinese temple planned in Sengkang can go ahead, despite objections from residents”, Channel NewsAsia posted on 6 January.

HDB and URA are unequivocal in taking a ‘legal’ stand that no regulations has been flouted in the award to the highest bidder – Eternal Pure Pte Ltd, wholly owned by Life Corporation, a foreign public listed company – for a publicly tendered land zoned for religious purpose, even though it is a for-profit organization. As long as they fulfilled the letter of the law to operate 80% as a Chinese temple and only use 20% for the columbarium, which is really their core business, they are good to go.

There is a very appropriate Chinese proverb that aptly describes this whole saga: 挂羊头卖狗肉. Translated it means that the product was advertised as mutton but in reality it’s dog meat being sold.

Call it misrepresentation, sugar coating, or a loophole in HDB/URA regulations, but it’s not new. Our government famously coined and sold us the IR (Integrated Resort) which any fool would know by now is really a casino! Not one but two in one go, and Singaporeans bought the sales pitch hook, line and sinker.

For a start, why did HDB bury the ‘Ancillary Use’ for land designated for religious purposes in the fine print, when the legal clarification of ‘Ancillary Use’ can only be found in URA master plan for zoning purposes, which in turn reveals that it allows columbariums, crematoriums, etc? Was this an intentional omission or legal run-around?

Certainly HDB can legally fault the buyers for not doing enough due diligence and can safely hide behind legal fine print. But the last I checked, HDB is still a public institution in the civil service beholden to public service, and not a private developer who can claim ‘caveat emptor’ (buyers beware) and easily wash their hands from their responsibilities to the buyers who are not just buyers, but citizens.

Life corp ltdEternal Pure’s operations as a Chinese Temple is extremely questionable, even though legally it can and will provide Temple services. The issue is one of ethics – it is neither a religious non-profit entity, nor a bon fide Buddhist/ Taoist group affiliated and accountable to our local Buddhist/ Taoist Federations. Has Eternal Pure, as a secular profit driven company, displayed sufficient locus standi or religious credentials, to allow it to operate a Chinese temple as a profit-driven business? Otherwise, it is a mockery and a travesty to the sacrosanct religious worship we hold dear as devout believers.

But of greater concern is the seemingly tacit blessing the government gives for the encroachment of secular business, even foreign companies, to compete with our local religious groups for already scarce, expensive and short lease (30 years) land designated for religious purposes.

This dangerous and politically costly precedent bring with it far reaching implications and consequences. If truly the government has green lighted the ‘open season bidding’ of ‘Land for Religious Purpose’, making the bidding purely market-driven and income generating, then local religious groups would be adversely disadvantaged. Many religious groups often have difficulties finding sufficient space to house their services for their worshippers and their charitable outreach to society’s needy.

Religious groups are already hard pressed financially to offer charitable programs without government grants. And to further drain them of precious financial resources so as to compete with public listed companies for land that are rightfully and morally reserved only for religious use; the government is conveniently blurring the line between secular and religious to milk maximum profit in the sale of public land.

This precedent of a loose and expedient interpretation of ‘Religious Use’ must not be left unchallenged by the different major local religious leaders and federations. Otherwise, anything and everything in religion may be open to be expediently ‘redefined’ by default at the behest of the government as it sees fit.

This Sengkang columbarium saga triggered a lot of questions and does not bode well for the future relationship between the government and the religious.