The Member of Parliament for Sengkang West SMC, Lam Pin Min, said it was the Housing and Development Board (HDB) and the Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA) which had told him that there were previous instances where a commercial entity was allowed to bid for land set aside for religious worship purposes.
Dr Lam, who is also Minister of State for Health, was caught in the centre of a firestorm this past month after would-be residents of new build-to-order flats in Fernvale Lea, which is located in Dr Lam’s constituency, objected to columbarium being built in the area.
The columbarium was planned as part of Chinese temple to be managed by Eternal Pure Land Pte Ltd, a subsidiary of an Australian private company, Life Corporation.
Following the uproar from residents and members of the public, Dr Lam organised a dialogue session in his ward on 4 January, bringing together residents and officers from the HDB and URA, and Eternal Pure Land.
“The HDB and URA said tenders for places of worship are open to both private companies and religious organisations to allow for flexibility in the choice of operating model.”
“Dr Lam also pointed out that the temple is not the first place of worship run by a private firm.”
The Straits Times reported his remarks thus:
“Dr Lam said current regulations did not restrict the type of company that can develop a place of worship and he understood from the URA and HDB that it has been done before.”
His remarks were seen as being a defence of Eternal Pure Land, and Dr Lam was criticised for defending a private corporate company rather than standing with his residents and fighting for their interests.
Questions were further raised about Dr Lam’s comments after the Minister of National Development, Khaw Boon Wan, told Parliament that the Fernvale land sale “was the first time” the government allowed a secular company to win a tender for a site earmarked for religious worship purposes.
“[For] a quarter of a century,” Mr Khaw said in response to an MP’s question, “we never had a for-profit company taking part in such temple tenders.”
However, he also said:
“For many years, the tenders are open to commercial companies, with the assumption being the companies are affiliated to some religious organisations. And because temples or churches are non-profit-making, we just assumed that (for-profit) companies will not be taking part in a non-profit-making venture.”
This, he said, was something which “never crossed the minds of the officials evaluating the tender.”
“[The] officers just assumed that [Eternal Pure Land] must be a company affiliated to some religious organisation,” Mr Khaw said.
In his interview by the Straits Times reported on Saturday (31 Jan), Dr Lam reiterated that it was the HDB and the URA which had confirmed to him that private companies had been sold land for religious purposes before.
“I... asked HDB and URA whether a commercial entity is allowed to participate in a tender process for a place of worship, and I was informed that it had been done before,” he said.
He added, “EPL (Eternal Pure Land] told us that they were in the process of discussing with some religious organisation to work out some of the temple-related activities.”
However, this perhaps has become redundant.
"We now understand that the winning tenderer for this site, Eternal Pure Land, is actually a private company without any religious affiliation,” Mr Khaw said in Parliament.
"From what we know, the plan of the company is to run a commercial columbarium on the site. This is not in line with our plan for the place-of-worship site."
Mr Khaw said that he will try to “unwind” the situation, and promised Fernvale residents that there won’t be a “commercial columbarium” in the area.
This, however, may not appease all those who have raised concerns about it originally. The Fernvale BTO owners were in fact against the siting of the columbarium in the area, and not whether it is a “commercial” or “incidental” columbarium.
In the meantime, questions of how a Minister of State could have been apparently given wrong information by the authorities which should know best need to be answered.
The fiasco of a Minister of State saying one thing, and the Minister of National Development, the HDB & the URA saying another, can only lead to unnecessary unhappiness.
In short, the authorities need to get their act together, for residents’ sake.