Only active, locally-funded religious groups allowed to bid for Place of Worship land: Ministry of National Development

Starting today (14 Sep), only religious groups with an active contribution to the community and have sustainable means of funding are allowed to bid for Place of Worship (PW) land under the Ministry of National Development (MND)'s new tender framework.

Under the new framework, tenderers will be firstly "be assessed on a set of pre-qualification criteria," and only those who have passed the first stage will be able to proceed to the second stage "where the site is awarded to the qualified tenderer with the highest bid price".

The Ministry added that tenderers "must have a genuine need for worship space" and "will not use foreign donations for this purpose".

MND rationalised the changes made to the framework, saying that the review was made "to better meet Singaporeans' religious and worship needs" and to "ensure optimal use of Singapore's scarce land resources".

The Ministry noted that the review was made collaboratively with "apex religious groups" to ensure "better understanding of the worship space needs of religious organisations".

Previously, tenders for PW land were assessed and given out on the grounds of price alone.

MND added that it will "release at least two Church and two Chinese temple sites" annually "over the next few years" to provide "greater certainty" to religious organisations in the process of planning the construction of such PW.

The Ministry also highlighted that this move "will resort in more PW land supply than in the past, when sites were put out intermittently". However, it added that the Government will calibrate and control the supply of PW land where necessary.

The concept of PW hubs was also introduced by MND, through which "multiple religious organisations belonging to the same religion" may be housed "in a multi-storey development". The Ministry reasoned that the concept of "co-location and sharing of facilities such as car parks" will aid the optimisation of "Singapore's limited land resources".

MND added that smaller religious organisations may be consolidated under a PW hub should they "find the standard PW sites too large for their use".

The Ministry elaborated that it "will release sites for one Church hub and one Chinese temple hub via Concept-and-Price tenders, and religious organisations can jointly apply to develop and manage these PW hubs".

When queried by TODAY Online as to why tender sites are specifically picked for churches and Chinese temples, an MND spokesperson said that this is due to a particular "interest from churches and Chinese temples for such facilities".

A 2015 survey from SingStats showed that Buddhism/Taoism and Christianity form two of the largest religious affiliations in Singapore at 43.2 per cent and 18.8 per cent respectively, according to TODAY Online.

Similar to the process of obtaining MND's tender for individual PW sites, PW Hubs "will also have to meet the pre-qualification criteria," in which "tenderers will be evaluated on their concept proposals," particularly on "their experience and track record in developing and managing PW developments of similar nature, and their proposed development concepts and management plans for the PW hub".

Speaking to TODAY Online, the MND spokesperson said that the "pre-qualification criteria" may include "religious activities, volunteer activities and community events (such as) inter-faith harmony events".

Religious organisations that have managed to obtain tenders for the PW hub are also "expected to manage and operate the PW hub," according to the Ministry.

The announcement regarding the review follows Eternal Pure Land's winning of a S$5.2 million bid for a site at Fernvale Link in Sengkang in 2014. Eternal Pure Land is a commercial, profit-focused subsidiary of an Australian-listed company.

Fernvale Link residents objected to the development of the commercial columbarium, as the site was originally reserved for the building of a Chinese temple.

The Fernvale Link site was eventually awarded to Thye Hua Kwan Moral Society for the development of its first temple after the Government had decided to terminate its agreement with Eternal Pure Land.

In January 2015, the authorities announced plans to review the land tender process for PW, and to make the criteria for tenderers more stringent.

Senior research fellow at the Institute of Policy Studies Dr Mathew Mathews lauded the announcement of the new tender framework, while adding that "religious groups in Singapore have learnt to collaborate over the years due to the scarcity of resources".

Speaking to TODAY Online, he said: "Where there are worship hubs, for instance, the group developing it will be willing to accept those of their broader faith tradition even if their practices or beliefs may not be exactly similar," adding that the ban on foreign funding signals a need for religious organisations to be "oriented towards Singapore (rather) than some other society".

A site for a church building in Chua Chu Kang and a Chinese temple site in Punggol will be up for tender this year, while similar tenders will be put up for a church site in Bukit Batok and a plot for a Chinese temple in Punggol next year, according to The Straits Times.