After twists, turns and heat, Dr Lam cheers clarity

After twists, turns and heat, Dr Lam cheers clarity

The authorities had assured him that commercial firms could bid for land marked for religious purposes, said the Member of Parliament at the forefront of the Sengkang columbarium controversy.

That is why he defended the tender in a dialogue with residents earlier this month, said Sengkang West MP Lam Pin Min in an interview with The Straits Times yesterday.

But it was revealed in Parliament on Thursday that, unlike previous bidders, funeral service provider Eternal Pure Land (EPL) did not have any religious links.

"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, referring to the Housing Board and the Urban Redevelopment Authority.

Previous tenders by commercial players had been affiliated to a religious organisation but EPL is a pure profit company.

"EPL told us that they were in the process of discussing with some religious organisation to work out some of the temple- related activities," he added.

The Government has since admitted that it was a mistake to award the tender to EPL.

National Development Minister Khaw Boon Wan said on Thursday that the ministry would stop the commercial columbarium.

The authorities will also review the tender process to plug this loophole where commercial firms muscle into places of worship.

The decision has been cheered by Dr Lam, who is also the Minister of State for Health.

He has been feeling the heat from some residents and netizens since news of the planned columbarium broke a month back. They were upset that a site planned for a Chinese temple would also have a columbarium, especially one operated for commercial interests.

They started an online petition against it, garnering more than 1,000 signatures. It prompted Dr Lam to hold a dialogue on Jan 4.

But at the session, he was perceived to be defending EPL rather than siding with his constituents. Some pointed out that he was sitting at the same table as representatives from Life Corporation - the parent firm of EPL. They were also unhappy that he highlighted the modern look of the temple.

Dr Lam clarified yesterday that he had not been taking sides and he did not understand why the seating arrangements had become an issue. "My purpose there was first to facilitate the dialogue session, to clarify the misinformation of what was posted online, and to allow residents to raise their concerns to me and the relevant agencies," he said.

"Usually for a dialogue session, this is how it's done."

He said he did not scrutinise whether a commercial entity which bid for land for places of worship had to have religious ties.

He was not aware of the rules and was not part of the tender process, he said, adding that the rules had "very fine details".

Asked if it had been a stressful time for him, he replied: "Definitely. No one wants anything to happen in their constituency."

He said the residents were relieved that action had been taken. "I'm just happy that a decision has been made... to not have a commercial columbarium there.

"I'm also just happy that many of the residents who are concerned can have their fears allayed because, at the end of the day, this is a positive outcome for many of the residents."

AFTER National Development Minister Khaw Boon Wan said on Thursday that there will not be a commercial columbarium at a site reserved for a Chinese temple in Sengkang, it is unclear what will happen to the tender.

Lawyers and property consultants say there are three scenarios for the company, Eternal Pure Land (EPL), which is owned by Australian-listed Life Corporation.

What will happen to the tender? Three possible scenarios

SCENARIO ONE: JOINT VENTURE WITH RELIGIOUS GROUP

THE Government can choose to honour the tender agreement with EPL, but under the provision that it is in a joint venture with a religious group that will run the temple.

This is likely to be the best outcome for both the company and groups which need a space for a temple, says property analyst Nicholas Mak.

In a joint venture, the company and the religious group would own the land together. This would be different from the current situation, where EPL fully owns the land that was awarded to it.

SCENARIO TWO: GIVE UP

EPL can choose to withdraw from the tender agreement. Normally, this could be seen as a breach of contract but the Government may give the company a free pass on this, says Mr Mak.

Since the company has already taken a loan of $15 million for the development of the site, it may have to pay a penalty should it choose to exit early.

SCENARIO THREE: GOVERNMENT VOIDS THE TENDER

IF THE Government voids the tender agreement and calls for re-tender, the repercussions could be wide, warn lawyers and property consultants.

Depending on the conditions of the tender, EPL could sue the Government for a breach of contract.

It would also damage the credibility of the authorities, who could be seen as going back on their word.

lesterh@sph.com.sg


This article was first published on January 31, 2015.
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