Should secular beat our sacred to secure space?

Should secular beat our sacred to secure space?

SINGAPORE - The church near your home, or the temple by your child's school, may also be a house of death, in that it has a columbarium to hold the ashes of the dead. Chances are, many Singaporeans weren't too aware of this. Or didn't really care. Until last month, that is.

That's when news broke that future residents of Fernvale Lea in Sengkang were upset to learn that a columbarium would be built near their new Housing Board flats.

The HDB's brochure for the Build-To-Order development shows the 2,000 sq m, 30-year leasehold site in Fernvale Link would include a Chinese temple. At the bottom of the page, a disclaimer in fine print says "places of worship may also include columbarium as an ancillary use".

It was not just this that raised eyebrows. It turned out that the winning tenderer for the site last July was a commercial, profit-focused entity - Eternal Pure Land, a subsidiary of an Australian listed company. Its hefty $5.2 million bid beat bids by faith-based organisations of $4 million (Taoist) and $1.8 million (Buddhist).

Although the HDB's tender process allows anyone - including individuals, religious groups and corporate entities - to bid for a place of worship site, it is the first time a commercial entity has won such a parcel independent of any links to a religious organisation.

While some future residents worry about issues like the resale value of their flats, at a broader level, the case puts the HDB's open tender process under the spotlight, with many also questioning if commercial interests should be allowed to develop a space reserved for worship.

It also indirectly highlights issues of community access for smaller faith-based groups which rely on their own fund-raising to obtain places of worship in expensive, land-scarce Singapore.

The current situation

Faith groups, religious academics and property commentators have told The Straits Times that it is highly unusual for businesses to take part in tenders for religious sites, much less win a bid.

Such sites are usually contested only by faith groups. Tender records on the HDB's website dating back to 1991 show this. They also show that individual members from these faith groups - for instance, wealthy businessmen - have on occasion launched bids on the groups' behalf.

The only other time a business got involved was in 2000 - for a Chinese temple and funeral parlour site in Bedok North Avenue 4.

Even then, the business, Tan Holding, did this in partnership with the Lorong Koo Chye Sheng Hong Temple Association.

The HDB and Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA) last week said Eternal Pure Land must adhere strictly to the tender conditions and preserve the intent of the site as a Chinese temple.

They added that the company had affirmed its commitment to running a Chinese temple there to serve the community.

But such an open, unfiltered bidding system means more companies can stride in, plonk down several million dollars and snap up a hotly contested site meant for religious use. This rewards groups that are big and rich, said Mr Ku Swee Yong, chief executive of real estate agency Century 21.

Easily outpricing religious groups, these businesses would also be delving into a sector already facing a severe space crunch. Government land parcels for places of worship are rare and released only intermittently.

The URA - which decides how land is used - allocates such parcels based on population demography, distribution of existing places of worship, ease of access for the community, and any potential impact on the surroundings.

It works with agencies such as the Ministry of Culture, Community and Youth and the HDB to study the demand and provision of sites for places of worship.

The Islamic Religious Council of Singapore, a statutory board which oversees 68 mosques, also works with these agencies.

These sites are then safeguarded and zoned for place of worship use in the Master Plan.

HDB acts as a land sales agent for the State and calls tenders for these sites. Government agencies work together to determine if each site is to be designated as a church, or a Chinese or Hindu temple, at the time of tender.

Only one or two such sites are released each year, usually as towns develop.

That may not be enough to meet demand from religious groups: about 300 churches under the wing of the National Council of Churches of Singapore; 31 Catholic churches; over 130 temples and societies registered under the Singapore Buddhist Federation; more than 500 temples under the Taoist Federation; and about 40 Hindu temples.

As many as 11 groups might contest one site, as in the 1996 tender for a 2,500 sq m plot for a Chinese temple in Jurong West Street 76 where the Singapore Soka Association now stands. Its winning bid was $6.3 million. The space crunch resulting in high bids explains why smaller churches unable to get their own premises may be driven to hold services in unconventional spaces like cinemas.

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