Monday, 12 January 2015

Columbarium: a NIMBY syndrome

Update 30 Jan 2015: Singapore minister says Sengkang columbarium plans will be reversed
Yahoo Newsroom - Google Street View Screengrab of Fernvale

Singapore's minister for national development Khaw Boon Wan on Thursday said he would not allow plans for a Buddhist temple and commercial columbarium in Sengkang to proceed. He also said his ministry would "find a way" to deliver the Chinese temple the land was originally earmarked for.

Responding to multiple questions filed by three different MPs, he said in Parliament that it was the first time the government allowed a secular company to win the tender for the plot of land in Sengkang's Fernvale estate, located near to two upcoming Build-To-Order HDB projects as well as an executive condominium.

The case of the Sengkang Chinese Temple plot raised the ire of Singaporeans who had purchased flats under the project — the company, Eternal Pure Land, opted to build a Buddhist temple with a commercial columbarium on the area, plans that would-be residents said they did not know about before they opted to purchase homes there.

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“We just assumed”: Khaw Boon Wan

In Parliament on Thursday, Workers’ Party (WP) Member of Parliament for Punggol East SMC, Lee Lilian, asked the Minister of National Development, Khaw Boon Wan, how the land site in Fernvale designated for a place of worship could be erroneously sold to a private company.
She also asked how such an incident could be prevented in future.

Here was Mr Khaw’s reply:
  • “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…
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Khaw says no to commercial columbarium

There will be no commercial columbarium at the proposed temple site in Sengkang, National Development Minister Khaw Boon Wan said in Parliament yesterday.

He said that until the recent case in Sengkang, the Government had never awarded a place-of-worship site to a company that was not affiliated to a religious organisation.

"We now understand that the winning tenderer for this site, Eternal Pure Land, is actually a private company without any religious affiliation," he said.

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No commercial columbarium at temple site in Sengkang
HDB development at Fernvale Link, where a columbarium was proposed to have been built. Photo: Ernest Chua

Not only had it ignored land use gazettes by planning to build a commercial columbarium, the private firm that caused a brouhaha earlier this month among some Sengkang residents, who complained when they learnt that such a facility was coming up near their homes, is not even affiliated to any religious organisations.

National Development Minister Khaw Boon Wan revealed these details in Parliament today (Jan 29) as he ruled out the possibility of Eternal Pure Land building a commercial columbarium in Sengkang Link.

Without elaborating on when his ministry uncovered these details, Mr Khaw said this is the first case of a company without religious affiliations winning a tender for land slated for places of worship, and it happened because of wrong assumptions made by Housing and Development Board (HDB) officers assessing the bids.

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Sengkang temple site not meant for commercial columbarium: MND

The decision to award a site designated as Place of Worship to a company not affiliated to a religious organisation is a first for the Government, said National Development Minister Khaw Boon Wan in Parliament on Thursday (Jan 29).

Mr Khaw said the Ministry of National Development is "in discussion" with Eternal Pure Land (EPL) to "ensure that the land is restored to the original plan of a Chinese temple". He was responding to questions posed by MPs Seng Han Thong, Lee Li Lian and Lee Bee Wah.

"We now understand that the winning tenderer for this site, Eternal Pure Land, is actually a private company without any religious affiliation. From what we know, the plan of the company is to run a commercial columbarium on the site," the minister said. "This is not in line with our plan for the Places of Worship site."

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MND skirting around concerns about the Sengkang columbarium tender

Mr Khaw’s responses in Parliament yesterday can basically be distilled into three key points:
  • The tender with for-profit company Eternal Pureland Pte Ltd (EPL) to build a temple on land for non-profit purposes will continue;
  • MND acknowledges that the land was meant for non-profit uses, and is “in discussions with EPL” to build a temple rather than a “commercial columbarium”;
  • There are serious gaps in the MND tendering process, which will be reviewed.
Is MND’s approach to the whole issue sufficient in answering the concerns of the residents directly involved, and the confidence in the public about MND’s ability to deal with such issues?

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Carving a niche in after-death services

A spinning crystal orb greets you as you step into a carpeted lobby and families chat in a lounge filled with cushy seats.

There are plenty of rooms in this building and its priciest suite could set you back by $20,000.

Some might mistake the lush set-up for a five star hotel, but Nirvana Memorial Garden in Choa Chu Kang is a resting place for the dead. It opened in 2009.

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Firm behind proposed Sengkang columbarium: Looking for solution with Govt

Life Corporation, the company behind the proposed Chinese temple and columbarium in Sengkang, has said that it is "sensitive to recent public and Government comments" and that it is currently working with the Government to find a "mutually satisfactory and viable solution", after the Government said that it will not allow a commercial columbarium on the plot of land.

The company's plan to build a commercial columbarium on the site reserved for religious use came under scrutiny after some people who have bought flats near to the site objected to the plan. Some people also said that a site meant for a Chinese temple should not have been awarded to a for-profit company.

The Government said last Thursday that awarding the tender to a for-profit company was a mistake.

After twists, turns and heat, Dr Lam cheers clarity
Fernvale Lea flat buyers want refund over columbarium
Live and let live
After twists, turns and heat, Dr Lam cheers clarity
Relief over no-go for Fernvale commercial columbarium
Khaw says no to commercial columbarium
Parliament to discuss non-religious groups developing places of worship
Columbarium caretaker: 'The 12 years I've worked here, it's been peaceful'
Relief over no-go for Fernvale commercial columbarium
Khaw says no to commercial columbarium
Carving a niche in after-death services
Fernvale Lea flat buyers want refund over columbarium

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Columbarium tender puzzling

I refer to the report “No commercial columbarium at temple site in Sengkang” (Jan 30). What is puzzling is how a tender requiring domain expertise was awarded to a young company registered here last June (after the tender was issued).

Its principal activities include funeral and related activities such as embalming, cremating and cemetery services and the sale of bereavement products and services. It is even less understood whether the principal promoters are professionally qualified and equipped with a reasonable track record to perform the tasks required for this specialised project.

Looking at it from the financial risk management perspective, an infrastructural project of this magnitude was granted to a company with an issued and paid-up capital of only S$100,000. What happens if the company goes insolvent mid-way?

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Eternal Pure Land, the private company which bid for the land, had intended to build a for-profit temple-cum-columbarium on the site and their tender price, which was $1.2 million above the 2nd highest bidder, reflected this original intention

For the tender to have been accepted in the first place, it must have stated its intentions, so why wasn’t HDB aware of it until residents made a lot of noise? Furthermore, why is HDB simply allowed to break contract and alter its terms when and when it pleases? This will ultimately have an effect on the company which it had already promised the land to and which has been proceeding under the assumption that it could build the columbarium as it had originally intended.

From the company’s perspective, their plans have gone down the drain. At the same time, if the tender price needs to be lowered because of the fact that they are not going to build commercial services there, then the other religious organisations that bid for the land would also need to be re-considered.

If HDB ends up having to pay damages to Eternal Pure Land, this will come out of the pockets of taxpayers in the end. It seems that HDB’s failure to do its due diligence has caused so much trouble and stress and is likely to even cost taxpayers money.

PAP MP Lam Pin Min: HDB and URA Lied to Me
Khaw Boon Wan: There will not be a Commercial Columbarium built in Fernvale
Khaw Tells Opera Story in Parliament to Justify HDB's Failure to Conduct Check

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The land for tender at Sengkang was designated a religious site. But it was awarded to a funeral services firm Eternal Pure Land, linked to a public listed company Life Corporation, headquarter in Australia. The company’s intention was to build a columbarium. But Sengkang plot was not for commercial columbarium. Columbarium is big business because each niche cost a few hundred to a few thousand dollars. Religious bodies do build columbarium within their temple or church compound but they are primarily to serve their congregation

How to correct this error? Can the tender already awarded, be withdrawn? It would reflect badly on our tender system if the government do this. It showed lack of due diligence. Moreover as it involve a public listed company, it will have impact on stock price of the share. Will there be legal implications?
“The key point is… we do not want a commercial columbarium and we won’t have one, but having reached such a situation, I will find a way to try to unwind this” quote Minister Khaw.
Singaporeans are watching how the Ministry is going to make a U turn look STRAIGHT. All the best

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Not In My Backyard
– Bertha Harian: A deadly serious business
– My Jade[d] Mouth: Sleeping with the dead
– Singapore Notes: No Go For Go Ahead

Sengkang plot not for commercial columbarium: Khaw
Khaw says no to commercial columbarium
“We just assumed”: Khaw Boon Wan
Relief over no-go for Fernvale commercial columbarium
MND skirting around concerns about the Sengkang columbarium tender
No commercial columbarium at temple site in Sengkang
Sengkang temple site not meant for commercial columbarium: MND
The Straits Times' News In A Minute: Jan 29, 2015
No commercial columbarium in Sengkang's Fernvale Lea: 6 things about the
Relief over no-go for Fernvale commercial columbarium
Sengkang columbarium: Khaw Boon Wan takes questions from MPs
There will be no commercial columbarium in Fernvale: Khaw Boon Wan
No commercial columbarium at temple site in Sengkang
Questions on Sengkang columbarium to be raised in Parliament
Sengkang temple site not meant for commercial columbarium: MND

Khaw says no to commercial columbarium

Columbarium: a NIMBY syndrome
NIMBY - Not in my backyard

Unhappiness over Sengkang temple with columbarium: 7 other cases of residents opposing developments near their homes
Artist's impression of the planned Chinese temple with columbarium next to BTO project Fernvale Lea - PHOTO: LIFE CORPORATION LIMITED

Future residents of Build-To-Order (BTO) project Fernvale Lea are up in arms over a planned Chinese temple with columbarium next to their flats. The columbarium, where funeral urns will be stored, will take up 15 per cent of the temple it will be housed at.

About 400 would-be residents of Fernvale Lea attended a closed-door dialogue with Dr Lam Pin Min, MP for Sengkang West, on Jan 4. There have even been requests to get refunds from the Housing Board.

There have been other cases of people not wanting certain types of amenities in their neighbourhood - or, as many know it, the not-in-my-backyard (Nimby) syndrome. Here are some past incidents:
  1. October 2013 - International school in Pasir Ris
  2. February 2013 - Nursing home in Yew Tee
  3. May 2012 - Nursing home in Bishan East
  4. May 2012 - Tall condominiums in Upper Bukit Timah
  5. March 2012 - Studio apartments for elderly in Toh Yi
  6. October 2008 - Workers' dormitory in Serangoon Gardens
  7. October 2007 - Funeral home in Sin Ming
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Columbarium near home? No big deal say some S'poreans
SO NEAR, BUT SO WHAT? Residents who live near columbariums told The New Paper they have few complaints. This is in contrast to the furore sparked by the plan for a columbarium near Fernvale Lea estate in Sengkang.PHOTO: THE NEW PAPER

His home is a stone's throw from Puat Jit Buddhist temple in Sengkang.

The temple is next to Nanyang Thong Hong Siang Tng temple and Chee Hwan Kog Temple, both of which have columbariums.

But Jamal Sulaiman, 45, who lives on the third storey of block 318D Anchorvale Road, does not think it is a big deal.

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Sengkang resident: No big deal living next to columbarium
PART OF NEIGHBOURHOOD: Mr Jamal Sulaiman’s 8-year-old son at the window of his flat at 318D Anchorvale, which is a stone’s throw from Puat Jit Buddhist Temple TNP PHOTO: BENJAMIN SEETOR
IN SIGHT: Madam Tam Ai Nai, 70, who has been living at Sin Ming Avenue for nearly 30 years, is happy to be living near a columbarium

Mr Jamal Sulaiman, 45, lives a stone's throw from Puat Jit Buddhist Temple at Sengkang.

But the third-storey resident of Block 318D Anchorvale Road thinks it's no big deal and that the price of his flat would not be affected because of its ideal location.

"This is a good place to live in. My son's school, Springdale Primary is just a short walk away," he said

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Residents in other estates don't mind living near columbariums
Church of St Teresa - PHOTO: TNP FILE

The opposition among residents to a proposed columbarium in the upcoming Fernvale Lea estate does not seem to be mirrored in other areas of Singapore that already accommodate such centres.

The Straits Times spoke to 30 residents living near three columbariums nestled within residential areas and found a general level of acceptance.

Many shared the views of Bukit Purmei resident Alvin Sum, who has been living beside the Church of St Teresa, which houses a columbarium, for more than 20 years.

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Is living near the dead really so dreadful?

HERE we go again. First, it was a foreign workers' dormitory in Serangoon Gardens, then studio apartments in Toh Yi Drive and eldercare facilities in Woodlands and Bishan, and now it is a columbarium in Sengkang West ("Columbarium issue sparks calls for flat refunds"; yesterday).

The not-in-my-backyard syndrome has resurfaced again, this time in the form of objections to "living near the dead".

Will this issue never end in land-scarce Singapore? Already, it is posing a headache for urban planners.

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Sengkang temple with columbarium must adhere strictly to guidelines: HDB and URA

Life Corp, the company which will operate the proposed Chinese temple at Fernvale Lea, has affirmed its commitment to run the temple to serve the community, said Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA) and Housing Development Board (HDB) in a joint statement today.

The authorities will also ensure that Life Corp adheres to the planning guidelines set for the land, which has been zoned as a "place of worship" in URA's master plan since 2003.

Would-be residents of the residental estate have recently expressed their unhappiness after learning that a columbarium facility would be built in the temple. Some upset residents have started an online petition to stop the development of the columbarium, while others have demanded refunds for their Built-To-Order (BTO) units.

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Columbarium issue sparks calls for flat refunds
Would-be residents of Fernvale Lea met Sengkang West MP Lam Pin Min at a closed-door dialogue that lasted for three hours. The session was attended by 400 people - ST PHOTO: NEO XIAOBIN

Some upset would-be residents of Fernvale Lea have asked the Housing Board for a refund for their flats over the columbarium issue. They conveyed their request to Dr Lam Pin Min, MP for Sengkang West, during a three-hour closed-door dialogue which was attended by 400 people.

In spite of assurances from him that there would not be a crematorium or funeral parlour services at the Chinese temple, a group gathered around a table where they could leave contact details for HDB to call them about a refund. It is unclear how many eventually did so.

Dr Lam, giving a quick rundown of the dialogue, said: "They felt uncomfortable that such a (columbarium) service would be provided there and have requested that HDB look at their request for a refund."

Future residents of Fernvale Lea BTO in Sengkang West surprised by columbarium plan

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Residents surprised by columbarium plan
A new columbarium expected to come up in Sengkang West in 2016 to provide a resting place for the dead has already stirred up unease among the living

Australian funeral services company Life Corporation won a tender called by the Housing Board in July to develop a Chinese temple integrated with a columbarium at a land parcel in Fernvale Link.

The proposed site sits squarely next to an upcoming Build-To- Order residential area, Fernvale Lea, which will have residents moving in early next year.

Life Corp, the parent company of Singapore Funeral Services, said the space will be used to run funeral services, columbarium space and associated services.

Columbarium in Sengkang 'will be out of public view'
Upset over columbarium plans, Fernvale Lea's future residents want
Fernvale Lea flat buyers want refund over columbarium

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National Solidarity Party hits out at HDB, URA over Fernvale columbarium issue
Residents leave the Anchorvale Community Club's multi-purpose hall after the dialogue session with Sengkang West SMC MP Lam Pin Min on Jan 4, 2015. The National Solidarity Party (NSP) has hit out at the Government over the columbarium issue at the upcoming Fernvale Lea estate in Sengkang

In a statement on Sunday, National Solidarity Party's (NSP) secretary-general Jeannette Chong-Aruldoss said that the Housing Board (HDB) was not clear in its sale brochure, which indicated that the site adjacent to the project was reserved for a Chinese temple, but did not specify that it would include a columbarium.

A number of future residents of the HDB Built-to-Order project Fernvale Lea have expressed their dismay at being caught by surprise to learn that a columbarium would be established next to their homes. Questions arise:
  • Has HDB been remiss in their Fernvale Lea sale brochure?
  • How much research do HDB buyers have to do?
  • Should a commercial, profit-oriented business be allowed to develop a place of worship?
  • How are buyers of niches protected from unscrupulous columbarium operators?
  • Is it a good policy practice for development decisions to be a matter between URA and the developer without having to consider the views of local residents?
  • Double standards?
  • Including public consultation in the URA's approval process?
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Sitting at the wrong end

Yup, that's what Lam Pin Min did. He was elected by the residents of Sengkang West to represent their interest. But when he received numerous queries on the Columbarium which will be housed in that vicinity, what did he do? Sit at the table with reps from HDB, URA and Life Corp, and not with the residents of Sengkang West. This raises doubts about which side he represents and in what capacity he organised that dialogue.

He needn't have to sit at the table with these guys. I mean it was the Ministry of National Development, URA, HDB and Life Corp (as the bidders) who had to do all the answering. Lam Pin Min just had to sit and identify with the people asking questions from these government agencies and private companies, helping his residents to make better sense of the issue.

But that is the sad state of affairs in Singapore, especially if you elect an MP from the PAP. There seems to be this struggle for such MPs - "do I represent the Government, its decisions and its interests, or do I represent the people even if it means speaking against some of the Government's decisions and positions?"

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Temple, Columbarium and HDB

Dear MP, I think you really have no idea. Maybe before you enter the discussion, you already envisioned the resident to be unreasonable.

I said this because, look at where you sit and look at how you talk. You sit with the developer, URA and HDB facing the residents. Shouldn’t you sit with the residents, take command and direct the question to the relevant parties? After all, you are their elected representative. You lost your initiative when you just sit down there fending the residents question. If I were to view the videos on youtube, it would seem like you are HDB/URA/Eternal Pure spokesperson and the lady asking the question to be the MP.

You just show you cannot mobilise a few blocks of residents and letting others seize the initiative. Come the next election, you still dare to ask for people in Sengkang to trust you? I don’t know man, Singaporeans are BDSM people. they like getting f**ked by govt, maybe they will vote you back for more reaming.

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Sengkang resident-turned-heroine Sharon Toh asks the hard questions about Sengkang columbarium
Someone was standing up for residents during the dialogue session

A video clip of a Fernvale Link resident questioning Life Corporation’s CEO Simon Hoo is starting to go viral online. Here’s the clip, which is mostly in Mandarin:

In the first half of the clip, Fernvale Link resident Sharon Toh asked Hoo whether it was true that in a Dec. 30, 2014 The Straits Times report that Life Corp would be providing one-stop funeral services at the proposed Chinese temple at Fernvale Link. Hoo clarified that the report was not verified and that only a temple with a columbarium would be built and there would be no funeral services provided.

The exciting part of the exchange came later after Hoo’s clarification where Toh asked some pointed questions. We give you a transcript:

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MP's Tight-Rope - To Be Pro-Residents Or Pro-Business?
One of the questions raised by some from the Fernvale columbarium saga is this: is your Member of Parliament (MP) suppose t represent you and speak on your behalf, or is his role to defend others with whom the residents may have an issue?

Unfortunately, the dialogue session which was held on Sunday, organised by Dr Lam, to clear the air on the controversy, seems to have raised the ire of residents instead.

One of them told Dr Lam off during the session, reminding him that he is supposed to be speaking for the residents, and not to defend the company behind the temple/columbarium, Life Corporation.

This is one of the problems for PAP MPs, and in particular for MPs who also happen to hold official government positions, such as Dr Lam.

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“It is not only Fernvale Lea residents that is affected”

Over 400 future residents of Fernvale Lea and residents of Fernvale link turned up for  dialogue session called by Dr Lam Pin in, MP of Seng Kang West SMC after concerns from the residents came up to him about the planned Chinese temple and columbarium at Fernvale Link. The dialogue session also had representatives of the Life Corporation Pte Ltd, Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA) and Housing Development Board (HDB).

Many of the Fernvale Lea’s future residents were alarmed to know from news that their estate or soon-to-be-completed homes are to be situated next to a Chinese temple, which would house a columbarium within its premises. In the above video posted online, a resident asked Dr Lam Pin Min, MP for Sengkang West if he was aware of the land tender bid and the columbarium to be built. While Dr Lam said that he was aware but he did not answer the question of whether was he aware that a columbarium was to be built there.

Dr. Lam was pretty much dumbfounded when another resident from another built-to-order (BTO) project at Sengkang asked if their sales brochure had the same wordings to say that there would be a Chinese temple/columbarium. Three residents in the video all asked if a full refund can be given which Dr. Lam did not reply. Full report of the dialogue

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Should a commercial, profit-oriented business be allowed to develop a place of worship?

HDB's tender to develop the Chinese temple site at Fernvale Link attracted three bidders. A Buddhist association and a Taoist society lost to a business entity whose ultimate parent is a foreign company listed on the Australian Securities Exchange. There are currently no restrictions on the type of company that can develop a place of worship. This means that non-profit religious organisations will have to compete with profit-oriented businesses to bid for sites designated for religious use.

URA has shown that it has no qualms awarding a site designated for religious use to the highest bidder, even one which is a purely business entity devoid of religious affiliations and ultimately owned by a foreign company. That the business entity has pledged to serve the local community by providing a Chinese temple, does not change the fact that URA has sold a site designated for religious worship to be exploited by a commercial entity for maximum profits to its shareholders. URA stipulates that the columbarium cannot exceed 20 per cent of the total gross floor area. Still, one cannot help wondering whether the development will be a Chinese temple containing a columbarium or a columbarium containing a Chinese temple.

URA's decision to award the Fernvale Link Chinese temple site to a business entity in a tender where bona fide religious entities have also bidded, is unpalatable. URA may but is not obliged to award the tender to the highest bidder. A proper, responsible decision should take into account non-monetary factors. Especially for a site designated for religious use as a Chinese temple, the fact that the bidder is a non-religious entity should be a factor weighing heavily against it.

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Fancy paying HDB studio price for a columbarium niche?

The recent Sengkang columbarium saga shows that “properties” for the dead may be mirroring the development trend of properties for the living in Singapore. TRE examined HDB’s past land tender records for building Chinese temples and found that the recent Fernvale Link land parcel tender was, for the first time, successfully won by a public listed company (Eternal Pure Land Pte Ltd, a subsidiary of Australian listed company Life Corporation Ltd).

Since 1991, HDB has successfully awarded its land parcels to 20 entities for building Chinese temples. As per URA’s Development Control guidelines, these places of worship are allowed to include ancillary uses such as columbarium service (‘Deciphering HDB’s Fernvale Lea brochure‘). The past 20 HDB land tenders for building Chinese temples have seen 102 bids. All of these 102 bids to build a Chinese temple were made by religious societies, associations and individuals. Only 3 were from companies but they are private companies. Just one of the private companies won a tender but it was a joint tender with a temple. In any case, that tender was meant for building a Chinese temple with funeral parlour service. Hence, the only time a public listed company has been involved and won a HDB land tender for building a Chinese temple cum columbarium is the recent case at Fernvale Link in Sengkang.

This sets a dangerous precedent because public listed companies have considerable financial muscle. They can easily raise money from the public through bonds, right issues, warrants etc to outbid individuals, temples, religious associations and societies in any land parcel tender.

related: Open letter to Minister Khaw on Fernvale Link Columbarium

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

“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.

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Stalemate between authorities and residents over planned Chinese temple and columbarium

Dialogue session came to a stalemate between authorities and the future residents of Fernvale Lea after 3 hours of conversation on the issue of the planned Chinese temple and columbarium at Fernvale Link.

Over 400 residents attended the dialogue session called by Dr Lam Pin in, MP of Seng Kang West SMC after concerns from the residents came up to him about the planned Chinese temple and columbarium at Fernvale Link. The dialogue session also had representatives of the Life Corporation Pte Ltd, Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA) and Housing Development Board (HDB).

Many of the Fernvale Lea’s future residents were alarmed to know from news that their estate or soon-to-be-completed homes are to be situated next to a Chinese temple, which would house a columbarium within its premises.

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Resident shares doubts over URA’s guideline to restrict funeral palour

Over 400 future residents of Fernvale Lea and residents of Fernvale link turned up for  dialogue session called by Dr Lam Pin in, MP of Seng Kang West SMC after concerns from the residents came up to him about the planned Chinese temple and columbarium at Fernvale Link.

The dialogue session also had representatives of the Life Corporation Pte Ltd, Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA) and Housing Development Board (HDB).

Many of the Fernvale Lea’s future residents were alarmed to know from news that their estate or soon-to-be-completed homes are to be situated next to a Chinese temple, which would house a columbarium within its premises.

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No Peace For The Departed

The latest brouhaha in town concerns a NIMBY (Not In My Back Yard) upset at Sengkang West. Once again, the authorities are counting on the short term memory span of Singaporeans to forget that tempers also flared in 2012 over an eldercare center in Woodlands Street and a studio apartment for the elderly in Toh Yi Drive.

A wide range of facilities are found within Fernvale Lea, boasts the glossy brochure for the Housing & Development Board (HDB) Build-To-Order (BTO) project. You can choose to jog along the meandering footpath or exercise at the adult and the elderly fitness stations. You can also pay respects to the dead at the columbarium next door.

Adding fuel to the rising temperatures, the HDB and the Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA) dug in their heels by saying that the town map and site plan issued did include notes which indicated that "places of worship may include columbarium as an ancillary use".

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A Case Of LKY’s Chickens Coming Home To Roost, And Poop?

So I cannot understand why are the Fernvale Lea would-be residents being harshly criticized by some for thinking about the future value or more precisely, the drop in value, of their HDB flat 99-year leases that they would have to slog a lifetime to pay off and which would effectively hollow out their retirement savings in the CPF as sure as the sun will rise every morning? So what is wrong with taking to heart the words of the ‘master’ the ‘founding father of modern Singapore’ and safeguarding your ‘asset enhancement’ which many would have to depend on for their retirement or to send their kids to university? Perfectly valid and logical/rational reasoning, if you ask me. To quote the ‘founding father’ again, “What’s wrong with making more money.” said he to one ex-very senior servant, named Ngiam.

As for those future Fernvale Lea residents who have no intention to upgrade, downgrade or even uproot (at least at this point in time) not wanting to live beside what is effectively a gigantic urn of incinerated bodily ashes of the dearly departed (kept in some 90,000 urns according to some estimation) because of feng shui, taboo and other religious and/or superstitious reasons is to my mind perfectly justified. There are going to be very practical problems, as pointed out by some, of a continual flow of vehicular and human traffic generated by the presence of the columbarium, and temple. For the sake of illustration, if we assume that family visits are restricted to only Saturdays and Sundays, there possibly would be an average of some 860 single visits per Saturday and Sunday throughout the year (assuming universal filial piety amongst the Buddhists).

But it is quite likely that each urn interred at the columbarium would generate more than one set of visitors ranging from filial descendants  family members and relatives to friends of the dead, who would likely turn up in small groups coordinated or on their own and that would certainly all add up to a constant flow of vehicular and human traffic. Now when you add into the equation, peak periods of festive days like All Soul Days, temple festivities, movement of funerary employees, related logistics and their vehicles, etc one can well imagine the extent of DEGRADATION that Fernvale Lea residents would suffer in their daily lives at home. A man’s home is his castle but tell me who would like it if his castle is being constantly beleaguered and besieged by a columbarium throng?

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Room for the Departed

Amidst the myriads of news that made the headlines in recent weeks, with Malaysia losing another aircraft, volatile movements on currencies, and plummeting oil prices, another piece of news that caught my attention was, the uproar and outcry of residents in a particular district closer to home.

Apparently, there’s a plot of land within proximity of a residential area that’s been gazette for religious use, and it seems there’s a clause that allows the religious organization to use up to 20% of the land for columbarium. Evidently, the residents are not quite pleased with this piece of news, because the entities seemed to be corporate and is quite bewildering. Some cited tangible reasons, of fear that their home prices would be affected, some don’t welcome the notion of cremating services etc.

I’m not going to agree with the relevant authorities and agencies, nor, the residents’ reaction. It’s quite obvious that whoever responsible for these decisions, are not quite handling the situation amicably, but as we all know, it’s not possible to please everyone as well.

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Fernvale Columbarium: Business capturing government?

Our increasingly less incorruptible government may be suffering more from stupidity than greed. Just like lobby groups capture the American law makers, we may be getting our equivalent. Therefore we must study the various cases carefully and learn from them. The latest could very well be how an ASX company successfully navigated itself into no more our columbarium services but businesses.

Years from now, not only is health care expensive, death rites and burial will also be inflating much faster than GDP and wage growth. I think this Fernvale columbarium just gave us the opportunity to see the moment of its birth.

A clueless government letting big business come in to screw us, typically under the guise of upgrading. True upgrading is when you can afford it. If it is a service that is needed by all, then something is wrong when it inflates faster than wage or GDP growth. Haven't they learn from the troubles at the public transport front.

related: Fernvale Columbarium: Shallow people opposed this

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On Second Look – Sengkang’s Chinese Temple

In a dialogue session with future residents, Dr Lam Pin Min and Life Corp representatives reassured everyone that there would not be any funeral and cremation services at the site. It was also mentioned that a “Buddhist organisation” will be managing the “Chinese temple”. Would you be reassured if you were in the shoes of Sengkang West Link’s residents? The trouble with many of us here in Singapore is, we derive hope, after long hours spent at the office, solely from the anticipated appreciation in property prices. And for the majority of Singaporeans, it’s their one and only residential property – something which I don’t really understand, but I’ll hold that topic for now.

Not surprisingly, there were “alternative voices” chiding the angry residents for treating our deceased’s ashes as something “dirty”. That may not be the main reason that residents are up in arms. But from an investment or business point of view, these folks are afraid they can’t sell high and retire – the simple Singaporean’s dream. You can’t say that doctors are superstitious when a private hospital doesn’t have a level 4. It doesn’t matter if you’re Chinese or not. If your market is Chinese, you’d better have lots of 8s and no 4s. If you’re doing daytime TV shows and your viewers are grouchy aunties, then you’d better make sure that the men are all pigs who neglect their wives because of their tummies and wrinkles and pigs’ new-found lovers are all sluts who are only after their money. The people who write these stories don’t necessarily believe them. So you see, if we’re looking at things from an investment point of view, the residents’ concerns are valid. You wouldn’t buy a house next to a columbarium just as you wouldn’t buy one next to a shooting range. You need not be superstitious to make such choices.

It could be an excuse, but some say that they are concerned that the tender for building a “Chinese temple” for the site was won by a commercial entity with funeral services as its core business and not a religious organisation running a temple as we know it. If this is going to be a trend, then in the future, all temples will be managed by companies and not by religious organisations. Can non-profit religious organisations win the bid over commercial entities like God Inc? Buddha Inc? This is something I’m deeply concerned about. Our many religious organisations are already getting more and more commericalised. If market forces were allowed free play in the area of building and managing religious sites like Chinese temples, then we’ll only see a gradual erosion of our values and principles, not just pertaining to religion, but to being compassionate humans – the sort who will hold a fellow human who is about to fall on a moving bus instead of elbowing him away.

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A life-and-death conversation

So there’s a row about a columbarium to be built by a private company next to a  BTO development called Fernvale Lea in Sengkang. Prospective residents who’ve put down money say that the publicity materials gave more focus to the building of a Chinese temple rather than its attached columbarium. Unfair, they said. They might not have bought the BTO flat if they knew. Some want their money back.

Here’s the story:
  • Dead: Wow! What a beautiful home I will have in this new housing estate. Did you see the architecture? It must be because a private developer is doing this. Life Corp. How nice, the name…I’m dying to move in.
  • Living: Please lah. I am going to move into the area too. Why can’t you stay at some ulu place far away like where the foreign worker dorms are sited?
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Some of you may have read about would-be residents at BTO estate Fernvale Lea getting upset over the release of government plans to build a columbarium next to their new homes. There will be those among us who will wonder what’s the big deal, and downplay the whole episode as a bunch of narrow-minded and self-centered folks making a lot of noise over a petty issue. Why raise a storm over such matters, and why even go to the extent of demanding for refunds?

Well, for starters, understand that Singapore being a multi-racial society means we have to be sensitive to the religious and cultural sensitivities of the various ethnicities that make up our community. We may share a common nationality, by choice or not, but we don’t necessarily share the same cultural and religious beliefs, and certainly not everyone is a bigot who thinks he/she is mightier than others because of an open-minded Western exposure coupled with born-again Christian beliefs.

Not that I am singling out any one religious faith, but if you were someone who really understands the cultures of the ethnic communities that make up Singapore, you’d realise that the pre-dominant Buddhists and their Taoist/Hindu/Muslim counterparts still find mixing the spaces reserved for the living and the dead a taboo — and it doesn’t matter if some Grand Abbot or Imam somewhere agrees with the government policies and says otherwise, because you can’t change cultural mindsets overnight, so yes, there will be people who find it appaling that the government planner who came up with the idea would even have the gall to put that idea onto paper in the first place.

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The Sengkang columbarium saga raises important questions in land-scarce Singapore

Beyond NIMBY, there are important questions that the authorities should address

It is easy to dismiss the residents’ concerns as having the NIMBY (“Not In My Back Yard”) syndrome.

But below are some valid concerns brought up by netizens on MP Lam’s Facebook page:
  1. Why do many residents have the mistaken impression that the site will house a Chinese temple but not a columbarium? Should HDB make disclaimers on its website more clearly to BTO-buyers?
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Anti-Govt websites setting up Columbarium for MIW political careers

In the recent dialogue session involving Seng Kang West resident Sharon Toh, it was revealed by  Lifecorp that they were not registered with any religious association or charity. They were a For-Profit organization which is public listed in Australia that was going to develop, build and operate a Buddhist Temple with Columbarium.

After this astonishing news went viral on the Internet, our BOT's reporters went to town to ask if any other commercial entities were planning to develop, build an operate other religious establishments.

First to respond to our enquiries were DeBloodSucking Bank, their spokesperson, Ms Lui Pa Pa commented, "We are equally shocked and surprised that For-Profit organizations could set up religious establishments to make money. We are disappointed that despite being closely linked to the MIW, we were not informed of such a lucrative and profitable business. With our wealth of knowledge in sucking blood, I mean money from Singaporeans, we will definitely be successful in such endeavors. We are immediately convening a taskforce to study and identify areas of opportunities to move into the religious arena."

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Many Sengkang West residents are unhappy about the decision of HDB to house a columbarium inside a proposed Chinese Temple in the heart of their town. They argue that they were not told of this when they decided to purchase public housing in Sengkang. The Fernvale Lea future residents are more affected than the others because of the close proximity of their homes to the temple.

The current government policies are efficient and dispassionate. To residents of Sengkang West, being forced to live next to a columbarium where the ashes of thousands of dead people are stored in urns is highly unfair. The current MP for Sengkang West does not seem to empathize. How would MP Lam Pin Min like it if a graveyard was built around his house without him being told about it? It is not about superstition alone. Sengkang West is a new town with mostly young families. Does it seem reasonable to house them alongside the dead? And forcing them to see a columbarium everyday as they go around the town? The quality of life in Sengkang West will be severely affected if this columbarium is built where it has been planned.

Moreover, there has been very little transparency regarding this matter. The columbarium was never mentioned explicitly in the brochures the home owners received. Instead, there was the phrase "ANCILLARY USE" approved by URA. Okay, here's the definition: providing necessary support to the primary activities or operation of an organization, system, etc. "ancillary staff"

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PAP Member of Parliament (MP) Lam Pin Min said that brochures for potential buyers of Fernvale Lea had stated that a columbarium will be built but future residents who have bought their flats there have refuted that and said that they have been deceived.

Mr Lam had claimed" "Although (the plan for the columbarium) was indicated in the brochures, some of them might have missed it and felt that because they weren’t given prior notice, they could not make an informed decision," Lam also said.

However, newly-released brochures showed that this was not true.

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Deciphering HDB’s Fernvale Lea brochure

HDB and URA have come out to say that the town map and site plan included notes which indicated that “places of worship may include columbarium as an ancillary use

They added that the columbarium would be out of sight and not exceed 20% of the total gross floor area of the building. MP Lam Pin Min clarified on his Facebook page:
This plot of land has been designated as a reserve site for a Chinese Temple in the URA Masterplan and has been reflected on the brochure for the Fernvale Lea BTO development. It has also been indicated in the brochure that the proposed facility may include other ancillary uses, including Columbarium allowed under URA’s prevailing Development Control guidelines. I have verified with URA that such ancillary services (including Columbarium) should not be visible to the public and must not exceed 20% of the gross floor area…
I have also been reassured by the developer that there will NOT be crematorium or funeral parlour services at the new temple. Essentially, HDB, URA and MP Lam are pushing the buck to the residents saying they should have read the “fine print”. Indeed, the Fernvale Lea brochure contained the following information:

related: Sengkang columbarium – PAP MP’s dodgy statements

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Sengkang West Columbarium saga – Disrespectful of Buddhism
Sengkang MP Lam Pin Min conveniently dodges concerns over HDB’s columbarium cover-up

When I first read about the Chinese Temple-Columbarium saga at Sengkang West, the first instinctive responses I had were:
  1. The buyers of BTO and residents in Sengkang West are being hoodwinked by HDB’s scheming omission of critical material information on this columbarium and using “Chinese Temple” as a decoy.
  2. It is totally inappropriate to allow a commercial entity to run a religious entity. I shall elaborate in this article.
  3. The columbarium service is supposedly an ANCILLARY service to the Chinese Temple but in the end, it has become the main focus of the commercial entity, an Australian Public Listed company Life Corporation.
When a land is gazetted for religious use, naturally it means that it is not for commercial use. Especially in this case, when it says the land is for Chinese Temple, then in Singapore’s context, a Chinese Temple is mean to be run by a registered organization or society under Registrar of Society (ROS). A religious organization like a Chinese Temple or any Churches that receive tithes are governed by the Charity Act. According to the ruling of High Court, any organization that advances religion has to be classified as a Charity. The governing body is the Commissioner of Charities. However, according to the tender information posted on HDB website, Life Corp has won the tender via a private limited company.

related: Temple saga: Firm set up 16 days after tender called

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According to the Straits Times news report “Unhappiness over Sengkang temple with columbarium: 7 other cases of residents opposing developments near their homes” (Jan 5) – “There have been other cases of people not wanting certain types of amenities in their neighbourhood – or, as many know it, the not-in-my-backyard (Nimby) syndrome. Here are some past incidents: – “This spin to try to tell Singaporeans that something similar to the “Fernvale columbarium” saga has happened seven times before is totally irrelevant and out of context.

First time lah – as the 7 times were on existing homes - The difference is that the seven examples were all facilities to be built near existing homes. The Fernvale incident is about mis-representation to Singaporeans in the sale of HDB BTO flats before they are built.

Mis-representation of a material fact - If a developer or real estate agent sells a property without disclosing such a material fact – they would have been guilty of mis-representation. To make things worse – after this was discovered – various parties tried to “play with words” to absolve themselves of the issue – hoping that it would just go away.

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I am one of the residents affected by plans to build a columbarium in Sengkang. Despite the "dialogue" session with our useless MP Lam Pin Min, it is clear to me now that the plans will definitely go ahead and it will not be changed. The dialogue session was just to explain to us the rationale behind the plan and why it is reasonable to include columbarium services within the premise of a Chinese temple.

But sorry for your information, it is not acceptable to me. I buy the house considering all factors that will affect its future resale value. It is my right to reject the addition of this columbarium as it will bring bad luck to my family in future and people who wants to buy resale flat will similarly be turned off.

When this happens, how do you expect me to sell my flat at a profit and upgrade to a condominium in future? You can say I am money faced but please buying an expensive house in Singapore is an economic decision driven by money and numbers. It will be foolish of me not care about resale value right?


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ST accuses residents of displaying Nimby syndrome
On Monday (5 Jan), ST published an article associating the recent Sengkang columbarium saga with 7 other cases of residents opposing developments near their homes (‘Unhappiness over Sengkang temple with columbarium: 7 other cases of residents opposing developments near their homes‘)

The article appeared on ST online website but did not seem to appear in its print version:
ST wrote, “There have been other cases of people not wanting certain types of amenities in their neighbourhood – or, as many know it, the not-in-my-backyard (Nimby) syndrome.”

In essence, ST is accusing Fernvale Lea residents of displaying the Nimby syndrome. To bolster its arguments, ST quoted 7 other ‘Nimby’ cases.

Residents’ anger nothing to do with Nimby - The fact of the matter is, at the centre of arguments is that the residents are not happy with HDB giving dodgy information on its BTO flat brochures [Link]. HDB did not state clearly on the brochure that the Chinese temple comes with a columbarium:

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The furore over a planned columbarium at a Buddhist temple in Sengkang has brought to light issues surrounding the Nimby syndrome in Singapore.

This isn’t the first time Singaporeans have stood up against plans to build much needed facilities near their homes. Here is a look at four similar situations that made the news in 2012.
  1. In May of that year, some 40 residents in Bishan signed a petition to stop building plans for a 260-bed nursing home on an empty field in Bishan Street 13. They cited the loss of their football field and how the new development would block the flow of fresh air into their homes as their reasons for opposing the project.
  2. In the same month, a group of residents in Upper Bukit Timah protested against the development of a condominium in a nearby forest that would yield more than 400 new homes. Some were worried that the tall buildings would block their views and endanger plant and animal life.
  3. Over at Toh Yi estate in Bukit Timah, several homeowners petitioned against the construction of studio units for the elderly on a small land parcel in the area. According to news reports in March 2012, the proposed development would be built over a jogging track and basketball court, which irked the group as they would lose their recreational facilities. They proposed building the apartments near another block, but residents living near the new site protested to have the units built elsewhere.
  4. Another case of Nimbyism came to light back in February 2012 when some residents in Woodlands objected to the construction of an eldercare centre in their void deck. They were worried the values of their flats would drop and there would be a lack of open space. Another concern was that more deaths and accidents could make it an inauspicious area.
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What are the rules on a Commercial firm operating a place of worship?

HDB and URA have commented on the Senkang temple with columbarium case but wonder about the legal position on allowing a private commercial company to operate a place of worship for financial gain. Maybe the authorities would want to help clear the air on this.

To me this stinks as I feel morally no one should be operating a place of worship for commercial gain which is very different from collecting donations to fund the day to day activities.

Very bad precedent.

related: How come Khaw silent on the columnbarium/HDB refund issue?

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PM Lee worried about growing divide in Singapore

The other trend he mentioned is people saying 'no' to having public facilities in their neighbourhoods. This has been dubbed as the "Not In My Backyard", or Nimby, syndrome.

Mr Lee warned that these trends stand in the way of a cohesive community and called on Singaporeans to buck the trend.

"If we take this self-centred approach to problems, we will not be able to do the best for ourselves as a community," said Mr Lee. The concerns he expressed comes after a series of events that had caused much discussion.

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A place is welcome when you have use for it

Residents across the island have argued for and against the petition for a nursing home in Bishan.

When she first learnt of the Government's plan to build a nursing home in her Bishan neighbourhood, this old dame clapped her hands in glee. "You see, that means my son and my grandchildren can visit me easily," she says in Hokkien with a toothless grin.

Yet in the very next breath, Madam Yeo Thin Choo, 70, stares into her coffee and asks somewhat apprehensively: "But my neighbour told me that a group of residents have protested against the plan. "Does that mean that the Government will listen to them?"

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Geylang Goes Up Market
Look, mom, there's a brothel next to our block!

Those moving into their new flat at Sengkang West may think they have it bad because they will be sharing space with a columbarium. Spare a thought for those at the even numbered Lorongs of Geylang, especially the area URA has decided to rezone from "Residential/Institution" to "Commercial / Institution."

The emphasis on commercial over residential considerations is an obvious choice for the Urban Development Authority (URA). Confucius once said "微臣從沒見過 如斯好德如好色的人", which can be loosely translated as "never has the virtuous take precedence over vice". The infamous "Four Floors of Whores" at Orchard Road has always done a roaring trade, whatever the state of the economy. Perhaps something more posh sounding is on the drawing board for the Designated Red Area (RDA) Geylang district, something along the lines of "Skyscraper of Sluts" or "Prostitutes@Pinnacle?"

The outcome is inevitable - URA has weighed in with the overseas funeral parlour developer - but those affected will no doubt still go over the fine print in their signed contracts. Proud owners of residential developments under construction (#1Suites, Treasure@G20, Treasure@G6) and recently completed (Royce Residences, Central Imperial) may not have that much to lose. Sleeping jowl to jowl next to a member of the oldest profession of the world is definitely more desirable than proximity to an urn of ashes.

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Nimby syndrome

Indeed. This is not the first time that the not-in-my-backyard (Nimby) syndrome has hit residents.

In May, residents in Jalan Batu opposed plans for a rehabilitation centre in the void decks of Blocks 10 and 11. Mountbatten Member of Parliament Lim Biow Chuan told contractors to stop work, with MOH set to review the feedback. But in a new turn, The Straits Times reported yesterday that a group of 500 residents - made up mostly of elderly folk, some of whom live in the two blocks - have petitioned to the Government to stick to the plan.

In February, residents of Blocks 860 and 861 in Woodlands Street 83 petitioned against an eldercare centre planned in the void decks. In the same month, residents of Toh Yi estate protested against the HDB's plans to build studio apartments there for the elderly.

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Not in my own backyard again? But....

When the news first broke about the ruckus concerning the temple and columbarium in Fernvale, Sengkang, I though not again. These not in my own backyard thingy again! What is the big deal? After all, many temples and even some churches in HDB estates have columbarium and provide funeral services. So what is the big fuss about? Then upon further reading, I realised that this one is different.

The "temple" will in fact be run by a private entity and not a religious organisation. In fact, it is a company listed on the Stock Exchange of Australia and the business of the company is providing funeral services. In fact in its announcement to the ASX, it stated clearly that "securing the land is integral to Life Corporation's expansion plans and strategic direction to provide a full suite of premium funeral services. Life Corporation intends to embark on a exciting new project to construct a Chinese Temple with an integrated state of the art columbarium on the land"

From what I can gleaned from this short sentence, it looks like it will be similar to the Nirvana columbarium in Choa Chu Kang in concept with the main emphasis being the provision of columbarium services rather than religious services. After all, providing religious services is not going to make money for the company. Selling of niches and providing the ancillary services like prayers on occasions like the Seventh Month and Qing Ming will. The other thing that reinforce this view is that the published photo of the proposed building certainly do not resemble any Chinese temples. If anything, it looks like just any state of the art building which, looking at the brighter side for the affected residents, actually might just mitigate the issue a little bit.

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NIMBY - Not in my backyard

With an ageing population, there is an increasing need for eldercare facilities in Singapore but it seems some people are unhappy over the presence of such facilities in their neighbourhood.

Health Minister Gan Kim Yong has urged the eldercare facilities to work more closely with the community so residents can accept them, rather than view them as a liability.

He explained that Singapore doesn’t have many outlying spaces to build such facilities, adding that building the eldercare facilities within the community allows the elderly to age in place.

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Not In My Backyard
– My Singapore News: No where to RIP
– Singapore Notes: No Peace For The Departed
– Bertha Harian: A life-and-death conversation
– Musings From the Lion City: The Important People
– MIKOspace: Defending Singapore
– Thoughts of a Cynical Investor: Much ado about urns/ Where to buy in NE
– Evergreen Bamboo: The Fernvale Lea & Columbarium
– Life of a simple boy: Temple, Columbarium and HDB
– Canvasing Light: Room for the Departed
– Ravi Philemon: Sitting at the wrong end.

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BTO Estate @ Fernvale Lea
Fernvale Lea at Fernvale Link
Fo Guang Shan Temple along Punggol Place
Kong Meng San Crematorium at Bright Hill Road
 Nanyang Thong Hng Siang Tng Temple along Anchorvale Link
Puat Jit Buddhist Temple along Anchorvale Link
 Puat Jit Buddhist Temple along Gerald Drive
Seu Teck Seab Tong Temple along Lorong 1, Toa Payoh
 Saint Teresa Church at Bukit Purmei
Yishun Columbarium along Yishun Ring Road
Punggol Topaz at Punggol Central