NSP Weighs in on Sengkang West Columbarium Controversy

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[1].  Questions arise.

Question: Has HDB been remiss in their Fernvale Lea sale brochure? 

These would-be residents are upset because the HDB Fernvale Lea brochure they relied at the time of purchase indicated that the site adjacent to the project was reserved for a Chinese temple, but did not specify that it would include a columbarium.

Looking up the HDB Fernvale Lea brochure[2], the word ‘columbarium’ does not appear.  But in a section captioned ‘Disclaimers’ containing 10 paragraphs, one of the paragraphs states:

(ix)     The proposed facilities, their locations and surrounding land-use shown in the maps and plans are indicative only and subject to change or review. These facilities may include other ancillary uses allowed under URA’s prevailing Development Control guidelines.” [3]

This paragraph is vague and open-ended.  Anyone reading it would not be sufficiently or at all informed of the possibility of a columbarium.  The paragraph also does not alert the reader that he had better make the effort to look up URA documents to get the full picture.

Even if the reader is minded to look up URA documents, he would have to navigate a myriad of technically worded documents to find the applicable information.  It is doubtful if a layman would be up for such a challenge.

Question: How much research do HDB buyers have to do?

HDB is a government agency, not a private developer.   Potential HDB buyers are ordinary Singaporeans who do not expect they need to conduct their own independent inquiries, investigation and research of URA and other documents before committing to buying a flat from HDB.

HDB cannot hide behind their vague, open-ended description to say that buyers have been sufficiently alerted to the prospect of a columbarium being included in the Chinese temple to be developed there.

Clearly, HDB has a vital duty to disclose as much information as possible to their buyers in their sale brochure, so that their buyers can make an informed decision. Many HDB buyers are young couples and/or first-time buyers.   Considering that and the fact that the purchase of a HDB flat would most probably be the single-most expensive purchase of a citizen in his lifetime, giving the buyer full and frank disclosure in an accessible medium becomes that much more important.

With HDB’s Asset Enhancement Policy being in place for over three decades where HDB flat owners are encouraged to look at their flats not only as a living space but also as an asset, it is absolutely understandable why HDB owners would be concerned with factors that may dampen the value of their flats.

Question: 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[4]. 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[5].  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% 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.

Question: How are buyers of niches protected from unscrupulous columbarium operators?

The case of Poh Lian Development Pte Ltd v Mok Mee Property Pte Ltd and Others[6] indicates how lucrative the columbarium business can be.  According to the law report of that case, while the cost of development was estimated to be around $28 million, profit from the sale of niches in the columbarium were projected to be well in excess of $100m. That projection was made in the year 1999.  Today, 15 years later, our population have since increased tremendously and with severe constrains on space in our tiny island, one can imagine how much more profitable columbarium business would now be.

In a rapidly aging society like Singapore with severe space limitations, where huge profits can be made by the sale of columbarium niches, businessmen will definitely try to get their hands into this business.  How would buyers of niches be assured that they are not over-charged, that the terms of the purchase are transparent and fair or that the remains of their loved ones would be properly kept?

Currently, Singapore has no specific legislation regulating the management and operation of columbaria.  It may now be high time for the Government to look into enacting a legal compliance regime aimed to protect consumers from unscrupulous columbarium operators and to ensure that columbaria are managed properly.  Legislations of other countries, like Hong Kong’s Private Columbaria Bill[7], may be studied for its relevance for implementation in Singapore.

Question: 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?

It has never been a part of URA’s standard practice to conduct a formal public consultation before deciding to allow developers to go ahead with their plans.

In the absence of a formal public consultation process, local residents and other interested parties are left on the receiving end of URA’s decisions.

URA’s decision to allow the developer to include a columbarium as an ‘ancillary use’ in their development plans for a Chinese temple at Fernvale Link joins a growing list of instances where local residents are caught off-guard by development plans near their homes which impact their daily lives, but which they have no formal channels through which to voice their grievances to URA[8].

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Double Standards?

When Aljunied-Hougang-Punggol East Town Council (AHPETC) was found guilty of holding a festive trade fair without a permit, it came to light that as a condition to the grant of a festive trade fair permit, the National Environment Agency (NEA) requires the organiser to obtain a letter of support from the Citizens’ Consultative Committee (CCC)[9].  Presumably, this is to ensure that holding the festive trade fair – albeit a temporary event – will not have an adverse effect on the local community.

Trade fairs run over weeks. Yet the authorities like NEA seem concerned enough with its impact on the local community to require the organiser to obtain a letter of support from a local citizen body.

Developments are permanent features having a lasting impact on the local community. Yet, the local community have no place in URA’s planning permission process as developers are not required by URA to seek local community support as a condition to being allowed to execute their development plans.

Including Public Consultation in the URA’s Approval Process

Having no place in the approval process, no formal channel by which to submit their objections, and no procedural recourse by which to seek remedies or compensation, affected residents are left to write petitions, go to the media or resort to legal action (if they have the financial means to).

In the United Kingdom, planning authorities are required to undertake a formal period of public consultation prior to deciding a planning application.[10] This process allows individuals who might be directly affected by a planning application, community groups and specific interest groups to express their views on the proposed development and provide representations on planning applications.  Once consultation has concluded, the planning authority will consider the representations made by consultees, and proceed to decide the application.

Having such a pre-decision process in place puts onus on developers to win the support of local residents or at least ensure that their plans are not odious to the local stakeholders so as to avoid delay or objections to their plans. After all, as with the Fernvale Link site, most if not all developers are there to make money.

Moving forward, URA should review its decision-making processes to include a period of public consultation prior to allowing developers to execute their plans. Including a public consultation period in the process would give due recognition to local residents as stakeholders of their neighbourhood and reinforces the national ideal that Singapore is a home for her citizens.

Jeannette Chong-Aruldoss, Secretary-General
On behalf of the 15th Central Executive Committee
of the NATIONAL SOLIDARITY PARTY


[1] Future residents of Fernvale Lea BTO in Sengkang West surprised by columbarium plan – See more at: http://www.straitstimes.com/news/singapore/housing/story/future-resident…

[2] We assume that the HDB Fernvale Lea brochure which the buyers had relied on at the time of purchase is the document athttp://esales.hdb.gov.sg/hdbvsf/eap001.nsf/0/13JULBTO_pdf_selection_8820/$file/FernvaleLea_RivervaleArc_2-room.pdf as accessed on 11 January 2015.

[3] At page 4 of the HDB Fernvale Lea brochure.

 

*Article first appeared on http://nsp.sg/2015/01/11/questions-arising-from-controversy-over-fernval…

 

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