Thursday, January 08, 2015

Columbarium Saga - Victims' Open Letter to Minister Khaw and PM Lee

The victims of HDB's injustice have sent the following letter to Minister Khaw and PM Lee.

This is an open letter we have just sent to Minister Khaw Boon Wan for National Development and Prime Minister Lee:

Mr. Khaw Boon Wan
Minister for National Development

Dear Minister,

Re: Fernvale Link Columbarium of Chinese Temple.

1. We refer to the issue of HDB awarding the land meant for Chinese Temple to a private commercial company, Eternal Pure Land Pte Ltd (EPL), owned by the Australian Public Listed company, Life Corporation Limited (LC).

2. We are a group of present and future residents of Fernvale HDB estate who will be affected by the abovementioned development. Although we have different concerns of the said project, but we have come to the following consensus and conclusions.

3. First and foremost, all of us in the group, with different religions, agree that it is totally inappropriate for a commercial company to bid for a land meant for religious use and to make money in the name of religion.

4. It is implied in the Charity Act that any organization with advancement of religion should be subjected to the Act and supervised by the Commissioner of Charities. It means that anyone who runs a Chinese Temple at Fernvale must be a non-profit organization registered with the Commissioner of Charities.

5. Apparently from the dialogue we had on last Sunday (4 Jan 2015), the representative from LC has admitted that they are not a non-profit organization or a registered religious organization.

6. This will set a very bad example and precedent for all the religious organizations in Singapore, including but not limited to Buddhist, Christians, Catholics, Hindu etc. Registered religious organizations are non-profit organizations and it is unfair for them to compete with commercial entities which have more financial power to tender for the very limited land slated for religious purposes. For the example of Chinese Temple, we notice that only 20 plots of land were slated for tender by HDB over more than two decades.

7. Moreover, the company, Eternal Pureland Pte Ltd, which won the tender, is registered as company which deals with Funeral and related activites (including embalming, Cremating and Cemetery services upkeep of cemeteries, sales of bereavement products and services). This company was incorporated only 16 days after the tender was called and it has absolutely no experience whatsoever in running a Chinese Temple.

8. We have also learned from the advertisement put up by EPL that they are marketing their niche at the price of $6,500, which is a discounted price from its original $15,000. We do not think such columbarium which put up such Premium Prices could serve ordinary HDB heartlanders like us at all.

9. Many of us have a religion and this is a grave concern to us to see the official stance of HDB in allowing religion to be “Corporatized”. We reiterate that we are against commercial companies making money in the name of religion.

10. We hope that HDB should declare the tender null and void as such practice affects all religious organizations in Singapore.

11. We hope that in the event of putting the land up for tender again, HDB could consider the combination of Chinese Temple with Childcare/Student Care. The Childcare/Student Care centre should be required to open to all races. This will serve the community well as many of the residents are young couples with kids.

12. This will be the most satisfactory and perfect solution to prevent any unwanted disruption to the many BTO buyers who were misled by HDB as well as present residents who weren’t even made known of this development at all when they bought their flats.

13. It will be totally regrettable if HDB insisted in carrying on the building of the columbarium and the Chinese Temple.

14. The reason why so many of us were caught off guard is because we have placed so much trust in a government statutory board. We have expected HDB to be transparent, open and more forthcoming with important information. We didn’t expect a reputable and biggest developer of properties like HDB would hide critical material information under ultra fine prints and vague uncertain phrases (eg. “may include”) coupled with disclaimers.

15. We believe that if there were information which could help HDB to fetch a better price for the BTOs (eg. Mall, LRT stations, amenities etc), HDB would surely have put them up prominently and affirmatively. We expect HDB to do likewise for information (eg. Columbarium) that may make the flats less attractive to most buyers and thus, fetch lower prices for HDB.

16. These are not “isolated cases” but happened in a massive scale. Thus, we feel that HDB should not treat our demand for refund without other penalties as a case by case basis. HDB should be more transparent and fair in dealing with all those who wanted a full refund.

17. We expect that HDB treats those of us who wanted a full refund fairly with the following conditions:

a) full refund of whatever deposits paid
b) no technical penalty (eg. 1 year wait) should be applied
c) priority to select alternative flats in other development.

18. We feel that this is the worst option for all of us, even if full refund is given to some. We still hope that the option of having a Chinese Temple with Childcare/Student Care could be granted as it serves almost everyone’s interests.

19. It would be utterly regrettable if HDB did not void the tender to LC and let it proceed as planned. Even worse if HDB refused to treat all of those who seek a full refund fairly.

20. We hope that you, as the Minister of the ministry, could do the right thing, not only for us but for the whole of Singapore, to set the record right by disallowing commercial entities to bid for land slated for religious purposes. Thus, void the current tender to LC.

21. As the old saying goes, Trust is hard to earn but easy to lose. In you, we trust to right the wrongs. Thank you.

Yours truly,

Present & Future Fernvale Residents

Sunday, January 04, 2015

Sengkang West Columbarium Saga - Disrespectful to Buddhism

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 advance religion will have to be classified as Charity.  The governing body is Commissioner of Charities.

However, according to the tender information posted on HDB website, Life Corp has won the tender via a private limited company.

If you read carefully, all other bidders of land meant for Chinese Temple are religious organizations or groups registered in Singapore ROS. Eternal Pure Land Pte Ltd. wholly owned by Life Corporation, is the only commercial entity which won the tender. Although it tries very hard to have a name that sound "Buddhist" but in essence, it is a private limited company.

The only other exception is the land slated for Chinese Temple/Funeral Parlour at Bedok North Ave 4. Even for that, it is a bid offered by a combination of a commercial entity and a temple association. (This may become another big hoohaa for Bedok residents if it is situated right in the centre of the HDB estate but I doubt so. It should be situated near the industrial park.) To provide funeral parlour service definitely need the involvement of commercial entity.

Look at the other two bidders for the same plot of land at Sengkang West here.

They are both religious organizations registered in Singapore!  

It is highly inappropriate and most probably against the law/regulation for HDB to allow a commercial entity to bid and win the tender for land meant for religious purpose. In fact, it is utterly disrespectful for HDB to allow a commercial entity to "make money" by using the name of Buddhism here.

Throughout the decade, we have seen how Singaporeans are irked by the various scandals arising from inappropriate or mismanage of funds by the respective religious leader of both Buddhist and Christian organizations (i.e. monk Mingyi of Renci and pastors of City Harvet). Funds gather by religious entities are expected to be treated as donations for charity and use in enhancing religious and spiritual cause, other than daily operation expenses. That is why religious groups, be it temples or churches, will need to be governed by Charity Act and the Commissioner of Charities.

Especially for serious Buddhists who observe the precepts, we expect monks to be Role Model of human beings and not businessman. We call those who make use of Buddhism to make money or serve their own material desires, "Business Monks". Yes, we do not have much respect for these "Business Monks", other than the fact that they are just human beings in robes. We detest these "Business Monks" who give our belief, the teaching of Buddha, such a bad name.

For most Buddhist Temples that provide columbarium service, they provide such service to their devotees as a public service in return for a fee just for maintaining the operation cost of their temples. These are NON-Profit organizations, unlike what Life Corporation and its subsidiaries, Eternal Pure Land and SFS are thinking of. Columbarium is really just an ANCILLARY service while TEMPLE function is the main key focus.

Look at the various statements Life Corporation has filed to the Australian Stock Exchange. ALL its statements posted there were about how it will enhance its earnings by having this opportunity to enhance its PREMIUM funeral services provided by its Singapore Funeral Services Care (SFS). Example of such statement is as follows:

It is obvious and expected that Life Corporation as a public listed commercial entity will be more excited and focus in how much money the columbarium can bring it. And to understand it a bit further, SFS is a company that provides PREMIUM Funeral Services with Mercedes as their hearse!  It basically means that their services are meant for filthy rich people and I do not think they are going to provide its intended "state of the art columbarium" service to layman. It is basically a very lucrative BUSINESS to them, not the normal PUBLIC SERVICE kind of columbarium offered by traditional registered Buddhist temples.

I believe the Singapore Buddhist Federation must be extremely upset and unhappy. HDB has just allowed someone to make use of the name of Buddhism for commercial profiteering. This will ultimately make Buddhism look extremely bad! Buddhism is about the teaching of Buddha, not meant to be used as a commercial front to make money!. This is utterly disrespectful, if not blasphemy in essence. Rightfully so. No one, not staunch believer of any religion, would want their religion to be made used for making money. Religion, is after all, spiritual in nature.

I believe the tender for this land should be void and null. This land is only slated for Chinese Temple. It is not meant for commercial use. It is already a breach of the land use and LFC is profit oriented entity which cannot be classified under "Charity". If it was to be classified as "Charity", all its earnings from this Chinese Temple will have to be regarded as revenue for non-profit organization and should not be recorded as earnings for Life Corporation.

HDB and URA should do the right thing to right the wrong. It is totally disrespectful for HDB to allow a private commercial entity to make use the name of Buddhism to make money. Technically speaking, Eternal Pure Land should be disqualified for its tender because it doesn't qualify to be the rightful entity to run a religious place of worship, Chinese Temple.

It is really unfortunate that for a government statutory board like HDB, it lacks the sensitivity and strict regulation on who can and who cannot bid for land of different usage. Land slated for religious purpose alone will obviously require a more stringent qualification and criteria to make sure that whoever bid for that land, has the necessary qualification and ability to run the intended religious function meant for the land.

Coupled with the serious fault of omission of critical material information in its sales brochures, HDB has actually made two terrible mistakes in a row. Although HDB has put up a disclaimer on the brochures but HDB should not shy away from its responsibility of omission. The brochures did not specifically state "columbarium" but only "ANCILLARY" services which was not clearly defined in the brochure itself (only on URA website).

I would consider the first fault of disrespectful of Buddhism more SERIOUS than the omission of critical information to the BTO buyers. But nevertheless, HDB should be accountable for both of their mistakes. Null and void the tender to LFC, at the same time, make concessions to the BTO buyers in whatever ways possible.

Goh Meng Seng