Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Putting concerns over columbarium to rest

 Feb 10, 2015


THE Sengkang columbarium episode holds important lessons from a public policy point of view. The most important of those lessons is that of alertness. National Development Minister Khaw Boon Wan told Parliament that the project had been awarded to funeral services firm Eternal Pure Land because Housing Board officers had assumed that the company was acting for a religious group. Such a supposition was based on the experience of the past 20 years or so, not a negligible span of time, which suggested that a for-profit company would not participate in a non-profit-making venture, such as building a Chinese temple.

HDB's decision to disallow a commercially run columbarium at the site would partially relieve a proportion of future residents of Fernvale Lea, the project to be built nearby. The relief is partial for some because the Chinese temple that is built eventually in the estate might still include a resting place for the dead. If future residents do not want any sort of columbarium in the vicinity, that would be another instance of the not-in-my-backyard syndrome here that can lead to bitter and divisive turf wars if not nipped in the bud.

The controversy generated by the commercial columbarium demonstrates how the times change without a warning. Thus, the response to the saga, too, must bear the imprint of alertness to change.

Public tenders need to be monitored rigorously so that the reputation of a national institution such as the HDB is not compromised. This is so especially because Life Corporation, the parent company of Eternal Pure Land, insists that it was upfront about its plans during the tender process. If so, how did the controversy arise, since the tender was awarded properly? But if there was misunderstanding, how did this occur?

The issue now is not to revisit the columbarium episode but to learn from it so that its attendant controversy could be avoided in future. National agencies must make it a part of their operating culture to ensure that those executing and supervising projects are not lulled into complacency by the legacy of earlier eras, but are alert to what needs to be done differently for each project that comes up.

By contrast, it would be unfortunate if the saga were to go down in Singapore's administrative history as a case of public pressure leading to the rescinding of a tender. While public sentiments are important, these should not trump a country's responsibility to its institutional principles and processes. A reasonable settlement must emerge so that corporate interests are balanced with the public interest in this case - to uphold Singapore's ability to reconcile the two.

[The land was sold under tender with clear rules regarding land use (albeit the rules were rather open). Subsequently, the decision was protested by the people and the Minister is now trying to unwind this legal agreement. Does this qualify as political pressure and influence reversing a open and transparent process?

The tenderer/bidder would have done their math and homework to see if they can make money, while meeting URA planning and land use requirements. It would have been better to let the winning bidder show how they can meet the land use requirements in accordance with their tender/bid.

It may well be that after the public furor, they would not be able to partner with any Chinese Temple, or entice any customer for their commercial columbarium.

Or they would have had to severely lower their prices to attract customers and partners.

Or they decide that they cannot make a go of it and return the land to URA (like the aborted motor sports hub).

Now, a Minister is trying to unwind a legally binding agreement for a commercial transaction conducted openly and transparently. It might be costly. In financial terms as well as to our reputation as a rule of law state. 

Now what are we? Malaysia?]

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