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“Dirtiness” and Other Reasons Singaporeans Would Shun Living Near a Home for the Dead

Yesterday, when I was on Bus 3 from Pasir Ris, the bus suddenly made a sharp turn and I was caught unprepared. I almost fell. A man who was standing next to me and whom I expected to give me a hand and help me regain my balance, decided to push me aside with his elbow instead! I was quite aware of the extent of self-centredness here in Singapore, but his reaction still managed to win an award from me.

As the bus was crowded, I didn’t have a chance to move very far from Mr Push. Then, about 10 minutes into the journey, Mr Push suddenly decided to pick his nose. It was quite obnoxious, but I became somewhat reassured that he did not try to hold me. Who knows which other parts of his body he had been picking? But seriously, I was more disgusted with Mr Push elbowing me away when I was about to fall than with him picking his nose – something which I too am guilty of, albeit not in public.

There are many different ways in which we perceive “dirtiness”. My first visit to Mandai Columbarium was back in 2011 when a member of the family passed away. I was there the whole afternoon, settling paperwork and making payments at the office. The location was as remote as it can get in Singapore and just when I thought that my own final resting place would be so serene, some military firing range in the vicinity started the day’s training. It’s certainly not a pleasant place to live in but the dead won’t complain.

As I was getting pensive and poetic at the columbarium, a member of the family (obviously still alive) was overtly jittery. She forbade everyone from eating or drinking anything and she even stood far away from the deceased when we were saying our last words to him. She later extended the “curse” to the deceased’s former home and belongings. Yes, she’s one of those who think that anything associated with death will bring bad luck and evil spirits. We just didn’t expect her to find the death of someone within the family so repulsive. Of course, many Singaporeans think that way too. Watching (and smelling) an open-air cremation at Pashupatinath may totally freak them out.

It’s 2015 and at Sengkang West, property “owners” in Sengkang’s Fernvale Link are up in arms over plans to build a “Chinese temple” with columbarium services near their new homes. As many as 3,300 households may be affected as the site is immediately surrounded by two BTO projects, and one executive condominium development. Home owners there claim that plans for a columbarium was not made clear to them when they received brochures for the upcoming residential development. Some said that they were only aware that a Chinese temple will be built and all that was in fine print in comparison to the more positive attributes like transport and amenities. Some have accused the HDB of an attempt to mislead them into making the biggest financial commitment of their life. But that’s not the most disturbing thing. Australian funeral services company Life Corporation won the tender. Their mission, as stated on their website, is “to be the leading provider of premium funeral services in Singapore”. Now that’s a very different thing from columbarium and “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.

This commentary was written by Chua Joon Yee.
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