Negotiations of Religious Space in Yishun, Singapore

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Singapore is a small, metropolitan island that is faced with the challenge of maximizing its scarce land space. As such, various government bodies have to mediate between competing uses for the limited space. Two statutory boards, the URA and HDB, dictate land use in Singapore, including that for religious sites.

The government has the legal clout to appropriate land through compulsory purchase. According to the Land Acquisition Act (2012), a piece of land may be acquired if it is needed:

a) For any public purpose

b) By any person, corporation or statutory board, for any work or an undertaking which, in the opinion of the Minister, is of public benefit or of public utility or in public interest

c) For any residential, commercial or industrial purposes

This broadly phrased Act essentially grants the government the authority to forcibly acquire land that religious places of worship are located on. The uncertainty of having a physical space for communal worship, religious activities and consecration of deities is further aggravated by the 30 year land lease which religious groups have to compete and tender for in an open market.Compounding this insecurity is a lack of clarity as to what the criteria and quantum are for the extension of the land lease after its expiration (Lee and Long, 2010).

One case study in the negotiation of space is the Church of Our Lady Star of the Sea’s experience in securing its land space. According to Kong (1993), the church was premised on Sembawang Road, on a yearly land lease from the HDB. In November 1987, the church was ordered to vacate its premises. Its two requests for a relocation site to be offered at market price, as well as for compensation, were turned down for the church had not been compulsorily acquired; its lease had simply not been extended. The church, therefore, had to tender for a site in Yishun reserved for any Christian group. It was, thankfully, the sole bidder. However, the church was not entirely happy with the site’s conditions. The plot was small, as only 35 percent of the land could be built up, and construction could not exceed 10.8 meters high. The church’s appeal against the building limitations went unanswered. An employee of the church mentioned that it typically costs S$30 million to build a church, which averages to be about S$1 million of depreciation per year of the lease. This does not include other operating and maintenance expenses. Having their land appropriated will prove financially and physically straining on religious groups.

Numerous religious sites in Singapore are relocated, and sometimes merged, when the land they reside on is claimed for redevelopment. Devotees of different religions have varying thoughts on such relocation and mergers. According to a Kerala devotee from the Sree Maha Mariamman Temple, religious sites in India are highly esteemed spaces and will be prioritized over competing land uses. He expresses his disbelief when told that there is a Land Acquisition Act in Singapore, commenting that, in India, “developments occur around temples; temples don’t move.” Another Thai Buddhist maintains that there are religious complexes in Thailand that are many centuries old, and they do not even need to be well-known. Take, for example, a village temple in Supanburi – a rural district slightly outside Bangkok – which has existed in its current position since it was first constructed in the 14th century. In these deeply religious countries, sociopolitical priorities may come and go, but religious spaces remain.

Unlike these nations, Singapore faces land limitations and has a different set of priorities. It needs to balance competition for land use, as well as the different interests that multiple religious groups bring to bear. As such, the future of religious sites in Singapore is uncertain, particularly for those deemed historically unimportant. Unfortunately, these places of worship face the twin specters of having their land compulsorily acquired or their leases not extended. Such appropriation of physical spaces can lead to numerous problems. Firstly, a religious group may incur significant financial costs to bid for lease in a competitive open market. Next, there is no opportunity for socio-spatial history tied to a particular place to be accrued. Thirdly, should the religious group be forced to relocate, there is likely to be a loss in laity. Finally, tensions could invariably arise between the religious group which has won the tender and the rest who have lost.

Despite varying views on the problems of relocating religious sites, a study of the Yishun United Temple reveals that appropriation of land may in fact bring about unexpected benefits. This combined temple was established in 1986 after three separate temples had their land claimed for redevelopment. All three groups shared the cost for the piece of land that they currently occupy in Yishun, on a 30-year lease similar to other religious sites. Combining three separate temples has fostered strong friendships between the elderly volunteers and devotees from each religious group. Over the past three decades, the three temples have co-existed peacefully with minimal tension. The different sects hold events and festivities such as the Lunar New Year celebrations in collaboration with one another. This allows Yishun United Temple to increase their volunteer bank and participation rate through reaching out to devotees from each constituent temple. The common Taoist practices, traditions, and beliefs that run through all three temples have solidified their harmonious co-existence.

This case study highlights that appropriation of land does not necessarily lead to negative effects. Despite relocation and mergers which are beyond their control, these religious groups manage to adapt to changing circumstances. Mergers may be facilitated if the involved sites share the same religion, which would allow common beliefs and practices to thread through any differences that may exist. The Yishun United Temple’s 30-year lease is set to expire by 2014. Interviews conducted with some elderly volunteers reveal that the temple intends to renew their lease, which has since tripled. The lease renewal would be paid with donations accumulated from devotees and donors over the years.

Another factor to consider is that the competitive forces in an open bidding market may price minority religious groups, with fewer devotees and less financial resources, out of having a physical space for worship. However, a representative from Gurdwara Sahib Yishun expressed his confidence in having the temple’s lease renewed. This Sikh temple was allocated its current site due to the intervention of some first generation political leaders after a Christian group, with far greater financial clout, outbid it for another site. Although the current government reserves the right to exercise the Land Acquisition Act, there is calibration on its part. State policies are tempered by the need to maintain the multi-religious fabric of the country through special provisions for minority religious groups unable to tender for space in an open market.

However, solely depending on the patronage of influential political figures may not guarantee protection of physical worship spaces for minority religions. Perhaps the way forward for these religious groups is to offer a counter-narrative to the dominant economic-centric story; to strategically situate themselves – their histories, beliefs and practices – amid local, national and international heritage so that their physical existence can be assured.

2 comments:

  1. Doing theology sounds very religious and it will basically strengthen your belief in god. I was also researching on it with a man who wants to be a church loans lender so that he can help churches.

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    1. I agree with you and would like to add that theology can be loosely tied to philosophy and it helps to situate our existence within the varied/variable cosmos!

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