No land for the dead? Golf courses, parks could be the solution

Funeral parlour operators here could benefit from taking over just 10ha of some 1,500ha of land currently occupied by 17 golf courses, some panellists suggested, during a discussion on the future of the business in land-scarce Singapore.

The industry is facing a space crunch as it is often relegated to operating in industrial estates, and leases are typically for only three years.

Funeral director Ang Ziqian, founder of Ang Chin Moh Foundation, which organised the discussion, said: “Each golf course has 80 hectares or so. I think the funeral profession needs two hectares each in the north, south, east, west, and central (Singapore). So 10 hectares in all. I think that will be sufficient for us.”

Mr Ang, 36, who is also deputy chairman of Ang Chin Moh Group, was speaking on Wednesday (Sept 12) at the talk held in one of the firm’s parlours at Mount Vernon Columbarium, which will cease operations by the end of the month to make way for housing developments in Bidadari.

Ang Chin Moh Group’s subsidiary, Mount Vernon Sanctuary, operates six of the eight funeral wake halls at the 7.1ha Mount Vernon Columbarium, with an average occupancy rate of between 80 and 85 per cent. As the eight halls represent a fifth of Singapore’s publicly available funeral parlours, Mr Ang foresees that the space crunch for such services will only get more severe after the venue closes on Sept 30.

Pointing out that there has not been a parcel of land for funerary purposes put up for tender over the last two decades, Mr Ang said: “Any land (offered) up for this purpose will be (highly sought after). That’s for sure.”

If no new areas are allotted to the funeral services industry, new funeral parlours will be available only in 2024, when a 1.1ha replacement facility comprising 12 halls becomes operational at Bidadari. It is unclear whether the Government plans to tender it to operators, or lease the halls directly to users.

The panel discussion on Wednesday also included Ms Wong Chiu Ying, director of facilities planning and development at the National Environment Agency (NEA), and architecture professor-in-practice Richard Ho Kong Fatt from the National University of Singapore.

Agreeing with Mr Ang, Prof Ho said that Singapore is “squeezing land for the dead”.

“It is not true that we don’t have enough land. It is how we make use of it. I feel that the golf courses should go,” he added.

Prof Ho has been studying the industry with his students to come up with design solutions that “sit comfortably” within the community, for the public to gain wider acceptance of such facilities. He added that the industry “is really given a double whammy” due to the “terrible locations” and three-year leases offered to them.

“Our students are also quite shocked that they are located at the fringe of an industrial estate, right next to a highway in no man’s land, in a desolate area where nobody wants to go,” he said. “(And with a three-year lease), how much would you invest to make the premises look good? It is a vicious circle.”

Ms Wong noted that the NEA monitors the supply of after-death facilities, “especially as we know that the demand for such facilities will increase with the ageing population”.

While acknowledging that Singapore is “definitely not number one in caring for the dead”, Ms Wong said that it has done well in providing an infrastructure at Mandai with sufficient capacity to cremate the dead — unlike the situation in some countries where families have to wait for weeks before they can get a slot for their loved ones’ cremation.

“We have been trying our best and certainly hope that we can improve further with the help of the industry, with the new generation (coming in),” she added.

Ms Wong said that the NEA would want to locate funeral facilities in accessible locations, but the community’s acceptance would have to be managed by “good design”.

On the panellists’ idea of tapping spaces in parks to house funeral parlours, she said: “Having it in a park, why not? Probably it may take time for people to come to accept it, but I certainly hope that this can be something that can happen.”

Prof Ho added that there are many creative ways for funeral wakes at parks to be sheltered from residents living nearby, and his students have come up with some designs.

Purpose-built spaces for funeral parlours, Mr Ang said, are the best way to mitigate issues such as noise and air pollution as he noted that makeshift wakes at the void decks of public housing blocks would create “more of a nuisance”.

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