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Monday, February 04, 2008

Environment 2 - The Green Temple

I visited the Poh Ern Shih (Thanksgiving Temple) in Singapore on the 2nd February 2008, together with an informal group that calls itself the "Ground Up Initiative", in contrast to the prevalent government top-down initiative.
The temple is sited on a gentle hill in Pasir Panjang. Back in the old days, the area was mainly a Chinese and a Malay Kampung (village). See the history here. Today, it is a high class residential area.
We are attracted to this temple because it is the first 'green temple' in Singapore, that will use solar energy, wind energy, micro-hydro turbines from the rain water, use purified rain water for drinking, and use as much natural daylight and natural ventilation as possible. For a summary of the design highlights of the temple, click here
The temple is currently going through a reconstruction. This is an artist impression of the completed temple.
This is where the construction is at the moment.
The hill where the temple is sited is called Chwee Hua San.

These statues are sited by the entrance of the temple walkway...


The entire temple is designed to be wheel chair accessible. This is because the temple committee has learned that more and more devotees above the age of 65 years old are feeling the fatigue and exhaustion of climbing up to the temple. With the whole place accessible, someday old folks who cannot walk can come in electrically powered wheelchair and need not depend on their able-bodied relations. Old folks need to learn to be independent, because nowadays, they have far fewer children to support them, due to Singapore's "Stop at Two (children)" policy in the 1970s, of family planning to having fewer kids.


In Canada, the old folks don't want to depend on their kids, they would ask their children to live away and lead their own independent lives, while they enjoy their own old age. Asian old folks in contrast, want their children to serve them and pamper them. The temple currently conducts courses to change such mindsets among the old folks to prepare them to be independent.

This is Mr Lee, the Chairman of the Temple Committee. In this temple, they have only one full-time worker. The rest of the workers are volunteers, managed by a Board of Directors who are not allowed to draw salary nor to benefit directly or indirectly from the temple finances. This is set in the constitution of the temple at its inception by its late founder, Mr Lee Choon Seng, also the founder of OCBC Bank (Overseas Chinese Banking Corporation) in Singapore.

One can easily sense the enthusiasm and love in Mr Lee as he introduced the temple's intention to go green right from 1995. It took him five years to repeatedly appeal to the government to allow him to put the wind and solar energy back into the national electricity grid, instead of storing them in batteries. This suggestion was rejected. The reason was not given, but our guess is that the government linked Singapore Power was reluctant to give up its monopoly for power generation in Singapore. Besides, during that time, they were producing 75% surplus of electricity. I wonder why. Wouldn't it be easy to cut down and match the power generation with demand, instead of wastefully producing too much?

There is so much that the bureaucracy has to learn and update themselves with the rapidly changing world. I told Mr Lee that I am also a returnee to Singapore after 20 years of living overseas and have given up trying to change anything here. Mr Lee then advised me not to give up as the younger generation coming up will be in-charged and they are much more open minded.

Mr Lee lived in Canada for 35 years and have now come back with the alternative energy generation and saving techniques and forward thinking knowledge he has learned there and now implements them in Singapore.

I must admit that in the last five years, the government's attitude has improved and they are more willing to listen, but I am afraid it is a bit too little too late. As a small nation, we must change fast to excel or otherwise we will be easily left behind.

Anyway, we should put the past behind us now. The way forward is that all the generated electricity will be put into the grid and the temple has a reverse meter for the electricity generated. This is much better than storing them in batteries, which will over time deteriorate and require environmentally safe disposal.

The solar energy is used to power all the lights in the temple in the evenings. There are no air-conditioners in most parts of the temple and the new architecture includes ventilation holes to allow light and breeze in to cool the place.

These are the ventilation holes by the side walls of the meditation halls. By the way, their meditation halls can be booked by anyone wanting to hold retreats in Singapore. So far they have bookings from Hindus, Muslim and Buddhist groups. There are no Christian groups as yet.


This central opening at the top enables light and convection current to circulate.


This pagoda originally has opaque tiles, but this is now changed to glass tiles with solar panels built in. Nowadays, modern building materials can have embedded solar panels and come in different colours and contours to match the architecture of the building.

These are the roof top solar panels that generate 13.5MWh for 10 months. Mr Lee deliberately uses three different types of panels as a study to find which ones have the best overall performance. He will log all data and share them with any interested party.

This is the sole windmill turbine they use. I guess there is too little wind in Singapore to use wind in a big way.


These are still horizontal axis windmills. The new ones are vertical axis and plastered with solar panels.

This is the monitoring station of the solar panels.


Every month, students from the nearby Singapore Polytechnic will come to download the data from here for their research and development.

In the new construction, there will be a water tank to store rain water. These rain water will be reticulated by gravity through tiny nozzles and straight to micro-hydro turbines to generate electricity. Part of the rain water will be used for irrigation of the temple gardens whilst the rest will be purified into drinking water via reverse osmosis (RO).

I then cautioned that RO will remove all the minerals in the water and it will be dangerous to drink them regularly. As this will only be their standby alternative as drinking water, it won't be as bad, but Mr Lee says that now that he knows, he is going to find ways to add minerals into the water.

I was then thinking of room-temperature plasma purification. This will be yet another improvement as it will not take away the minerals and will also use much less electricity.

I also suggested to Mr Lee to look at Tamura Water, which de-ionises the water and the temple can eliminate the use of detergents. He says he is open to that and asked me to send him further information. In fact, he asked all of us to inform him of new energy saving or sustainable renewable energy technologies whenever we discover new ones.

With the solar panels, it will take the temple 25 years to reach a break-even of costs. However, Senoko power station is willing to buy the carbon credits that the temple gets as a result of using alternative energies at a premium, which will then cut the return-on-investment (ROI) to 15 years.

Michael and Philip (with us in the group) mentioned that there are solar panels in R&D stages that operates at 45% efficiency, compared to the current 10%. Perhaps someday, with this improved efficiencies, the ROI can be reduced to less than 10 years. When that happens, then I think solar panels will become ubiquitous.

This will be a typical room of where nuns will live in. These bed units are modular and each square exists independently. It is made of bamboo and not wood. Bamboo exists in abundance and grows very quickly to replace itself. As such, the temple will not buy timber furniture from now on.

In this module, the board can be lifted for the legs and the nuns can use their laptop extended table from the shelf (will be installed later) against the wall.
.This one is a table extended from one of the units. The rest of the modules are used as storage cupboards.
. These floor cushion seats are made of natural jute material.

The toilets are all wheel chair friendly. There are two types of basins. One very low for wheel chair bound users whilst the other is for old folks who are not wheel chair bound but finds it difficult to bend themselves low to use the basin.

All the taps are activated by motion sensors, as a requirement by the government, in order to prevent water wastage. However, old folks will have problems as they would need one hand to hold on to the basin (for support) and only one hand to wash up. The temple has not succeeded in persuading the authorities to waive this requirement for the temple.

This is a wheel chair friendly toilet. The door opens outwards, so that any old folk who faints will not block the door. The two arm bars next to the toilet seat is meant for the user to lift themselves from the wheelchair to the seat. Note that the mirror inclines downwards so that the wheelchair user can see himself.

In the same cubicle is also a shower, so that old folks need not dislodge themselves twice on and off the wheelchair to use the toilet and shower.

These features are meant to keep the old folks independent despite their ailing limbs and strength. Due to the family planning policies of stopping at two children, there are now far fewer young people to support the old folks. Each married couple immediately inherits four old folks. and probably two or more children to take care of.

Temple kitchens are also going to designed to be old folk friendly. There will be sections of the table top that can be lowered such that the old folks can help in the preparation of food. In this way, they (the old folks) can express their love for the younger ones by cooking for them.

This is the insignia of the temple.


Note that there is lots of ventilation vents for this staircase?

This is the chanting hall of the temple for people who wants to chant for their physically ailing relatives or friends. The temple offer chanting free of charge to anyone. Any priest who charges a fee for the services will not be allowed to use their hall.

There is another hall in the basement that will be used for old nuns living out their last days. It will be their resting place before they leave this incarnation. As there will soon be 2,000 old people dying everyday, crematoriums and cemetries may not have enough facilities to handle them swiftly enough in the near future. This hall in the basement may then become a transit area while waiting for the body to be cremated.


We were about to take a picture of the miniature model of the temple when this very regal looking cat jumped on top of the glass top and rest in front of all of us. Mr Lee says that this cat take the role of mother to all the stray kittens brought into the temple. So, it seems that even the cat is enlightened in this temple. :)


This thin green strip in land-scarce Singapore adjoining the neighbours will be turned into a butterfly park. Mr Lee is learning from the people in Alexandra Hospital on how they attract butterflies and keep them. The temple is situated in an idyllic surrounding. It is on freehold land in tiny Singapore. New temples will not be allowed to be built in this area and older temples on lease holds will not have their leases renewed. This is because the East Coast and West Coast of Singapore have been gazetted as Christian Zones for churches only.

To me, Poh Ern Shih Temple is a shining example that looks at life in more universal manner. That we all live in an environment that we have to be part of and that we should do our best to take care of, even way into the future that looks into the mobility problems of the old folks and the burdens of their offsprings.


Monkey said...

great post! thanks for the very detailed report :) it's great to know there are such environmental efforts in non-state/business driven initiatives :)

haojie said...

I agree with Monkey. This is quite an inspiring development. The temple leaders should be congratulated for their vision and for leading the way in a country where green is just a another colour and more is said than done for the environment.

Once again the government shows itself to be lagging and obstructive when it should be leading and facilitative, lip service notwithstanding. Fortunately there are still things that can be done in spite of the government's attempts to thwart green efforts or any other effort for that matter whenever it deems that such measures are contrary to its economic agenda. Maybe the government should hold their retreats at the temple instead of at hotels and become more enlightened.

jupilier said...

Thank you both for leaving your comments on Vacuum State.

You may also like to know that the government, is going to build more incinerators to burn our garbage, spewing more CO2 into the air. This is while newer and equally efficient technologies are available to convert garbage into electricity without incineration, and in addition, automatically separating the recyclables like glass, plastics and metal without human intervention.

Sageboy said...

Waterless urinals is another way to go. They are currently used in Shaw Plaza and Vivocity.

Onlooker said...

Cool temple.

jupilier said...


Huh? Water-less urinals? Is there? Any more info?

Anonymous said...

The waterless urinals at Shaw Plaza and Vivocity is such a cool trend. It's about a friendly bacteria or something that's place at the mouth of the urinal. Here's the email addresses:

Mosquito Repellent said...

I am working on using rubbish to turn them into building material.
I visited the green temple, and there are more to be seen in the temple now.
the tour is especially interested with the cat in my arms.
thanks michael for such a post

jupilier said...

Is that so?
What is new in the temple now?
Perhaps it is time for another visit.

Mosquito Repellent said...

Butterfly garden in development.
pagoda with 9 roofs full of solar panels.
micro hydro generator.
reverse osmosis filter and the underground water tank created.
natural light tunnel... that light up the underground chamber with sunlight.
and more....

Tuesday 22/7/2008 on Channel 8 10.30pm there is a documentary on the temple.
the best is the cat in my arms... ke ke ke

Robin said...

Congratulations. This must be one of the best review on Poh Ern Shih I have read so far.

BTW, I am volunteer for PES, and you are welcome to visit my blog.

Mr Lee would also like to express his appreciation. Perhaps you can help us write something for the temple.

jupilier said...


Thank you for your compliments and I am pleased you enjoy reading the post on the Temple.

I will be delighted if I can help in writing more about the temple. Let me know what you have in mind.

Robin said...


For a start, we would like to link your post to our web-site, with your permission, of course.

We have written separately to your hotmail address.

Have a great week ahead

Robin said...

Poh Ern Shih is finally completed.
The Opening, Purification and Consecration Ceremony of Dharma Halls will be held on 15/1/2009 Thursday 7am ~ 5:30am

Official Commencement and opening ceremony will be announced later.

With Metta