By Kalinga Seneviratne
Over the centuries, all great religious leaders and philosophers, including Jesus Christ, have drawn attention to the evils of excessive greed and taught honesty and integrity to overcome it. The guilty verdict by a Singaporean court in October, convicting six leaders of a large Christian Evangelical Church in a 36 million U.S. dollar fraud case, has raised question marks on whether so-called Mega Churches with thousands of devout followers generously donating to their coffers are a business or a religion?
The City Harvest Church (CHC), which had a congregation of 33,000 followers when the court case started three years ago, but since reduced by half, got embroiled in one of the biggest corruption cases in Singapore’s 50 year history, when its founding pastor Kong Hee and five of his senior staff were charged with misuse of church funds. On October 21, Singapore’s District Courts found all six guilty of acting dishonestly in conspiring to misuse church’s funds running into millions of dollars.
Kong Hee was found guilty of secretly funnelling 18 million dollars of the church’s funds into sham investments to bankroll the controversial pop music career of his wife Ho Yeow Sun. CHC’s finance committee member John Lam, fund manager Chew Eng Han, deputy senior pastor Tan Ye Peng, Finance Managers Serina Wee and Sharon Tan were all convicted of devising plans to use a further 19 million dollar to cover the tracks by setting up sham companies.
In delivering the verdict, Judge See Kee Oon described the six as “acting dishonestly” to misuse church funds on a so-called Crossover project – CHC mission to use Ho’s gospel music to evangelise Taiwanese and other Asians as well as break into the U.S. gospel music market with an English album. “Each of them participated and functioned in their own way as crucial clogs in the machinery,” said Judge See, who singled out Kong as the spiritual leader that the other defendants have trusted.
The 140 day CHC trial is the second longest criminal trial in Singapore and experts here say that it could be the most expensive trial in Singapore’s history with legal costs shooting over the 10 million dollar mark. Four of the defendants were represented by elite Senior Counsel whose costs could be in excess of 1.5 million dollar for the case, a senior lawyer has told the Straits Times. While wealthy church members may have contributed to some of the costs, at the beginning of the trial, the government said that it was illegal under the law for the church to publicly canvass for funds to help its members to fight the court case.
The scam involved CHC’s finance managers, setting up music production company Xtron and glass-maker Firna. The latter was in fact set up to fund the Crossover project which the defendants claimed during the trial as serving the Church’s mission to evangelise in Asia. First, 18 million dollar was invested in bonds from Xtron and Firna. Later, 19 million dollar was used to cover up the initial misdeed.
The judge noted that the initial bond issue was not genuine investments because the album sales projection indicated that they will not make enough income to redeem the bonds on time, and Ho’s album’s perceived success was inflated as album sales were boosted by the church. Later they used 19 million dollars to cover up the initial misdeeds, while hiding from the auditors the fact that Xtron was controlled by pastors Kong and Peng.
The Judge did not buy the argument that Crossover project had a dual purpose of being an investment and serving a missionary purposed. He noted that they have devised creative labelling for “round-tripping” transactions that were designed in a way that the “CHC was channelling money through various conduits in order to pay itself”.
The CHC was formed by Kong in 1989 with 20 followers. At that time he has just graduated from the University of Singapore with a degree in computer science and had “barely a dollar to his name” according to CHC website. In 1995, after Kong returned to Singapore from the United States with a doctorate in theology, the church began to grow rapidly.
By 2009 they had over 30,000 mainly young energetic followers packing its 34 million dollar newly built chic church. Their pop concert style services appealed to the young, while Kong had to often brush off criticism that he practiced an aggressive form of evangelism and he focused on financial blessing which is sometimes known as “Prosperity Gospel”. He has argued that CHC is presenting Christianity in a way that is relevant to the people of the 21st century, particularly the young.
Whiste-blower’s crucial role
It was around this time that Kong and the CHC appealed to their followers for funds to make a 215 dollar million bid to buy a controlling interest in the Suntec Convention Centre, a popular venue for international conventions. This raised alarm bells in the small affluent island republic about the business model and aggressive evangelisation of some Christian churches.
The conviction in October has its roots in a 2003 claim by a whistle-blower, a 53-year old CHC member and businessman Roland Poon who alleged that church’s funds were used to fund the music career of pastor Kong’s wife Ho. At the time she was vying for the Singapore Favourite Artist Award at the MTV Asia Music Awards. Poon was eventually forced to retract his allegations by church members and he spent over 20,000 dollars in taking out advertisements in local newspapers to do so.
Strait Times’s Assistant News Editor Abdul Hafiz argued after the verdict that the CHC saga highlights the crucial role of whistle-blowers in exposing wrongdoings of charities who claim to do good for the society. Even Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said recently that whistle-blowers are important because the Government could not keep watch on everything.
“Larger religious charities like CHC are a breed apart,” argues Hafiz. “They work behind closed doors, and donations at times are made with a blind conviction that those in charge will always do the right thing under the scrutiny of heaven.” He also points out that Kong’s controversial prosperity gospel works on the principle of more the tithes (biblical donations to church) more the followers get back material on earth. The CHC website says, “we believe that our giving is a form of worship”.
Since the CHC case started many dissolutioned former church members have openly criticised the church’s aggressive fundraising tactics in blog posts. They have described how Kong in his glitzy sermons often makes statements such as: “We can lift our hands to worship god, but if the titches are still in your pocket, then due tributes are not been given.”
One ex-member of ten years standing writing in a blog as “Farhan” described how the church changed his life in a positive direction and he even started to eat cheaply to save money to buy 10 CDs of Ho’s album. But, his faith in the church began to wane, when they moved their Sunday services to Suntec Convention Centre and Kong asked the congregation to donate generously to raise 220 million dollar within seven years to buy off the venue by paying their debts.
While the members were asked to sacrifice for “god’s mission”, Kong and his wife were living in luxury in multi-million dollar properties in Singapore and Beverly Hills, driving around in a luxury Audi and travelling first class on frequent overseas trips. “He may have sacrificed a lot in his early days, but now they are living the days of their life,” noted Farhan, “it came to a point I said enough is enough and left”.
A research paper released by the Yusof Ishak Institute of the National University of Singapore on the growing Pentecostal Christian churches in Southeast Asia, by researcher Dr Terrence Chong argues that these churches driven by upwardly mobile Chinese have become crucial spaces for social networking, business contacts and identity making among ethnic Chinese minority communities across the region.
Chong points out that “charismatic” senior pastors enjoy “great deference and sway over large congregations” and these churches are also spreading to slum communities in Asia. “(These leaders) are deeply authoritarian in character because the charismatic leader is supposedly entrusted to articulate God’s will and vision for the church,” he argues.
Following the verdict, Kong has apologised to a weeping congregation at a Sunday service and said that god will use his ‘guilty’ verdict for good of the church and announced a new management structure where his wife Ho has been officially appointed as a pastor.
Meanwhile, Singapore’s Commissioner of Charities (COC) has indicated that it will soon take measures to ban Kong and others convicted from holding any key management positions or employment with the church. COC has also been tightening regulations on charities after a spate of such scams uncovered in recent years in both religious and secular charities.
The National Council of Churches in Singapore has issued an appeal to its members to “pay greater attention to church governance in the management of funds”. Pastor Kong and five others convicted will be sentenced on November 20.
*Dr Kalinga Seneviratne is Special Correspondent of IDN, flagship of International Press Syndicate, for Asia-Pacific. He teaches international communications in Singapore.