Wednesday, 7 April 2010

Singapore’s latest landmark: Suntec Cathedral

The recent news concerning Singapore's City Harvest Church's (CHC) acquisition of Suntec Singapore International Convention and Exhibition Centre exposes weaknesses in Singapore's regulatory framework managing charitable and religious organisations.
The Suntec Expo Centre is an established feature in the international convention circuit. In the current month, there are almost twenty international exhibitions scheduled at Suntec.
Suntec is a Singapore landmark, not just as a shopping mall but also as an exhibition centre.
The Fountain of Wealth at Suntec, Singapore

The CHC, too, is a fixture within Singapore. With its 33,000 members, the CHC is a powerful force for Christianity in Singapore.
In the last two years alone, CHC received 86 million Singapore Dollars in donations. In the financial year 2008 – 2009, CHC paid SGD 9.3 million in staff salaries and allowances versus 'Local Community and Charity Work' of SGD 2.9 million. Total balance sheet size was SGD 111.1 million with net liabilities of SGD 7.6 million.
Put simply, CHC is rich. Even after debts, CHC owns assets of over SGD 100 million. Acting as an obvious multiplier effect to the large membership is the financial strength and ongoing donations collected by the CHC.
In March 2010 the public became aware of CHC's plans to convert Suntec into its new home.
A church is not just a main sanctuary and nothing else. Having extra facilities is critical to the operations of the church. We need areas for children, rooms for Bible study, car park space and eating places. Suntec Convention Centre has more than 30 meeting rooms, and we will have access to over 8,680 car park lots in the Suntec-Marina area. Between Suntec City and the Convention Centre, there are 283 stalls/restaurants for our members to eat at, and 622 retail stores for our members to shop in.
Clearly, the acquisition of Suntec was a 'takeover' of the premises. One would assume that CHC had comprehensive plans to modify and 'rework' Suntec to ensure its suitability for the events envisaged by CHC.
Ordinary Singaporeans are right to be sceptical of the transaction.
While the authorities have subsequently confirmed that a rezoning of Suntec from commercial to religious use has not been requested by the new owners, questions about CHC intent are genuine.
Imagine a wealthy religious Arab trust fund buying Chijmes and converting it into a religious centre, complete with madressa and mosque with courtyard. CHC's intent and plan for Suntec is no different.
From an investment perspective, CHC tax exempt status gives it an undue advantage. All revenue is tax free. Hence, CHC required returns are lower than for ordinary corporate and individual businesses.
CHC's acquisition distorts returns in the real estate market as tax exempt entities are willing to pay higher prices for assets than typical taxable investors. In a free market, a level and transparent playing field for investors is the primary role of the authorities.
In the Suntec transaction, there is no transparency and questions about the fairness of the purchase abound.
On a social level, one has to be suspicious about commercially managed religious organisations encroaching upon Singapore's common space. Combining large amounts of cash with thousands of fervent believers is a recipe for increasing social cleavages in a diverse society.  
City Harvest Church's twentieth anniversary celebrations at the Singapore Indoor Stadium

In 2008 – 2009, CHC spent approximately SGD three million on 'Christian Television Broadcast and Mass Media, Church Television Ministry and Internet Broadcasting;' an amount equivalent to the SGD 2.9 million spent on social work.
Undoubtedly, all charities, including religious and ideologically inclined organisations, have a legitimate need to become self-sustaining entities. However, naked capitalism must be subordinated to the broader interests of society.
A comprehensive regulatory framework, possibly restricting charitable investors from taking management stakes in other businesses, is an immediate requirement. Like all religious organisations legally operating in Singapore, the activities of Kong Hee's Church must be circumscribed in a reasonable manner.


Imran is a business and management consultant. Through his work at Deodar Advisors, Imran improves the profitability of small and medium sized businesses. He can be reached at


  1. And it'll be fun if Raffles Hotel is converted into a Muslim centre.

  2. Hi Ah Beng,

    Not sure if you're trying to start a new debate here or even a flamewar, but how is that story relevant to the topic at hand.

    Qatari Diar is not a religious organization and its purchase is clearly commercial as it is an realestate arm of an investment company.

  3. Honestly, CHC is not a religion but only a prayer group at best. This Kong Hee person is not God but is benefiting through this group of people who pay tithes to him through CHC. See how well he and his family live. I marvel at how so many people can be convinced to join CHC and believe it is a religion.

  4. erm like f.y.i Rev. Kong Hee does not take salary from the church but instead he has his own business :] and isn't it obvious that they can live well just judging from the fact that his wife, Sun Ho is an international superstar ?

  5. Hi,

    There are some inaccuracies in your post and I would like to clarify that.

    1. The title itself is rather misleading. While CHC may have plans to renovate the convention halls within the Convention Centre to accommodate the 12,000 seater-hall, it does NOT have plans to convert Suntec into a cathedral. CHC is simply a tenant, even though it has bought shares. The reason for that is CHC hopes that the shares will be fund part of the rental costs. The renovation would probably be no different than a new tenant such as Giordano renovating the lot that he/she is renting.

    Moreover, CHC is probably not allowed to convert Suntec into a cathedral just as Chijmes will not not be converted into a place of worship. As you have rightly commented, they are a Singapore landmark.

    2. As for the question on the tax-exempt status, CHC is doing this investment via a "special purpose investment holding company wholly owned by CHC but administered by a reputable independent bank trustee". As such, whatever profits it does collect from the shares bought would be subjected to commercial taxation rules and not charity taxation rules.

    3. I believe the issue of transparency and accountability has already been addressed. Rev. Kong Hee has personally spoke to the congregation in the 7 services during the Easter weekend (2-4 Apr) to explain the deal in a clearer manner and how all that is done has been subjected to the COC and URA's purview and approval. The statement is still available on the church website on While not all the information are readily available to the public because of some legalities i.e. the NDA, we will just have to trust the government agencies overseeing this project that it has been done above-board without any threat to the public interest.

    After all that is said, I do agree that there is a need for a stronger governmental framework so that. But let's give grace seeing that this is a first for both governmental agencies and the religious organizations. Details are being ironed out and let's hope for best.


  6. Thank you for visiting my blog and taking the time to post a comment.

    While there is no issue about a Qatari investment entity purchasing the Raffles Hotel the question of zoning and the nature of agreements come into play. The Raffles may be a 'listed' building but there are many other ways in which wealthy religious groups can take advantage of a vague regulatory framework.

    I am sure Kong Hee's business interests are varied but I just wonder whether there is a conflict of interest between his church work and his commercial interests. His media entities which are listed in the financials of CHC are of particular interest in this regard.

    Individuals are free to worship, donate, etc. based on their own conscience but there are many historical examples of religious leaders who develop cult-like status and subsequently abuse the trust reposed in them. I hope that we can avoid such incidents in Singapore.

    Kind regards,


  7. "Qatari Diar is not a religious organization and its purchase is clearly commercial as it is an realestate arm of an investment company".
    (...of predominanlty muslim nation, yes?)

    The writer of this post has made alot of allegation and presumptions, based on his values and "feelings" there was nothing factual in the post... it is pure speculation

    On the same premise, why cant Ah Beng speculate that the Qatari investment has bigger ambition to turn Singapore into a califate.

    CHC has also understaken a purely commercial undertaking under a different vehicle... So my point is STOP SPECULATING, and get proof of "misconduct"!

  8. I do agree with Michelle regarding certain inaccuracies in your post. I feel that this post is misleading in the sense that it gives people the impression that CHC is taking over Suntec. But from what I have gathered, it seems that CHC is only renting from Suntec their premises on the weekends for their worship services, just like what FCBC is doing at Max Pavilion and what NCC is doing with the Rock auditorium.

    However, they are buying shares into Suntec to offset the rental costs.

    That to me is makes sense financially for a church of this size.

    This is completely different from "a wealthy religious Arab trust fund buying Chijmes and converting it into a religious centre, complete with madressa and mosque with courtyard."

    Just my 2 cents worth.


  9. Hi Imran,

    With regards to your reply to Michelle's post:

    " which wealthy religious groups can take advantage of a vague regulatory framework." I'm not sure this is a fair comment because you are assuming that the intentions of CHC are so. As far as I can tell, the church is simply securing a venue for their ever-increasing population, and their dividend receipts are used for the sole purpose of defraying rental costs - i.e. not for profit.

    "His media entities which are listed in the financials of CHC are of particular interest in this regard." - This is also unfortunately flawed: Xtron (the media entity I assume you're referring to) does not belong to Kong Hee and has a separate board from CHC, and is entirely self-run. The board has also recently consulted with the voting members of the church to re-consider the decision of hiring Xtron for their media services; since their prices were 30% cheaper than competitors, they have decided to continue hiring Xtron.

    With regard to your last comment, I agree. It is important to guard against abuse of power by leaders, and cult-like fervour of the members. I do not think, however, that CHC members have entirely lost their powers of reasoning, and it is my observation that most of them are happy with the Suntec deal, and the information that the leadership have been able to disclose.


  10. The CHC members have spoken up apparently.

    Honestly speaking, and I mean honestly, if this situation had revolved around another religion, I am pretty sure an uproar would have already occurred.

    Step out of your religion for awhile and taken an unbiased view.

    How exactly is it appropriate for a religion (or some would say a prayer group) to take up a huge portion of a common public space?

    Seriously. Just take a moment and think of this.

  11. Hi Annoymous @ 09 April, 2010 18:39,

    I wouldn't call Suntec Convention Centre a "public space" since CHC is paying rent for the space.

    And you are right in pinpointing the sentiments of some who may feel that it is inappropriate for a religious group to be renting such a prominent location for its worship services. However, there are also some who may feel that it is perfectly alright. There are many valid and good reasons for supporting both views.

    Hence, my point would be that if CHC was to base their move or location choice on popular sentiment to involve even those outside the church, it will certainly complicate matters unnecessarily. This being said, I do not say that CHC doesn't consider the external public interests at all. Suntec was chosen precisely because it is able to service large crowds on weekends (wider roads, train stations, huge carparks etc) without being a public nuisance.

    There must be a line drawn somewhere and CHC cannot please everyone.

    But, CHC will definitely strive be a good neighbour to the general public in the city area. :)


  12. Hi Michelle,

    Thank you for visiting my blog and taking the time to post your comment. I am sure readers will find your clarifications useful and interesting.

    I would like to add a few of my own remarks:

    1. The title is a 'tongue in cheek' statement but is not entirely incorrect. Suntec was / is slated to become the home of the CHC and the CHC clearly states that a 'home' has several characteristics many of which are religious in nature;

    2. I have not seen enough (publicly available) information to conclude that the revenue received by the CHC owned SPV will be taxed at a normal corporate tax rate. If you have concrete information on the tax aspects of the transaction I will happily publish (and stand corrected).

    A vigorous debate about the nature and role of religious charities in Singapore is definitely in order and I thank you for participating in the discussion.

    Hopefully, some good will come out of the CHC - Suntec controversy.

    I hope you will continue to visit my blog and comment on matters of interest to you and the wider community.

    Kind regards,


  13. Hi C, moon_tanning and Michelle,

    Thank you for visiting my blog and taking the time to post your comments. It is great to see people sharing opinions, facts and, of course, feelings.

    As a utilitarian and a secularist in the Kemalist vein, I am particularly concerned about the intrusion of religion into Singapore's common space. Often the intrusions take subtle forms such as social and / or peer pressure. Hence, I believe it is important to carefully observe and reasonably circumscribe the public activities of all legitimate religious groups.

    As we all know, contentious issues seldom have one simple right answer and, yes, it is difficult to please all parties. Yet, it is imperative that we get all shades of opinion and information out into the public domain to allow readers to form their own judgements.

    In this vein, I thank you (and the anonymous commenters) for bringing facts and opinions into the public domain. I hope you will continue to visit my blog and comment on this other matters of interest to you.

    Kind regards,


  14. Hi Imran

    Thank you kindly for your reply. I can understand why you'd have concerns about this issue, and yes, it is important to get facts into the public domain to raise awareness. I only have one more comment to add: Dividends are exempt from tax due to the one-tier corporate tax system. Here is the relevant link:

    This applies to all companies in Singapore, as you can see.

    Also, just to assuage your worries about CHC making Suntec "a home", it is to my understanding that CHC would not be affixing its logo or any sort of religious symbol at the Suntec premises; that is antithetical to doing good business and against CHC's interests as well. Planned renovations are simply to improve the sound system in the auditiorium, and other related improvements, which would also increase Suntec Singapore's competitiveness as a place for MICE. :)


  15. Hi C,

    It's nice to hear from you again. Thank you for your comment and clarification.

    I understand that the dividends received by CHC from its SPV will be exempt from tax due to the one-tier corporate system. However, do you have any idea how the rental income received by the SPV from Suntec tenants, etc. will be taxed?

    I hope you are right about the physical changes at Suntec. I also hope that the ambience and complexion of Suntec will not be 'overawed' by CHC's presence.

    Kind regards,


  16. As a visitor to Singapore, I admire City Harvest Church ( and Pastor Kong Hee. He's patriotic and loyal to his country and genuinely desires peace, happiness and prosperity for this nation. He's the role model for people not only in Singapore, but also China, Taiwan, Philippines, Indonesia, Malaysia. Asia needs more people like Kong Hee, to make this continent a source of blessing.