I am not surprised that the City Harvest Church (CHC) saga is back in the news. Modern religious leaders who combine worldly enterprises with spiritual undertakings always raise my suspicions.
Singaporeans should be glad that the authorities are investigating possible misuse of funds by the church and some of its leaders. If CHC has nothing to hide then the investigation becomes a routine affair. On the other hand, if wrong doing is uncovered then the government must send a clear signal to all charities that the exploitation of public trust is a serious offense.
No doubt, all religious undertakings must have worldly trappings to survive: places of worship, salaries for staff and so on. But it is hard for me to believe that a church which commits SGD 2.9 million towards charitable work on donations of SGD 86 million is fully committed to its community roots. CHC spent more on 'Christian Television Broadcast and Mass Media, Church Television Ministry and Internet Broadcasting' in 2008 - 2009.
There are two issues that demand further analysis: the scope of allowable relationships between non-profit entities and allied profit making entities, and the moral problem regarding the involvement of a 'spiritual' leader in business enterprises.
The CHC is involved in several business transactions, including the purchase of Suntec City. The Suntec transaction brings up many questions.
- Is the purchase of commercially oriented convention centres in line with CHC's approved purposes?
- Are there independent checks to ensure that public donations are not channelled to finance commercial ventures, whether indirectly through special purpose vehicles or directly through CHC?
- How are profits distributed to stakeholders, i.e. will Reverend Kong Hee and his close associates receive an unreasonably large amount of the profits?
- What percentage of the revenue will accrue to CHC and for what activities will the money be used, e.g. to purchase more churches and establish television channels?
Clearly, many questions about CHC's activities remain unanswered. Only a thorough investigation will satisfy a public legitimately hungry for answers.
I hope the Singapore authorities will not only be transparent with their findings but also act on them. If changes to regulations governing religiously inspired organizations are necessary, they must be made urgently.
The moral issues raised by the CHC episode are more personal in nature.
I do not believe that a man of religion should be so blatantly involved in commercial enterprises. Yes, devoting one's life to religion does not automatically mean leading a monk's life but accumulating (and not spending) excessive wealth also raises serious questions about the person's commitment to social welfare.
Does seeking out profits for commercial purposes – managing television stations or buying convention centres – falls in the realm of legitimate CHC activity? Now, if the CHC were managing shelters for the homeless or providing social welfare services then few will question the legitimacy of the CHC.
As things stand, there are hardly any positive signs of CHC activities visible to the ordinary Singaporean. People are right to be sceptical.
The issues are complex and require an independent and empowered commission to make recommendations for strengthening legislation surrounding non-profit entities. If harsh measures, including the forfeiture of illegally obtained assets, are implemented few will be sympathetic towards lawbreakers.
A review of the rules is no longer optional, it is a requirement.
If I were a contributing member of the CHC, I would certainly want to know whether my money is used to fund the Reverend's lifestyle or the CHC's legitimate activities.