Part 3 of Religion, Donation, and Alleged Corruption: Questioning the Whys

Read Part 1 and Part 2.

Note: Apologies to unbrandedbreadnbutter. In Part 2, I classified his blog post as supporting City Harvest. I sort of skimmed through the blog post and missed the entire sarcasm and satire behind it. I have re-categorized his blog post as a ‘Fence Sitter’. And thanks to ah men for pointing me to the Limpeh is Foreign Talent blog. I have included the blog under the “Against the Church” camp in Part 2.

Note 2: I want to thanks all the City Harvest members and ex-members for clarifying some of the questions I had about the Crossover Project and for giving their own thoughts on the City Harvest case.

 

I apologize for the unduly long wait. By the time I published Part 2 of this commentary, I realized that I was starting to sidetrack from my main questions. At the same time, I had became overwhelmed with all the new information and opinions that I had to constantly process. I needed some time to recollect and reflect, especially since this will be the part where I will reveal my own personal thoughts on the City Harvest case.

In order to stop going off-tangent like I am always wont to do, I went back to Part 1 to read the original questions that I posed, and to reevaluate if I had managed to answer, or at least, gain some understanding in the course of this lengthy commentary . The original questions were:

  • Why was the public backlash so severe?
  • What was it that caused both the media and the public to react with such ferocity?
  • Was it really necessary to arrest the five?
  • Finally, there’s the question of the actions of Kong Hee and the other four. What drove them to do it?

For the first two questions, I covered both at length in Part 2. But even then, I covered it from the angle that the mainstream media (MSM) was the main cause behind the severity of public backlash by constantly stirring up emotions with their sensationalism reporting. In short, I more or less covered the what and how of the first two questions. What I did not do was to explore the rationale behind the media’s and public’s behaviour, or the why. As such, I will be exploring it in this final part.

The third question was not answered at all. Given that the case is now before the court, I will not attempt to answer it. However, I will raise a few questions of mine, something that I feel has been lacking throughout this whole case.

As for the last question, I sort of covered it in Part 1. However, Part 1 elicited more questions than answers since I was confused and unsure about the purposes of the Crossover Project. Fortunately, some CHC members and ex-members were helpful to clarify and answer some of the questions I had. Due to my uncertain knowledge about the Crossover Project, Part 1 focused more on the history of the Crossover Project: how Kong Hee and Sun’s actions brought great successes to the Crossover Project, and how it ultimately led to their overweening ambitions and the current situation. I did explored why they did it, but only briefly and only in the frame of the Crossover Project. Similar to Part 2, Part 1 focused more on the how and the what of the Crossover Project.

After much reflection, I shall attempt to tackle the most difficult question in this commentary: why? I know that I will still have large gaps with my knowledge on the issue. But hey, at some point I have got to confront the question. As such, in this final part, I shall attempt to answer the why question, while tying everything together and concluding this commentary.

 

Why, COC and CAD, why?

I am starting with this section since it will be very brief. As stated earlier, I am not attempting to answer this question. Rather, I will only be raising a few questions I had in mind throughout this case.

First, why did the Commissioner of Charities (COC) suspend the church leaders from their positions as office bearers and church employees before bringing the case to court? Was there another reason, beside the alleged misuse of S$50 million? City Harvest had been cooperating fully with the investigations (1), and even the article by City News on the Crossover Project mentioned that Sun returned to Singapore from the U.S. due to the investigations in 2010 (2). Furthermore, Mr. Bobby Chaw stated in the church’s press release on 28th June that:


    … the church was also surprised that COC chose to implement the suspensions of the members involved without prior notice. “We have been co-operating with COC for two years since the start of the case, so these sudden suspensions came as a surprise to us.” (3)

 

 

So was it a procedural move on COC’s part to suspend Kong Hee and the other church leaders from their positions, or was it due to their arrests by the Commercial Affairs Department (CAD)?

Second, why did the CAD arrest Kong Hee and the other four? The probe into the allegations of the misused funds had been going on for two years. So why now? What was it that pushed the CAD into arresting them? Were the arrests procedural? Did the CAD finally gather enough evidence to justify the apprehensions? Or were Kong Hee and the other four at flight risk?

Unfortunately, there was not much detail released by the mainstream media (MSM), the COC or the CAD. While it is understandable that this will be a complex case, and that the COC and the CAD may not want to disclose too much evidence, I hope, that as the case progresses, more information behind the arrests will be release.

The last question is not so much of a why, but more of a who. Amidst all the furore, there is one thing that was not exactly answered. Kong Hee and the other four were charged in court. So who is the prosecutor in this case? The state or the CAD?

So many questions, so few answers. All we can do at this moment is to wait till 25th of July when Kong Hee and the rest are officially brought to trial.

 

Why, media, why?

In Part 2, I mentioned the first reason for the silence before 4:32pm on the Singaporean front in Twitterverse. The reason I stated was that Channel NewsAsia (CNA) broke the news on a Tuesday workday afternoon (at 2:47pm). This means that very few Singaporeans will be reading online news at that time; so a lower likelihood of someone sharing the breaking news through their social network. It was not until when both CNA and The Straits Times (ST) tweeted the news around 4:32pm did people start taking notice of the arrests of Kong Hee and the other four church leaders and started sharing that news with their social networks.

That is the first and most straightforward answer. There was nothing on Twitter between 2:47pm and 4:32pm because people seldom check online news on a workday afternoon. Either they were working hard or hardly working.

So what is the second reason that I alluded to in Part 2?

The other reason why it was so quiet could be, and this is just conjecture on my part, could be that both news providers wanted to confirm all the details before tweeting it out to their networks. Notice the two hours discrepancy between the news release by CNA and then the subsequent tweetings by both CNA and ST. Why wait until 4:32pm to tweet about the news? Both CNA and ST could have immediately tweeted the newsflash. It was a news feature that was bound to grab the public’s attention. Yet, both chose to keep silent until 4:32pm. Furthermore, they both tweeted about the arrests around the same time when STOMP (Singapore’s citizen journalism portal) tweeted about it at 4:32pm. It is as if both CNA and ST were scrambling to reassure the public that STOMP’s tweet is the truth.

This may sound too much like a conspiracy theory. But the second reason why it was so quiet on the Singaporean front between 2:47pm and 4:32pm could be due to the false tweet sent out by STOMP the week before. As a result, both CNA and ST were very cautious about tweeting the news. Until STOMP messed it up. Again.

I briefly touched upon the STOMP fiasco in Part 2. If you were not aware about the STOMP fiasco, or STOMPgate as some netizens took to naming it, the long and short of it is that a paid staff from STOMP tweeted a picture to the public, showing one of the train/subway doors remaining open while the train/subway was still moving. The picture turned out to be false, and the paid staff was later fired while the editor-in-chief from STOMP had to apologize to SMRT (Singapore Mass Rapid Transit). It was a bit hilarious to read about a government-linked company apologizing to another government-linked company. You can get more information from both mrbrown (4) and Alex Au (5). Overall, it was a very big embarrassment for Singapore Press Holdings (SPH is the owner of both STOMP and Straits Times). So it might be understandable why ST delayed their tweet.

However, CNA is owned by Mediacorp and was not involved in STOMPgate. So they could have immediately tweeted about the arrests. So why didn’t they? But let’s face it, Mediacorp is owned by Temasek Holdings, a state investment agency (6), which means you have two government-linked companies controlling majority of the MSM in Singapore. With STOMPgate still fresh in the public’s mind, CNA may not want to take the chance too. Hence, it may be why the Singapore MSM delayed tweeting about the arrests. After all, if they messed it up, they would have to apologize to the Commercial Affairs Department, the white-collar crime agency. Imagine the two media giants apologizing to the Ministry of Home Affairs.

So that is my second reason for the delay in the tweeting of the news. However, it does not explain why the MSM was so overzealous in their coverage of the City Harvest case. Ironically, the answer may also be related STOMPgate.

In my conclusion of Part 2, I mentioned that some Singaporeans pointed out that STOMPgate could be the reason for MSM’s rabid and sensationalist coverage of the City Harvest case. During my research for Part 2, I stumbled across this tweet:

 

 

 

I know that correlation does not imply causation. But if you think about it, it does make some sense. Back in 2009, Minister Lui Tuck Yew, who was then Senior Minister of State for Media, Information, Communications and the Arts (MICA), stated that the “‘Internet is not an effective self-regulated regime as some may have touted it to be'” (7).  A year later, Minister Lui went on to say that the MSM in Singapore is still considered by Singaporeans as a trusted news source (8). Even before Minister Lui made his statements, the PAP government had constantly paint the online community and new media as untrustworthy, and that the MSM was the only public arena with reliable information.

Furthermore, both SPH and Mediacorp constantly state that they stand for responsible journalism, including STOMP, the online citizen journalism website. I am not sure how that works, but fine, we all took their word for it. However, after STOMPgate, the journalistic credibility of the Singapore MSM took a beating, and as such, it can no longer claim the journalistic high ground.

Perhaps, in a bid to distract the public from the incident, it decided to cover the City Harvest case intensively. Furthermore, in order to claw back its journalistic reputation, it tried to prove that it still had its journalistic credibility by overcompensating through their reporting. Ironically, in doing so, it covered the case in a very sensationalistic manner. So much so that, in the words of Mr. Chaw, they “… seem to have pre-judged [City Harvest]” (9).

However, like I said before, correlation does not imply causation, and one cannot point to STOMPgate as the main cause of MSM’s rabid and sensationalistic reporting on the City Harvest case. In my judgement, STOMPgate was just a symptom of the underlying structure that pervades throughout the media system in Singapore.

Now, most of you are wondering what I am driving at. Bear with me for a moment.

As most Singaporeans are aware, two media giants, Mediacorp and SPH, largely dominate the media system in Singapore. The former is dominant in television and radio broadcasting, while the latter retains a monopoly over the print media. As stated earlier, both have close links to the PAP government (10) and as such, the majority of MSM is co-opted by the government.

With the media co-opted, the culture of Singapore MSM had evolved into one where “political communication in Singapore is … seen as nothing more than official government communication to the public on its own prescribed terms” (11). And one of the PAP government’s prescribed terms is that the bureaucracy, and Singapore society in general, are free from corruption.

Hence, the main reason why the MSM gave the City Harvest case such an intense and sensationalistic coverage was to demonstrate that corruption, regardless of whether it occurred within the bureaucracy, the private or the public spheres, is simply not tolerated. And given that the case involves a charitable and religious organization, and that similar cases had had occurred in the past (12) (13), it is no wonder that the MSM devoted so much attention to this case. CNA aired a televised debate on the City Harvest case (14), and even the Parliament discussed about the case during its sitting on Monday and Tuesday (15).

Some of you may be thinking, “Wait, you got all these explanations, all of them, just from STOMPgate?”

Like I said, colerration does not imply causation. STOMPgate was just a symptom of the media system in Singapore. This is not the first time it happened, especially with the advent of new media. But I think this is first time where the Singapore MSM truly lost their journalistic and moral high ground. For years, they have been posturing themselves as “as a neutral and morally corrected information-provider for the Singaporean public” (16). But after STOMPgate, they lost that position, for good (I hope).

As a result, they did a zealous coverage on the City Harvest case for a two-fold reason. Not because they wanted to shift the public’s attention (they can always spin on another news item), but because they wanted to remind the public of the strict anti-corruption stance taken by the PAP government, and that as government-linked organizations, the MSM itself will be free from public corruption and will always maintain its journalistic integrity.

Sounds too conspiratorial? Yeah, even I myself, am not satisfied with the reasons I came up for the rationale behind the MSM’s behaviour. Perhaps it was as simple as it was: the MSM was humiliated by STOMPgate and just wanted the public to forget about it.

 

Why, public, why?

It is easy to brush off the severe backlash from the public as nothing but a mindless jump onto the media’s bandwagon. While it is true that some people were jumping onto the bandwagon, they were either the vocal minority or had no understanding of the incident. I believed that the majority of the public was trying to look at both sides of the issue and that most of the public knew not to take the MSM’s words at face value. Besides, if you really think about it, the MSM did not really provide much information other than rehashing what the COC, CAD, or City Harvest issued through their press statements. The rest was just speculation writ official.

However, some City Harvest members will point out that even those who were trying to be fair and impartial still ended up being biased against Kong Hee and the entire City Harvest Church (like me). Looking at how both MSM and social media reacted, there is some truth in that. Overnight, City Harvest was branded the new organization to hate, with some going as far as to call City Harvest a dangerous, brainwashing cult.

So what is it that got the public so riled up? Why was the public backlash so severe?

I believe that when it comes down to the heart of the matter, there are two broad reasons for the severely critical attitude from the public: initial unease towards City Harvest’s teachings, and the siege mentality adopted by City Harvest members.

If you read most of the blogs, Facebook notes, and tweets that were against City Harvest, and even those that belong to the fence sitters, the one common contention they had with City Harvest is: the prioritization of money. Simply put, they were uncomfortable with the message preached by Kong Hee and City Harvest.

While City Harvest’s core beliefs align closely to that of the Evangelical Protestant movement: The Great Commandant, The Great Commission, and the Cultural Mandate (which I covered at length in Part 1) (17), it is another aspect of their teachings that drew the most ire. This aspect can be broadly defined as the prosperity gospel. For those who do not know what the prosperity gospel stands for, it is a movement that originated from the United States at the end of the twentieth century (18). Essentially, the prosperity gospel states that “‘health and wealth’ are the automatic divine right of all Bible-believing Christians and may be procreated by faith as part of the package of salvation” and that the “individual is entitled to an endless supply of material satisfaction” (19).

Or as Alex Au succinctly states in his blog post: “if you believe, believe, believe, you would be blessed with material riches, then you yourself had better live a life of luxury” (20).

In the words of Deng Xiaoping: “To be rich is glorious”.

The prosperity gospel also makes a point that Jesus and his disciples were very rich. Alvin, blogger of Alvinology, put up a couple of Youtube videos on his blog that feature Kong Hee’s sermons (21). I am going to focus on three videos here. The first two videos feature one sermon. In this sermon, Kong Hee states that Jesus was not poor as he had the funds to support a large ministry.

This is Part 1 of the sermon:

 

 

 

I have picked out a few quotes that I found rather memorable:

At 3:07: “Jesus was rich, from the day he was born, for the Glory of God. Come on, Give the Lord a big hand”. Correct me if I am wrong, but I thought Jesus was born as a son of a carpenter? Sure, the Bible makes no mention if Joseph was poor or rich. All we know is that he was certainly not living at subsistence level. If God wanted Jesus to be born rich, he could had been born as the son of the Roman Emperor, or the son of King Herod. Yet, he was born as the son of a carpenter.

At 3:22: “Jesus ran a sophisticated sermon organization. I know a little bit of that”… and continuing on … “To hold public meetings usually cost a lot of money. Holding evangelical campaign”. I understand that Jesus ran a ministry. But what I liked is how Kong Hee drew parallels between a City Harvest music concert that cost almost S$250,000 and an ancient public meeting hosted by Jesus. Kong Hee’s reasoning is that because the concerts City Harvest organized is so damn expensive, so must be Jesus’ public meetings. I guess paying the Roman legionaries for crowd control must be a really huge drain on Jesus’ funds.

09:57: “They had the means to eat healthy, sustainable food, because the work is hard, the work is long”. I have nothing against eating. I mean, you do need to eat healthy to sustain your energy levels and health, otherwise, how are you going to live a productive life? But if you take this quote into the entire context of Kong Hee’s sermon, what he seems to be implying is that hey, it is okay to live beyond your means. You know, trying to keep up with the Jones. Or maybe I am just reading too much into it.

But these are not the most memorable quotes. Close to the end of Part 1 of his sermon, Kong Hee demonstrates a brilliant flash of ironical recognition. I mean, when he said that sentence, I was in awe. He knows how absurd his sermon is, he knows the huge amount of cognitive dissonance it was going to take to believe his sermon, and he probably knows that he is pissing off some of his congregation that stick to the more traditional interpretation of the Bible. So he said this:

11:09: “So don’t get upset with me. You know I’m showing you [examples] from the Word of God. And the Word is the source of our faith.”

That’s all folks. Let’s pack it up here.

Oh, but wait, hang on. That’s not all. In Part 2 of his sermon, it becomes even more absurd.

 

 

 

Skip to 4:23 (first 4 minutes is just praise and worship). I like how in the second part of the sermon, he started harping on the fact that Jesus owns two properties. If I remember correctly, Jesus most likely did own a house. After all, he inherited the carpentry business from his father, Joseph. I am not so sure if Jesus did own another property. Either way, by stating that Jesus owned two properties, Kong Hee is implying that more is never enough. Keep buying, people.

Now, here comes the winner where Kong Hee manages to outdo his “don’t get upset with me” statement. From 6:40 to 9:24, Kong Hee made Jesus looked like an entitled asshole. I mean, seriously, watch it, it was one hell of an awe-inspiring speech. From the way Kong Hee described Jesus, I would have pictured Jesus as a stuck-up rich asshole, no different from the Pharisees and the Sadducee of his time.

I guess Jesus must be rolling around in heaven:

 

Jesus: “ARRRGH!!! That… that… that KONG HEE!”

Gabriel: “My Lord? Is there a problem?”

Jesus: “Problem? PROBLEM? A pastor just described me as an entitled asshole and you ask if there is a problem?”

Gabriel: “I’m sorry, my Lord. Is there anything I can do? Maybe I can go down and reason with him.”

Jesus: “No, no more reasoning. Call Michael.”

Gabriel: “But… my Lord, is that not a bit too… drastic? Perhaps there are some other ways where…”

Jesus: “CALL MICHAEL! DDOOOOO EEEEETTTTTT!!!!!!”

 

Heaven has no rage like a pissed off Jesus.

I am not trying to make fun of City Harvest. But I am trying to point out the absurdity of Kong Hee’s prosperity gospel. And this is what most critics are so condemning about: Kong Hee and City Harvest essentially warps the words of the Bible to fit the prosperity gospel. In the third video, Kong Hee implicitly compares faith to the central bank:

 

 

 

In short, if you do not give enough material goods to God, your faith is worthless.

I know that by now, most CHC members will probably be very pissed off with me. Some may argue that the Bible is open to interpretation. The problem is that many religious texts are always open to interpretation, and most of the time, they are interpreted to justify someone’s personal worldview. An extreme example is the Ku Klux Klan using the Bible to justify their racial hatred.

Others will argue that I am reading too much into Kong Hee’s sermons. The problem that I find with many church members is that they take their pastors’ sermons at face value. They tend to forget that although the pastor is much more experienced and knowledgeable in the study of the Bible, sermons are usually filtered through the lens of the pastor’s worldview and personal experiences. Essentially, sermons are personal interpretation of the Word of God.

I am jumping at a huge leap here. But if you take it that sermons are personal interpretations of the pastor, then what implication does this has on Kong Hee? Basically, from his sermons, he is placing the love of money over the love of God. Some members will say that I cannot base Kong Hee’s beliefs and character on just a few videos floating around on Youtube. But I do not think I am the first to point this out. Other Christians and non-Christians who were trying to stay neutral in this whole debacle were also trying to point out this fact to City Harvest members. Basically, if you have faith in God, you will have all the material riches… but… you must keep on giving, and giving, and giving out material riches, in order to get these material riches. So really, it is sort of a vicious cycle.

I am not saying that all Christians and all pastors must live like beggars. I understand that everyone aims for a comfortable standard of life. Neither am I saying that a Christian cannot give anything to God. What I am saying is that Kong Hee is implying that the larger the amount you donate to the church, the bigger your faith is in God. Ultimately, your faith is tied to your wealth, not to God.

And it all comes down to this, really. Critics like me are trying to point out that if faith is just another exchangeable commodity to make you feel good, then how different is City Harvest from any another secular charitable organization?

But I guess this point got lost in the baying for Kong Hee’s blood.

Another point that the critics were trying to raise is, why does City Harvest need so much money? To be fair to City Harvest, the critics tend to forgot that the church does run numerous missionary and humanitarian projects in Singapore and overseas. I am not taking away that achievement from City Harvest. But with net assets of S$103 million (22), it is a huge amount of money, especially for a charitable religious organization. And understandably, the public will want to know how much of the money actually goes into funding the missionary and humanitarian projects. In short, a transparent record of where the money goes.

I tried looking for financial records on City Harvest website but found none. Perhaps COC and CAD ordered City Harvest to take them down in lieu of the investigations. That, I am willing to give City Harvest the benefit of the doubt, especially now that the case is before the court.

However, what struck me as strange is that some of City Harvest’s members stated that because City Harvest did no solicit donation or funding outside the church, the public has no right to make judgements.

Daphne of Mother Inc. blog, writing in support of City Harvest, uses the analogy of a stranger lecturing a family on how to manage their money:

 

I mean, I don’t come into your family and lambaste you for how you’re spending your money. If you decide to build your kids a bowling alley in your basement, that’s your right. Or if you decide to splurge on a Breitling for your dad, or a Prada bag for your second grandaunt’s cousin’s daughter, that’s entirely up to you. (23).

 

 

The problem with such thinking (“it’s our money, we can whatever we want with it”), is that, as a charitable organization, there is no stopping City Harvest from soliciting donations from the public. One reader commented in Part 1 that the Crossover Project is not widely publicized because it is a missions project. He then went on to state that City Harvest Church’s missions projects are not publicized as projects from the church. I asked if that means the missions projects does not advertise the fact that they belong to City Harvest, but I have not got a reply yet.

This is what worries me, and this is what many critics were trying to drive at too. There have already been reports of companies related or linked to City Harvest (24) (25) to deal with the numerous aspects of running the church’s many projects. It means that at any time, the church can solicit funding from the public through these companies and funnel the funding to the church. The “it’s our money, so back off” approach really ticked off a lot of people.

On top of that, supporters of City Harvest Church, especially some City Harvest members, kept quoting from the gospel of Matthew: “Do not judge, or you too will be judge. For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you” (26).

To be honest, I was a bit put off by such sanctimonious behaviour. I understand that the Singapore MSM bungled the entire issue through its coverage. Although the Singapore MSM later tried to take on a more impartial by sending out reporters to City Harvest services, the damage was already done. I also understand that the members were trying to protecting their leaders and the church.

However, sometimes I think religious people love to constantly judge others for their morals. Yet, when the tables are turned, the religious come out screaming that only their God can judge humans. Not all are that way, of course, but it is usually the vocal minority that fuck things up.

The thing is that the charges were laid against Kong Hee and the other four, not the church. Even Deputy Prime Minister Teo Chee Hean stated that the case was only against Kong Hee and the other four, not against the church itself. City Harvest is free to continue its operations and services. Unfortunately, as the founder and an extremely public pastor of the church, Kong Hee’s charges became a blight on City Harvest, a blight that some members were desperate to remove.

Even Joel, a Christian, was puzzled by the behaviour of some of the more fanatical supporters of City Harvest (27). In his blog, he pointed out that:

 

1. The facts, as laid down by the mainstream media are, we must admit, incriminating. Kong Hee and friends intentionally concealed and misrepresented the way church funds were being used, and worked in a way which suggests a conscious and systematic mishandling of money. While, of course, they may not be guilty of any real wrongdoing, the very likely likelihood is there, and if he and his friends are indeed guilty of a crime, then the appropriate course of action is to condemn their misdeeds. There are no two ways about that – even praying to God will not change that fact because God is a God of justice, and He would want wrongdoings to be condemned.

 

 

This siege mentality by City Harvest members certainly did not do wonders. That combined with the initial disapproving view of City Harvest’s prosperity gospel, and the lack of transparent financial records, all snowballed into one very pissed off public and thus, the huge public backlash.

Some readers will point out that I am just as bad the other strident critics. I did warn you though, my personal opinions were come out in this part. This is not to say that I am taking away all the other humanitarian achievements by City Harvest. What I want to point out is that the actions of City Harvest members were complicit in creating this huge public backlash.

Last week, a reader emailed me a link to a Facebook group where all the City Harvest members were writing testimonials about how City Harvest changed their life. Called “Testimonies from the Hearts of City Harvest Members (Open)” (28), I read through some of the testimonials. Most of them were about how City Harvest helped them during very low points in their life. While I understand that City Harvest is their second home and family, I think they are missing the whole point here.

The point is, City Harvest is not Kong Hee, and vice versa. If anything, Kong Hee should be subjected to the body of City Harvest. Did not Jesus say that the leader should be the servant? Yet, City Harvest members conflated Kong Hee to the point where he was treated as a semi-deity. Yes, Kong Hee is a very capable man who started and built up City Harvest as one of the largest ministry and congregation in Singapore. But the way City Harvest members treated him and Sun was as if they both could do no wrong. I think this reaction stems from the fact that both Kong Hee and Sun are so integral to the organization to the point that both have become the organization. To criticize City Harvest is to criticize them, and vice versa.

And you can see the result. Kong Hee and Sun were in the public’s sights.

 

Why the Crossover Project and the Cultural Mandate?

So how does all these tie back to the Crossover Project and the Cultural Mandate?

Some of the comments that were left by readers in Part 1 raised many good points, and some actually helped to clarify the questions I had about the Crossover Project and the Cultural Mandate. 

A couple of readers stated that the purpose of the Cultural Mandate was to break beyond the four walls of the church. What the term “four walls of the church” really means is to break out of the Christian community, and to handle society on society’s terms. In short, instead of insulating oneself within the Christian community, one must interact much more closely with the secular society, to speak its “language” on the same cultural level, and in the process, bring people into Christ’s fold.

When I asked, Part 1, why Sun did not just went into Contemporary Christian Music, a reader pointed out to me that secular people do not listen to CCM. As such, this is where the Crossover Project comes into play. It allows City Harvest, and Sun, to sort of ‘infiltrate’ the secular. The same reader pointed out that it did not had to be Sun to lead the Crossover Project. Anyone with the same amount charismatic, energy, and vision, could lead the Crossover Project.

In Part 1, I also further questioned the need to break into the the U.S. market. Some readers explained that breaking into the U.S. market was part of the larger plan to break into China. The reasoning was that Chinese people still take cultural cues and styles from the U.S. If you made it big in the U.S., then doors will open in China. Fair enough point. But I want to point out that Singaporean artistes like Stephanie Sun and JJ Lin made it big within the China market without ever going to the U.S. In fact, both Stephanie and JJ Lin were included in the 2008 Olympics “Beijing Welcome You” Song (29). The Chinese government will definitely not include them if they were not well known within the Chinese population.

However, to be fair, the readers pointed out that the Crossover Project became very successful in China. And one pointed out that without the Crossover Project, all these side projects, humanitarian projects and so on, would had never materialized.

But how is the Crossover Project financed? Many City Harvest members proudly proclaim that the support they Crossover Project. That they believe in its cause and that they will continue to donate to it. I understand. But what I want to know is whether the whole Project is funded purely by church members’ donations, or a combination of both church members’ donation and proceeds from Sun’s albums sales. And furthermore, I want to know if Sun’s music career is funded by the Crossover Project. So far, no readers has answered these two questions. But we will leave that for the court to decide.

So where does this bring us to?

The City Harvest case does represent a complex question. The way Kong Hee and the senior leaders conducted the business of the church had blurred the lines between charity and business, between religion and secular. To be honest, I do not have a problem with City Harvest organizing and running humanitarian projects and trying to get out to hard to reach areas. My issue with City Harvest is that as a charitable organization, they should be held up to a high standard of governance with transparent and clear financial records. None of that “it’s our money, so back off” bullshit. To be fair, Kong He and Sun did not take on that attitude. The blame laid squarely on the vocal minority of City Harvest members who were also screaming about not judging the church.

Then there is the Cultural Mandate. The more I think about it, the more I find that Kong Hee’s modus operandi can simply be described as “if you can’t beat them, join them”. This is the whole gist of the Cultural Mandate. The problem is that, how far do you draw the line? Because from what I see, in the process of ‘infiltrating’ the secular, Kong Hee, Sun Ho, and the other senior church leaders became more or less secular, with religion as a mere veneer. Or as Hunt succinctly states, the “…increasing secularization of religion, which is directed towards this world and material gain, and are best understood as an attempt to fulŽfil America’s dream of worldly progress by magical and supernatural means (Harris, 1981: 141)” (30).

Maybe when Kong Hee first started City Harvest more than 20 years ago, he was driven by a vision. He knew that in a country so obsessed with wealth and status, especially with a government so anal over Singapore’s GDP and GNP rankings, that there had to be a way to bring Christianity to the secular. But in the process of attempting to ‘infiltrate’ the secular and non-Christians, he became one of them. In the end, Kong Hee and the other senior leaders are no different from the many fengshui practitioners who promise wealth and status if you follow their advice.

For now, we will have to wait for part of the truth to be out on 25th July.

 

______________________________________________________________

Appendix (the sources that infiltrated this post)

1. Channel NewsAsia: “Individuals, firms linked to City Harvest Church under probe”

2. City News: “City Harvest Church: 10 Years Of The Crossover Project”

3. City Harvest Church: “City Harvest Church Responds to Allegations”

4. mrbrown: “STOMP kena STOMPed”

5. Yawning Bread (Alex Au): “SPH falls out of open train doors”

6. Lee, Terence, and Lars Willnat. “Media Management and Political Communication in Singapore.” Political Communication in Singapore. Eds Lars Willnat and Annette Aw. New York: Routledge, 2009. 93-111. Print.

7. AsiaOne: Online attacks: Minister rues lack of self-policing”

8. The Star Online: “Singaporean mainstream media ‘a trusted news source’”

9. City Harvest Church: “City Harvest Church Responds to Allegations”

10. Lee, Terence, and Lars Willnat. “Media Management and Political Communication in Singapore.” Political Communication in Singapore. Eds Lars Willnat and Annette Aw. New York: Routledge, 2009. 93-111. Print.

11. ibid

12. Wikipedia: “National Kidney Foundation Singapore scandal”

13. Wikipedia: “Ren Ci Hospital and Medicare Centre”

14. Channel NewsAsia Talking Point: “Blurring the Lines” (uploaded on 3rd July 2012)

15. The Straits Times Breaking News: “Parliament to discuss City Harvest case on Monday”

16. Lee, Terence, and Lars Willnat. “Media Management and Political Communication in Singapore.” Political Communication in Singapore. Eds Lars Willnat and Annette Aw. New York: Routledge, 2009. 93-111. Print.

17. City Harvest: “Our beliefs”

18. Hunt, Stephen. “‘Winning Ways’: Globalisation and the Impact of the Health and Wealth Gospel”. Journal of Contemporary Religion. 15.3 (2000): 331-47.

19. ibid

20. Yawning Bread (Alex Au): “Crossing over from gospel to vanity”

21. Alvinology (Alvin): “Pastor Kong Hee: ‘Was Jesus Poor?'”

22. Commissioner of Charities’ Press Statement

23. Mother, Inc. (Daphne): “City Harvest, My Church”

24. Channel NewsAsia: “Individuals, firms linked to City Harvest Church under probe”

25. Commissioner of Charities’ Press Statement

26. The Holy Bible, New International Version: “Matthew 7:1-2”

27. Joel Joshua Goh: “On the Kong Hee scandal”

28. Facebook: “Testimonies from the Hearts of City Harvest Members (Open)”

29. 2008 Olympic Song: “Beijing Welcomes You”

30. Hunt, Stephen. “‘Winning Ways’: Globalisation and the Impact of the Health and Wealth Gospel”. Journal of Contemporary Religion. 15.3 (2000): 331-47.

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Part 1 of Religion, Donation, and Alleged Corruption: The Cultural Mandate

Read Part 2 and Part 3

If you have been following the news and social media in Singapore for the past week, you would have know by now about the alleged misappropriation of over S$50 million dollars of church funds by five Executive Members of City Harvest Church.

You can imagine the aftermath.

The five were arrested and brought in for questioning by the Commercial Affairs Department (CAD) on Tuesday morning (1). The arrests are the result of a two-year investigation launched by both the CAD and the Commissioner of Charities (COC) into the church’s financial irregularities (2).

Senior Pastor and CHC founder Kong Hee, along with the other four, have been charged in court on Wednesday for alleged misuse of church funds and criminal breach of trust. The five were charged for misappropriating S$23 million dollars to fund pop singer Sun Ho’s secular music career in the United States (3). Sun Ho is the wife of Kong Hee and was formerly the music director at CHC before stepping down in 2002 to focus on her music career. She has not been arrested or charged (4).

To put this into perspective, Alvin, blogger of Alvinology, gives a few examples of what you can do with S$23 million dollars (5).

But that’s not all. When the charges were read out in court, it was claimed that a further S$26.6 million dollars was allegedly misappropriated to cover up the initial S$23 million dollars, bringing the total value of misappropriated church funds to over S$50 million dollars (6).

The Singapore media, along with the public, has been following the case with breathless anticipation. Each time a new development in the case surfaces, the media pounces and devour the scraps before regurgitating it to the enraged public.

It does not helps that the church has always been a polarizing figure within Singaporean society. With an attendance of 22,049 church members (7), the non-denominational and charismatic mega-church is the largest Christian congregation in Singapore (8). Furthermore, the church has constantly been under the glare of the media’s spotlight, and usually for less-than-fantastic reasons. The church made headlines when Sun was criticized for her skimpy outfits that were deemed inappropriate (9), and again when the COC received alleged complaints back in 2010 that the church was misusing its funds to launch Sun’s music career (10). This was also the proverbial pebble that started the avalanche.

Within the public, non-Christians and Christians from other churches were highly critical of the church’s culture where members are greatly encouraged (some say coerced) to donate and contribute financial resources to the church funds. It was also rumored that wealthy members had to tithe 10% of their income to the church.

City Harvest members, on the other hand, pointed out that no members were coerced into tithing and that the funds were necessary as the church runs and operates numerous community and social outreach programs, including evangelical programs to educate and train evangelists and to reach out to non-Christians.

Ironically, one such “evangelical program”, the Crossover Project, is at the centre of this case. I will explain later why I have doubts about the Crossover Project.

Following the intense media scrutiny and public outcry, the resulting fallout has split the Singapore public into two broad camps: for the church and against the church. When it comes to alleged misuse of funds by a charitable organization, and a religious one to boot, there is no fence sitting. Either you rally to the church and its leaders, or you stand aside and castigate them for their greed.

Judging from the tone and atmosphere of Singapore’s social media and mainstream media, to fence sit is equivalent to supporting the church.

The social media in Singapore has been awash with numerous tweets, blog posts and even Facebook notes commenting on the case and taking potshots at City Harvest members, who in turn stood their ground. The entire time when I was following the case, I thought: “No way are Kong Hee and Sun Ho going to escape this unscathed.” But then, as days passed, and the more I thought about it, the case raised more questions than answers. Why was the public backlash so severe? What was it that caused both the media and the public to react with such ferocity? Was it really necessary to arrest the five? Finally, there’s the question of the actions of Kong Hee and the other four. What drove them to do it?

My housemate asked why I found the City Harvest case so interesting when she saw my whiteboard scribbled with all the possible connections relating to the case. It is because beneath the cut-and-dry case of church leaders abusing their powers, there is a complex host of other factors. And these are the factors that I’m trying to explore here.

In Part 1, I will be exploring in detail City Harvest’s Cultural Mandate. According to City Harvest, it is their attempt to reach crossover to the secular world and to reach out to non-Christians through secular entertainment. In short, City Harvest is bringing the church to the “un-church”. The Crossover Project is the result of City Harvest’s Cultural Mandate.

 

The Crossover Project: CHC’s Cultural Mandate

To understand the current case, we will need to go back to the Crossover Project. What is the Crossover Project? For something so central to the case, it is surprisingly hard to get information on the Crossover Project. Most of the news website only devote a paragraph to the Crossover Project. Even the press release by the COC only devote three sentences to it.

I did some Googling and managed to get a detailed article on the Project from a website called City News (11). Although I cannot verify it, I suspect that it is either owned by or affiliated to City Harvest. Still, the web article provided a lot of interesting insights to why Kong Hee and Sun set up the Crossover Project. From here onwards, I will be focusing on the article by City News. According to the article:

The Crossover Project was an extension of CHC’s mandate to build a church without walls—to bring the Gospel to the unchurched across society, and this included the world of entertainment.

 

One thing I’m curious about is the sentence about building a church without walls. According to Christian theology, the church consist of the congregation and makes up the body of Christ. The church does not refer to a building. So technically, a church is already without walls. But it seems that City Harvest assumes that a church is a building. I might just be nitpicking here.

Anyway, this was corroborated by the COC’s press release (their mere three sentences tribute):

1.   In 2002, the Charity’s founders, Kong Hee and Ho Yeow Sun (“Sun Ho”),
embarked on a “Crossover Project” [“the Project”], with the purported intention to use
Sun Ho’s secular music to connect with people and reach out to non-Christians.

 

Continuing from the article, the seeds of the Crossover Project were planted in 1999 when Kong Hee was ministering at the Bread of Life Church in Taiwan and Sun was there to lead the praise and worship. According to the article:

… to their surprise, many young people, most of them un-churched, came to the church night after night, not to listen to the preaching but to watch Sun leading praise and worship. They loved her colored hair, her pop culture look, and they loved the pop songs she sang in between the worship songs.

 

It was then that they realized that pop music could be a powerful bridge to communicate the love of God to the youth. What if they could repackage the message of faith, hope and love of Jesus Christ and bring it into the schools, the boardrooms and the bedrooms of the unchurched? At that time, it was unheard of for those in the Christian world to share the Gospel through the secular entertainment platform.

 

What I found surprising is the remark about Christians not attempting to share the Gospel through secular entertainment. I have to admit that I don’t know much about the history of Contemporary Christian Music and it is hard to search for credible sources on the Internet. But CCM was a thriving music industry in the United States by the late 1980s and early 1990s, Christian music acts such as Amy Grant and dc talk were crossing over to mainstream popularity. Perhaps Kong Hee and Sun were attempting to spread the Gospel through secular entertainment within Asia?

Reading through the article, that was exactly Kong Hee and Sun’s intentions:

In 2002, Sun recorded her first Chinese pop album, Sun With Love. She held her first pop concert in the biggest indoor arena in downtown Taipei, the National Taipei Sports Complex. The team worked with a small Taipei church, New Life Church, which had about 200 members then. “Nobody was sure if anybody was even going to turn up,” said Kong Hee. On the first night, the 4,200-seater stadium was jam-packed, with thousands more watching on big screen projectors outside. It was estimated that 80 percent of the audience had never been to church.

 

I’m suspicious of the figure 80%. How did they know that 80% of the audience had never been to church? Did they ask the audience to raise their hands? Perhaps they took a survey before and after the concert? One cannot know. But this is not the point. The article continues with Sun’s musical performances across Taiwan:

Sun performed in various other cities, including Taoyuan, Hualien and Tainan—it was here that one of CHC’s affiliate churches, Rhema Harvest Church was birthed. In Kaohsiung, on the eve of a concert, a typhoon was raging, but 700 people still came, and 560 responded to the altar call. In the small town of Jia Yi, Sun performed at a high school to about 1,100 students. One of the students, a teenage girl named Christina Yu, testified of the miraculous work of deliverance from depression God did in her heart as she listened to Sun sing.

 

Today, Yu pastors 400 members at New Life Church, among whom are three pop stars who flew in for a special performance during the service— Chen Weiquan, Wing Luo and Huang Mei Zhen. It was a pleasant surprise for the congregation, as they listened to the trio cover some of Sun’s songs in addition to their own hits.

 

As for that little church, New Life Church, which helped put together the very first concert, it experienced a great revival too. From 30 people, the congregation grew to 1,250 in three years, and today, counts Universal music producer Chen Ailing, Liu Geng Hong, and Faye Chan and Real Huang from F.I.R among its members. Each is a testament to the seeds of the Cultural Mandate Ho’s concerts had planted. To date, Taiwan’s Christian population has more than doubled, from a mere three percent to 10 percent in 10 years.

 

That last sentence seems to imply that City Harvest and its affiliates were solely responsible in the increase of Christian population in Taiwan due to the success of the Crossover Project. Also, notice the mention of Taiwanese music celebrities. I will be coming back to that later. Nevertheless, Sun’s popularity continues to soar:

From Taiwan, Sun flew to Hong Kong and performed at the Queen Elizabeth Stadium to 10,500 people over three nights, and yet again, thousands gave their hearts to Jesus. One of the most dramatic salvation stories belongs to Teddy, the notorious leader of a gang and owner one of the largest nightclubs in the city. He also had dealings in illegal gambling, drug trafficking and prostitution. Kong recalled that Teddy’s parang-wielding henchmen were all waiting outside, ready to pounce in to protect their boss. But at the end, Teddy came forward and gave his heart to Jesus Christ.

 

Sun also performed in Malaysia, including Sibu and Kuching. Out of her performances there, Kuching Harvest Church was born. In Kuala Lumpur, her concerts in 2003 sparked a revival in City Harvest Church Kuala Lumpur. Today, CHCKL is one of the fastest-growing and most vibrant churches in Malaysia.

 

In Indonesia, in the cities of Jakarta, Makasar, Medan, the response was equally tremendous—people actually broke down the doors and pushed their way into the concerts. Even the security guards who were sent to protect the team responded to the altar call themselves.

 

Back in Singapore, Sun performed 14 times over one weekend at the church’s premises at Jurong West. Over two days, 30,700 people came, and 10,140 salvation decisions were recorded. It was the second highest salvation decision in Singapore church history, the highest being a rally at the National Stadium in 1978 when evangelist Billy Graham gave an altar call.

 

Kong Hee and Sun have managed to expand the City Harvest’s ministry and its congregation through secular entertainment across Taiwan, Malaysia and Indonesia. So far, the Crossover Project is a huge success in Asia.

However, one thing that confuses me is the timeline. According to the COC’s press release, and other mainstream media reports, the Project officially started in 2002. Yet, from the article, it seems that the Project officially started in late 1999 or early 2000. Perhaps Sun decided to soft launch her music career before Kong Hee and she officially launched the Project in 2002. Why do I assume this? It’s because of these two paragraphs:

Over the next few years [emphasis my own], Sun released four more Chinese albums. Ironically, it was the most criticized song on the Sun*day album, “Miss Catastrophe”, that caught the attention of the former general manager of MTV in the US. This paved the way for Sun to enter the American market. In 2003, she became the first Asian pop icon to be invited to sing at the Hollywood Film Festival. Subsequently, she was also the first Chinese singer to be invited to the 46th Annual Grammy Awards in 2004 as well as the MTV Europe Awards in 2007.

 

Her debut American single, “Where Did Love Go”, produced by David Foster and Peter Rafelson, was the number one breakout hit on the Christmas week in 2003—“God’s Christmas gift for us,” said Kong. After her first Billboard dance chart number one hit “One With You”, Sun went on to score another four number ones on the Billboard dance chart, the last of which was 2009’s “Fancy Free”.

 

So did the Crossover Project officially started in 1999/2000 or in 2002? Another thing to note is that after all the detailed success of the Crossover Project in Asia, this article is surprisingly brief on Sun’s sojourn in the U.S. All you get about the results of the Crossover Project in the U.S. is from that two paragraphs above.

Michelle, blogger of Syntaxfree, did a fantastic rundown on Sun’s music in the U.S (12). To be honest, it is less than stellar. One music video that went viral is “China Wine”. You can read more of Michelle’s blog post in the appendix.

Personally, I think that Sun’s attempt to break into the American market was a very, very bad move. In 2002-4, bands such as P.O.D, Switchfoot, and Relient K were making very successful crossovers to mainstream popularity. Furthermore, the U.S. market is saturated with their own talents. And step into any music store in Singapore. You’ll find that the majority of Western popular culture music are from U.S. singers. All in all, Sun’s success in the U.S. was less spectacular than in Asia.

Near the end of the article, it stated that:

The three-hour-long service presented the full story of the Crossover Project to many in the congregation, many of whom had not previously understood its scale, scope and perhaps even its legitimacy as God’s assignment, but had chosen to trust in the leadership of the church.

 

This is the main contention I have with the Crossover Project. From the way the article described the Crossover Project, it seems to be mainly about Sun Ho’s music career. Yes, the Project helped to kick-start CHC’s 98 humanitarian projects, started a youth social enterprise and dance school named “O School” in Singapore, and increased CHC’s congregational size from 10,300 to more than 18,000. But all these were presented as side effects of the Crossover Project. The question is, what did the Crossover Project become after all these years? At what point did it devolved into a series of side projects that made the Project simply too unwieldy? Furthermore, does it means that City Harvest members were donating to the Crossover Project without really knowing what it actually was? Perhaps the church members knew the basic of the Crossover Project: using Sun’s secular music career to attract non-Christians, but then they did not know about the numerous side projects that it started.

However, I commend the church’s leaders for presenting all the information to their congregation. But for a project that was meant to attract the “un-church”, you would be hard-pressed to find any actual information on the Internet or City Harvest’s website. I mean, the Crossover Project enjoyed spectacular successes across Asia (we’ll leave America out), and yet they are not proclaiming their success to the “un-church”? For a church that is so involved in social media, I find that odd. Even their website has no official page for the Crossover Project. And the statement from City Harvest on 28th June is quite vague about the Project:

The church states that the Crossover Project is not about one person’s singing career; it is a mission that is fundamental to the congregation of CHC. The Crossover Project is an outreach that uses Sun Ho’s singing and music to engage people and places that would never otherwise hear the Gospel. As a result of the Crossover Project, many churches have grown worldwide and the faith of many has been strengthened. Impact has been made on the needy in Haiti, disaster victims in China, the depressed and suicidal in Taiwan, and the sick children in Honduras, among others.

 

With both media and public hounding them, you would think they would have provided more concrete details about the Project.

But now that’s all said and done, what do I really think about the Crossover Project? Before I continue, I have to say that the following conjectures are based on what I’ve read from the article above, and from information collected from news website. Like I said, there is not much information on the Crossover Project itself.

First, I think that Kong and Sun started off with good intentions. They wanted to attracted more people to Christ through music. I know Hillsong in Australia (another mega-church) have a separate music project to record and promote their music. Likewise, I think that was the original purpose of the Crossover Project. That’s why I don’t consider the Project as a true evangelical outreach. It was first and foremost, a music project for City Harvest. After all, Sun was formerly the music director at the church.

The problem was that I feel both Kong and Sun got sidetracked after all the side projects started popping up and instead of trying to separate the side projects from the Crossover Project, they combined it with the main project, thus making it too unwieldy.

Also, the early successes of the Crossover Project led to a hubris. As I stated earlier, the New Life Church in Taiwan started to include many Taiwanese celebrities in its congregation, and this probably led to overweening ambitions on Kong and Sun’s part. An ambition that led them to the current situation.

The second and the main problem was the music itself. When you watch Sun’s U.S. music videos later, ask yourself, at what point did you think Sun was actually trying to attract non-Christians? My verdict: at no point.

The issue of using secular entertainment to promote Christians values is not a new topic. You have Christian rap, Christian hip-hop, Christian death metal (seriously), Christian punk, Christian rock and many other Christian genres. But at a certain point, when a certain artist or band crossover to mainstream popularity, they are faced with a certain dilemma: should they stop promoting Christian values and be accused by Christians of being a sell-out or should they promote Christian values and in doing so, lose their mainstream popularity?

Most try to straddle the thin line by saying that they are open with their Christian faith, but that their music will only focus on their artistic talents. And I think that’s what Sun tried to do and failed.

I don’t think the Singaporean media and public are angry with her skimpy clothes or her music. I mean we had Singaporean actress running down Orchard Road in bikinis on national TV (13) and Singaporean youth are constantly listening to pop culture music. What they are angry about is the mixing of church funds with Sun’s career. While professional Christian bands and artists are funded by record labels, Sun’s music is ultimately funded by the Crossover Project which depends on church funds. There are also claims that church members have to buy Sun’s music CDs in order to support her career (14), and that is probably what drove the proverbial stake into the heart of the issue: the line between Sun’s professional career and City Harvest’s involvement was starting to blur.

As the aphorism goes: The road to hell is paved with good intentions.

 

In Part 2, I will focus on the reactions of Singapore’s mainstream and social media.

 

__________________________________

Appendix (where I stole my sources from)

1. The Strait Times Breaking News: “City Harvest church founder Kong Hee and 4 others arrested”

2. Commissioner of Charities’ Press Statement

3. Bloomberg News: “Singapore Pastor Arrested for Funds for Wife’s Pop Career”

4. Southeast Asia Real Time – Wall Street Journal: “Founder of Singapore’s Biggest Church in Hot Water”

5. Alvinology: “A Sense of Proportion: What S$23 Million Can Do…”

6. The Straits Times Big Story: “City Harvest case: Allegedly total of $50m misused”

7. City Harvest Church: “Church Stats Attendance”

8. Southeast Asia Real Time – Wall Street Journal: “Founder of Singapore’s Biggest Church in Hot Water”

9. Scene Asia – Wall Street Journal: “Pop-Star Wife of City Harvest Church Founder in the Spotlight — for the Wrong Reasons”

10. Commissioner of Charities’ Press Statement

11. City News: “City Harvest Church: 10 Years Of The Crossover Project”

12. Syntaxfree: “Gyrating For Jesus: A Pow-Ka-Leow Guide To Sun Ho’s Greatest ‘Hits'”

13. Wikipedia: “The Champion (TV series)”

14. Southeast Asia Real Time: “Wife of City Harvest Founder in the Spotlight”