Chan Jia Hui
So, the law has caught up with a certain Pastor Kong HEE and his four accomplices from City Harvest church. They have been charged in court today. All face three charges over misappropriation of church funds that amounted to over $50 million.
The first charge involved two bond investments made by the church in two companies, Xtron Productions and PT the First National Glassware. Turned out that the alleged investments served as a front to divert $24 million from the church’s building fund to fund Ho Yeow Sun’s music career. Ho is Kong’s wife. The second charge is related to a series of transactions made to clear the bond investments off the church account. The third charge is the falsification of church’s accounts to cover their tracks.
Cognitive dissonance involving Ho
The centre of the controversy involved City Harvest church’s Crossover project, which was established with the aim of using Ho’s secular music to connect with people and reach out to non-Christians. From a neutral perspective, it is a somewhat paradoxical aim, in the sense that the intention is to use secular music to reach out to non-Christians. If the lyrics encapsulated in songs are already secularised, the goal of reaching out to non-Christians is already out of sight and beyond question – to a non-Christian, a secular song is just like any other….secular song.
Another controversy erupted in 2007 when Ho collaborated with Wyclef Jean on the track “China Wine”. Criticisms were levelled at Ho for her part in the music video that featured a lot of skin and sexually-suggestive dance moves. If it was the intention of Ho and her City Harvest supporters for this music video to reach out to non-Christians, this surely has put the issue beyond doubt. As a consequence, her then image as a “singing pastor” took a battering.
The critics have their valid point – clergy – men and women ought to uphold a dignified image and conduct themselves with a decorum that is suggestive of their calling. It was in the face of such criticisms that Ho finally dropped the pastor label, and she came to be known as a mere pop singer.
Reports also surfaced with regards to Ho’s US$20,000 a month Hollywood Hills mansion, which many perceive as an extravagant lifestyle. Hence, questions surfaced as to whether church funds were used to fund a former pastor’s ascension into the Hollywood high life, outreach to non-Christians or both (Ho can argue that her Hollywood riches are just financial rewards for her efforts, while at the same time trying to reach out to non-Christians).
In truth, the outreach goal already looked untenable by 2003 when a member of the City Harvest congregation, a certain Mr Roland Poon told the Straits Times that he was “encouraged” by his cell group leader to purchase both of her albums. He bought 5 at one go. There certainly was a plug for Ho’s albums within City Harvest, but if the intention was to reach out to non-Christians, why aggressively get members of the congregation to purchase the albums? Shouldn’t the plug be done outside the church within the secular arena? It is as good as preaching to the converted. Thus, it is curious that group leaders even plug for Ho’s album, and the other probable reason is none other than a guaranteed market base – in other words, church members are likely to support each other, even more so when we are talking about a leader.
The rabbit hole is deeper than you think
In truth, the rabbit hole is deeper than what many think. Roland Poon isn’t the only one who alleged that Ho’s musical career was funded by the church then.
Way back in 2002 – 2003, Jarrod** (not his real name) was a section commander in his army unit. One of the men under his charge was a member of City Harvest church. One day, during lunch time, this serviceman jokingly asked if Jarrod minded treating him. Jarrod was coming to the end of his national service term (ORD), and it wasn’t unusual for ORDing servicemen to treat their men or superiors alike. Jarrod treated him to lunch.
Two days later, the same serviceman asked Jarrod if he minded paying for his lunch again. Being the nice section commander that he was, Jarrod paid for the lunch, but the fact that the same serviceman asked him to pay for his lunch twice raised some suspicions.
He took the serviceman aside and asked if he had any financial difficulties. Jarrod soon learnt that this serviceman pledged to donate 80% of his monthly allowance (an allowance that the Singapore Armed Forces pays every serviceman, according to rank and vocation) to his church. When asked why he pledged such a large amount, the serviceman shrugged his shoulders and explained that it was the standard amount that the people in his church group would contribute.
Urging the serviceman to make a lesser contribution given his situation, Jarrod found that there was nothing the former could do about it. He feared ostracization by his group. The group, Jarrod found, comprised members from the serviceman’s age group, and they were all pledging donations to the church at that range.
Intrigued, Jarrod decided to do some investigations on his own. He wanted to know how members of a church such as City Harvest are willing to part with that much money to donate to it. Jarrod decided to gatecrash City Harvest together with some friends.
It was at City Harvest that Jarrod discovered about Ho and her music albums. Speaking to random strangers and observing activities aimed at promoting Ho, he concluded that resources were directed at promoting Ho’s albums.
Disturbed, he decided to join a Christian chatroom on the Internet Relay Chat (IRC) network, the prominent social media at that point of time (2002 – 2003). It was in one of the Christian chatrooms that Jarrod brought up the possibility of City Harvest directing resources towards promoting Ho’s singing career.
Jarrod was promptly disavowed, and he was accused of “doing the works of the Devil” by causing divisions among Christians. He was subsequently kicked out of the chatroom and banned. However, the ban can be circumvented if one has a dynamic IP address. Jarrod rebooted his Internet and rejoined the chatroom.
He privately messaged members of the Christian chatroom and enquired about the operators who managed it. Operators had the right to kick/ban users from the chatroom. He learnt that the bulk of operators came from charismatic churches.
One disturbing thing that he found was that the bots of the chatroom (bots are like operators of the chatroom, they can perform a variety of functions, like find out the other channels that a user is simultaneously on, also known as the “whois” function, and they can also kick/ban users if they typed vulgarities in the main channel) tended to ban users joining the channel who had also joined another channel known as “sgboys”. Sgboys is predominantly a gay channel. It was among the list of banned channels in that Christian chatroom. Another disturbing thing that he learnt was that at one point of time, channels belonging to that of other religions like Buddhism were previously banned.
Jarrod persevered and tried to raise up the topic of City Harvest again. This time, he not only got a kick/ban from the operator, but at the same time, received a message from an irate user threatening legal action. He never returned to the chatroom again.
In a sense, there are important things that we can glean from Jarrod’s experience, who made the same allegation of the devotion of City Harvest’s resources to promote Ho’s singing career around the same time as Roland Poon.
Accountability is important, but draconian practices could be adopted to quash debate on the topic or whistleblowers. An example of this was Jarrod’s kick/ban from the chatroom. Such draconian practices could also involve more subtle means. Group leaders wield much influence within their group, and those with dissenting opinions would ultimately be swayed by group pressure to tow the line. It is precisely the same peer pressure mechanism that resulted in Jarrod’s man pledging much of his national service allowance to his church. The same could have happened to Roland, where he could have been pressured by the group to recant on his views. He subsequently issued his apologies in 4 of our national papers.
In a way, this very much represents the intolerant stance towards critics and attempts at silencing them. The other problem lies in the popularity of pastors like Kong Hee per se. Such individuals with gifted oratorical skills can exert such a grip over a segment of their audiences that they come to perceive such clergymen as “god-like” and “above criticism”. And those who defer to such pastoral authority cannot tolerate criticisms aimed at the pastor they hold in high esteem. To criticise the pastor is to criticise them. It is little wonder, some sceptical Christians comment on whether these people have gotten their priorities right, in terms of rightfully worshipping God, instead of a man (pastor). This also explained why Jarrod got the threat of legal action, obviously someone who was incensed at his criticism of Kong Hee, whom he held in high esteem.
Another question is whether Jarrod’s experience represented a sociological snapshot of the charismatic Christian community’s attitudes (operators of the chatroom, as you recall are predominantly charismatic Christians). It is indeed worrying that the Buddhism channel was at one time a banned channel, as was the same for SgBoys, a gay channel. Yet years later, we learn of senior pastors of charismatic churches like Derek Hong and Rony Tan demonstrating intolerant attitudes towards gays and Buddhism respectively.
A new normal
Will there be a new normal as to how church staff run their churches after the news on charges levelled at Kong Hee and his accomplices surfaced? More specifically, will we see churches being run with more accountability, transparency and truthfulness with regards to use of church funds that will be readily accessible by the congregation?
We indeed live in different times. There are good Christians leading exemplary lives, but it seems for some, the 10 commandments aren’t enough. I have two more good ones to suggest.
11. Thou shalt be merciful to thy critics. Lend them a listening ear, and reflect.
12. Thou shalt be truthful, accountable and transparent to not only Me, but also thy church and congregation.
This twelfth commandment is more appropriate to the likes of Pastor Con tHee, ooops sorry, Kong Hee.
**Jarrod’s identity is kept anonymous given the public-related nature of his job and there is a great likelihood he has to work with Christians, including members of City Harvest Church.
Photo courtesy of WikiMedia Commons