Top: Channel News Asia
Someone once said that the best thing you can do with history is learn from it. Now that we’ve all had some time to digest the outcome of the City Harvest trial, let’s see how it ranks in comparison to other high profile cases.
The low hanging fruit is of course to rank them using quantifiable statistics, such as the amount of money involved. But doing so doesn’t get to the heart of the issue.
What’s really at stake is the lasting legacies of these cases and how they have gone on or will go on to impact public perception of the various prominent institutions.
So, starting from the bottom:
5. David Rasif and $11m of one client’s money
While Rasif was a relatively unknown lawyer back in 2006, news of his absconding with $11.3m of his clients’ money spread like wildfire. One Mr George Raymond Zage III had personally entrusted Rasif with about $11m for the purchase of a piece of property, but that was the last he saw of his money.
Today, Rasif remains at large, even though the lay public was more than happy to use his one act of notoriety to stoke their own assumptions about lawyers all being dishonest cheats. 2006 was not a great year for the legal industry’s reputation, but this was just one man. Contrary to popular belief, one rotten apple doesn’t spoil the whole basket.
4. Ren Ci Hospital Scandal
For a charity related scandal, the public outcry at Ven. Shi Ming Yi’s conviction seemed relatively muted at the time. Perhaps it was because the NKF saga of ’07 was still fresh in everyone’s mind, and the nation’s beloved stunt performing monk seemed relatively benign in comparison.
This was undoubtedly a high profile scandal, but many were willing to see the questionable loans he extended as naive acts of goodwill rather than deliberately malicious. His sentence was even reduced on the basis of his contributions to both Ren Ci and society, reflecting what we gauged to be the public sentiment at the time.
3. Underaged prostitute scandal of 2012
2012 was an exciting year not just because it was expected to be the end of the world. This was also the year we realised that Singapore isn’t as clean and virtuous a society as the rest of the world has been led to believe.
Over 50 men were convicted of soliciting the services of an underaged prostitute via an online vice ring. Amongst high profile characters like Howard Shaw and directors of public companies, even a Primary School principal was outed.
The nation was shaken and public servants were reminded of their moral responsibilities, but this also confirmed what many already knew: no matter where you go, there’s dirt to be found once you start digging.
2. T.T. Durai and the NKF
For a moment, we thought that perhaps Durai had given Kong Hee a run for his money. After all, he had pretty much run the NKF to his personal benefit. But we decided that Durai couldn’t match up for the simple reason that the NKF was ultimately able to salvage its reputation with Durai’s resignation and the replacement of its entire board of directors.
We simply don’t see the same happening with City Harvest Church. Even though Durai at one point chalked up an average of $32,952 on his corporate credit card, he personally paid back $4m to the NKF in a civil suit. In our eyes, this redeems him a little.
1. Kong Hee, City Harvest, and $50m of congregation money
When it comes to religion, we’re talking about something that, to many individuals, carries existential gravity. In other words, if one’s religious beliefs in their church and God are shaken due to inferior leadership, it’s not something they can easily bounce back from.
Losing one’s faith is akin to having your entire worldview turned upside down. In the case of this City Harvest episode, we’re not just talking about the 6000 or so members who left the church between 2009 and 2015. We’re also talking about Christians from other denominations and members of the public observing the events unfold.
How do you bounce back from having your religion sullied by associations with greed, a failed Hollywood debut, and vials of olive oil?
City Harvest might just be one church, but to many members of the public, they represent Christianity. They are Singapore’s poster child for the prosperity gospel.
Unlike the above scandals mentioned, Kong Hee still has not stepped down from the church’s leadership. His wife, Sun Ho – who has come out unscathed from this scandal, will be expected to lead the church in Kong Hee’s absence. As long as they remain in positions of influence, the shadow of this scandal will remain over CHC.
The lay public is now more cynical than ever when it comes to Christian observances like tithing and worship sessions. In addition, other Christian communities are furious that Kong Hee has inadvertently given them all a bad name.
A staggering amount of money was involved, but this is less about the $50m than it is about the $50m that countless Singaporeans believe church members were swindled out of for a completely indefensible purpose.
So bear in mind that this isn’t about personal emotional harm. This isn’t about the families or the individuals involved. It’s about how no one will ever look at CHC and possibly, Christianity in Singapore, the same way ever again.