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Seah Chiang NeeThe Star
A couple sold their condo so they could contribute to “a new home for God”, but the arrival of ultra-modern, high-tech, mega-bucks religion has also left many Singaporeans uneasy.
As Singapore was waking up one recent morning, investigators were swooping on the homes of a senior pastor and 16 others related to a charismatic church.
The commercial crime officers searched the office of the controversial City Harvest Church (CHC) and carted away a large amount of financial records and computers.
The 17, including 45-year-old Senior Pastor Kong Lee, were taken away for questioning as part of a government investigation into complaints of misuse of church funds.
It is one of the biggest investigations of a religious institution here in recent years. No one, however, has been arrested.
CHC is the latest of a series of controversies involving high-profile leaders of religious or charity bodies in Singapore.
Since 2004, three of them – a Catholic priest, a top Buddhist monk, and a national charity figure – had been convicted and jailed. This has made the Kong Lee investigation a top story here.
CHC, which has 33,000 followers, shocked the country in April when it announced that it had bought a S$310mil stake in the premier Suntec Singapore building.
The authorities said the raids had nothing to do with that, and an official of the Council of Churches said the inquiry was neither “related nor initiated due to the Suntec deal”.
The central figure of the mega-church is the evangelistic Kong Lee, a type of Christian preacher that long flourished in America but is only now appearing in predominantly Buddhist Singapore.
These preachers conduct services in ultra-modern surroundings with high-tech lights and rock music to spread their faith, and in the process have turned religion into a mega show-business.
The controversy over CHC is the latest of several in recent years involving money collected by religious and charity organisations.
Details of the raids were sparse, but unconfirmed reports said that Kong Lee was picked up in his posh Somerset condo at 6 am on Monday and questioned for 18 hours.
The office premises at Suntek were raided at 7am as soon as a staff opened the door. It was searched and a large number of documents and computers taken away.
How can a 45-year-old man raise so much money and do such a mega-deal, something that even tycoons cannot?
Has economic pressure pushed more Singaporeans towards religion for spiritual solace or is it the hypnotic environment and the sleek preaching? No one really knows for sure.
For an answer, I watched several videos of how the man worked his magic on the crowd as he appealed for building funds.
In a plush auditorium equipped with state-of-the-art audiovisual systems, he mesmerised his followers.
Amid colourful lights and loud music that resembled a pop concert rather than a religious gathering, Kong Lee appealed to housewives and families to help him build “a new home for God”.
Schoolchildren were asked to donate their Lunar New Year ang pows. In the background a giant screen flashed photographs of people putting money into a box.
The pastor took the microphone to thank recent contributors, who included a couple selling their 5-room public flat to downgrade to a 3-roomer, to offer S$20,000 to the church building.
Another was a young man who sold his favourite motorcycle and donated the entire proceedings. With each name mentioned, the audience cheered.
It led a cynic to comment: “They have turned religion into show business, like America’s TV evangelism.”
There are several other mega-churches with evangelical and fund-raising abilities, posing potential problems for this multi-religious country.
One is The New Creation Church, which plans to invest S$280mil to build a mega-complex with a lifestyle-entertainment-cultural theme.
With some 22,000 members, the church raised eyebrows when it was reported that its charismatic preacher was paid a salary of S$500,000 in the last financial year.
The investigation into CHC came seven months after a top Buddhist monk, Venerable Shi Ming Yi, was convicted of misusing donated money and sentenced to nine months’ imprisonment (reduced to six on appeal).
The 2009 trial of the English-educated, high-living Buddhist monk who owned three properties and loved luxurious cars showed how far the money culture had spread in Singapore.
In his trial, the 48-year-old monk told the Court that “we live in a modern world … no longer like what it was in the past”.
When asked to elaborate, the monk said: “If people earn more, they will spend more. Many religious people, not just myself, are very different now.”
Other high profile prosecutions were:
- Catholic priest Father Joachim Kang was sentenced to seven-and-half years’ jail in 2004 for embezzling S$5.1mil in church funds.
- T.T. Durai, former National Kidney Foundation CEO, a public charity, was jailed for three months for falsifying invoices.
Singaporeans blame the greed on a materialistic society rather than just the priests and monks, who are also humans like us.
However, some call for a strict separation between religion and business.