It would seem to me almost inevitable that if you were a preacher who went on and on about how, if you believe, believe, believe, you would be blessed with material riches, then you yourself had better live a life of luxury. If you didn’t, wouldn’t you run the risk that a member of your church might point to your lack of wealth and question your own piety? That might be a tad embarrassing.
Embarking on the prosperity gospel is to take the road to excess.
Readers at this point will know what I am referring to. Pastor Kong Hee and four others of the City Harvest Church were charged with criminal breach of trust and related offences on Wednesday this week. At the same time, the Commissioner of Charities released the findings of its 2-year-long investigation. As detailed in a press release, the Commissioner said his unit’s checks
revealed misconduct and mismanagement in the administration of the Charity, particularly in relation to the funds that were in the Building Fund which had been raised and earmarked for specific purposes. Financial irregularities of at least $23 million from the Charity’s funds have been discovered. These funds were used with the purported intention to finance Ho Yeow Sun’s secular music career to connect with people. There was a concerted effort to conceal this movement of funds from its stakeholders.
— Press release, 26 June 2012, by the Commissioner of Charities
Ho Yeow Sun, also known as Sun Ho, is the wife of Kong Hee.
When the charges were read out in court, a further $26.6 million (making the total sums involved $50 million) was alleged to have been used in an attempt to conceal the misdeeds relating to the first $23 million.
Another court hearing is scheduled for 25 July; we do not yet know when the trial will take place.
That the church is wallowing in money is a a well-known fact. With a claimed 33,000 worshippers, each tithing ten percent of their income (something that many reports attest to), it was a money-minting machine.
Around March 2010, it was in the news when it purchased a minority stake in the megamall Suntec City. That too attracted the attention of the Commissioner of Charities.
The Commissioner of Charities has questioned City Harvest Church (CHC) about its $310 million stake in Suntec Singapore.
The money spent includes renovation and rental costs, the church said. CHC has not created a separate business entity for the purchase of the property.
But in the wake of the announcement, questions surfaced among the public about whether religious organisations – which are registered as charities – should be allowed to go into business using what are essentially donor funds.
— Straits Times, 20 March 2010, Charity Commissioner questions City Harvest, by Melissa Sim, Esther Teo and Yen Feng
According to what I could find on Wikipedia, the church then issued a statement clarifying that “it was under a non-disclosure agreement which required the details of the transaction to remain confidential, but explained that the investment was made through a holding company that is not a charity organization and does not enjoy tax breaks.” Apparently the church owns 100% of the said holding company.
Nothing more was heard about the move and I assume the Commissioner of Charities was satisfied with that transaction.
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How do Kong Hee and other City Harvest pastors manage to persuade people to give so much money? I watched a video of him at work, but is still none with wiser. There was nothing at all persuasive about his sermon.
(Would someone who knows how to save this video do so? I fear it will be taken down real soon after this.)
In fact, it was a pain sitting through its entire length. It was logically flawed and empty of meaning. Most crucially, for something in a religious setting, it addressed nothing about the human condition or the peace of spirituality.
But it was a wee bit interesting nonetheless in his clever use of argument. He first began by asserting that Jesus was a rich man, but who gave up his riches when he died on the cross, so that the riches might be bestowed onto his believers. Thus, the argument goes, if one believed in this now much-embellished character and what he represented, one would have one’s own riches multiplied.
Ah, but at around the 6 minute 40 second mark, Kong Hee sidled into a twist of that argument. However rich one became as a result of that belief, one is not really rich, for that is not the definition of richness, he said in essence. True wealth is one’s ability to use one’s wealth to do the church’s work. Hence: Give, give, give!
And remarkably – do these people I see in the video even belong to the same species as me? – his congregation must have been lapping it all up and giving.
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By now too, readers are familiar with the church’s Crossover Project. Started around 2002, it was to promote the pop music career of Kong Hee’s wife, Ho Yeow Sun, so she could use her “talent” to help spread the gospel. It is this mission that has allegedly led to the misuse of $23 million. There is more than enough commentary on the internet about the less-than-impressive quality of her output; I don’t need to add to that. In any case, I have never bothered to follow her career, so I have no special insight to share. I would note however that many have pointed out how incongruent it was for her to be slinking around in revealing shreds of clothing mouthing lyrics about a secret desire to kill someone, and yet claim that all this was to win converts.
Since first bursting onto the scene in 2003 as Kong Hee’s Mando-pop singing wife, Ho has been praised and slammed in equal parts by a public shocked by her skimpy dressing and blatant use of her husband’s church as a platform to promote her music albums.
When the five successive albums she released between 2002-2007 hit double or triple platinum status, rumours of her “staged” popularity started to fly.
One church member reportedly accused Kong of using CHC funds to fuel Ho’s music career, but the allegation was later retracted.
In the wake of the accusations, Ho abruptly announced that she would be “looking overseas” to further her career, moving to Los Angeles, Hollywood with her young son, Dayan Kong.
The allegations were investigated by the Commercial Affairs Department in 2010, leading to the reported arrests Tuesday of her husband and four other key ministry members for alleged criminal breach of trust and falsifying church accounts.
But what was Ho up to in those three years she upped and moved to LA?
According to media reports, she was living the lavish lifestyle of a bona fide Hollywood celebrity.
It was reported by The New Paper in 2010 that Ho was renting a S$7.7 million estate in Hollywood Hills with her son, an assistant, a nanny, and her relatives.
The 29,000 sq ft Mediterranean style building boasted four structures, including accommodation for a butler, nanny, and maid. It also had a swimming pool and space for 11 cars, the tabloid said.
— Yahoo! news, 26 June 2012, Who is Ho Yeow Sun?, by Elizabeth Soh
Look, I have an easy explanation for this, and it’s a story as old as humanity: Vanity. It starts with someone who wants to be a celebrity. Then there is someone else, either so smitten by her, or so in awe of her, or so afraid of the hold she has on him, that he would do anything to feed her desire. And the rest is a sordid morality tale.
Yet, there is something new about this case. I didn’t see it until a friend pointed it out to me at lunch yesterday. He asked me to look again at Kong Hee and Ho, which I did as soon as I had the chance when I got back home in the evening. My friend was right: they look alike.
I felt creepy all over.