Unlike the previous cases at the National Kidney Foundation (NKF) and Ren Ci Hospital, City Harvest is clearly not of a secular bent and can be counted as the largest mega-church in the country. Seemingly worried that the arrests could provoke a storm of reactions from its congregation, government ministers have been careful to draw a distinction between possible wrongdoing by individuals and the church itself, stressing that the latter was still free to continue its activities. For now the official response from the church’s leadership has been measured, though firm in denying allegations that church funds have gone astray.
But the bigger concern that most Singaporeans have is why such situations keep recurring. The regulation of charities was tightened considerably in the wake of the notorious NKF scandal in 2005, with the Commissioner of Charity (COC) – previously just one of the Inland Revenue Commissioner's many portfolios – made a position in his own right and given his own staff, accompanied by wide-ranging powers of investigation and sanction. Closer attention was paid to bigger charities, which have to report more regularly to the authorities and appoint more trustees.
In the present case, there might have been little else that the authorities could have done. The COC’s and Commercial Affairs Department’s (which looks into white collar crime) two-year investigation into City Harvest, spurred by a tip-off possibly from within the church, appears quite thorough. The list of improprieties dates back to 2006, which is fairly recent. Questions might be asked about whether wrongdoing could have been spotted earlier, but this would be difficult to judge as a pattern of irregularities probably takes time to show up.
Perhaps it is time to consider enacting a Whistleblowers’ Act, which might encourage employees to come forward sooner with what they know about wrongdoing within their organisations. The post-NKF reforms have already demanded a higher degree of transparency from charities to allow donors to judge how their contributions are being spent, so it might not be necessary to tighten this further if it entails markedly higher costs for smaller charities. However, given the large number of charities in Singapore – approaching 2,000 – it might be prudent to beef up the COC’s relatively small unit in to keep a closer watch over their charges.
That said, the wider worry would be whether the mounting number of scandals is indicative of a deeper societal malaise. The first half of this year was marked by rancorous controversy over ministerial wages and high profile corruption cases. In a country that supposedly worships materialism more than most others, the so-called ‘prosperity gospel’ (which venerates the acquisition of wealth) preached by fast-growing mega-churches of the likes of City Harvest reflects the prevailing zeitgeist well. Taken to its literal extreme, this hollows out the wider message, that the pursuit of wealth is merely the means to an end rather than the end itself.
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