The guilty verdict in the City Harvest Church case shows that financial wrongdoing in a religious setting is no different from that in a secular one. This is how it should be if Singapore is to remain a country where the rule of law takes its impartial course. Given the passions likely to be aroused by bringing the leaders of a religious institution to court, authorities everywhere might deem it politic not to look too deeply into the goings-on in a church or temple. Indeed, some worshippers would prefer that outcome to avoid uncomfortable questions about internal practices. However, the authorities here would have abdicated their duties had they left it to members to decide what constitutes criminal activity.
For example, if religious leaders or members were to claim that money being spent improperly is being used for a religious purpose, how would that purpose be defined objectively? All institutions of public trust need to abide by the laws of the land and by common standards of probity in the management of charitable funds. It is up to the public authorities to ensure that this is the case, particularly if religious followers are likely to put blind faith in leaders and are not inclined to scrutinise accounts, unlike people who have a financial stake in a secular organisation.
The long-running trial of six City Harvest Church (CHC) leaders, including founder Kong Hee, illustrates how complex financial arrangements can become when the sums handled by charities are enormous. There was misappropriation of $24 million in CHC funds, funnelled into bogus investments that funded the singing career of the pastor's wife, Ms Ho Yeow Sun. A further $26 million was used to cover tracks, as noted by the court. But even if the amounts had not been so large, the public would expect the dealings of charities to be transparent and straightforward.
Reassuringly, it is because of Singapore's earned reputation for intolerance of corruption that the CHC verdict is being received with the equanimity extended to legal judgments in general. No serious observer would question the investigation and trial, as was the response when Buddhist monk Shi Ming Yi was convicted several years ago of misappropriating funds and falsifying accounts, and when Catholic priest Joachim Kang was jailed for misappropriating over $5 million in church funds.
Religious followers of all faiths can take heart from the fact that religion has a precious and protected place in the laws of Singapore. Religious leaders, in turn, must uphold standards of law at their end. They cannot operate outside the state's fundamental right and, indeed, its basic responsibility to ensure that the same yardstick - of what's right and wrong in the use of charitable funds - applies to all citizens equally, irrespective of their religious or political standing.