CITY Harvest Church founder Kong Hee said last night he was surprised at the Commissioner of Charities' (COC) decision to try to remove him and his colleagues from office.
The COC had originally suspended him and eight other church leaders last year after an inquiry showed that funds had been mismanaged. At the same time, six of them, including Kong, were charged with embezzling more than $50 million from their parish.
All nine were given the option to voluntarily extend their suspension till six months after the criminal trial, which will start on May 15. Both Kong, his wife Ho Yeow Sun, and three others accepted by last month. But since not all of them did, the COC could not proceed with the extension. So the commissioner yesterday acted to remove eight of them, except for Ms Ho, from office.
Kong argued in his statement yesterday that whether the other leaders agreed to the extension was not within his control. "I also did not see how this would alter the fact that Sun and I had already agreed to the voluntary suspension on their terms, and I informed COC accordingly."
He added that when the COC made the offer of the extension, it had agreed that "this would be entirely without admission to liability and without prejudice to my rights".
As to the suspension, he said the COC has "never explained how the church's property is allegedly at risk, such that it was necessary to issue suspension orders in 2012 and removal orders in 2013".
Despite this, he agreed to the voluntary extension as it was "expedient and practical" given the criminal proceedings that have been brought against him and five others.
Those whom COC is seeking to remove have until May 13 to make representations. Four of the key officers - Kong, Tan Ye Peng, Lam Leng Hung and Mr Kelvin Teo Meng How - are also allowed representations from members of the public.
But parishioners are not rushing to do that. They want to wait and see what comes out of the criminal trial. "The trial should run first, then we can decide based on whether they are guilty or not," said project manager Wilfred Tan, 37.
The current proposal to remove the eight leaders is separate from the trial. Even if they are not found guilty by the law, they will still be barred from management positions in the church. This was unfair, said manager Gavin Gan, 39.
"I can understand that the authorities want to protect other churches in this manner," the parishioner said. "But if they are not guilty, they should be allowed to resume what they were doing before."
Even if the removals succeed, members are confident the church will stay strong. Said product consultant Rosalind Yip, 38: "Of course it will be sad. But the church is not built on one man."
A church spokesman said the church has had to function without its leaders' inputs administratively since they were suspended last year, "and will continue to do so".
Members of the public who either object to the COC's proposal for removal, or have evidence to support it, can refer to www.charities.gov.sg on how to make submissions.