Things aren’t looking so good for Kong Hee and his inner circle of City Harvest leaders. After they were suspended from their offices last year, the Commissioner of Charities yesterday moved to make their removal permanent.
If successful, the key office holders will be barred from holding any office in any charity forever. The only person spared this fate is Sun Ho, Kong Hee’s wife; the COC said this was because it did not have sufficient evidence that she contributed to the mismanagement of the church.
The whole thing just looks bad for the eight executive members. Six of them still have to go to court next month to defend themselves against criminal charges related to the same case.
By letting Sun Ho off the hook because of “insufficient evidence”, the COC is plainly saying they’ve got enough on Kong Hee and his crew to justify its decision.
To bar someone from office for life is no joke – the media did not say how many times this has been done, but Zaobao reported that the last time such action was taken was two years ago – against the chairman of a Hindu temple in Marsiling.
In that case, the chairman was also accused of mismanaging the temple’s donations – though, it seems no criminal charges were filed against him.
Supporters of Kong Hee and the other members have until May 13 to persuade the COC not to proceed.
Their instinct may be to flood the charities watchdog with testimonials of how wonderful or indispensible their leaders are, but that would be a waste of time probably.
The eight members’ guilt – from the COC’s perspective – seems a foregone conclusion. Even though technically the COC still has to get the Attorney-General’s permission to proceed, the AG is not likely to undercut its own case – which is what the church leaders’ defence lawyers may argue if it denies the COC’s request.
In any case, it’s still not clear exactly what real impact the removal will mean for the church.
Kong will still be allowed to preach, and he is still widely loved by City Harvest members as the founder and spiritual father of the church. Just because he’s not in office doesn’t mean he can’t – or won’t – wield considerable influence over the church’s daily operations.
That power may diminish if he’s convicted in criminal court and jailed – but that’s not a given either. Remember Ming Yi, the disgraced monk who was jailed for misuse of temple funds in 2009? A big celebration dinner was held in his honour when he was released six months later and he’s still running a temple in Geylang. Word is he’s now got temples in Malaysia and Hong Kong too.
The big question today is how the COC’s decision will impact the criminal proceedings next month.
Assuming the COC, police, and AGC all used the same facts to determine their cases, it’s a bit puzzling for the COC to say that its decision was “independent and separate” from the criminal trial.
It also seems too much of coincidence that the deadline for the church leaders’ supporters to submit their appeals to the COC is – in Kong Hee’s words – “a mere two days” from the trial. Are we really suppose to think one has nothing to do with the other?
The COC said there is “due process” in its determination – but what exactly is this process besides consultation with the AGC?
Is the burden of proof on the church leaders and their supporters, or is it on the COC to make its case to the AGC? Are the standards the same as what the AGC has to prove in the criminal courts?
This ambiguity is present also in the COC’s decision to remove all eight executive members after only five agreed to voluntarily extend their suspensions. “Since there was no collective agreement and with the suspension period due to run out in June, the COC had to proceed to the next stage of the process, which was to remove them,” reported ST. Why are the eight being dealt with as a collective in the first place?
Will the criminal trial shed some light on these questions? Maybe they won’t matter much by the time the trial comes around.
But the COC should answer them anyway – if not to show the public it is transparent about its processes, then to quell any upset or grievances City Harvest’s church members may have if their leaders are permanently removed next month.