A morality tale about religion and fraud

An old schoolmate from Raffles Institution, with whom I have not cared to keep in touch, rang me out of the blue last week to make me an offer he said I could not possibly refuse.

I remember him as a silver-tongued baby-faced rascal, who was ever so eager to make a fast buck out of clueless classmates by selling them old copies of Playboy magazine at inflated prices. He had no idea what scruples meant and would not have known any even if they fell down the lift shaft together.

But he sure had a talent for spinning stories and could sell a refrigerator to an Eskimo, if ever he came across one. This was why many from RI would remember him more by his nickname, Hustle, than his real one.

"So, Hus, what are you trying to sell me this time?" I asked him point-blank, not caring to waste any of the five million or more minutes I have left on this earth in small talk with him.

Back came the reply with a huge dose of feigned anguish: "Oh, come on, Les, you are hurting my feelings! Is that the way to talk to an old friend who is offering you a chance to make millions?"

I was so taken aback by the bit about millions that I forgot to remind him that we were not exactly friends, never mind old ones. All I could muster was a "Huh?" - at half an octave higher than my usual tone.

Hustle said: "It's very simple. Let's start a church. Or, to be more accurate, join me as a pastor in the church that I am going to start."

I was speechless!

He continued: "Don't sound so shocked. Hey, you are still with the press, right, though I hear from other schoolmates that you will be retiring soon? You must know from your own newspaper reports that there are millions to be raised from church-goers."

I regained my breath: "Listen, Hustle, I don't know the first thing about being a pastor and have not the slightest idea how to qualify as one. Jeez, I have never even read the Bible, not a single page, not a line, nada. And I sure as hell am not going to land myself in jail and soil my reputation by passing off as one. So, goodbye!"

"Hey, hey, hey, don't hang up so fast, lah!" he cut in. "Hear me out. I have done my homework. You don't need to sit for any exam or get any piece of paper to call yourself a pastor. The thing is, a pastor is like, uh, a kind of shepherd. As long as there are sheep out there prepared to be led like a flock by you, then you are the shepherd or pastor, lor! Nothing illegal about that.

"So what you have not read the Bible! No worries! I bet you some of those chaps out there who call themselves pastors have not, either. Anyway, I have read it front to back and back to front, so relax, I can provide the sermon notes.

"And you know why I thought of asking you? No? Because you are so articulate - in both English and Mandarin. Many classmates and schoolmates tell me they have heard you make impromptu speeches, without any notes and on subjects ranging from erotic Chinese literature to digital disruption, to audiences who lapped up every word you said.

"I know many people say I am a smooth talker and can rattle off as if my mouth has been rinsed in oil. But hey, you and I know that when it comes to public speaking, you are the Big Brother. You can preach to the congregation and have them reach for their wallet, without breaking a sweat!

"And who says we are going to do anything that will land us in jail, huh? Everything we do will be legal and legitimate. We will be upfront. Yes, we want those attending our church to donate money. But we won't insist on one-tenth of their salary or use pressure tactics.

"I will say, right from the start, that the money collected will go towards a fund to be invested and the returns from investment will go towards good causes. There will be proper documentation. No cooking of books, absolutely not. "

I interjected: "So where will your millions come from?"

Back came the answer, faster than you can say Hallelujah: "Simple, I charge for my salary and other expenses and I collect a management fee for investing the funds."

I retorted: "What makes you think people will donate and trust you with their donations? What makes you think they will accept you as their fund manager?"

Hustle: "Hey, your own newspapers have reported many times that among those who have been donating big-time to self-styled churches are doctors, lawyers, professionals, not just lonely spinsters yearning for love and fellowship.

"I have been studying this phenomenon for some time. I don't know whether it is some desire to fill a spiritual void or emotional emptiness in materialistic, soulless Singapore, or greed or some New Age quest for meaning in life or what. But if people are prepared to give, to gain whatever inner solace they seek, then I am happy to take.

"And why not me as a fund manager? I have a degree in accountancy, remember, and I am also a Certified Financial Analyst. Besides, you think Singaporeans will probe deeply into those who profess to know how to invest their money?

"And if I don't file for tax deductions for donations to charities, I may not even have to open my books to all and sundry."

I pressed him: "So you think you can start a church just like that? Will the authorities let you?"

Hustle chuckled: "Ha ha, like so many of these self-styled churches that have cropped up, I will register mine as a society. Tell you what, I will even copy their articles of association. So if the authorities refuse to register me, even as a society, when my articles of association are, almost word for word, the same as the others', then they will have to de-register them too, right? In any case, if they refuse registration, I can scream blue murder about freedom of worship as enshrined in the Constitution of our Republic.

"Who is to say my church is not legit? If you think about it, is there any world body that confers legitimacy on any of these self-styled churches? I don't know of any. I do know, of course, that Catholic churches are answerable to the Holy See, and maybe the Methodist and other mainstream denominations also belong to some worldwide hierarchical orders. But all these charismatic types?"

I pressed him further: "But what are you going to teach? What will you call your church?"

Hustle paused for a second, then said: "What to teach? Oh, world peace, universal love, discover yourself, some s*** like that. As for name, I thought of No Harvest Church at first, but nah, that's cutting it too close. So I will settle for Singapore Church of the Asian Messiah. What do you think?"

I was stumped: "Asian Messiah?"

Hustle: "Aiyah, you know Chinese history. In 19th century, a Hakka chap called Hong Xiuquan started the 14-year Taiping Rebellion in Qing China. His rallying cry was that he was the younger brother of Jesus, sent to China to save the suffering masses. Millions believed him. There is nothing to say a Messiah cannot be from Asia, right? Anyway, what's your answer, are you on?"

I sighed: "I don't know how you can even think of making money out of some people's need to believe in some God or other, granted that they deserve to be taken in for being so gullible. It's so... so... you are a real disgrace to RI."

Hustle: "Hello, I am not the first, nor will I be the last from RI to try this, OK? So that is a no?"

I slammed the phone down on him.


The writer, formerly editor of The Straits Times, is senior executive vice-president of Singapore Press Holdings' marketing and digital divisions.

This article was first published on December 6, 2015.
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