Fake monk makes $2,000 a day

SINGAPORE - In just a day, a man who passed himself off as a Thai monk pocketed $2,000.

He had gone around Singapore selling religious pendants and begging for money from passers-by.

Within six hours of hitting the streets, the man had already earned $800. He could even afford to take a three-hour siesta from 2-5pm before donning his robes to hit the streets again in the evening.

Venerable Chao Khun Rian from the Thai Buddhist Temple in Singapore on Monday used this incident, which happened six years ago, to highlight how lucrative it can be for men passing themselves off as monks.

At least five fake monks have been reported to the Singapore Buddhist Federation in the last two weeks, prompting the federation to call for a press conference on Monday morning.

These fakes have been seen all over the island - from neighbourhoods like Bukit Merah and Kreta Ayer to parts of town such as Clarke Quay, Raffles Place and Orchard Road.

Singapore Buddhist Federation secretary-general Venerable Seck Kwang Phing and locally-based representatives from the Thai, Myanmar and Sri Lankan temples here addressed the problem of these imposters at the federation's building in Geylang.

The Buddhist leaders showed pictures of alms bowls, emphasising that monks are not allowed to ask for money using them.

They also gave details on how these fake monks work.

Traditionally, monks are allowed to collect alms for food and medicine. But local monks do not follow this practice, explained the founder of the Samadhi Buddhist Society, Venerable Dr Seeha, who came to Singapore from Sri Lanka in 1984.

They urged the public to call the police if they spot a bogus monk or nun.

"These bogus monks and nuns are foreigners. As long as the public does not support them by giving them money, they won't come (here)," said Ven Seck.

Ven Chao from the Thai temple here said that the fake Thai monk who earned $2,000 a day was brought to his temple six years ago by the police, who had arrested him.

"I asked him if he was worried about the sin (of impersonating). He said, 'I am scared but I need money'," recalled Ven Chao.

Several people The New Paper spoke to said that they, too, have spotted these fake monks.

Retiree Teo Tianci, 80, said:"I saw the fake monks at Boon Lay MRT station a few years ago. They would change out of their robes in the MRT station toilets.

"Although people don't think much about it and just give them $1 or 50 cents, they can earn quite a lot of money after a while."

"But I won't give them any money because it will encourage begging. These people are disrupting society," Mr Teo said.

Customer service executive Maisie Lim, 59, has also come across some of them.

"I've met a few who told me they wanted to raise money to build a temple, but I just ignored them. These people are spoiling the image of Buddhism," said the staunch Buddhist.

Under the Miscellaneous Offences Act, anyone who collects alms or solicits charitable contributions under false pretences can be fined up to $2,000 or jailed up to three months, or both.

How to spot a fake monk

Appearance: Thai monks shave their eyebrows. Nuns do not put on any headwear.

No sale: Monks and nuns will not sell items such as Buddha images, prayer beads or relics.

No money: They will never beg for money in public.

Time limit: Alms bowls are only for collecting food and medicine, and monks can do these only till 11am.

Local: All monks based in Singapore do not go around with alms bowls asking for food and medicine.

Foreign: Monks visiting Singapore from countries such as Thailand, Myanmar and Sri Lanka do sometimes go around asking for food and medicine.

How they operate

1. The fake monks usually hail from Thailand and China and belong to syndicates. The Thais come to Singapore by bus.

They work in groups of three - one person will collect money; one will act as a lookout; and one will pretend to be a devotee and put money in the bowl so that passersby will think it is okay to donate.

2. They usually solicit money from people in hawker centres and coffee shops, and have also been spotted at tourist attractions.

3. If the police arrive, the person holding the alms bowl will throw it aside and run. While the police chase after the fake monk, his accomplices will collect the bowl, leaving no evidence behind.

Nothing less than $20 for 'monk'

Bogus monks have been seen here from as early as 2004.

Typically from Thailand and China, they are believed to be from a syndicate, although there are also those who operate solo.

Last month, a netizen told citizen journalism site Stomp that he spotted a monk approaching tourists for money along the Singapore River.

Donning a grey robe, the man demanded for a minimum donation of $20 and rejected smaller sums of money.

He is believed to have been from China.

The fake monk would show potential donors a list of amounts to donate and also offered small change.

Hired Fake Monks

The problem of monks targeting tourists isn't a new one.

In February, two temples in northern China were shut down and six people were detained after they reportedly hired fake monks.

These men would con tourists into buying expensive incense and paying unreasonable amounts of money for ceremonies.

Last year, the government's religious affairs office called for a ban on profiteering related to religious activity.

Religious venues were also not allowed to be run as business ventures.

The temples were located at the scenic Mount Wutai, which is on Unesco's World Heritage List.

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