Lawrence Khong: 'I told the Minister to send me to jail'

Q: Was it the right thing to do, firing that employee?

The issue is whether there is sufficient cause. We were a little surprised when we were told that it is not sufficient cause because in a church context, adultery and immorality is held with different view. In fact, I talk to many pastors in the city. It is very common in a church that when someone commits adultery, they are told to resign. There was another case just a couple of years ago in my church - a staff who had done the same thing. He knew it was wrong. We tried to find other opportunities of employment for him. But he knew he had to step down.

Q: But in this case it was a dismissal, not a resignation.

When I first heard of this case, my immediate response was, "Oh dear, she will need a job more than ever before." This became especially so since I came to know from other sources that the father of the child was not prepared to marry her.

Our condition was that this employee must acknowledge that she was wrong. You see, in a church, we work with sinners, so to speak. We work with broken people. That's our job. So we cannot throw people out just because they have done something wrong. But if they are sorry and are willing to make things right, then to a great extent, we would want to keep that person. We wanted to help her deal with some issues in her life, so that she would go on to stronger relationships in the future.

But it turned out that over a period of time, she was lying to us. She said she was going to break off the relationship but she continued to see him on a regular basis. Finally, the day came when she saw the highest level of leadership in our operations, that is, me and my wife, who are the two senior pastors, the two team pastors overseeing her, the COO (chief operating officer), as well as the employee's brother-in-law, who used to be a pastor with us but who is now a pastor in Malaysia.

Before the meeting, her brother-in-law asked me if I could try my best to keep the job for her. I told him that that was our aim. But during the meeting, she said: "No, I'm not going to break it off with the man. I want to be with him." So finally I told her that I would like to give her five days to consider resigning. I also said I knew she would need finances and we had a LoveSingapore fund for those with financial difficulties. If she applied, we would help her. After that meeting, the brother-in-law said to me: "I wanted to appeal for you to retain her. But at the end of the conversation, I don't even have the grounds to do that."

Two weeks later, it became clear that she had no intention to resign, so we had no choice but to let her go.

Q: Apart from adultery, what other issues in an employee's life could also cause someone to be dismissed - issues that other employers may not have a problem with?

We are not nitpicking here. We're not saying, your skirt is two inches too short, or, there is an occasional burst of temper or a vulgar word. We're talking about bigger issues of morality. I would think that if someone is going around cheating other people, which we have dealt with too, or if they go around borrowing money and telling all sorts of stories, that would be not acceptable. Smoking is also not acceptable.

Q: Just to be clear, it's not just that they can't smoke in the office. They can't smoke even outside or at home.

Yes. If we know that that's your reputation, it is not acceptable.

Q: Are you saying effectively that you have to be a Christian in order to be a full-time employee of the church?

Not necessarily. We do have non -Christians working in our administration staff. If we offer you a job, and you're not a Christian, obviously you cannot subscribe to our theology. But you have to keep to the moral standard. But there are various organisations we run. One of them is Touch Community Services, which we started but now it's arm's length and is run by its own board. However, even there, there is a set of moral standards, though perhaps not as high as the church. Then there is Gateway Entertainment, which is a purely church-owned entertainment company which I use to do my magic shows. There, again it's different. Just before this interview, I was rehearsing for my show and some of my dancers are smokers. So I just said, "Please don't do it on my premises. If you have to take a puff, do it outside." So we do understand the different contexts.

Q: Have you considered writing these standards into your employment contracts?

I think they are implied. I met with the Manpower Minister (Tan Chuan-Jin), who said: "You should write this down." And I said I'm not sure I want to. Because if I write a list down, then there's always something I might miss. Then you say: "There you are, I'm free." I believe when it comes to morality, it's clear enough. There are industry standards. And church is one of the industry standards. So I have no problem paying the amount for compensation. But we find it difficult to accept that the Minister ruled that there was insufficient cause. I do not, I cannot, accept that. In fact, we have sent them a cheque with a letter that says this is sent to you without prejudice, and we reserve our rights on this.

Q: Why did you decide in the end to comply with the Minister's order?

Because it's the law. The Minister has made a judgment, and I want to be law abiding. But we have the right to say we disagree with the ruling.

Q: Some people would say that you can't have it both ways. It's either you pay the compensation, in which case you're accepting his ruling of insufficient cause. And if you want to disagree with the ruling, you should refuse to pay and face the consequences for that.

I actually told the Minister: "Send me to jail." But I was told by my lawyers that going to jail doesn't solve the problem, because when you come out of jail, you still have to pay. And there were other avenues. It is possible to pay ex gratia, without prejudice, and make my statement.

Q: Why were you prepared to go to jail?

If you know anything about me, I stand on principles. I cannot allow a ruling that is passed that I feel is unjust to the church, that restricts the way we run a religious organisation. To me, that is standing up for my religious convictions. And my religious convictions have been violated. That's how strongly I feel about it.

Q: Many years ago, your daughter bore a child out of wedlock. Did that experience change the way you looked at this case?

Absolutely. That's why my first reaction was: How can I help this employee? I understand it's not easy to be a single mother. However, I want to make the point that my daughter's case was different. My daughter was a single girl who made a mistake and was pregnant. In this case, she was a married woman who was in an adulterous relationship. I think the context is different. However, even for my daughter, I expect her to come to a place of repentance. We assigned leaders of the church to hold her accountable, to check on her. I took her off from any leadership role in the church until many years later. I hold the same standard for my own daughter.

Q: How is she doing right now?

I think she's doing very well. My grandson is 10 years old and is very well-loved. In fact, he pulls my whole family together. And you're aware that I've never been quiet about this. I've gone on national television to share my story, so that every person knows that there are no perfect people. Even as a pastor, I struggle with family issues like everyone else. In fact, it has opened up more doors for me to speak to many people. People come to me for help because they say: "You're real, pastor. You have not been hiding some of your own struggles."

Q: Tell me more about the magic show that you and your daughter do.

Just over 10 years ago, the church leadership began to sense God telling us that we should get involved in the arts and entertainment arena. Sometimes we just criticise and say there is so much garbage coming out and it affects our young people. But we believe that instead of talking about how bad other products are, why don't we come out and offer an alternative? So we decided to do a magic show that would live out positive values. We want to hit a high standard of production and to be world class, so we have influence. So that's our concept for Gateway Entertainment.

Q: I've read reports that 3,000 people left your church in the early 2000s because they did not agree with your foray into magic. Is that number accurate?

There were some who left, but not as many as 3,000. So there are people who choose to differ, some who feel I've spent too much time on it. I respect that. Actually, over the years, there are thousands of people who have left us on various issues. Our church is very committed to expecting a lot from our members in terms of discipleship, in terms of commitment, and some people feel like it is too much. I respect that.

Go to Singapolitics for more stories.