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One City Harvest Church member questions church's investment in Suntec

Church member critical of City Harvest Church’s investment in Suntec

City Harvest Church member Simon Teoh, an investment banker, is critical of where the $310 million investment by City Harvest Church into Suntec will go.

He wants to know how much would be spent on the lease and how long it would last.

Troubled by the church's response not to answer such questions on the grounds of a non-disclosure agreement with the consortium. Mr Teoh has called for more accountability and transparency from the Church.

He wrote in to the Commissioner of Charities asking for the confidentiality clauses to be rescinded and that City Harvest Church would amend its Constitution so major business deals can be put to a vote among ordinary church members.

We publish the entire letter from Mr Simon Teoh to the Commissioner of Charities here.

Dear Commissioner,

I am writing with respect to the City Harvest Church investment and expenditure of $310 million for the purchase of shares in a company which owns 80% of Suntec Convention Centre and the rental of exclusive areas of the same (plus related moving and renovation costs). This was reported in the Straits Times twice over the last two weeks, including the recent queries raised by your good office.

As a member of the public and the church, I like to highlight to the Commission that todate, members (both non voting and voting) of the church have not been apprised by the Management Board of the church ("the Board") of the salient terms of the $310m planned expenditure/investment.

Instead, the Board is pressing ahead with utilising the church's Building Fund (totalling $65 million as end Oct 2009) and committing the church to large future liabilities ($245 million, being the difference of $310m and $65m in the Building Fund) without consulting the members/executive members at the recent AGM. No EGM has been scheduled and I am led to believe that the deal is closed.

In addition, over the last two weeks, the Board has been seeking financial commitments/pledges from its 30,000+ members to raise monies to meet the said liabilities. I do not think this is ethical, especially considering the large number of minors and vulnerable members (eg old, uneducated) in the church.

The excuse given at the recent AGM and in the public sphere for the lack of disclosure is that the Board is bound by confidentiality clauses in an agreement with the Sellers and / or Suntec management. I believe that as a large, public organisation, the Board should not have agreed to such clauses in the first place.

Although the Board is authorized as per the church's constitution (which I only recently learnt) to commit to any expenditure it deems fit, I believe this "carte blanche" authority and the Board's poor judgement in agreeing to the confidentiality terms with the Seller runs counter to best practice standards of disclosure and transparency as per the Commission's code of governance for charities and IPCs (Code).

I quote section 1.3 and 8 of the Code (emphasis made are mine):

Section 1.3: Accountability to Donors

"General Principle: The charity and its fund raisers should be accountable to their donors for the donations received

1.3.1 The Charity and its fund raisers should ensure that donors received informed and ethical advice about the charity, intended use of donation, value and tax implications of potential donations"

Section 8: Disclosure and Transparency

"General Principle: As the charity operates with public support through both donations and the use of volunteers, it should be transparent in its operations to maintain the integrity of serving for public trust and community good instead of personal gain. As such, the charity should demonstrate its openness to the public by providing the public with information about its mission, structure, programmes, activities, performance and finances."

I love my church but am puzzled by the lack of transparency and accountability by the Board who is tasked to look after the members' collective interest. I am not suggesting any impropriety but I believe in transparency and accountability, which protects and promotes public confidence.

I humbly urge the Commission to balance the impact on public interest and the public's confidence in Singaporean charities verses the Board's desire to complete the deal and require the church's Board to seek the approval from the deal's counterparties to mutually rescind the confidentiality clauses so salient terms can be disclosed.

Secondly, I hope that the Commission will also request the church's Board to undertake a review of its Constitution to find ways to promote more accountability and transparency to its members. For example, to make it a requirement for material proposals such as material investments and expenditure (say for sums greater than $0.5 million or $1 million) and detailed historical financial accounts be disclosed and be put to a vote by its ordinary members.

I am confident that you and members of the public will agree that $310 million investment/expenditure affecting 30,000+ members of the public are significant numbers/figures that need to be protected through appropriate disclosure and joint decision making.

I look forward to your action in the name of public interest.

Best regards

Simon Teoh

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