Every week Pastor Kong Hee and Pastor Tan Ye Peng both preach eloquently about good ethical principles solidly grounded in the Bible. Through many sermons, they have warned repeatedly the faithful crowd convincingly about the deadly power of sin and how easy it is to be tempted and fall on the wrong side. How could the same men of God, as the COC Report and the prosecution claim, be doing the contrary of what they preach? And if so, how could so many of the smart people that follow them, have ended up closing one eye and sometimes even both eyes to avoid seeing all the wrong things supposedly being done?
First we need to keep in mind that after all, in the eyes of the faithful members of CHC, both Pastor Kong Hee and Pastor Tan have supposedly been anointed by God in their positions. They also have long track records of spiritual enlightenment and good deeds with many testimonies to speak for them. Hence it is understandably really hard to imagine that people with such high apparent moral standing could succumb to self-interest and greed. But… is it still possible?
Could Somebody Considered a “SAINT” Commit a SIN?
Let’s try to answer that question rationally, looking both at the secular and spiritual perspectives. Spoiler alert: the answer to the above mentioned question is unfortunately unequivocally YES from both perspectives.
From the secular perspective, according to psychologists, while people are not usually born with a criminal fraudster mindset, practically everybody could gradually become one as a consequence of a succession of inappropriate decisions and actions. So we should postulate that most people start out in life with reasonably good, solid value systems. However confronted with ethical dilemmas, some of them will make the wrong decisions and from then on will gradually slide to the “dark side”. It may not necessarily happen overnight, sometimes it will take many years of small steps to move further and further away from commonly accepted moral values and principles. Yet interestingly, no matter how far you end up to be from these values and principles, in order to be able to function in society, you will have to maintain the superficial appearance of righteousness. As by definition you cannot be a successful fraudster if it is “written on your forehead” that you are or have become a criminal. A fraudster must appear to be a highly trustworthy character to various key stakeholders in order to be able to pull out his fraudulent schemes. For example, Bernard Madoff was a highly respected figure before he was exposed as a fraudster for building a USD 50 billion ponzi scheme. Prior to that revelation, many investors would queue up to have their money invested in one of his apparently so reliable and profitable investment funds. While there had been negative rumors flying around about Madoff for years, his faithful investors had brushed them off, finding no reasons to question such respected person with a long successful track record to prove his achievements. Does this story sound familiar? We may wonder how many persons and leaders in this world who appear to be good and upright on the surface, really are that way in their hearts…
What about from a Christian spiritual perspective? Here the answer is also very clear as all of mankind has been corrupted by Sin through Adam’s disobedience to God’s command. While according to the Christian faith, Jesus Christ has, by his sacrifice, broken the power of sin and freed mankind from it, the power of the temptation of Sin is still very much present in this world. So unless you think that Pastor Kong Hee & Pastor Tan are sinless – and by doing so you would be committing a blasphemy- you have to admit that the possibility of unethical and even fraudulent behavior on theirs parts is by definition possible. You should also keep in mind that the Bible provide many examples of “fallen” leaders such as the most famous Kings of Israel i.e. Saul, David and Solomon. While they were anointed by God, they all eventually, to various degrees, succumbed to the temptation of sin and greed.
In the CHC case, using the Fraud Triangle Risk Assessment model to guide this analysis, I have highlighted in my previous posts, “City Harvest Case part 2: If There is a Fraud What would be the Motives?“ and “City Harvest Case Part 3 – The Opportunity Makes the Thief“, that the environment in CHC was very favorable for unethical/fraudulent behaviors. Indeed a careful examination of the factors leading to unethical and even fraudulent behaviors showed that the defendants had the incentive or felt the pressure to break the rules (Fraud Triangle Factor 1), and they also had the opportunity to do it and the ability to conceal their actions (Fraud Triangle Factor 2). Now, last but not the least, we will examine in this post the Fraud Triangle 3rd Factor i.e. RATIONALIZATION. This factor implies that the accused CHC leaders would need to find a way to somewhat justify (or RATIONALIZE) their behaviors to be able to break the rules. Why? Simply because almost nobody likes the very negative feeling of thinking about himself as being an unethical person or even worse a fraudster as this would create a painful cognitive dissonance.
Cognitive Dissonance & Rationalization
Indeed the last issue to address in this analysis is the fact that people engaging in unethical and even fraudulent behavior (unless they have a criminal mind from the beginning) will usually be subjected to what can be termed as a strong cognitive dissonance. A dissonance is a state of internal disharmony that happens when a person faces a situation of conflict between moral values and/or when he acts in a way that is inconsistent with his beliefs or moral values. This dissonance can be a very disturbing, unpleasant and even painful psychological experience, usually leading to strong negative emotions such as anxiety, fear, frustration and anger. The stronger the potential dissonance, the less likely the person will engage in the unethical or fraudulent behaviors. So even when the pressures and incentives are strong (Fraud Triangle factor 1) and easy opportunities are available (Fraud Triangle factor 2), the person tempted to engage in unethical and even fraudulent behaviors will usually experience a painful psychological dissonance. Hence he will feel the intense need to remove the pain and restore internal harmony by somehow “reducing” the dissonance (Fraud Triangle factor 3).
How Can You Reduce The Dissonance?
The best is obviously that you make the decision not to engage in the behavior that create the dissonance in the first place. However if you are in a situation where you still feel compelled or even actually want to do it (because of the benefits you will get), you will need to RATIONALIZE your unethical or fraudulent behavior in a way that is congruent with commonly accepted values and principles. So that you will be able to alleviate the feeling that you are doing something really wrong or that the wrongdoing is somehow justified for example as a mean to achieve a much “greater good” like saving souls with the Crossover project.
Let’s take some examples from the CHC case to illustrate what Rationalization means. After a careful review of the case, a few “difficult issues” that could have created strong dissonances for the accused church leaders and members have been identified. I will list the “difficult issues” in the form of questions as follows:
- Question 1: Why choose Sun Ho as the main focus and vehicle for the Crossover project?
- Question 2: How does Sun Ho’s U.S. musical career fit with the objectives of the Crossover project?
- Question 3: How does Sun Ho’s U.S. stage personae fit with the objectives of the Crossover project?
- Question 4: How was the financing of the Crossover project arranged?
- Question 5: What are the real fruits of the Crossover project?
Because each of the above questions are about important moral and spiritual issues that can create strong dissonances, there was a crucial need for the CHC leadership to rationalize the answers to those questions to justify their behaviors to make them at least acceptable by the church members and preferably even to win their support.
However, interestingly, it appears that for many years the church communication about Sun Ho’s Crossover had actually been quite limited, essentially consisting of victory announcements when one of Sun Ho’s singles reached the top of the U.S. dance charts or was invited to sing or attend some A-list events. There were also regular glowing reports about her achievements on the humanitarian fronts. Suddenly everything changed when the case broke out in 2010. After a few initial months of confusion and disarray, the church leadership started to communicate intensively about the Crossover project, particularly on the origins, method and fruits, through preaches, videos, information booklets and lastly through the recently launched CHC Crossover website early this year.
From a Crisis management perspective, this flurry of communications and the Crossover website in particular, appear to be a carefully planned and quite well-executed crisis communication strategy to provide the church members with the leadership’s answers to most of the above mentioned “difficult” questions 1 – 5. I can analyse the underlying key objectives of this crisis communication strategy as follows:
- To write (or rather rewrite) the narrative (story) of the case from the CHC leadership’s perspective to counter-balance the storyline that has been emerging from the COC & CAD investigations over the past 2 years.
- To focus first on CHC members, the objective is to take control of and frame the way CHC members will interpret the facts gradually unfolding to push them towards the narrative developed by the CHC leadership. The ultimate goal is preserve member’s loyalty and even build retroactive support for the new narrative.
- Finally to turn the tide in the “battle of mind” with the prosecution by changing the perception of other key stakeholders. How? By building a strong and offensive defense based on a now well-constructed narrative explaining the behavior of the CHC leaders in a positive light.
This communication strategy has already met some successes. A large majority of CHC members have so far, closed ranks rallying faithfully around their leaders with many church members even claiming that they implicitly approved of their leaders’ spending because they have supported the crossover project all along.
This makes this risk assessment analysis all the more interesting and I will now explore more in-depth each of the above mentioned difficult questions in my next few posts. My objective will be to find out 1) why these issues can create dissonances, 2) what are the ways they were “rationalised” by the CHC leadership and 3) to critically analyze them to highlight potential weaknesses (if any) in the argumentation used.
So keep on the lookout for my next post entitled: City Harvest Case part 5: CHC’s Crossover or Sun Ho’s Crossover?