Monk + Money = Monkey Business?

23 07 2009

The coverage of Reverend Shi Ming Yi’s trial led to a small balcony discussion between me and my wife, and subsequently, a number of lengthy comments between me and a skeptic (with good reason) in – of all people and in all places – local celebrity Ken Tay’s Facebook profile.

For those not in the know, following the very messy and sensationalised NKF scandal comes a new high-tension drama series – “Ren Ci Hospital“, starring the Vulnerable Reverend Shi Ming Yi (I’ll explain the use of the term “vulnerable” later).

The synopsis: said Reverend was arrested in the middle of last year and put on trial a day later after a five-month probe into the hospital’s alleged misappropriation of funds, found in undeclared interest-free loans to individuals and businesses working with the organisation. Digging deeper into the dirt, the prosecution found additional discrepancies, not only of the Reverend’s very fat bank account, but also of his history in property investments here in Singapore and in Perth, Australia, his chauffeur and various cars of significant worth (we’re talking Beemers and Volvos; I drive a Nissan Sunny, and it isn’t even mine), not to mention his allegedly “doctored” philosphy PhD from a questionable educational institution.

Now, we’re talking about a big-time charity figure who’s been earning millions for the organisation(s) he represents, and is known throughout high society (middle and low as well, for that matter) as the foremost Buddhism advocate in Singapore, Johor (and some say Batam). My first real interest in this matter was piqued while I was in the midst of moping about my own finances, when I read a headline mentioning the Reverend’s bank account; my first thought (which I subsequently posted on Twitter because it was less than 140 characters long) was, “You know your life is truly crap when you find out on a newspaper that a monk has more money than you.”

I mulled over that statement with my wife, who had a different opinion of this whole debacle. Here we have the third-largest charitable organisation after the NKF and the Singapore Endowment Fund; the amount of money changing hands on the basis of Singaporean kindness makes charity work overwhelmingly profitable as an induistry. And, as some of us may have learnt from the NKF debacle, it is quite necessary (although not altogether the smartest thing to do) to have it run very much like a corporation, complete with administrative staff, personal assistants, auditors, a board of directors, and the most dangerous job of all, the CEO.

So the monk fucked up. So what? In the face of so much money coming at you like Spanish tomatoes during La Tomatina, the temptation is truly irresistible, regardless of whether you’re a monk, a yogi or the Pope. To be fair, the Hospital itself has flourished and its charges taken care of with the fullest utilisation of the benefits the organisation has earned. Lending a quote from The Straits Times, “The monk admitted that he was ‘easy with money’ but denied he was similarly so with Ren Ci’s money.” With this in mind, we need to ask ourselves, how many people have we helped, the way the Reverend has helped his patients, to be able to fuck up this big-time?

I’ve personally seen as many monks sharing a bouncy red 20-year-old Datsun hatchback as there are monks driving and being driven in Mercedes Benzes and BMWs (I won’t even talk about the airport encounters I’ve had with monks in first-class). Do they deserve to live their lives this way, whether it be in a hatchback or a luxury 2.4-litre German monster? Neither you nor I can say, for we know nothing of their backgrounds and the circumstances behind their gains (even the Datsun boys; at least the thing moves). This is where the benefit of the doubt comes in handy.

Let’s talk about the “loans”. If a truly venerable monk with $5 in his cloth bag were approached by a man who makes his case as a penniless chap in need of $5 to tapow 2 packets of chicken rice back for himself, his wife and 37 children, do you think the monk would say no? Similarly, if the Reverend, hapless as he is about the financial policies set forth by his own organisation as well as the legal boundaries of the Charities Act, were to be asked by the people under his employ, colleagues, or business partners to “help a brother out” after being presented with a convincing case, what do you think he would do? (Even though it is surplus revenue from after his organisation’s beneficiaries had been beneficiarised, a scheming mind might say, “Go ahead”, whereas a naive mind might ask, “Why not?” The outcome may be the same, but the intentions are vastly different.)

“(His PA) told Ming Yi that he needed the money because he had run into some financial difficulties, but did not tell him that it was to pay for the renovations.” [link]

As far as I can see, the misappropriation of funds was borne through a naive sense of doing good coupled with an ignorance of rules and regulations, made possible through the conniving of certain individuals who made their want of money look like a need for personal gain.

What of his property “investments” and bank account then? Supplemental income? Back-up plan for Ren Ci’s rainy days? Part of Mother Theresa’s estate to “all the kind people out there”? In search of the perfect place to meditate in? All my wife and I know is that it is not uncommon for heads of charities to have money on the side for whatever, whenever. Even the hospital’s management committee had this to say during the trial:

“When questioned later by Ming Yi’s lawyer, Senior Counsel Andre Yeap, Mrs Chan said the committee trusted Ming Yi would give himself a reasonable salary, pegged to that of other hospital CEOs and also based on the scope of work undertaken by him for the hospital.” [link]

Think of it this way; if our politicians are paid well over their deserved thresholds in salary so as to combat corruption, shouldn’t there be a need for this one guy who’s supposed to be the deciding factor to where all this public money goes to have a stash of his own to keep him from wandering into the communal pot? It sounds warped, especially since we’re talking about a monk here, but you can’t deny it makes sense; the government sure as hell don’t deny it.

But my biggest qualm in this debacle has nothing to do with Ren Ci, the Reverend, his minions or detractors. It’s the media, and the people who read into the media coverage. The one big thing that the media always stresses to address is the “lowest common denominator”; the base level of understanding that any storyteller, scriptwriter, production house, and whatever other media industry player (big or small) must target at. In news reporting of such a complex nature, I have found it to be near impossible for the true essence of a news story to get through, most of the time.

When a person reads a newspaper, 85% of the newspaper is completely ignored (I like the comics section), headlines are read and siphoned, and most articles, if not all, get all their eyeball glory in no more than their first line; the news lead.

When a high-profile figure in trouble appears on TV in the news, you see his face plastered over your 60-inch plasma walking either in or out of the courthouse with the big bold headline “Ming Yi Trial” scrolling across the bottom of the screen, half of what is actually being said throughout the report is lost in white noise because your eyes are taking away what your brain should be processing.

Radio news fares no better; passive listening may put in subliminal messages in your head over a long period of time, but the BBC for me is a wonderful treatment for insomnia. So what happens when you get a hapless voice speaking over a microphone with no background music? Remember Physics class when you fell asleep most of the hour and ended up almost failing your exam?

And then we have the Internet. The most important tool for any research-based project, the connected student’s bread and butter, the communication innovation for the business of the now, and what do we do with it? Porn.

Reading through all the articles in detail, I was frankly quite surprised at what the local newspeople are reporting about the Ming Yi trial; there actually seems to be a bias toward the Reverend in the content (in particular, the defence’s case makes it quite hard to point the blame at one obvious point). But the people’s interpretation of just the headlines and their lead lines (which look like they were written by a different writer on a different sensationalist agenda) speak very differently, thus twisting views in an altogether more negative direction.

A perfect example of having 3 sides to every story; the prosecution’s side, the defence’s side, and the media’s side. Each vastly different, and all filled with ulterior motive.

Factoids (courtesy of The Court Room @ STOMP:

  • Deputy Public Prosecutor Jaswant Singh said, the money was an unauthorised payment by Ming Yi, taken from Ren Ci’s coffers, for renovations to a Hong Kong flat belonging to Yeung’s friend. To cover up this fraudulent use of funds, he said, instructions were given to Ren Ci staff to prepare a payment voucher that stated the money was a loan. [link]
    (Someone commented that the loan was for purchasing branded goods; this should hopefully set the record straight.)
  • Both the Reverend and his PA are standing trial.
  • The Reverend is facing 10 charges:

    “Four – two counts of giving false information to the Commissioner of Charities, and one each of falsifying accounts and criminal breach of trust – form the basis of the trial. The other six have been stood down for now.” [link]

  • His PA, Raymond Yeung, faces 2 of the above charges as co-defendant.
  • Varying explanations had been given for the use of the aforementioned $50,000:

    “Mr Winston Ngan, an auditor who led a Ministry of Health review of the charity’s finances in 2007, said he had been given varying explanations of where the money went.” [link]

    (Different interpretations of a vague invoice, if you ask me. But I do know a lot of auditors cannot stand that kind of thing.)

  • Raymond Yeung is a Singapore Permanent Resident with a previous Australian citizenship. He did not hold a work permit while working for the Reverend, but was instead paid “by proxy” from Ren Ci through the Reverend. [link]
  • Based on his May 2001 salary, the Rev takes home $16,000 a month (makes me want to be a monk). According to his management, he stopped drawing salary sometime in 2005. In his bank account lies $570,000. If we do the sums based on this info, his total income (less CPF) to date would have been 736,800, which means he spent $166,800 of his own money in the past 8 years, or $1737.50 a month. I spend more than that the first 3 days of receiving my paycheck (which explains why I’m always broke).
  • The Reverend loaned $610,000 to the Ren Ci Hospital since its inception in 1994. Here we are today haggling over a $50,000 cheque.
  • Mandala, the shop mired in the $50,000 scandal (the illegal funds were extracted from the shop’s books), is operated under the Reverend’s name. Although there is an understanding between the Reverend and the Hospital that all proceeds will go to the charity, no documentation exists to support the agreement, so isn’t the shop technically a free agent?
  • Trial Day 5: The PA ‘fessed up that the $50,000 was indeed used for renovations in a friend’s flat in Hong Kong, and the Reverend took pains to cover said PA’s backside, as well as not to sully the name of the hospital.
  • Supplementary cards were given out to three people under the Reverend’s employ, including Raymond Yeung, who used it to buy “branded goods”. (I remember when my dad first gave me a sup card; he took it back the following month.) Today I have a company sup card, so I can understand why this was done. So anyone who says these two had a “special” relationship, please think about it for a moment before jumping the gun.

The rest of the trial is being covered closely in The Court Room, so anything else arising from there is open for discussion in comments.