Monday, 9 September 2013

'I told the minister to send me to jail'

But in the end, Pastor Lawrence Khong of Faith Community Baptist Church avoided it by paying a pregnant employee he had earlier sacked without benefits. He had otherwise been in breach of the Employment Act, which deems it an offence to fire a pregnant employee without sufficient cause six months before delivery. Elgin Toh met up with the controversial church leader over supper.
The Straits Times, 7 Sep 2013

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 are held with a different view.

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.

She said she was going to break off the relationship but she continued to see him on a regular basis.

In the final meeting, she said: "No, I'm not going to break it off with the man. I want to be with him." So I told her that I would like to give her five days to consider resigning. Two weeks later, it became clear that she had no intention to resign, so we had no choice but to let her go.

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.

However, even for my daughter, I expected 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 any leadership role in the church until many years later. I hold the same standard for my own daughter.

Apart from adultery, what other issues warrant dismissal - issues that other employers may not have a problem with?

If someone is going around cheating other people, or if they go around borrowing money and telling all sorts of stories. Smoking is also not acceptable.

Are you saying effectively that you have to be a Christian to be an 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.

Why not write these into your employment contracts?

I think they are implied. I met with the (Acting) 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 (for payment of the maternity benefits) with a letter that says this is sent to you without prejudice, and we reserve our rights on this.

Why did you comply with the minister's order in the end?

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.

Some people would say 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, or, if you want to disagree with the ruling, you should refuse to pay and face the consequences for that. Under the Employment Act, refusal to comply with the minister's order can result in a fine of up to $10,000 and jail for up to a year.

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 clear.

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.

You are a very vocal opponent of calls to repeal Section 377A of the penal code, which bans homosexual sex. Why is this such an important issue for you?

First of all, I want to very clearly state that I don't believe in discriminating against anybody in terms of the basic human rights. In fact, I just spent a whole day rehearsing with the dancers for my magic show, and more than half of them are living the homosexual lifestyle. It's not a problem. They are good dancers, we use them. But I disagree with the lifestyle.

The history of many countries tells us that if you remove it, the homosexual community is not going to stop there.

They first ask for tolerance. Tolerance means: Don't bully me, don't make me a criminal. The minute you take that away, they will ask for acceptance, in the form of gay marriage. And then, before long, they will go for celebration of the lifestyle.

Then the next thing you know, they will persecute those who disagree with them, by labelling those disagreements as hate speech. We have seen that path. Singapore does not need to go that way. And I will stand firm because I love my nation very much.

You say you believe in basic human rights for homosexuals. Don't you think consensual sex in private between two adults is a basic human right?

Behind that is a presupposition that says, anything that I do privately is none of anybody's business. So what about consenting incestuous relationships? It's against the law. What about taking drugs? It can be argued that it's none of your business, since I take it in my home.

In my view, there are certain things that are basically harmful to society. The homosexual lifestyle is not a normal lifestyle.

Do you agree that 377A should not be enforced?

I can live with that. But I feel like it should be there as a line, as a standard, as a benchmark that is drawn. The most basic thing is: This is not normal. The natural marriage between a man and a woman is normal.

But a lot of homosexuals would tell you it is normal because they were born this way.

There is no proof at all. I challenge the nation to do a study and lay out all the evidence. And I'm confident that the research as a whole will show you that that isn't true. Every ex-homosexual is proof that people are not born this way. There are no ex-blacks, no ex-Chinese, but there are ex-homosexuals.

There are such people in your church?

There are. I can have them come and tell you their stories.

Do you think debates over gay rights are going to become very divisive in Singapore, like in America, where it's part of what they call the Culture Wars?

I think so, but the answer lies with the Government. Our Government has kept a conservative stand so far. If they protect the conservatives, which surveys have shown are in the majority, then we will be fine. But if the conservatives find that the country is going in the wrong direction, then we will have to push back.

Some non-Christians are concerned that Christians like yourself tend to bring religious values into the public sphere and impose them on non-religious people. What would you say to them?

I want to say that every Christian, every Hindu, every Buddhist, every atheist, every agnostic, is a theologian. We're all religious. An atheist is very religious. He has a belief system. He believes there is no God.

So we all bring into the public square our presuppositions. And Prime Minister (Lee Hsien Loong) has said (in his 2009 National Day Rally speech) that it is natural for people to have views that are informed by religious beliefs. We are all integrated beings, after all.

A non-religious person has every right to give his views about adultery and immorality and homosexuality. A Christian gives a view and you say: "Ah, you're a Christian." That's not fair.

What's for supper

Pastor Lawrence Khong's office
- Char siew bao: $3.20
- Egg tarts: $4
- Siew mai: $4.80
- Coffee - self-brewed
- Total: $12

Part 1: ‘I told the Minister to send me to jail’

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