BY JONATHAN CHAN
In November 2020, Singapore’s Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) arrested 21 members of the Shincheonji Church of Jesus for being unregistered under the Societies Act[i]. These arrests were the culmination of a nine-month long investigation of the group—in February 2020, five South Koreans as nationals holding key positions in the Singaporean chapter of Shincheonji were repatriated.
The ministry’s investigation was instigated by the chapter’s “deceptive recruitment methods,” which are described as “infiltrating and disrupting established Korean churches by using deception and secrecy,” exerting “a controlling influence over Christian youths and young adults in Singapore” and “[concealing] its existence from family members and non-Shincheonji contacts.”[ii] In a press release on the arrests, the MHA stated that it “will not allow members of unlawful societies or persons associated with them to threaten Singapore’s public safety, peace and good order.”[iii]
At present, Singapore is the only country to have taken steps to dissolve a Shincheonji chapter altogether. It is thus vital to examine why the Singaporean government moved to dissolve Shincheonji despite its marginal presence in Singapore’s religious landscape and the extent to which the South Korean government’s response influenced its decision. Specifically, Shincheonji’s transgression of trust with the state proved potentially dangerous to Singaporean society, particularly amidst the backdrop of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Korean Christianity, New Religious Movements, and Shincheonji at home and abroad
Christian new religious movements in Korea did not emerge until after the 1907 Pyongyang Great Revival Movement.[iv] Native congregation leaders in Korea, primarily from Protestant churches, progressively created their own religious figures in the contexts of mysticism, eschatology, and arbitrary interpretations of the Bible, such as the Unification Church and the Salvation Sect.[v] Shincheonji is one such movement, identifying the culmination of biblical prophecy in its leader Lee Man-hee. Lee is regarded as a man who “God” will work through in the last days, serving as the “advocate” for humankind, and ushering in the “Kingdom of God.”[vi] This teaching is often misunderstood by critics, including both the Singaporean media and government, who claim that Shincheonji regards Lee as God or Jesus Christ. A special advocate contrasts sharply with a messianic claimant, who is likelier to inspire more zealous devotion, as is with the case of Sun Myung Moon of the Unification Church.
The first temple of Shincheonji was opened on June 1984[vii] and organized into the Twelve Tribes in 1995. At present, the Twelve Tribes oversee 128 churches in 29 countries with over 200,000 members.[viii] This growth did not go unnoticed by mainline Christian churches in South Korea, particularly because most new members of Shincheonji were converted from their flocks. Apart from heresy, Shincheonji has been accused by Korean mainline Christian churches of dissimulation and “brainwashing.”[ix] Shincheonji admits that people invited to its meetings are not immediately told that the organizer is Shincheonji and that members do attend services of other churches incognito, hoping to invite people to Shincheonji courses.[x] The movement justifies this by explaining that opponents spread derogatory information through seminars organized by conservative, fundamentalist Christian churches and media outlets. Such practices have cultivated widespread suspicion and wariness among Christians in South Korea toward Shincheonji and its intentions.[xi]
In March 2020, the South Korean government announced that Shincheonji had hindered efforts to contain the spread of COVID-19 in February by failing to provide accurate lists of members and the locations of church facilities. It launched a criminal investigation into the church and Lee, who was arrested in August and subsequently released on bail.[xii] Health authorities determined a single individual in Shincheonji had spread COVID-19 to nearly 600 people in the city of Daegu by late February and approximately 5,200 others through October.[xiii] In August 2020, authorities indicted Lee on charges of embezzling KRW 5.6 billion in church funds and obstructing the government’s efforts to control the spread of COVID-19.[xiv] However, in January 2021, a South Korean court acquitted Lee, with Judge Kim Mi-kyung ruling that problems with lists of Shincheonji members and properties did not constitute an attempt to impede disease control efforts.[xv] Subsequent to the outbreak, Shincheonji representatives said its members experienced discrimination and harassment, including in schools and at workplaces.
Shincheonji’s association with the pandemic and the public response to it thus tarnished the religion’s reputation. This was the case when Singaporean authorities cited the group’s association with South Korea’s COVID-19 clusters as the basis to investigate the group’s activities in Singapore. The Ministry of Home Affairs said it decided to accelerate its investigations into the local chapter of the church because of reports linking the church’s practices to the coronavirus outbreak cluster in Daegu, South Korea, framing it as a contact-tracing exercise. Four of the South Koreans who assisted in investigations in early 2020 entered Singapore before the outbreak of the virus in Daegu and Cheongdo.
Singapore and its approaches to religious management
The Singaporean state, as Rodney Sebastian has suggested, portrays itself as “secular but not atheistic” to manage religious diversity under the “guise of neutrality.”[xvi] After becoming independent in 1965, the Singaporean state introduced national goals such as meritocracy and multiracialism wherein the personal attainment of material and educational goals could be attained in a “neutral space.”[xvii] This effectively relegated religion to the private sphere. One consequence of this calibrated management and control of ethno-religious identities in Singapore is the essentialization and reification of race and religion.[xviii] As Chua Beng Huat and John Clammer have noted, Singapore’s multicultural policy works through a process of simplification and symbolic representation,[xix] through which race becomes “highly politicized” as an essential ideological category.[xx]
The 2020 Census indicates that 31.1% of Singaporeans are Buddhist, 18.9% are Christian, 15.6% are Muslim, 8.8% are Taoist, 5% are Hindu, and 0.7% belong to other religions.[xxi] The Chinese population in particular is varied and less easily identified with one religion: 40.4% profess Buddhism, 25.7% profess no religion, 21.6% profess Christianity and 11.6% profess Taoism.[xxii] Socio-economic factors aid in reinforcing racial and religious identities, as Robbie B. H. Goh suggests: Christianity is strongly correlated with households living in more expensive private property, as well as with those who have attained university-level education, particularly in English-speaking households.[xxiii] These socio-economic factors are most consequential to the Chinese as they exhibit the greatest degree of variability in religious practice.
According to Thio Li-Ann, the Singapore courts consider a “cult” to be a “pejorative term that is potentially defamatory and has a sinister connotation, whole teachings or practices are considered by the ordinary man to be abhorrent or harmful to society.”[xxiv] Shane Pereira observes that by maintaining a careful balance between what constitutes a religion and a harmful “cult,” the state maintains the diversity of Singapore’s religious landscape while retaining overarching control over the activities of religious organizations.[xxv] This is exemplified by the available legislative means used to regulate religion. For instance, through the Societies Act, all societies are required to register with and send regular reports of their activities to the Registrar of Societies; concurrently, contentious groups are kept under watch by the Internal Security Department.[xxvi] Registration confers legal identity, allowing registered groups to own property, hold public meetings, and conduct financial transactions.[xvii] Registered religious groups may apply to establish and maintain charitable and humanitarian institutions, which enables them to solicit and receive funding and tax benefits such as income tax exemptions.
Contrastingly, the Maintenance of Religious Harmony Act allows the Minister for Home Affairs to issue a “restraining order” against a person in a position of authority within a religious group if it is ascertained that the person is causing feelings of enmity or hostility between different religious groups, promoting political causes, carrying out subversive activities, or encouraging disaffection against the government under the guise of practicing religion.[xxviii] Through such legislation, the government may remain secular, and therefore neutral, in its handling of religious issues while maintaining tight control over their activities and influence.[xxix]
Christianity in Singapore occupies a peculiar position. The religion is marked by a high degree of globalization relative to other groups.[xxxi] Mainline denominations such as the Catholics, Anglicans, and Methodists have affiliations with their respective global organizations. Many essentially globalized Christian organizations such as Youth With A Mission and Operation Mobilization have regional offices in Singapore.[xxxi] Moreover, Goh notes that Christianity gets singled out in public debates not just because of the evangelical zeal of its adherents but also because of anxiety about their domination of positions of authority, particularly as doctors and teachers.[xxxii]
In practice, Shincheonji’s reasons for establishing a chapter in Singapore may not be dissimilar to other Korean churches—Singapore’s proximity to other Southeast Asian nations, its position as an administrative hub for regional mission activity, and the diversity of its residents make it attractive for proselytization. What is surprising is that Shincheonji did not provoke as intense a response from mainstream Christian organizations as it did in South Korea. While there were denunciations of its heresy, such responses did not cross the threshold to kidnappings and forced conversions of Shincheonji members, as has been pursued by mainline churches in South Korea, which largely consist of fundamentalist Protestant churches aligned with the Christian Council of Korea.[xxxiii] Most curiously, the government’s containment of Shincheonji was swift, without justifications surrounding threats to COVID-19 containment efforts or the instigation of “ill-feeling” under the Maintenance of Religious Harmony Act. Shincheonji’s threat to Singapore’s social order was focused on the Christian community, with no other religious groups, and by extension, the largely ethnic Chinese community, reporting being ‘infiltrated.”
Shincheonji’s threat in Singapore
The Singaporean government’s treatment of Shincheonji is not without precedent—it deregistered the Jehovah’s Witnesses in 1972, banned the International Society for Krishna Consciousness in the 1970s, dissolved the Unification Church in 1982, and shut down the Christian Conference of Asia in 1987. What links the dissolution of these groups is their perceived threat to national security. This is seen as threatened when a group instructs members to disobey orders from the state, as with the Jehovah’s Witnesses and their objection to conscription, or operates in a way that eschews transparency with the state, as with the Unification Church and their establishment of “front companies.” Shincheonji fits into the latter paradigm—its failure to make its religious motives explicit raised the threat of the group engaging in surreptitious activities seen that would contravene government supervision of religious groups or causing fissures within the Christian community or within families.
Despite the influence of the Shincheonji-linked Daegu COVID-19 cluster, the Ministry of Home Affairs said its investigations started in February 2020 when Shincheonji tried to register a company in Singapore under the name of “Heavenly Culture, World Peace and Restoration of Light,” the group’s organization dedicated to humanitarian activity that has been affiliated with UN agencies.[xxxiv] Investigations found that the church had also previously incorporated other “front companies” known as Spasie Pte Ltd and Kings Ave offering software development and consultancy services. [xxxv] These served as “fronts” to lease property for use as a “temple.” [xxxvi] Commercial premises that host religious activities but are not zoned as places of worship must be approved by Singapore’s Urban Redevelopment Authority, which Shincheonji did not apply for.
Accounts of attendees of Shincheoji’s Bible studies from Salt&Light and Mothership.SG recount not only the duplicitous elements of the group’s activity but also its active tendency to cultivate secrecy and embed inductees within new, robust sets of social structures. This was reinforced not only by mobile phones being barred during Shincheonji classes, but also by the group’s invasive attempts to build rapport. The anonymous source interviewed by Mothership.SG cited mandatory daily diary entries that were read by teachers and used to shape a sense of belonging within the group. Upon exiting the group, the person remarked:
For three months, every day we are being washed by this word, by this falsehood. It feels like my heart spiritually played with something very dark and it’s like devilish. and at night when I turn off the lights, it’s really dark, and I could feel the chills running through my body.[xxxvii]
As the Ministry of Home Affairs stated, “There was reason to believe that people were being misled and defrauded into certain actions.”’[xxxviii]
Under national security legislation, therefore, Shincheonji’s deceptive tactics were seen to be of greater concern to Singapore’s social and religious fabric than its potential connections to COVID-19. At that point, as with many other religious groups, Shincheonji had largely abided by government restrictions. Shincheonji’s failure to align with Singapore’s model of multi-religious toleration, in particular through transparency about its intentions and motivations, may have resulted in its dissolution.
Within the paradigm of protecting Singapore’s “public safety, peace and good order,” it is evident that Shincheonji’s underhanded tactics were regarded as potentially disruptive and acrimonious. This possessed the potential to cause fissures not only within families but also within Christian denominations, as in South Korea. Shincheonji’s dissolution in Singapore stems from the state’s conception of religious freedom within certain boundaries. The state is positioned as an arbiter between religious groups in the interest of preventing “ill-will” while also maintaining legislative oversight regarding a religious group’s physical premises.
What Shincheonji seems to have transgressed is trust. The group, while small, proved dangerous because of its potential harms to Singaporean society, even if new members to the chapter had neither begun to leave their families entirely nor undertake surreptitious activity at a large scale. Within the national security apparatus of Singapore, the group’s potential to separate families and generate “ill-feeling” between Christian denominations in Singapore and potentially beyond the Christian community was sufficient for the government to crack down on the group. This is particularly salient given the backdrop of the COVID-19 pandemic, where the Singaporean government needed to shore up public trust, secure cooperation from religious groups to comply with restrictions on gatherings and preserve a sense of stability amidst volatile policy responses to contain the virus.
Jonathan Chan received his BA in English from the University of Cambridge and MA in East Asian Studies from Yale University. He served as Editorial Director with The Southeast Asian Movement at Yale and was a 2050 Fellow with the Yale Center for Business and the Environment. He is interested in the interactions between the East Asian diaspora and East Asia, especially China and Korea, with a particular interest in religion and literature. This submission is an adapted essay based on the author’s original research paper, which can be found here.
Featured image from CNN.
[i] “21 Members of Unregistered Local Chapter of the Shincheonji Church of Jesus the Temple of the Tabernacle of the Testimony Arrested Under the Societies Act,” Ministry of Home Affairs, Singapore,11 November 2021. <https://www.mha.gov.sg/mediaroom/press-releases/21-members-of-unregistered-local-chapter-of-the-shincheonji-church-of-jesus-the-temple-of-the-tabernacle-of-the-testimony-arrested-under-the-societies-act/>
[ii] “Shincheonji Church,” Ministry of Home Affairs, Singapore.
[iii] “Shincheonji Church,” Ministry of Home Affairs, Singapore.
[iv] The great revival of 1907 was a watershed in the history of Korean Protestantism. It was, as L. George Paik states, “the spiritual rebirth of the Korean Church,” which “gave to the Christian Church in Korea a character which is its own..” The revival was the culmination of a series of local revivals that had started in 1903.
Timothy S. Lee, Born Again: Evangelicalism in Korea (Hawai‘i: University of Hawai‘I Press, 2010), 37.
[v] Kim Heung-Soo, “A History of Christian Heretics in Korea,” University and Mission 12 (2007): 9–37.
[vi] Lee, The Creation of Heaven and Earth, 78-85.
[vii] Introvigne, “Shincheonji: An Introduction,” 7.
[viii] Introvigne, “Shincheonji: An Introduction,” 14; Introduction Materials for Shincheonji Church of Jesus, 8.
[ix] Introvigne, “Shincheonji: An Introduction”, 14.
[x] Introvigne, “Shincheonji: An Introduction,” 15.
[xi] Grisafi, “A Marginal Religion and COVID-19 in South Korea,” 43.
[xii] “2020 Report on International Religious Freedom: South Korea,” 1.
[xiii] “2020 Report on International Religious Freedom: South Korea,” 1.
[xiv] “2020 Report on International Religious Freedom: South Korea,” 1.
[xv] Yonhap News Agency, “Court Acquits Shincheonji Leader of Obstructing Gov’t Response to COVID-19,” Yonhap News, 13 January 2021 <https://en.yna.co.kr/ view/AEN20210113007451315>.
[xvi] Rodney Sebastian, The State’s Management of New Religious Movements in Singapore: A Case Study of ISKCON (Singapore: National University of Singapore, 2010), 7; Vineeta Sinha, “Constituting and Re-constituting the Religious Domain in the Modern Nation State of Singapore,” Our Time and Space – Exploring Heritage and Memory in Singapore, ed. Kwok Kian Woon (Singapore: Singapore Heritage Society, 1999), 81.
[xvii] Sebastian, The State’s Management of New Religious Movements in Singapore, 10.
[xviii] Sharon Siddique, “Singaporean Identity,” Management of Success: The Moulding of Modern Singapore, eds. K S Sadhu and Paul Wheatley (Singapore: Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, 2000), p. 572.
[xix] Chua Beng Huat, “Culture, multiracialism, and national identity in Singapore,” Trajectories: inter-Asia cultural studies, ed. Chen Kuan-Hsing (New York: Routledge, 1998), 190.
[xx] John Clammer, Race and state in independent Singapore 196-1990: the cultural politics of pluralism in a multiethnic society (Aldershot: Ashgate. 1998), 49.
[xxi] Department of Statistics, Singapore, Singapore Census of Population 2020 Statistical Release 1: Demographic Characteristics, Education, Language and Religion, 31.
[xxii] Singapore Census of Population 2020, 33.
[xxiii] Robbie B. H. Goh, “Christian identities in Singapore: religion, race and culture between state controls and transnational flows,” Journal of Cultural Geography 26, no. 1 (2009): 3.
[xxiv] Thio Li-Ann, “Courting religion: The judge between Caesar and God in Asian courts,” Singapore Journal of Legal Studies (2009): 63.
[xxv] Pereira, “The Management of New Religious Movements in Singapore,” 92.
[xxvi] Pereira, “The Management of New Religious Movements in Singapore,” 92.
[xxvii] “2020 Report on International Religious Freedom: Singapore,” Office of International Religious Freedom, U. S. Department of State., May 12, 2021, 5.
[xxviii] “2020 Report on International Religious Freedom: Singapore,” 3.
[xxix] Pereira, “The Management of New Religious Movements in Singapore,” 94.
[xxx] Goh, “Christian identities in Singapore”, 10.
[xxxi] Robbie B. H. Goh, Contours of culture: space and social difference in Singapore (Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press, 2005), 838.
[xxxii] Goh, “Christian identities in Singapore,” 12.
[xxxiii] Willy Fautré “Coercive Change of Religion in South Korea: The Case of the Shincheonji Church.” The Journal of CESNUR 4, no. 3 (2020): 37.
[xxxiv] Charmaine Ng and Calvin Yang, “MHA looking to ban activities of Singapore chapter of church at centre of South Korea’s coronavirus outbreak,” The Straits Times, 3 March 2020 <https://www.straitstimes.com/singapore/mha-looking-to-ban-activities-of-singapore-chapter-of-church-at-centre-of-south-koreas>.
[xxxv] Ng and Yang, “MHA looking to ban activities of Singapore chapter of church at centre of South Korea’s coronavirus outbreak.”
[xxxvi] Ng and Yang, “MHA looking to ban activities of Singapore chapter of church at centre of South Korea’s coronavirus outbreak.”
[xxxvii] “The Shincheonji cult in Singapore | How Cults Influence the Unsuspecting,” YouTube, uploaded by MothershipSG, 22 April 2020 <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Xe6Ew3aePmQ>.
[xxxviii] Ang Hwee Min and Michael Yong, “MHA investigating unregistered Singapore chapter of South Korean religious group Shincheonji,” CNA, 28 February 2020 <https://www.channelnewsasia.com/singapore/shincheonji-south-korea-singapore-covid19-investigate-mha-781271>.
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