Singapore megachurch leaders guilty of embezzlement

Six leaders of Singapore City Harvest megachurch found guilty of fraud in case worth $35m

Photo by: Reuters
Photo by: Reuters

City Harvest Church founder Kong Hee and his wife Ho Yeow Sun, arrive at the State Courts in Singapore on October 21, 2015

The founder of a Singapore City Harvest megachurch, Kong Hee, and other five leaders have been convicted of stealing 24 million Singapore dollars ($17 million) designated for building and investment-related purposes through sham bond investments.

Kong was found guilty on Wednesday of embezzling more than $35 million to use in supporting his wife’s pop singing career in Asia.

"There is no doubt that they had something to hide ... They knew they were acting dishonestly," Judge See Kee Oon said in convicting the six in the Singapore subordinate court.

The State Court said the couple used another $18.5 million to hide their first embezzlement from auditors.

"They were not genuine transactions because the accused persons controlled these transactions," Onn said after he found Kong guilty of three counts of criminal breach of trust.

"Evidence points to a finding that they knew they were acting dishonestly, and I am unable to conclude otherwise," he told a courtroom filled with church supporters, who had been waiting since early morning to get seats.

The date for sentencing Kong has not yet been decided. The maximum penalty for criminal breach of trust in Singapore is a life sentence and falsifying accounts carries a maximum of 10 years in jail and a fine.

Kong was arrested and charged with criminal breach of trust and falsifying accounts in 2012.

Senior pastor Kong is the head of City Harvest Church which is one of a growing number of megachurches in Singapore preaching a "prosperity gospel" that blends spiritual and material aspirations.

The church aims at turning Singapore into a center of evangelical Christianity and spreading its faith to the world.

Four other leaders of the church faced additional charges and were found guilty of falsifying the church’s accounts. A fifth leader, like Kong, was found guilty of three counts of criminal breach of trust.

City Harvest Church's members arrive at the State Courts in Singapore on October 21, 2015

The intermixing of money, faith and scandal in the case has fascinated the public of Singapore. Corruption cases of such magnitude are rare in the affluent island-nation, which is a highly law-abiding and largely graft-free city-state.

The trial has put megachurches under the spotlight, which have risen in popularity in the country in recent years. Although the church's leaders were found guilty of corruption, members of the church have been helping them since the case started in 2012. These members believe that the funds were rightly used to finance the church’s Crossover Project - of which Kong’s wife, Ho Yeow Sun, is the face - in an attempt to use pop music to reach out to non-believers.

The embezzled money was first pumped into a music production company and a glass manufacturer. However, these companies were owned by longtime churchgoers and used funds to support the secular music pursuits of Ho, who was not charged in the case.

Ho has focused on the Mandarin pop market and has released five Mandarin albums in Taiwan and is the co-founder and executive director of the church.

After she was seen dancing intimately with rapper Wyclef Jean in a music video she was accused of having betrayed her calling as a Christian pastor.

According to a 2014 annual report, the church had 17,500 members.

On Tuesday night a prayer session was held for Kong and the church's other leaders. After the court ruling, Ho posted a message of support on the church's website.

"Thank you for your unwavering faithfulness in loving God and loving one another. More than ever before, let's have a unity that is unbreakable."

TRTWorld and agencies