As heavy rain bore down yesterday, City Harvest Church (CHC) founder Kong Hee arrived at the State Courts to surrender and begin his 3½-year jail term.
Looking sombre, Kong, 52, was the first to turn up among the five church leaders due to start their sentences yesterday after they were convicted of misappropriating millions in church funds. At about 8.30am, he told reporters: "I am totally at peace and I am grateful to God for this. I have nothing more to say, just let me thank my friends."
Kong, who wore a white shirt and black trousers without his usual black jacket, then spoke individually to some 20 church members gathered outside the courtroom. Some were teary-eyed as Kong hugged them and shook hands. His wife and church founder Ho Yeow Sun was not present as she was said to be taking care of their family.
Kong faces the longest jail term among the six CHC leaders found guilty in 2015 of varying charges of criminal breach of trust and falsification of church accounts.
Their jail terms were cut on April 7 after the High Court reduced their criminal breach of trust charge to a less serious one on appeal.
Five of them asked to defer their sentences by two weeks, while the sixth, former CHC fund manager Chew Eng Han, was allowed to delay starting his sentence of three years and four months' jail until the Court of Appeal has made its final ruling on questions of law that have arisen from the case.
Next to arrive was former CHC finance manager Sharon Tan, who sported a new, short haircut. She faces the shortest jail sentence of seven months.
Tan, 41, was followed by former church finance committee member John Lam, 49, who got 1½ years. He and Kong later shared a long hug.
Close to 9am, Kong waved goodbye and gave a weak smile to church supporters as he entered the courtroom. The crowd, which had grown to about 50 people by then, looked on quietly.
CHC's deputy senior pastor Tan Ye Peng, 44, who was sentenced to three years and two months' in jail, reached the courts just after 9am. Looking tired but relaxed, he said he had taken his children to school earlier in the morning.
Former finance manager Serina Wee, 40, was the last of the five church leaders to arrive, holding her husband's hand tightly.
Later, outside the courtroom, her husband Kenny Low fought to stay calm as Wee sobbed and hugged him and said she would miss him. Wee, who had also cut her hair short, will serve 2 ½ years in prison.
By 9.20am, all five had turned themselves in, as some church members outside the courtroom teared up while others were stoic.
A church member of 12 years, who wanted to be known only as Gerald, told The Straits Times he was feeling overwhelmed.
"Of course, we are deeply saddened but as Pastor Kong said, we have to stand together and trust in God. We have to keep the church going while pastor is away so that the church becomes stronger when he is back," the 27-year-old said.
In a message on the church's website yesterday, executive pastors Aries Zulkarnain and Bobby Chaw urged the congregration to keep the five in their prayers, even as "we will not see them for a season".
The church's lawyer Nichol Yeo of JLC Advisors said in a statement that CHC "will continue working to improve the standards and governance within the church".
He said: "The church is very committed to implementing the highest levels of governance to prevent future lapses."