City Harvest founder Kong Hee out of prison

City Harvest Church founder Kong Hee walking into his home on Aug 23, 2019, a day after he was released from prison.
City Harvest Church founder Kong Hee walking into his home on Aug 23, 2019, a day after he was released from prison.ST PHOTO: DESMOND FOO
Mr Kong and his wife, Ho Yeow Sun, in a photo from the church's website.
Mr Kong and his wife, Ho Yeow Sun, in a photo from the church's website.PHOTO: CITYNEWS.SG
Mr Kong Hee returning to his home in Upper Bukit Timah yesterday. He declined to speak to the media. While in jail, he spent most of his time seeking and studying "the things of God", a statement from the church said.
Mr Kong Hee returning to his home in Upper Bukit Timah yesterday. He declined to speak to the media. While in jail, he spent most of his time seeking and studying "the things of God", a statement from the church said.ST PHOTO: KEVIN LIM
City Harvest Church founder Kong Hee was released about two years and four months after he began his jail term.
City Harvest Church founder Kong Hee was released about two years and four months after he began his jail term.ST PHOTO: KEVIN LIM
City Harvest Church founder Kong Hee was released about two years and four months after he began his jail term.
City Harvest Church founder Kong Hee was released about two years and four months after he began his jail term.ST PHOTO: KEVIN LIM

He spent two years and four months in jail for role in misuse of church funds

City Harvest Church founder Kong Hee was released from jail yesterday after serving more than two years for his role in misusing millions of dollars in church funds.

He remains a spiritual leader in the church, although he has not been on the payroll since 2005.

In a statement on the church's website, its board and senior management said that Mr Kong will be "taking a period to spend time with his family, especially his elderly parents".

While in jail, he spent most of his time seeking and studying "the things of God", the statement said.

Mr Kong also thanked church members for all their prayers for him and his family.

"Your letters brought him comfort and joy," said the statement, which also urged members to continue to keep Mr Kong, his wife Ho Yeow Sun, son Dayan and parents in prayer.

With his jail sentence reduced from eight years to 31/2 years upon appeal, Mr Kong's release came a day before he turned 55.

He served two years and four months. Inmates are usually given one-third remission on their sentence for good behaviour.

His sentence was the longest among the six church leaders who were involved in misappropriating $50 million in church funds, in the largest case of misuse of charitable funds in Singapore's history.

In 2017, the Commissioner of Charities permanently barred Mr Kong and the five other leaders from holding key management positions or being a board member in City Harvest Church or any other charity.

This is to protect the church's assets, given that they were convicted of offences involving dishonesty and/or deception.

The commissioner, Dr Ang Hak Seng, also prohibited the church from hiring or appointing the six without his approval. He told The Straits Times that he has not received any such request from City Harvest regarding Mr Kong.

A City Harvest spokesman told ST that Mr Kong Hee is not a church employee, and has not been on the payroll since 2005.

 
 
 

The spokesman added: "His role in the City Harvest Church as senior pastor is a spiritual one; he has no executive role."

Contacted at his Upper Bukit Timah home yesterday, Mr Kong declined comment.

Neighbours said his family moved into the terraced house about a year ago.

Besides Mr Kong, the rest of the church's leaders also had their terms shortened. Four of the other five convicted in the case have also been released from jail.

The four are: Former deputy senior pastor Tan Ye Peng, former finance managers Serina Wee and Sharon Tan, and former finance committee member John Lam.

The fifth, former fund manager Chew Eng Han, had his sentence of three years and four months extended by 13 months after he tried to flee the country. He will be the last to complete his sentence.

The six were originally charged and convicted of criminal breach of trust as agents under Section 409 of the Penal Code in 2015 after a 142-day trial, and given jail terms ranging from 21 months to eight years.

These were all reduced after an appeal, in which the court accepted that an agent is someone who is a professional agent and not company directors or key officers of charities, such as the City Harvest leaders.

Last month, The Sunday Times reported that City Harvest Church collected $29 million in donations last year, marking a near 40 per cent drop from the $47 million it raised from November 2016 to December 2017.

It had about 16,000 church members last year and was among the top 10 richest charities by donations here.


About the case

WHO WAS INVOLVED

The six were City Harvest Church (CHC) founder and senior pastor Kong Hee, 54; deputy senior pastor Tan Ye Peng, 46; former finance managers Serina Wee, 42; and Sharon Tan, 43; former fund manager Chew Eng Han, 58; and former finance committee member John Lam, 51. 

WHAT WERE THEIR JAIL TERMS? 

Mr Kong was sentenced to a jail term of 31/2 years, the longest sentence of the six. Chew got three years and four months; Mr Tan, three years and two months; Ms Wee, 21/2 years; Mr Lam, 11/2 years; and Ms Tan, seven months.

Mr Kong was released from jail yesterday. Mr Tan, Ms Tan, Ms Wee and Mr Lam have also been released from prison.

Chew, whose jail term was extended by 13 months after he tried unsuccessfully to flee the country, will be the last to complete his sentence. 

WHAT DID THE SIX DO? 

They misappropriated $24 million in CHC's building funds through sham bond investments in music production firm Xtron and glass maker Firna. They then misused a further $26 million to cover up the initial crime. These bonds were used to fund the Crossover Project, a church mission to spread the Gospel through the secular music career of Mr Kong's wife, pop singer Ho Yeow Sun. 

WHAT WERE THEIR ORIGINAL CONVICTIONS AND SENTENCES? 

The six were originally charged and convicted of criminal breach of trust (CBT) as agents under Section 409 of the Penal Code. They were handed jail terms ranging from 21 months to eight years in November 2015. 

WAS THERE AN APPEAL AND WHAT WAS THE OUTCOME? 

The six appealed against their convictions and sentences, while the prosecution appealed for harsher sentences ranging from five to 12 years.

Deciding on the appeals in April 2017, the High Court, in a split 2-1 decision, cleared the six of CBT as agents and found them guilty of plain CBT under Section 406 of the Penal Code. As a result, their jail terms were cut to between seven months and 31/2 years. 

WHAT HAPPENED NEXT? 

The prosecution then applied for a rarely invoked criminal reference to seek a definitive ruling from the Court of Appeal as well as to reinstate the original convictions.

WHAT WAS THE IMPACT OF THE COURT OF APPEAL'S DECISION? 

In coming to a decision, the Court of Appeal overruled a 1976 High Court decision which had held that company directors could be convicted of CBT under Section 409.

This means that the apex court has ruled that company directors, as well as governing board members or key officers of charities and officers of societies, who commit CBT are only liable to be punished under Section 406. The offence carries a maximum sentence of seven years imprisonment. In contrast, those who commit CBT under Section 409 may face up to 15 years in jail.

In response to the Court of Appeal's decision, the Attorney-General's Chambers said that it would work with relevant government ministries "on the appropriate revisions to the Penal Code to ensure that company directors and other persons in similar positions of trust and responsibility are subject to appropriate punishments if they commit criminal breach of trust". 

IS THIS THE END OF THE SAGA? 

For the criminal cases, yes. The decision of the apex court on Feb 1 last year was final and brings the long-running saga to a close.

Criminal investigations into the case began in 2010. The trial stretched over 142 days, from its start in 2013 to sentencing in November 2015. It is one of the longest criminal cases in history, shorter only than a drug trafficking case in the 1990s that went on for 168 days.

The case is also likely to be the costliest criminal trial here, with legal fees for the six church leaders possibly exceeding $10 million, lawyers have said.

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 23, 2019, with the headline 'City Harvest founder Kong Hee out of prison'. Print Edition | Subscribe