City Harvest appeal: Reduced sentences draw mixed reactions online

Within four hours of the verdict’s announcement, City Harvest became the second-ranked trending topic on Twitter in Singapore after Syria, and Kong Hee the fourth-ranked. PHOTO: SCREENGRAB FROM TWITTER, FACEBOOK

SINGAPORE - Social media has been abuzz over the three-judge panel's decision to reduce the sentences of the six City Harvest Church (CHC) leaders in what prosecutors called the largest case of misuse of charitable funds in Singapore history.

The High Court had delivered the verdict on the leaders' appeals against their convictions and sentences for misappropriating millions in church funds, as well as the prosecution's call for longer sentences on Friday morning (April 7).

Within four hours of the verdict's announcement, City Harvest became the second-ranked trending topic on Twitter in Singapore after Syria, and Kong Hee the fourth-ranked.

Meanwhile, comments posted on the Facebook pages of news outlets announcing the verdict have run into the thousands over the same time frame. And threads on the verdict have also started on the HardwareZone forum site, and online forum Reddit.

Opinions are split.

Church founder Kong Hee 52, who was handed the stiffest sentence of an eight-year jail term in November 2015, will spend 3½ years behind bars instead.

Delivering their ruling, the judges had said it is a situation which involved no personal gain on the appellant's part. They believed that their acts, especially in sham investments, would advance the interest of the church.

A Straits Times Facebook post announcing the reduction in sentences had attracted more than 500 comments in four hours, with the majority expressing disappointment that longer sentences had not been meted out.

Netizens like Jason Ko were derisive of how Kong, through his lawyer Senior Counsel Edwin Tong, had expressed disappointment that he was not acquitted.

"He is not the least bit repentant and yet (got rewarded) with (a) reduced sentence," he wrote.

Netizen Edna Lim commented in the same thread that she had hoped for a stiffer sentence, which would "give a serious warning to all religious bodies that...(they) should not misuse the (donations) and trust" of their followers.

The other five - deputy senior pastor Tan Ye Peng, 44; former CHC finance managers Serina Wee, 40, and Sharon Tan, 41; former CHC finance committee member John Lam, 49; and former CHC fund manager Chew Eng Han, 56 - also had their jail terms reduced after the court, in a split decision, allowed their appeals against conviction and found them guilty of a less serious charge of criminal breach of trust.

CHC members have expressed support for Kong and the church leaders on platforms like Instagram and Facebook, and said they were relieved that the case, which started in 2010 when criminal investigation began, has almost reached its conclusion.

Both sides have further legal recourse in what is known as a criminal reference. The procedure allows either side to bring the case higher by asking the Court of Appeal to make a ruling on a question of law of public interest.

Meanwhile a more contemplative mood has taken hold among some in the Christian community. Netizen Alvin Yeo, who described himself as a "proud Christian", acknowledged that Kong "deserves a second chance".

But he is glad that the jail sentences have been meted out.

"Now that we know the pastor of this church is guilty, all I can say is he is a criminal and I believe in the law of my country.", a digital platform centred on issues related to Christianity, posted on Facebook that one must "draw the lessons we have to" from the CHC saga, and "fix what needs to be fixed".

"But do not curse, do not stumble, do not scorn. Let mercy triumph over judgment," it wrote.

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