City Harvest case ends with shorter jail terms upheld

(Clockwise from top left) TAN YE PENG, TAN SHAO YUEN SHARON, SERINA WEE GEK YIN, LAM LENG HUNG, KONG HEE, CHEW ENG HAN
(Clockwise from top left) TAN YE PENG, TAN SHAO YUEN SHARON, SERINA WEE GEK YIN, LAM LENG HUNG, KONG HEE, CHEW ENG HANPHOTO: SINGAPORE POLICE FORCE

Prosecution bid to restore earlier conviction dismissed; law in question to be looked at

The final page was turned on Singapore's most expensive criminal trial, involving a powerful church and its charismatic leader, when a five-judge panel dismissed a bid by the prosecution to reinstate the original convictions for founder-pastor Kong Hee and five others.

But the long-running saga over the misuse of millions in church funds is likely to remain in the public eye, with a Cabinet minister set to speak in Parliament about the ruling and the Attorney-General's Chambers (AGC) pledging to work with the Government on revisions to the law.

The decision by the Court of Appeal yesterday hinged on whether the six former City Harvest Church (CHC) leaders should have been convicted of simple criminal breach of trust (CBT) or of the more serious form as agents.

The court yesterday unanimously ruled that the term "agent" in Section 409 of the Penal Code applies only to someone who is a professional agent, and not to company directors and key officers of charities, such as the six CHC leaders.

The judges noted the "strong and urgent impulse" to ensure that persons in positions of responsibility are made to undergo a sentence that reflects the full measure of their harm and culpability. But they added that the courts are ill-suited to undertake a "long overdue" and wide-ranging policy review.

Also, the shaping of the remedy for any gap in law should be left to Parliament, said Judge of Appeal Andrew Phang, in reading the decision reached by him, Judge of Appeal Judith Prakash, and Justices Belinda Ang, Quentin Loh and Chua Lee Ming.

"A hard case should not be allowed to make bad law," said Justice Phang, noting that the accused are "not getting away unpunished" and face substantial jail terms.

GOVT POSITION ON MATTER

This is a serious matter. I will make a ministerial statement in Parliament on the Government's position.

HOME AFFAIRS AND LAW MINISTER K. SHANMUGAM, in a Facebook post.

The AGC said yesterday 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".

Home Affairs and Law Minister K. Shanmugam said in a Facebook post he would make a ministerial statement on the Government's position. "This is a serious matter," he said.

The decision meant Kong, 53; deputy senior pastor Tan Ye Peng, 45; former finance manager Serina Wee, 41; and former finance committee member John Lam, 50, will continue their current reduced jail terms of between 1½ and 3½ years, which they began serving in April last year.

Former finance manager Sharon Tan, 42, has completed her seven-month jail term while former fund manager Chew Eng Han, 57, has secured a new deferment for his jail term of three years and four months till after Chinese New Year.

Kong received the longest jail term among them, which was reduced from eight years after the High Court cleared the six of CBT as agents and convicted them of plain CBT under Section 406.

In a bid to spread the gospel through Kong's singer-wife Sun Ho's secular music career, the former leaders had misappropriated $24 million in CHC's building funds through sham bond investments. They also misused another $26 million to cover up the initial crime.

The court hearing yesterday, which was held following the rarely invoked criminal reference application by the AGC, ends a legal marathon that will be remembered as the costliest ever here, with estimates of costs reaching $15 million.

Senior Counsel Edwin Tong, Kong's lawyer, said the pastor was relieved at the decision, looking forward to finishing his jail sentence and "getting on with his life".

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 02, 2018, with the headline 'City Harvest case ends with shorter jail terms upheld'. Print Edition | Subscribe