SINGAPORE - As City Harvest Church's congregation grew, the role of its founder Kong Hee turned from that of a "shepherd" to a "rancher", he told the court on Monday. The senior pastor, who faces three counts of criminal breach of trust, was taking the stand for the first time in a long-running trial, over the alleged misuse of $50 million of church funds.
The mood in court was calm as Kong answered questions posed by his lawyer, Mr Edwin Tong. Kong's wife, Ms Ho Yeow Sun, was not present as she has been named as a defence witness.
He began by describing his evolving role in the megachurch over the years. Kong said that he was on a first-name basis with all members when it was established in 1992, but after 2001, his focus shifted away from day to day management as he led work trips overseas, among other things.
Kong added that an "overwhelming majority" of the congregation supported the Crossover Project, the church's mission to reach out to non-churchgoers through pop music. It was fronted by Ms Ho, who performs under the stage name Sun Ho. Many church members had bought Ms Ho's albums, said Kong. The church board had also backed Ms Ho's foray into the United States market, and wanted to expand the project "to the whole world".
Kong said many non-churchgoers joined the church because of the project. As many as 280,000 people attended concerts for Ms Ho's first album Lonely Travel, and about 100,000 filled out cards to learn more about Jesus after the concerts, he said.
He also described Mr Foong Daw Ching, then managing partner of the church's auditor Baker Tilly TFW, as a "dear friend" he had worked closely with from the 1980s. Mr Foong, also known as "Brother Foong", had "full visibility" and mentored him to be a "better steward" of his personal finances.
The prosecution had tried to show how several defendants - five of Kong's deputies are also accused - went to Bro Foong for advice, instead of the church's lead auditor at the time.
Kong also outlined his friendship with Indonesian businessman Wahju Hanafi, who "was in tears" after attending one of Ms Ho's earlier concerts and had offered to fund the Crossover Project.
In 2003, after former church member Roland Poon had alleged that church funds were used for Ms Ho's music career, Mr Hanafi's eldest daughter recorded a video and said the Hanafi family had paid for the expenses for Ms Ho's first two albums. This video was screened for City Harvest members during services over one weekend.