By Fathin Ungku
SINGAPORE (Reuters) – A Singapore court on Friday cut the jail sentence for the co-founder of one of the city-state’s most popular churches, after he appealed his conviction and sentence for misusing millions of dollars to support of his wife’s pop singing career.
The High Court sentenced Kong Hee, 52, head of City Harvest Church (CHC), to 3-1/2 years for criminal breach of trust and falsification of accounts, reducing the eight years term he got in October 2015. Other five church leaders also had their sentences reduced.
Kong was found guilty of misusing S$50 million ($36 million) of church money to fund his wife’s musical career. Local media said it was the largest amount of charity funds ever misappropriated in Singapore.
Kong’s lawyer Edwin Tong, was quoted by local newspaper Straits Times as saying his client was “disappointed” the conviction was not overturned, but appreciated that the judge said he was acting in the church’s interest.
Kong’s church preaches a “prosperity gospel” that blends spiritual and material aspirations. His wife, Ho Yeow Sun – known as Sun Ho – is famous for a video of her English-language hit “China Wine,” which shows her dancing intimately with rapper Wyclef Jean.
The defense has said Sun Ho’s music career was used to evangelize. She was not charged in the case.
“This was a situation which… involved no personal gain on the appellants’ part,” Judge Chao Hick Tin said. “They believed that their acts … would ultimately advance the interests of CHC.”
The mix of money, faith, and scandal is unique in Singapore, which has built a system with low tolerance for corruption and where the star status is more often attributed to politicians and bankers.
While megachurches originated in the United States, some of the largest are in Asia, where packaging the traditional biblical message into a more dynamic format of pop music, lively services and social media has lured a new generation of followers and turned the churches into major enterprises.
CHC had a congregation of 16,482 and 49 affiliations in China, the United States, and seven other countries in 2015, according to its latest annual report.
Over 50 people, mostly followers, queued for a seat in court hours before the sentence.
(This story has been refiled to show High Court sentenced official in paragraph 2)
(Reporting by Fathin Ungku; Editing by Marius Zaharia and Michael Perry)