Saintly (Sort of) Singapore Songstress Stirs Court Case

In a case that can only be described as bizarre, a Singapore judge has ruled that six leaders of a local megachurch must answer to charges of misappropriating S50 million (US$40 million) from the church to fund the pop singing career of the church founder’s sexy wife.

She is Ho Yeow Sun, better known as Sun Ho, a gyrating, sinuous Singaporean temptress who bears little resemblance to the average Christian pastor’s spouse and who so far has blown US$19 million of the church's building fund in her pursuit of western pop fame. She was the leader of the City Harvest Church’s creative department head until 2003, when she stepped out to begin her singing career. Early on, she faced charges her attire was inappropriate for her religious background.

The case has been in the Singapore courts since 2010, transfixing the island republic. A court ruled on Monday that founder Kong Hee and five other church leaders must answer charges that they diverted S$24 million of the church’s building funds to fund Sun Ho’s efforts at musical stardom, and another S$26 million to cover the loss. The trial will resume on July 14.

For reasons that are unclear, evangelical Christianity has exploded in Singapore, with fully 10 percent of the city state’s young enrolled in pentecostal and evangelical churches, according to a 2010 study, State and Social Christianity in Post-Colonial Singapore by Daniel P.S Goh for the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies of Singapore. That is up from a mere 2 percent in 1970. They are “derived from American influences,” according to Goh’s study, and have outgrown mainstream denominations at a steady pace.

City Harvest was at the vanguard of the Pentacostal movement, with 20,000 worshipers and 35 affiliate churches in eight countries. An evangelical church that resembles those vast modern stainless steel and stained glass edifices of Southern California, its headquarters are said by a church spokesman to be "reflective of the personality of our congregation – ultra-modern, contemporary and ultra-mobile."

Given the southern California Christian movement’s general philosophy that it is healthy to be wealthy, City Harvest joined the flight to Mammon with enthusiasm. In March 2010, Kong and his team announced the purchase of a stake in the Suntec City Convention Centre at a cost of S$310 million. The move sparked controversy as City Harvest Church is registered as a charity and hence was not taxable. The church clarified that the stake was bought through a holding company wholly subsidiary to the church.

In May 2010, the Commissioner of Charities (COC) and the Commercial Affairs Department (CAD) called up 18 members of the church hierarchy for questioning over allegations of misuse of funds brought by a church member demanding “more accountability and transparency to its members”.

In June 2012, the CAD arrested Kong, four other senior church leaders and a former financial director on charges of criminal breach of trust. According to a statement later released by the COC, the “Charity issued press statements and made several representations to its members to state that they had not funded Sun Ho’s music career… Despite the representations made by the Charity and unknown to the Executive Members, the Charity’s funds were used to fund the project.”

Over S$23 million allegedly went into the singer’s career over three years. The Commissioner of Charities noted that “the Executive members were not told of the actual purpose of the use of these funds.” It then suspended eight members from the church’s governing board.

Sun’s persona in her first music video was as Geisha, but hardly a kimono-enwrapped one. According to the church’s website, the project’s objective is to “reach out to the unchurched, especially the youth, through the world of arts and entertainment”.

To make the presentation Sun, who lives in a Sentosa Cove penthouse house worth SGD 9.6 million in Singapore, stayed in a S$28,000 a month Hollywood flat. One of Sun’s projects was the music video China Wine, made together with Wyclef Jean. In the music video, Sun is seen gyrating sensually to lyrics such as “Boss blame and grind it up/Cause the way she move she’s hard to touch/Never seen something look so fine ah!/Right from Jamaica straight to China/When the girl dirty wine ah!/And are there that her design yea/Hips don’t lie it’s makes you find out/Wonder if she’s from Savana she from Jamaica, China/I would like to find out.”

The project was generally poorly received in Singapore.

On the church’s website, it explained that “the demure Taiwanese [Sun] had cultivated would not work for the US music market… the creation of a persona is part and parcel of the music and movie industry… they do not represent the actual character or values of the actor or singer.” It cited Bono and Carrie Underwood as other performers who used personas at some point.

Months later, youth leaders from the church released a music video called “The Greatest Place” ostensibly in support of Kong and the other leaders.

In the song, Kong is described as a “world changer”, “history maker”, the “greatest man I have ever known” and the “greatest man I would ever know”.

Trials in May 2013 opened with many church members rallying around. Almost all of the accused hired Senior Counsels (the equivalent of Queens Counsel in the UK), while Kong’s lawyer was a Member of Parliament. The prosecution had accused the church leadership of using the funds for false purposes, also claiming that the church leaders had sold an unused asset to another company XTron and agreed to buy back the same asset for about the same price so as to misrepresent the number of transactions occurring on a given day.

A little under two months later, on June 21, one of the accused, Chew Eng Han, wrote on his personal blog about his departure from the church: “Those who know me better will understand what I’ve been seeing and tolerating – wrongful labeling, quick to take credit and to pass the buck, betrayal, slander, ingratitude, denial and lies, manipulation and control, greed, pride, hypocrisy, abuse of authority, practice of [favoritism] and different standards.”

On Monday Judge See said that “there is evidence that the relevant accused persons all intended that loss should be caused to CHC… it would appear that [they] knew that they were not legally entitled to do so.”

The judge also determined that the evidence produced in court had demonstrated that evidence was withheld from the auditors of the church. Judge See’s decision on Monday indicates that the prosecution had built a case against the six that warranted defense and had thrown out City Harvests’ no case to answer appeal.

Kong once said in a sermon that, “there are always two sides to a story, and I look forward [to] the day when I can tell my side of the story in court… I do maintain my integrity”. He will have to testify in court together with his five other colleagues.

In a statement to church members, executive pastor Aries Zulkarnain asked the congregation to “trust that God will protect and guide them as they give their testimony on the stand in the coming months, and we pray that in all circumstances the Lord shall be glorified.”

In the meantime, it hasn’t all been a steep uphill climb for Sun Ho. From 2002 to 2007, she released a succession of five Mandarin pop albums that have either reached double or triple platinum status. It was the attempt to crack western pop where the effort began to flag. She said she could no longer act the part of the demure Taiwanese songstress and was forced to go rogue to make an impact.

With reporting by Zach Isaiah Chia, who blogs for Asian Correspondent