Church on trial in pop star scandal

Sun Ho

Singapore has opened a long-anticipated corruption trial of six church leaders accused of embezzling more than $40 million to fund the pop music career of the wife of their evangelical movement's founder.

City Harvest Church faithful queued at a Singapore court overnight and packed the public gallery to show support for the accused who prosecutors say diverted the congregation's funds into "sham" investments to advance the career of aspiring star Ho Yeow Sun, popularly known as Sun Ho.

The church with affiliates in neighboring Malaysia and other countries is one of Singapore's richest and biggest, with membership of more than 30,000. It is known in the region for staging large-scale, elaborate services resembling pop concerts which are conducted by Ho's husband, Kong Hee.

Ho is not on trial but turned up in court Wednesday dressed in a black leather jacket, skinny pants, stiletto boots and sporting streaky blonde hair and grey contact lenses. Her husband chatted confidently with his lawyers. Kong is charged with conspiracy to commit criminal breach of trust.

Also charged are church pastor Tan Ye Peng, church members Chew Eng Han and Lam Leng Hung, and accountants Serina Wee Gek Yin and Sharon Tan Shao Yuen. The six, who have yet to say how they will plea, could face prison terms ranging from 10 to 20 years.

The prosecution's opening statement ridiculed the contention of church leaders that pop music was a tool of evangelism that would help spread God's message. It said Ho recorded and launched secular music albums to influence people "who would never choose to step foot into a church to listen to a preacher."

Investments by the church in two companies, Xtron Productions and Firna, were in substance fake transactions that were orchestrated by the accused who were all involved in the planning and financing of Ho's music career, according to prosecutors.

State media reported that 24 million Singapore dollars ($19 million) was channeled through Xtron and Firna and another S$26 million was misappropriated to cover up the initial sum.

Prosecutors allege that the falsification of church accounts occurred in 2009.

Singapore's media have painted Ho, who is in her early 40s, as an aspiring superstar who hoped for international fame to help spread her church's influence. She collaborated on a song and raunchy music video 'China Wine' with rapper Wyclef Jean in 2007 and attended the 46th annual Grammy Awards ceremony in 2004. But accusations of impropriety and public disdain have since rained down on Ho, her ambitions and the church.

Ho was reinstated as executive director of City Harvest Church on Monday by the Commissioner of Charities after a review found she had not contributed to mismanagement of the church.

A former church accountant testified Wednesday how she had been instructed to take care of Xtron's accounts because it didn't have its own accounting department.