City Harvest trial: Enough twists, turns, and tears to create a Korean drama

City Harvest trial: Enough twists, turns, and tears to create a Korean drama
The six accused: church founder and senior pastor Kong Hee, deputy senior pastor Tan Ye Peng, former finance manager Serina Wee, current finance manager Sharon Tan, and former church committee members Chew Eng Han and John Lam.

IT WILL be at least four months before the verdict in the City Harvest Church (CHC) case is handed down, but after two years, the trial has seen enough twists, turns and tears to fuel a Korean drama.

On Wednesday, it took a decisive step forward when the final witness - former church executive member Jean-Jacques Lavigne - finished his testimony.

The prosecution, which alleges that church founder Kong Hee and five others misused about $50 million of church funds, and the defence will make their final submissions in September.

Kong and five others face various charges, all of them revolving around an alleged plot to illegally pour millions of dollars of church funds into his wife Ho Yeow Sun's pop music career, and then to cover up the misdeed.

The saga began in 2010, when Kong and 16 others were picked up by the police to assist in investigations. By the time Kong and five others entered a packed courtroom in 2013 to face trial, the case had become one of the most anticipated trials of the decade.

Founded in 1989, City Harvest is one of Singapore's megachurches and has 47 affiliate churches across the Asia-Pacific region and more worldwide.

More than 100 church members turned up on the first day of the trial, and some even spent the night waiting outside the court.

The evidence trained the spotlight on the inner workings of the church and the relationships between the accused and the Crossover Project, a church plan which sought to use Ms Ho's secular music to spread the Gospel.

Ms Ho's music career - which included five Mandarin albums released between 2002 and 2007, and a yet-to-be-released English album - was also endlessly dissected as details of how it was planned and funded emerged.

In one instance, it was revealed that church members had spent about $21,000 on Ms Ho's singles using iTunes gift cards.

It was also disclosed that, during the making of Ms Ho's English album, noted music producer Wyclef Jean had said Ms Ho's English songs sounded "too white, Caucasian" to distinguish herself from other singers attempting to make a mark in the United States.

He recommended that she try an "Asian-Reggae" fusion sound, which led to the making of China Wine, an English single released in 2007. Ms Ho was criticised for its risque music video, in which she dances in a skimpy outfit.

The shocking revelations were not limited to the courtroom.

In 2013, Chew Eng Han, one of the accused and the church's former investment manager, announced that he was quitting the church after almost two decades.

In a statement, he said he had been "seeing and tolerating... betrayal, slander, ingratitude, denial and lies, manipulation and control, greed, pride, hypocrisy, abuse of authority" and more.

Later, in court, he accused Kong of lying to church members about Ms Ho's music success, which he said was "not real", and a result of church members spending hundreds of thousands of dollars to buy her CDs, as well as lies about her achievements.

He went on to tell Kong: "One of the reasons I left your church is that I realised that you deceived.... the people who are closest to you."

Throughout the 137 trial days, Kong and the others have maintained that they did nothing wrong; the transactions which the prosecution alleges were shams to illegally use church money were in fact legitimate; and they had acted "in good faith" on the advice of lawyers and auditors.

Defending the Crossover Project, Kong said it had been supported by the church members and its board, and had in fact tripled City Harvest's congregation.

"If not for the Crossover, we would be just another neighbourhood church," he said.

The others on trial also insisted that all they had done was for the good of the church, with some likening City Harvest to their family.

The church's finance manager Sharon Tan broke down in tears when insisting her long relationship with CHC precluded her from doing anything to harm it.

"This is my first and only church. Everything that is me right now I learnt from this church," she cried. "I never had the intention to cause any loss to the church. Never."

Many church members have remained on the defendants' side, with some even making sure they had drinks and snacks during the short breaks on trial days.

While public interest in the case has waxed and waned, it is likely to pick up when the trial returns to court in September.

But with either side having the chance to appeal, the final chapter may yet be far from being written.

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