CITY Harvest Church founder Kong Hee took the stand for the first time yesterday, and insisted that he did his part to ensure the use of church funds was all above board.
He told the court how he had made sure auditors and lawyers, including a senior counsel, looked into the church's transactions. He also put his faith in the advice given by "confidant" and respected auditor Foong Daw Ching.
But Deputy Public Prosecutor Christopher Ong pointed out that it was unclear what the professionals had been asked to review in several instances.
He said: "We don't know what the lawyers were asked to run through. We don't know what the lawyers were asked to consider or to look out for."
"In fact, we don't even know what the lawyers were asked to look at in the first place."
Kong and five deputies face various charges for their part in allegedly misusing around $50 million of church funds to boost the pop music career of his wife Ho Yeow Sun, and then covering it up.
While Kong's testimony had been eagerly awaited when the trial began in May last year, public interest seemed slightly muted yesterday.
Unlike the start of the trial, when people queued up overnight for court passes, the courtroom still had a handful of seats available, with around 60 members of the public there to view the proceedings.
Yesterday morning, Kong, who faces three charges of criminal breach of trust, described the genesis of the Crossover Project, which the defence says is a church-approved project to evangelise using Ms Ho's pop music.
The inspiration, he said, came from a 1999 trip to Taiwan, where he was told that young people were more interested in sports and pop music than in religion.
After a series of successful albums and concerts which drew hundreds of thousands of people, a church member, Mr Roland Poon, publicly accused City Harvest of various misdeeds in 2003.
Kong, 49, said: "There were four allegations. I made the church worship Sun (Ms Ho) before God.
"I forced members to buy her albums. I forced members to vote for her at an MTV Asia Awards.
"And we were using the (church's) Building Fund to pay for her promotion and publicity campaigns."
Although Mr Poon eventually retracted the allegations and apologised, the church came under intense scrutiny.
"There was a lot of hate mail coming in, and generally there was unrest in the church," Kong said.
Board members decided to call on long-time church member and wealthy Indonesian businessman Wahju Hanafi to reimburse the church for what it had spent on producing Ms Ho's first two albums.
After this "wake-up call", the church also retained law firm Drew and Napier to improve its corporate governance, said Kong. Over the years, the church also consulted auditor Mr Foong.
"He is my friend, confidant and mentor in financial matters, and he took it upon himself to keep an eye on all our accounts," said Kong.
"In fact, he made me a promise that if something was wrong, he would contact me."
When Mr Foong was on the witness stand last September, he repeated many times that he did not recall what advice he had given the defendants or the meetings he had with them.
Kong's lawyer said yesterday that he expected to take four to five days examining his client and laying out his defence.
Only then will Kong be cross-examined by the other defence lawyers, and then the prosecution.
This article was first published on August 12, 2014.
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