Investment in singer Sun Ho 'carefully planned'

Kong and his wife Ho Yeow Sun at the court on Monday. Defence lawyers argued that the bonds were not sham investments.

SINGAPORE - Much thought had gone into crafting Ms Ho Yeow Sun's foray into the American music market over at least four years, including styling her in the vein of Britney Spears and Alicia Keys.

City Harvest Church's investments into her career via her former management company Xtron Productions were carefully planned to make sure they were viable, argued defence lawyers on Monday.

They had been trying to refute the prosecution's claims that the bonds the church had bought in two companies - Xtron and Firna - were done so without any care for whether the money could be recovered, as they were sham investments.

Church founder Kong Hee's lawyer Edwin Tong cited several e-mail messages between Kong and American music producer Justin Herz from 2003 to 2006, detailing precise discussions about promoting Ms Ho's singles in the United States.

They showed Kong had questions about costs and Ms Ho's possible career success while also listing concerns from Xtron lawyers and directors about the investment.

In a 2005 e-mail, Kong asked Mr Herz: "How much will Xtron financial portion be?... How much will they recoup on their investment and when?"

In another sent in 2003, he asked Mr Herz: "Is there truly a realistic chance for her to break into the American Dance Billboard? If yes, what is your gut feeling of 'when' and 'how far' would she go up on the chart?"

Mr Tong produced the e-mail messages during cross-examination of Indonesian businessman Wahju Hanafi, a former director of Xtron and owner of glassware company Firna.

Mr Wahju said he relied on Kong's reports to investors and personally visited Mr Herz in Los Angeles in early 2004 to evaluate whether money was being spent wisely.

These efforts show that church leaders were "careful over several years in dealing with Justin Herz" and "probed him to make sure the budgeting was conservative", said Mr Tong.

The defence also claimed that when it came to borrowing money for Ms Ho's first album, Xtron had considered other funding sources in 2007, including a loan from Hong Kong bank Citic Ka Wah. This was rejected as the interest was too high.

Xtron eventually borrowed $13 million from the church. Defence lawyers also claimed that City Harvest's investment in bonds issued by Firna was legitimate and benefited both parties. They added that the church was never at any risk of losing the money as Firna's financials were sound.

The bond agreement was signed in 2008 just after the global financial crisis hit and the church invested $11 million.

Senior Counsel Kannan Ramesh, representing church finance manager Sharon Tan, said it made sense for the church to invest in the bonds as they were a lower-risk investment option than taking a chance in the turbulent financial market.

Firna would also have found it hard to borrow from banks during the crisis as they would have charged exorbitant interest rates.

Firna needed the cash to keep expanding.

Make-up, video, pregnancy: Promo plans for Ho

Defence lawyers produced e-mail exchanges from 2003 to 2006 between Kong Hee, American music producer Justin Herz and publicist Tas Steiner to show that extensive thought was given to the viability of Ms Ho Yeow Sun's music foray into the US.

"Sun will be doing her photoshoot for her second single... The look we are going for would be (a) Britney Spears' CD cover looks, (b) Alicia Keys CD cover looks... "For the Grammy's... for makeup, she would like someone experienced with making up Asian celebrities (Lucy Liu's makeup artiste?)."

- Kong Hee to Tas Steiner and Justin Herz on plans they discussed for Ms Ho's follow-up single

"We thought if we shot a low budget video of Sun singing in front of major US landmarks that the Asian markets would be interested in playing this video, and it would give... the impression that Sun has made it big in the US market."

- Tas Steiner to Kong Hee and Justin Herz on whether shooting a music video would be a good investment

"We are interested in carrying Sun's name and booming popularity through her pregnancy... We have come up with a plan."

- Justin Herz and Tas Steiner to Kong Hee on a new plan for Ms Ho's career after she became pregnant

Get a copy of The Straits Times or go to straitstimes.com for more stories.