City Harvest Church: Jail terms maintained for Kong Hee and other ex-leaders

Wan Ting Koh
Reporter

Singapore’s highest court has maintained the reduced jail terms of the six former leaders of City Harvest Church (CHC) in the long-running case, less than a year after the High Court slashed their sentences.

The ruling by the five-judge Court of Appeal delivered on Thursday (1 February) dismisses the appeal by prosecutors to reinstate the original longer jail terms for church founder Kong Hee and his five former deputies. With the decision, the former church leaders need only serve sentences ranging from seven months to three years six months.

The crux of the sentencing centred around the legal interpretation of criminal breach of trust (CBT) in relation to the roles played by the CHC ex-leaders.

In a decision delivered to a packed courtroom, Judge of Appeal Andrew Phang said the Court of Appeal agreed that the meaning of “agent” within the relevant section of the penal code referred to a professional agent who offered commercial services to the community at large, which was not what the six were.

The judge added that it was not up to the court to alter the language of the provision as it was a “legislative function that belongs exclusively to Parliament”.

City Harvest Church former leaders (top left to bottom right) former finance manager Serina Wee, former fund manager Chew Eng Han, former finance manager Sharon Tan, founder Kong Hee, former pastor Tan Ye Peng and former treasurer John Lam. (File photo: Reuters)

The prosecution, represented by Deputy Attorney-General Hri Kumar Nair and Deputy Public Prosecutor Christopher Ong, had argued that the jail terms should reflect the more serious charge of CBT as agents. As such, it appealed for stiffer sentences for CHC founder Kong Hee, 53, deputy senior pastor Tan Ye Peng, 45, former finance committee member John Lam, 50, former fund manager Chew Eng Han, 57, former finance managers Serina Wee, 41, and Sharon Tan, 42.

Of the prosecution seeking a broader definition of the word “agent”, the judge said that too broad a definition would encompass too many officers, including “low-level workers who buy office supplies for company”, and it was “unlikely” that such people should be subject to the same enhanced penalties.

Said Justice Phang: “A closer examination of Section 409 indicates that the perceived injustice and ‘gaps’ in the law arising from the dated nature of the provision will not only remain but will even be exacerbated if it is construed as liberally as the prosecution proposes.”

The six former CHC leaders were convicted of misappropriating some $50 million in church funds to fund the pop music career of Kong’s wife, Ho Yeow Sun, also popularly known as Sun Ho, in a church mission after a protracted 142-day trial.

They were found guilty of criminal breach of trust as agents and falsifying accounts and given sentences of between 21 months and eight years in November 2015.

However, all appealed against their convictions and sentences and had their jail terms reduced to between seven months and three years six months after they were found guilty of a lesser form of CBT by the High Court in April last year. One of the ex-leaders, Sharon Tan, has completed her sentence.

For Thursday’s ruling, Tan Ye Peng, Kong Hee, John Lam and Serina Wee arrived dressed in purple prison overalls. The three men sported crew cuts, with Kong Hee’s hair looking all white.

They smiled and waved to supporters in the gallery and also chatted among themselves.

Kong was also seen giving the thumbs up to people in the gallery. Ho was not present in court.

When approached by the media after the hearing, Chew, who came to court with his wife and daughter, told reporters: “It came out as we hoped for”. He added that he had “no strong feelings” after all that he had been through.

Chew also said that, while in the dock, he spoke to Tan Ye Peng, who told him that “time will pass faster (if you’re working)”. Tan is currently censoring reading materials for inmates for four hours a day while in jail. Chew’s sentence begins on 22 February, after Chinese New Year.

Kong Hee’s lawyer, Senior Counsel Edwin Tong, said that his client is “settled” and has “found peace with the decision”.

Wee’s husband, Kenny Low, told reporters, “I think we are happy that this is finally coming to a closure. I can finally tell the kids when mummy is coming home.”

 

Summary of reduced sentences

Kong Hee, 53
Sentence: three years and six months
Charges: criminal breach of trust (three)

Tan Ye Peng, 45
Sentence: three years and two months
Charges: criminal breach of trust (six) and falsification of accounts (four)

John Lam, 50
Sentence: one year and six months
Charges: conspiring to commit criminal breach of trust (three)

Chew Eng Han, 57
Sentence: three years and four months
Charges: criminal breach of trust (six) and falsification of accounts (four)

Serina Wee, 41
Sentence: two years and six months
Charges: criminal breach of trust (six) and falsification of accounts (four)

Sharon Tan, 42
Sentence: seven months
Charges: criminal breach of trust (three) and accounts falsification (four)

— With additional reporting by Hannah Teoh

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City Harvest Church appeal: Jail terms for Kong Hee and five other leaders reduced