The application by former City Harvest Church (CHC) finance manager Sharon Tan to start her seven-month jail term earlier than expected sparked a robust exchange in the High Court on Wednesday (19 April).
The court agreed to Tan’s latest application to start serving her jail time together with four other convicted CHC leaders on Friday. Tan, 41, had previously requested for a deferment of her sentence by two months as she wanted to help her husband relocate to the US.
Meanwhile, at the same hearing, former CHC fund manager Chew Eng Han had his jail term deferred after indicating that he wanted to file a criminal reference for his case. He was originally scheduled to start serving his jail term on Friday.
Chew, Tan, CHC founder Kong Hee, 52, and three other CHC leaders were convicted of misusing church funds totaling $50 million to advance the musical career of Sun Ho, who is Kong’s wife. All six were found guilty on a slew of charges relating to criminal breach of trust (CBT) and falsification of accounts and were originally given jail sentences of between 21 months and eight years.
Earlier this month, the six had their sentences reduced based on a lesser CBT charge after two of the three High Court judges ruled that the CHC leaders had not acted as “agents” in their professional capacity.
Chew’s six-year jail term was reduced to three years and four months while Tan’s 21-month term was cut to seven months.
Tan’s defence counsel Paul Seah told the court that Tan wanted to start her sentence sooner as her husband’s visa had been granted earlier – on 10 April.
However, Deputy Public Prosecutor (DPP) Christopher Ong unexpectedly made a new request for Tan’s sentence to be deferred until the conclusion of the criminal reference, citing her short sentence as the reason. The Attorney-General’s Chambers filed for a criminal reference just a few days after the High Court reduced the jail terms of the CHC leaders, seeking to reinstate their original sentences.
DPP Ong argued that the prosecution considered Tan a flight risk in the period between the end of her sentence and the start of the criminal reference.
Citing a previous case, DPP Ong said that the Court of Appeal’s ruling during the criminal reference might be affected if Tan were no longer in jail by then.
Said the DPP, “We are faced with the situation if the Court of Appeal answers the question in favour of the prosecution, there is a possibility that the original sentences will be reinstated… (Tan) would have completed the sentence and that may prejudice the court of appeal’s ability to exercise full discretion in giving the necessary orders.”
Calling Tan’s application a “tactical” move, DPP Ong said, “She does realise that if she starts serving now, there is a possibility that she will finish sentence earlier and leave.”
However, the defence denied the application was “tactical”. “It is a decision made by a mother in consideration of the family… we firmly reject that allegation,” Seah said. Tan was prepared to serve a longer jail term and that she could give a voluntary undertaking not to leave the country, Seah added.
The judges granted Tan’s request but ordered that her counsel write a letter to state that she would not leave the country nor use the argument that she had already served her jail term before the criminal reference proceedings.
Meanwhile, Chew, 56, sought a stay of sentence in the High Court, saying that he needed time to prepare for his criminal reference to challenge the legal aspects of his case. He must apply for leave to refer a question of law to the Court of Appeal by 5 May and if granted, he can file for a criminal reference.
Chew, who is representing himself, told the same three-judge panel – Judge of Appeal Chao Hick Tin, and Justices Woo Bih Li and Chan Seng Onn – that he will be contesting the legal aspects of the case related to criminal breach of trust and dishonest misappropriation of property.
The judges granted Chew’s deferment for the start of his jail term pending the Court of Appeal’s ruling on the criminal reference. Chew also applied for leave to visit his wife and daughter in Australia but was rejected.
Apart from Tan, the four other CHC leaders who will also be serving their jail terms on Friday are Kong (three years and six months), Deputy Senior Pastor Tan Ye Peng, 44 (three years and two months), former board member John Lam, 49 (one year and six months), and former finance manager Serina Wee, 40 (two years and six months).