Singapore – Dressed in a faded black leather jacket, matching skinny jeans and sky-high stilettos, Sun Ho made her way past a waiting crowd of supporters, reporters and photographers, as bodyguards briskly ushered her from the car.
Her appearance would not have looked out of place at one of her pop concerts, but Sun was on her way to attending arguably the biggest and most anticipated corruption trial in Singapore this year.
After more than a year of intense speculation and probes, on Wednesday Singapore opened the corruption trial of six leaders of City Harvest Church, accused of siphoning off more than $50m of the congregation’s money to support Sun Ho’s singing career.
Ho’s husband, Kong Hee, runs City Harvest Church. With more than 30,000 members, it’s one of the biggest and richest mega-churches in Singapore. The church is famous for holding large-scale and elaborate services held in air-conditioned expo halls, resembling pop concerts.
Church supporters queued up overnight and packed the court’s public gallery as a show of unity with Sun and Kong.
“I am here today to stand behind Pastor Kong Hee, who has always been there and delivered us from obstacles countless times,” said a supporter named Mary, who had been queueing for a place in the court since 6am. “We believe he will eventually emerge from this and come out stronger.”
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Kong Hee, along with five other church members, was charged with fraud last year.
An opening statement read by the prosecution said investments by the church were “made out to be ‘investments’ on paper but in substance, were sham transactions devised and agreed to pursuant to a conspiracy against the sham investment accused-persons, who were all ultimately involved in the planning and financing of Sun Ho’s music career”. If convicted, all six could face life terms in jail.
The corruption trial is the latest of a string of graft cases and sex scandals to have hit Singapore. But political commentator Kumaran Pillai maintains the trial of the City Harvest leaders does not mean that Singapore’s political, religious or economic systems are “inherently corrupt” or that its leaders “have become unethical”.
“There certainly seems to be a rise in the number of cases reported, and our media seems to be giving more attention to these cases,” Pillai noted. “This does not mean that we have become more corrupt – but we have in fact become outwardly, at least, more self-righteous and puritanical.”
‘C’ for corruption
The Southeast Asian nation state has seen more than its fair share of scandals surface the past year.
Cases have included two prominent heads of the civil service allegedly obtaining sexual favours in exchange for company gains; more than 10 cases of inappropriate sexual misconduct between the city’s educators and underage students; and an online vice ring made up of more than 50 high-ranking businessmen, civil servants and a school principal seeking sexual services from an underage prostitute.
If anything, investors should feel very confident that the system here works - and works well.
A global crime syndicate responsible for rigging hundreds of football matches – which included World Cup qualifying rounds and Champions League matches – was also said to have been based out of Singapore.
The spate of corruption cases has caused grief and stoked concern among Singaporeans.
“A decade ago, one was defined by having cash, cars, condominiums, credit cards and country club [memberships],” remarked 38-year old Georgia Funn, who was at the court since early morning. The administrative clerk was referring to the “5 Cs of Singapore”, a cultural term coined in the early 1990s to address the rising affluence and material luxuries that were much sought after by Singaporeans at the time.
“Now it seems like our new ‘C’ is corruption, and that is nothing to be proud of, as it shows what kind of a country we have become.”
But Dr Wolfgang Sachsenroder, a visiting politics professor at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, said corruption in Singapore has not yet reached a stage where the public should be alarmed.
“Singapore is still squeaky-clean compared to other places, so I would not be frightened by the corruption cases,” he said. “Many people here may complain about scandals, but I have always thought scandals coming up could be seen as a way of ‘cleansing the system’ – so the more scandals that come up, the cleaner the atmosphere.”
Investors seem to agree with Sachsenroder, with industry experts saying the rise in the number of corruption cases has not deterred investment in Singapore.
Goh Thien Phong, head of crisis management at accounting firm PricewaterhouseCoopers in Singapore, said the recent corruption cases have not had any major effects.
“In general, investors have a high level of confidence in Singapore’s political and legal systems,” he explained. “Investor confidence has not been marred by the recent corruption court cases – although some potential investors may take a more cautious approach and put in a lot more effort into knowing what their potential investments involve.”
According to Peter Coleman, executive director of Deloitte’s forensic department in Southeast Asia, there’s a silver lining to be found in the slew of corruption cases.
“By comparison to the corruption in many other countries, these cases would be considered of a minor nature. But in Singapore they are taken very seriously and prosecuted to the full extent of the law,” he said. “If anything, investors should feel very confident that the system here works – and works well.”
Follow Heather Tan on Twitter: @tanheather