The founder of one of Singapore’s richest churches has been charged in court for allegedly syphoning off nearly $19m of the congregation’s money to support his wife’s singing career.
Pastor Kong Hee, 47, faces three charges of “criminal breach of trust” relating to the misuse of funds belonging to the City Harvest Church, one of Singapore’s biggest – with a membership of over 30,000.
Kong was accused of “dishonestly misappropriating monies” from the church’s building fund over several years to support the career of his wife Ho Yeow Sun, who had tried to become a music star in the US.
The church, which has affiliates in neighbouring Malaysia and other countries, is known for services that resemble pop concerts.
The pastor’s wife, now in her early 40s, was hoping international stardom would help spread the church’s message, according to previous reports in the Singapore media.
Four other church executives were charged on Wednesday before a district court for aiding Kong, and faced other charges for having allegedly attempted to misappropriate millions of dollars from the church’s funds.
Kong and the four others were arrested on Tuesday by the Commercial Affairs Department, a police unit set up to fight financial crime, and could face life imprisonment, as well as a fine, if convicted.
They have been suspended from their church positions and are out on bail with their passports impounded.
Al Jazeera’s Stephanie Scawen, reporting from Singapore, said: “Kong, if found guilty will face life in prison. So you can see how seriously the authorities are viewing these allegations.”
“Singapore is known to be a very clean, very uncorrupted society. When you start reading about a multimillion dollar scam, it’s a big shock for the people here,” she said.
On Tuesday, officials overseeing charities estimated that Kong was involved in misappropriating Sg$23 million ($18m) in church funds but in the charge sheet filed on Wednesday, the total was raised slightly.
According to court documents, the church funds were channelled through “purported bond investments” in two companies, which were in fact “sham transactions”.
“They were devised by the accused persons in order to conceal the diversion of the Church’s Building Fund to fund Sun Ho’s music career … as well as other unauthorised purposes,” the documents said.
City Harvest is a Christian group listed as a charity. The arrests came after a two-year police investigation.
Kong, who appeared in a courtroom filled with supporters as well as local media, stood with a grave expression as charges were laid out against him.
After the session, Kong walked out holding hands with his wife, declining to speak to the media as members of his entourage shoved journalists away and tried to prevent photographers from shooting pictures.
The couple became minor celebrities in Singapore after launching the church, which officials estimated had net assets of Sg$103 million ($80m) in 2009.
Singapore authorities have cracked down on heads of charities found to have been involved in irregularities.
In 2009, a prominent Buddhist monk was jailed for six months for misappropriating hospital funds and lying about it to authorities.