City Harvest: Anatomy of a Singapore scandal

SINGAPORE, Aug 17 — This column was never intended to be a chronicle of sex and scandal in the tropical city.  However having now followed the saga for over two years ­— and given it is still devouring headlines, I believe it is time to introduce you to Singapore’s hottest trial: City Harvest.

It all began in 1989 when a young computer science graduate from the National University of Singapore (NUS), a committed Charismatic Christian, returned to Singapore from a ministry in the Philippines to lead a small congregation. His original flock consisted of just 20 young men, but in three years he was preaching to over a thousand worshippers.  And this was only the beginning.

Over the next 20 years, Kong Hee would go on to assemble one of the largest congregations in Asia. With 25,000 regular attendees, 36 internal ministries, 47 affiliated churches and a 38,000 square foot, S$50 million (RM126.6 million) church in Jurong.

The heart of his ministry’s appeal was its deeply modern, strongly aspirational tone. Meekness, poverty and self-denial weren’t for the City Harvest church. Prosperity and success were what God wanted for his parishioners, and the rewards for their faith and prayers would not only be manifest in the afterlife but instead could be reaped in this life.

Good food, fine wine, dance and music weren’t disdained but embraced creating a faith perfectly fitted to a new Singaporean middle class raised on malls, devoted to brands and dreaming of Maseratis.

City Harvest Church founder Kong Hee with his pop-singer wife Ho Yeow Sun outside the district courts in Singapore in August 2013. — AFP pic
City Harvest Church founder Kong Hee with his pop-singer wife Ho Yeow Sun outside the district courts in Singapore in August 2013. — AFP pic

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This endorsement of prosperity applied not only to parishioners but to the church itself. From the beginning of his ministry, Kong encouraged the congregation to pay tithes to support the church, its projects and buildings and it was implied that these donations would bring material and spiritual rewards.

The commitment and generosity of City Harvest parishioners was clearly quite significant; in 2010 the church purchased a sizeable stake in the landmark Suntec City convention centre for just under S$100 million.

That a 20-year-old church was able to make a major real estate play shocked many observers. City Harvest was playing in the financial big leagues, but the church defended the purchase as a sound investment in a space they could use for their events and services. Despite some raised eyebrows, regulators were not able to find fault with the move.

In fact the church went from strength to strength ­— there were weekly TV shows, a youth strike force, outreach programs for professionals and dozens of new pastors fuelling its growth. The rise of City Harvest and Kong Hee seemed inexorable but, like others who’ve risen fast in the shadow of god, Kong would experience a sudden fall from grace.

The cause of his fall, appropriately enough from a biblical standpoint, was his wife. Ho Yeow Sun better known as Sun Ho. The couple married in 1992 and Sun Ho was involved in City Harvest from its inception. In 2002, however, she left the church to pursue a career as a pop singer.

While it might seem incongruous that a pastor’s wife would chose a career in the less than holy world of contemporary pop, Kong has claimed that his wife’s move was part of a mission to reach out to youth. The church even had a dedicated project – the Crossover Project which aimed to use Sun’s music to reach out to the youth and non-Christians.

It’s this particular project that appears to be the cause of all the trouble.

Whether her songs did spur interest in the gospel is an open question but it’s undeniable that Ho built up a following in the Mandarin pop market. Performing to packed stadiums in Taiwan and producing double-platinum selling CDs.

This spurred her to try her hand at entering the English music scene through the US market. A move her husband supported whole heartedly. However, cracking the US market was a major proposition needing serious PR and production which was always going to be expensive.

This is where things really get messy. Kong allegedly funded his wife’s US foray which included production support from Wyclef Jean, using City Harvest funds.

The church purchased millions of dollars worth of bonds in Xtron, Sun Ho’s artist management company, whose principle/only asset was Ms Ho. Additional funds were alleged to have been transferred to fund Ho’s production efforts via the City Harvest affiliate church in KL. The total amount alleged to have been misappropriated exceeds S$20 million.

Unfortunately, the video and tracks this money was invested in never got anywhere near commercial success. The video for China Wine, which features a slightly less than fresh faced Ho talking on an American woman in a booty-shaking dance-off, was little more than a cringe-worthy vanity show. To make matters worse it seems poor sales led to more City Harvest funds being used to buy Sun’s unsold US CDs.

The upshot of all this was, in 2012, the arrest of Kong on charges of misusing funds/criminal breach of trust. The subsequent, high profile trial has gone on for years with evidence of a complicated tangle of funds and transfers.

Fundamentally, the story has everything ­— a sexy or wannabe sexy Asian siren, the wife of a preacher, a man of god, million dollar deals and even Wyclef Jean. Of course there’s also the schadenfreude so many derive from seeing this apparently model couple tumble into ignominy.

So you can see why this has become Singapore’s scandal of the decade. Even the protracted trial hasn’t dented enthusiasm for the story.

In fact interest in the couple continues to grow particularly as, rather than meekly admit their guilt, they have come out fighting – declaiming their innocence, declaring their confidence in each other in face of mounting evidence, adding a sort of Bonnie and Clyde element.

While the final outcome of the trial remains unknown, what I find interesting is that the whole story serves as something of a parable for modern Singapore.

Hard work and ambition drove them to heights of success.

A flawed and failed attempt to unify material success with spirituality lay at the heart of their undoing.

The lure of fame, the need to break out of the herd led them to push the limits of the law. And the all mighty (Singapore government) is now, apparently, punishing them for their transgressions.

All this has unfolded under the glare of the media and the whole episode tells us a lot about where Singapore is at circa 2013/14, though whether this is a good or bad place I’ll leave the reader to decide.

* This is the personal opinion of the columnist.

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