A multimillion US dollar scandal involving a Christian pastor, his singer wife and a glamorous financial executive has gripped Singapore, with allegations of fraud and tantalizing glimpses into the expensive process of making a pop star.
Kong Hee (康希), 47, the pastor and founder of the 20,000-strong City Harvest Church, is on trial alongside five other church officials for an alleged scheme to siphon off S$24 million (US$19 million) to finance the singing career of his wife Ho Sun (何耀珊).
The accused allegedly misappropriated another S$26 million to cover up the original diversion.
Ho, 41, an established Mandarin pop singer who cofounded the evangelical mega church with her husband in 1989, moved to Los Angeles in 2009 to launch an English-language singing career, before the scandal scuttled her showbiz ambitions.
She does not face any charges herself, appearing stoically with her husband for his court appearances as her music videos continue to draw hits on video-sharing site YouTube.
The video for her song China Wine — in which she dances in a nightclub alongside the rapper Wyclef Jean — has attracted more than 1 million views so far.
In another video, the reggae-tinged Mr Bill, she plays a skimpily clad Asian wife who calls herself a geisha and sings about killing her African-American husband, played by the male supermodel Tyson Beckford.
Ho also posed for numerous pictures at exclusive events with US celebrities as part of her image-building campaign.
Evidence reportedly given in court showed the church had earmarked more than US$10 million as its marketing budget — “in line with Shakira’s marketing budget and less than the budget for Beyonce” — to boost her Hollywood foray.
The Straits Times said the documents also showed more than US$1.6 million was spent on production fees for Wyclef Jean.
The church has defended Ho’s attempt to become an international star as part of a “crossover” campaign to spread God’s message to the secular world through music.
However, prosecutors say Kong and his subordinates engaged in a practice called “round-tripping” by channeling money allotted for a church fund into sham bonds in church-linked companies so they could finance Ho’s music career.
They falsified church accounts to make it appear the bonds were redeemed, prosecutors say. All six accused deny the charges.
The trial, which will resume in January after recessing on Sept. 20, exposed complex money dealings and drew attention to the financial might of evangelical Christian churches in the city-state.
The trial also created a buzz in the mainstream press and on social media thanks to the church’s photogenic former financial manager, Serina Wee (黃玉音), a 36-year-old mother of three whose stylish courtroom outfits have turned her into a fashion icon.
Wee faces six charges of criminal breach of trust for her role in the alleged scam, and four other charges for falsifying accounts.
An Australia-based academic Jeaney Yip, who has studied the marketing methods of fast-growing churches, said they make Christian teachings attractive by drawing on pop culture.
“Whatever’s in fashion, whatever’s stylish, whatever looks cool is used and infused in mega church practice,” Yip said.
“Because of the religious and humanitarian element to giving, I do not think churchgoers generally question or pay attention to how the funds are managed,” said Yip, a lecturer at the University of Sydney Business School.
“The issue is not in the giving; it is in the management of the funds received that deserves accountability and transparency,” she said.
City Harvest, which has 20,000 followers in Singapore and 49 affiliates in eight Asian territories, acquired a stake in one of the city-state’s biggest convention centers in 2010 for S$310 million and holds its weekly services there.
Terence Chong, a sociologist at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies in Singapore, said some independent churches like City Harvest preach the “prosperity gospels,” which seek to convince followers that offerings made to God through donations and voluntaryism will be rewarded with spiritual and material blessings.
“In essence, the prosperity gospels appeal to the culture of self-improvement and upward social mobility in capitalist societies,” Chong said, adding that the followers tend to come mostly from the “emergent middle class.”
The church’s Web site exhorts members to donate money as a “form of worship” and lists acceptable credit cards.
“As we give, we have faith that He will never shortchange us,” the Web site says. “He will certainly bless our lives abundantly in return, because we can never out-give God!”