Bid to reinstate longer jail terms for CHC leaders rejected

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Minister will speak about ruling in Parliament; AGC pledges to work with Govt on revisions to law

Singapore's most expensive criminal trial involving a powerful church and its charismatic leader has turned its final chapter in court.

Yesterday, a five-judge panel dismissed a prosecution bid to reinstate the original convictions for founder-pastor Kong Hee and five others for misusing millions in church funds.

But the long-running saga is set to remain in the public eye, with a Cabinet minister promising to speak in Parliament about the ruling and the Attorney-General's Chambers (AGC) pledging to work with the Government on revisions to the law.

The decision by the Court of Appeal yesterday hinged on whether the six former City Harvest Church (CHC) leaders should have been convicted of simple criminal breach of trust (CBT) or of the more serious form as agents.

The court yesterday unanimously ruled that the term "agent" in Section 409 of the Penal Code applies only to someone who is a professional agent, and not to company directors and key officers of charities, such as the six CHC leaders.

The judges noted the "strong and urgent impulse" to ensure that people in positions of responsibility are made to undergo a sentence that reflects the full measure of their harm and culpability. But they added that the courts are ill-suited to undertake a "long overdue" and wide-ranging policy review.

The shaping of the remedy for any gap in the law should be left to Parliament, said Judge of Appeal Andrew Phang, in reading the decision reached by him, Judge of Appeal Judith Prakash, and Justices Belinda Ang, Quentin Loh and Chua Lee Ming.The AGC said yesterday it would work with relevant ministries "on the appropriate revisions to the Penal Code, to ensure that company directors and other persons in similar positions of trust and responsibility are subject to appropriate punishments if they commit criminal breach of trust".

Home Affairs and Law Minister K. Shanmugam said he will make a ministerial statement on the Government's position.

The decision meant Kong, 53; deputy senior pastor Tan Ye Peng, 45; former finance manager Serina Wee, 41; and former finance committee member John Lam, 50, will continue their existing and reduced jail terms of between 1½ and 3½ years, which they began serving in April last year.

Kong received the longest jail term among them, which was reduced from eight years after the High Court cleared the sextet of CBT as agents and convicted them of plain CBT.

Former finance manager Sharon Tan, 42, has completed her seven-month jail term, while former fund manager Chew Eng Han, 57, has secured a new deferment for his jail term.

To spread the gospel through Kong's singer-wife Sun Ho's secular music career, the sixmisappropriated $24 million in CHC's building funds. They misused another $26 million to cover up the initial crime.

Long overdue clarification of law welcomed

The decision by the Court of Appeal is a long overdue clarification of the law on whether company directors should be regarded as agents in criminal breach of trust offences, said lawyers and legal academics.

Similarly, the apex court said a review of Section 409 of the Penal Code, which was first enacted more than 150 years ago and has remained largely unchanged, "was not only essential but also long overdue".

It is now up to Parliament to fix the "dated" piece of legislation used to charge City Harvest Church founder Kong Hee and five others for misusing millions in church money.

Lawyer Terence Seah, a partner at Virtus Law, said he welcomes the clarification because it was difficult to advise clients whether or not they will be covered as directors "because in some sense, directors can be considered as agents, but it is not a strict legal classification".

Singapore Management University law don Eugene Tan noted that the Penal Code was drafted in the Victorian era.

"A Penal Code review is timely and urgent as well as a reminder not to accept conventional wisdom about what each provision means, and to ensure that the law remains relevant," he said. - SELINA LUM & TAN TAM MEI