Singapore's pop pastor combines gospel and glitz

SINGAPORE (Reuters) - Asia is full of pop stars with dyed hair, trendy clothes and tinted contact lenses. But Reverend Ho Yeow-Sun is adding her touch of gospel to the glitz.

"As a pastor, I'm pretty alternative," said Ho, a 31-year-old Singaporean who doesn't mind being likened to the singing nun played by Whoopi Goldberg in the 1992 movie "Sister Act".

"I wouldn't even say I'm a pastor," added the singer and co-leader of a church with a 13,000-strong congregation and S$24 million ($14 million) annual budget. "I'll rather call myself a counsellor."

Fourteen years ago, Ho was the one who needed counselling as the high-flying student from a well-to-do family plunged into depression. She found solace in Christianity and became a pastor in 1997 despite her parents' objections.

Two years ago, while performing a gospel concert in Taiwan, Ho was approached by music label Decca to become a pop singer.

Gospel-pop crossovers are common in the West, with famous examples like Whitney Houston and Amy Grant, but Ho has staged a coup in an Asian music market filled with sweetie-pies and cool chicks.

Her sparkly outfits and flashy stage effects, however, have raised eyebrows in her Christian circle.

"There are some traditional ones who struggle with the idea that a pastor has now become a pop star. Before I did this, I'd already weighed the costs -- I figured that you can't please the whole world," she told Reuters in an interview.

"Sometimes I wish I could tell these critics 'Why don't you listen to the album first?' and they'll realise that the lyrics are really positive and it's going to help the teenagers."


Ho is chief executive of the thriving City Harvest Church, an independent Pentecostal church founded by her husband, Kong Hee, although she spends most of her time focusing on singing.

The church's head office occupies the eighth floor of a downtown office block and has 116 full-time employees on its S$4 million ($2.3 million) payroll.

The congregation worships in a new S$48 million, eight-storey church in the west of Singapore and boasts an enormous sound console in its 1,700 square metre underground auditorium.

Ho, who ploughs her musical earnings into the church, has made five English gospel albums.

Her Chinese pop debut, "Sun With Love", has sold 90,000 copies -- about 50,000 in Taiwan, 30,000 in Singapore and most of the rest in Hong Kong.

The title song hit number 6 in Singapore's Top 20 Mandarin singles chart, three weeks after the album was launched.

"Her music is ordinary, but the lyrics are full of life and inspiration," one reviewer wrote on the Yahoo Hong Kong Web site. "Her greatest strength lies in not 'hard-selling' religion."

Ho's Chinese pop is about as different as her image, with feel-good lyrics making a marked departure from the usual Asian formula of soppy songs about heartbreak and spurned love.

"When I got the lyrics, I actually talked to the lyricists and told them to change certain parts of it -- those that I felt were contradictory to my values," said Ho, who thinks pop music is brimming over with negative, depressing messages.

"You don't have to write about death to make a song sad. And a song can be sad without being morbid," she said. "I feel that sad songs like that are a part of life. But the whole album does not have to be so morbid."


Some of her songs are inspirational to the point of being gospels but Ho said she would like to keep her religious and secular singing separate.

"I don't want people to think I have a secret agenda. If people want to listen to gospel songs, they should go and buy my gospel albums," she said.

"If it's a secular album, I don't want listeners to feel that there's a subliminal message like 'Believe in Jesus!' Then it becomes really scary."

Ho recently performed two concerts at Singapore Indoor Stadium before capacity crowds of 10,000 people a night. Tickets were free to those who redeemed a coupon that came with her new album.

Local media hailed her "energetic singing" and "entertaining skits", backed by her 60-member church choir. Some 300 members of her flock helped out backstage, off-setting the costs of the gig.

Ho's time is tied up with singing, but she says she still tries to find time to be a counsellor.

"I try to continue my counselling through short message service, phone calls and emails, even when I was in Taiwan," she said. "I'll miss it if I don't do it."