Straight-laced Singapore hit by teacher scandals

Nov 15, 2012, 2:39 AM EST
This photo taken on Oct. 29, 2012, shows the facade of a house belonging to former school principal Anthony Tan Kim Hock, which was allegedly built using school funds.
(AP Photo/The Straits Times)

SINGAPORE (AP) — Their affair started with her giving him a copy of the mushy memoir "Eat, Pray, Love." It ended with the 32-year-old female teacher in Singapore getting a jail sentence for illicit sex with her 15-year-old male student.

The case, which shocked Singapore, was the latest in a string of scandals involving Singapore educators, who in the past year have been caught embezzling college money, committing lewd behavior, peddling drugs and a couple of times having sex with students. At least 10 such cases have reached the courts this year.

In a country known for its orderliness and strict laws where even jay-walking and public spitting are punishable offenses, the scandals are raising questions about whether the government — in its hugely successful efforts to control political dissidence and crime — has ignored declining moral and social standards.

More surprising is that such egregious cases have been recorded in Singapore's highly regarded educational system, where both teachers and students are conditioned from first grade to be disciplined, rule-fearing and committed to academic excellence. A student's academic future is determined at age 10 through a streaming system, which pushes over-achievers into a fast-track schooling. At age 12 they take a national test to get into top schools.

"This over emphasis on results does not directly contribute to falling standards of probity in schools. Rather, what it did was to reduce the importance placed on values, character and integrity," said Eugene Tan, an assistant professor of law at the Singapore Management University.

"In a sense we took our eyes off the ball when we shouldn't have. I think the matter is a lot more complex with multi-casual factors, including a general societal decline in moral standards," he said.

Gabriel Tan, an associate professor of psychology at the National University of Singapore, said there is a general sense of frustration among Singaporeans at the "very tight control" on society by the government. This control has long ensured that people conform to the government's vision of a good society -- law-abiding hard-working, health-conscious staid nationalists.

"Recently, in the last elections, there seemed to be a sort of murmur among people saying they wanted a more open government so this (spate of scandals) actually may reflect Singapore moving in the direction where you are questioning and abusing authority," said Tan.

By far, 2012 was the worst year for schools, colleges and teachers in attracting unsavory attention.

The teacher-student affair was the most shocking. The mother of two cannot be identified to protect the privacy of her sex partner, who is underage. Facing up to 20 years in jail, she was sentenced on Oct. 29 to one year in prison after pleading guilty to two counts of sexual offenses with a person under 16 years of age.

"As a parent, you don't see how classroom lessons and extracurricular activities are conducted," said Elaine Khoo, a 43-year old banker and mother of two. "Naturally that means you have to place your trust in the school to do what's best for your child, but what if it's at the hands of morally-questionable people masquerading as teachers?"

In passing the sentence, District Judge Eugene Teo noted that the teacher had "no predatory pedophilic tendencies."

"There are no shades of anything in a saga such as this, no justifications; only a clear line not to be crossed," Teo said.

The court heard that the student was traumatized following a boating accident during an overseas school trip in 2011. He started confiding in the teacher, who had chaperoned the excursion. She then began wooing him with gifts, including a copy of "Eat, Pray, Love" by Elizabeth Gilbert that was made into a movie starring Julia Roberts.

That, according to prosecutors, led to the beginning of an affair during which she took the boy to her home in December 2011 where she performed oral sex on him with his consent. She took him home again in January 2012 where they had consensual sex several times, according to prosecutors.

The affair came to light after the boy's parents became suspicious and lodged a complaint.

A day after the sentencing, a court started the trial of a former school principal accused of using 150,000 Singapore dollars ($120,000) from school funds to build a house for his religious order and pay for his tennis coach. Anthony Tan Kim Hock, 65, who retired in 2009 after 25 years at the school, is facing 21 criminal charges. If convicted he faces up to 15 years in prison.

Another case involved a 39-year male teacher who filmed a total of 94 upskirt videos of female students in uniform at various locations around Singapore, including at the secondary school where he taught. He was sentenced to nine months in jail last month after pleading in his defense that he suffered from obsessive-compulsive disorder.Another teacher allegedly installed three pinhole cameras in a female toilet in a school where he was teaching.

Other cases involving wayward educators include: a former school principal caught seekingsexual services with anunderageprostitute,alaw professor at the prestigious National University of Singapore being accused of accepting sex in exchange for good grades, a51-year old male private tuition teacher caught sexually abusing seven of his male students anda55-year old former childcare teacher who helped her boyfriend sell drugs.

Earlier this year, a teacher was caught sending lewd text messages to his 13 year old female student and was sentenced to 10 months in jail, while a former Chinese-language teacher was sentenced to 10 years jail and six strokes of the cane for molesting two boys and performing oral sex on a 8-year-old student.

Some Singaporeans worry such cases are tainting the reputation of Singapore's education system, rated as one of the best in the world. Students in Singapore, where the literacy rate is 96 percent, consistently outperform counterparts in the U.S., especially in math and science, a fact noted by President Barack Obama in a 2009 speech.

The Education Ministry said it takes a "very serious view of misconduct by teachers," and violators are subject to disciplinary action.

"Teachers who have misconducted themselves are a small minority of the 33,000 strong teaching force, and are not representative of the Education Service at large," it said in a statement to The Associated Press.