Yawning Bread. June 2007

Teacher unaccountably terminated




I heard from Alfian Sa'at on 15 May 2007 that he had lost his relief teaching job. On receiving a telephone call from the Ministry of Education, his school terminated him at once. No reason was provided. That night, he was extremely upset and swore he would "get to the bottom of this".

Privately, I suspected it would be an uphill task, though I'm sure that he too was not so nave as to think it would be an easy thing to achieve. All I could do was to encourage him to document every step of the process. Documentation has a power that is often underestimated.

I am glad that he has done so. You can see his exchange of letters with the Ministry of Education on his blog. 

He tells of how his work had been much appreciated by East View Secondary School to the extent that they had asked him to confirm that he would be staying on for a few months more. Yet within hours of that, his head of department would tell him they had been told to terminate his contract. Alfian wrote, "When I queried him as to whether this was based on my performance in school, he assured me, in his own words, that 'professionally and pedagogically, we had no problems with you'."

They required such an immediate departure that the school was left scrambling to find another relief teacher with no notice. Midyear exams were approaching for the students; where exactly are our educators' priorities?

Perhaps it's only a neighbourhood school, not one that serves the children of the elite? As Alfian himself noted in an earlier blogpost, "Some of these classes have had up to four relief teachers in the space of half a year. Every new relief teacher .... also meant abandonment."

So what was the reason for terminating him? In reply to Alfian's letter to the Ministry, they wrote,

the Ministry of Education sets stringent criteria in the recruitment of relief teachers. This is understandably so when we strive to achieve a high standard in Education. With keen competition, this Ministry has an arduous task of considering each applicant based on several factors. MOE needs to determine which applicants most appropriately meet its organisational needs. In the registering of relief teachers, we look at each applicant in view of the specific requirements of the Ministry at the time, considering each application as a whole, on its own merit. While many capable candidates apply every year, only those that best meet the organisation's requirements will be considered for appointment.

109 words saying abosulutely nothing. No, I take that back. They do say something: "We don't want to tell you why."

And to cap it all, the letter from the Ministry ended by referring Alfian to their HR policies,

For more information on HR matters, please refer to our HR Online at http://intranet.moe.gov.sg/hr_online/circulars01.htm.

Did you notice that it was an intranet address, not accessible to the public? Isn't that being bloody helpful? Or intelligent? And we are paying how much to our ministers and civil servants?

* * * * *

Alfian is not an unknown quantity. He is a highly-regarded poet and playwright. However, in this instance, what comes to mind is the fact that he is also very outspoken about the marginalisation of Malays, and gays.

Both impinge on current government policies. But he is not an extremist by any stretch of the imagination, and it would be a sad day if we expected teachers to have no passionately-held opinions of their own. It would also be a very sad day if teachers did not inspire our students to have the courage of their convictions.

If the ministry's real reason for terminating his services was that he had been vocal about the marginalisation of Malays, then that act itself proves the complaint. It would also make an utter mockery of racial equality in Singapore.

More likely, he is being penalised for being gay. I say this because we in People Like Us have been hearing other similar cases where gay teachers have been shunted out or into dead-end non-teaching jobs. Each time, no reason is provided. But unlike Alfian, they have not documented their cases and made a public issue of their treatment.

In a way, we understand their situation. They needed a job. Perhaps they had families who depend on them, or loans to pay back. Going public would make things much harder. But I would speculate that it's precisely because the earlier cases have not gone public, that the witch-hunt continues. So I am personally glad that Alfian has demanded an explanation from the government.

If there is such a secret policy, how is that fair to the many gay men and women who invest years (and dollars) at university or the National Institute of Education preparing to be teachers, only to be denied the chance to fulfill their calling soon after joining the teaching service?

So hiring policies cannot be secret. But if the ministry lets it be known that they will discriminate against lesbians and gays, then people will no doubt ask: What about Goh Chok Tong's statement in July 2003 about not discriminating against openly gay civil servants? Alfian has been as open as they come, and the school had no problems with him. If Goh and the government does not want to be accused of bad faith in making such public statements in order to falsely entice people to join the civil service, then they had better come clean.

* * * * *

Once again, this shows how badly Singapore needs a Freedom of Information Act, such as the one that the UK has [1]. Such a law would oblige the government to provide substantive information -- not the opaque whitewash that the ministry gave Alfian -- in response to specific requests.

More and more developed countries are enacting such laws because they realise that good governance is not served by ministers and bureaucrats being able to hide what they are doing. With power must come accountability. If the public can be prevented from knowing how decisions are made or what policies are in effect, then all sorts of abusive -- and corrupt -- practices can fester.

How did this ministry award a contract to a company owned by the minister's brother-in-law?

We have stringent contract-awarding procedures in place, the spokesman will say, and all contracts so awarded would have been assessed by our in-house committee of experts to be the optimum among the offers received by us, an assessment based on checklists that have been rigourously developed so as to cover all relevant aspects of the project in question.

How much money did that statutory board promise the foreign university to entice them to set up here; what were the assumptions used in the business plan, and how were those assumptions assessed to be realistic?

What projections were made such that the maternity hospital ended up with more wards than they needed, eventually having to mothball some of them [2], while other hospitals were shortchanged on expansion such that they overflowed with patients, with emergency cases turned away?

Alfian's case is not an isolated issue. It points to a much larger weakness in governance in Singapore. Opacity is a potent tool for those who wish to oppress us. It denies citizens the information they need to judge for themselves how good the government is in its job, and whether they live up to their promises (e.g. non-discrimination). It allows them to hide mistakes that they have made. It gives them the power to do what they please to ordinary citizens, leaving the small guy with no recourse.

For the sake of those larger issues, we must take this case as far as we can. The government must not be allowed so easily to get away with it.

Yawning Bread 



  1. See http://www.opsi.gov.uk/Acts/acts2000/20000036.htm 
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  2. It was mentioned in the Straits Times, 11 July 2005, that Kandang Kerbau Hospital was a third empty most of the time; this figure despite the fact that it was operating only about 740 of its 900 beds, the rest having been mothballed since those new wards were built. 
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