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Award winning local playwright fired from teaching position

Posted by theonlinecitizen on June 11, 2007

TOC report

Alfian Sa’at, one of Singapore’s most illustrious playwrights, was recently fired from a relief teaching position by the Ministry of Education (MOE).

The reason for his dismissal? In the words of the Ministry, he did not ‘best meet the organisation’s requirements’.

Mr Sa’at is one of Singapore’s most prominent playwrights both locally and internationally. He won the National Arts Council Young Artist’s Award in 2001, has had his plays translated into German and Swedish and performed in Berlin, Zurich and Stockholm. He has also been nominated for the Best Script award at the local Life! Theater Awards five times.

His work has touched on socially and politically sensitive issues such as homosexuality and Singapore-Malaysia bilateral relations.

Timeline of events

Mr Sa’at was dismissed on the 14th of May, close to one month after he began teaching. The day after his dismissal, he received a three-line letter from MOE rejecting his application for a relief teaching position, but this after he had already been a paid relief teacher with the school for almost a month.

When Mr Sa’at pressed MOE for a reply, they explained his initial acceptance was a ‘provisional’ one. His application was rejected on the following grounds:

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.’

This reply was given two weeks after his initial query.

Also appended to the response was a link to MOE HR policy on their intranet, a resource members of the public, and Mr Sa’at, are not able to access.

MOE’s explanations unclear

Many questions remain unanswered by MOE’s inadequate response. The obscure directive about provisional appointment of relief teachers was unknown to several teachers TOC spoke to. The inaccessible link to the internal HR directive is all the assurance the public has that this policy actually exists.

Even if such a policy exists, Mr Sa’at’s qualifications make a nonsense of MOE’s implications that he does not qualify as the best of the crop of those who apply to be relief teachers. Relief teaching is a common holiday job for university students on holiday, or Junior College students waiting for university admission.

Political sensitivities involved?

When we spoke to Mr Sa’at, he expressed a suspicion that the MOE’s ambiguous response masked a fear of his socio-political leanings. A number of his plays have centered on homosexual themes and have regularly featured criticism of the government.

If it does exists, Mr Sa’at called this perceived fear ‘completely unwarranted’, and stated that he had ‘at all times observed the clear distinction between my personal views and my professional role as a teacher’.

The dismissal was certainly not motivated by poor performance. Mr Sa’at pointed out that up until a few days before he was fired by the MOE, ‘the Assistant Head of Department for Humanities asked me if I was able to extend my services to the school until July, based on the fact that he was impressed with my performance’.

This, coupled by the fact the Head of Department himself was reported by Mr Sa’at to have said that ‘professionally and pedagogically, we have no problems with you’ seems to make it clear that the decision to fire him was taken by someone at Ministry level, for reasons which had nothing to do with his performance or qualification.

The personal toll

On a personal level, Mr Sa’at told us he was devastated by the sudden dismissal. Despite being a relief teacher, he made an effort to plan his lessons with painstaking detail, and utilized his vast experience in theatre to come up with interactive teaching methods to engage his Normal Academic class in the humanities.

Recognizing that Normal Academic students seemed to respond more to visual representations, he would sketch his classes on the whiteboard. Mr Sa’at said that the most upsetting part of the ordeal for him was being fired just as he was beginning to see the fruits of his efforts.

On his last day in school, Me Sa’at’s students sketched their autographs and well wishes on a giant piece of drawing block. Now all Mr Sa’at has to remind him of his time as a relief teacher is that drawing block, and a host of unanswered questions by MOE.

Read the emails exchange between Alfian and the MOE here.

Alfian’s latest entry on his personal blog here.

MOE’s website on relief teaching.

Wikipedia on Alfian Sa’at.

The above is by Choo Zheng Xi.


22 Responses to “Award winning local playwright fired from teaching position”

  1. […] Ned Stark in Uncategorized. trackback Recently, I said that I was shocked when reading about the termination of Alfian Saat’s relief teaching. However after thinking through it I guess it is not so […]

  2. […] I am Singaporean XXX – Prophylaxia June 11, 2007 Posted by The Truth in I am Singaporean.. trackback I am referring to this entry on The Online Citizen regarding the dismissal of Alfian Sa’at. […]

  3. Koh Jie Kai said

    I will make a few scattered points about the legality of Alfian’s sacking.

    1- There is no general obligation on the executive to give reasons in common law. ( It could very well be that the MOE is obliged by some statute somewhere that it is obliged to give reasons for dismissing relief teachers- you law students reading this might want to research it.)

    But anyway, under the common law, there really is no general obligation to give reasons unless this involves some sort of really important civil liberty ( R v Home Secretary ex parte doody), or on the face of it there is something legally wrongful or otherwise fishy in the actions of the government.

    It is possible that Alfian might have been fired on grounds of his homosexuality or other political views/activism. I am not going to endorse these mere speculations without any concrete proof. But it will be useful to my argument to use the speculations above ( I REPEAT, I AM NOT GOING TO COMMENT ON WHETHER THESE SPECULATIONS ARE TRUE OR NOT- THEY MIGHT VERY WELL BE COMPLETELY WITHOUT FOUNDATION).

    Suppose Alfian HAD been fired on the above so-called “political” grounds”. Is there there an obligation by the government to reveal that there were the real reasons behind his sacking? I argue that there doesn’t seem to be any duty by the government to give reasons.

    Consider the following. We know that discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation is not at all illegal in Singapore, and neither is firing people on the grounds of their political views and activism. Suppose again that Alfian seeks judicial review against the Government, and a judge presiding over this case needs to decide the legal point of “the duty to give reasons.” I suspect that following cases like “R v higher education funding council ex parte institute of dental surgery”, the judge who would putatively be presiding over the case might be persuaded by the government lawyer defending the MOE to say that not only is there no obligation to give reasons on the grounds of fairness alone, but there is also no reason for the government to give reasons if there is no underlying illegality in its actions. You can’t blame the government lawyer for saying these things- if I were defending the government my line of argument would incorporate these points as well.

    This would not at all be subtle analysis, but we should bear in mind that Singapore judges have little experience in Administrative law (seriously, very few such cases arise apart from the lawsuits brought on by the Chee siblings and other assorted opposition figures), and would probably be tempted by this line of reasoning because it is (a) easy to understand by most of the other lawyers and (b) unlikely to provoke accusations by the government that the courts are meddling in administrative issues which they are institutionally unfit to do.

    2- In my opinion this is the sort of case that should go into judicial review. A number of lines of argument can be used which do not need the resort to Wednesbury Unreasonableness:

    (a) We could argue that the MOE has used irrelevent criteria for sacking Alfian

    (b) It is possible that the MOE has overstepped its powers- but since I do not see how sacking people, which the MOE does all the time, oversteps their powers in this case, I find it hard to follow this argument. I suspect a judge might also find it hard to follow, but if I were rash young barrister representing Alfian I would throw it in anyway.

    (c) We could also argue that the MOE has “fettered its discretion” by following a policy criteria which would more or less automatically dismiss Alfian,

    And we could always argue that the MOE has just been acting Wednesbury Unreasonably, that is, it has made a decision so irrational that no rational authority could have made this.

    It is also possible to pursue a line of argument saying that the demands of natural justice have not been met, in the sense that the procedure used for sacking Alfian was defective in some way, because he wasn’t given a chance to make his case on why he should not be sacked. It is possible that there was some line in his contract that extinguishes this line of argument, but it is worth investigating.

    3- Furthermore, this is clearly not a frivolous or unmeritorious case to be pursued, since the case really does involve an issue of enormous and relevant public importance- whether or not the MOE in its discretion has abused its powers when it uses its discretion to hire or fire relief teachers. In my opinion, the Jehovah’s Witness case (Nappalli Williams v ITE) would not be a barrier to an action either. That case involves an issue of allegiance to Singapore. But no issue of lack of allegiance ( e.g. not saying the pledge or joining some anti-singapore political activity) can possibly arise in this case. Furthermore, Alfian would probably not be alleging that his religious beliefs are being violated. So the MOE can’t defend itself on this ground.

    The courts might conclude that the MOE knows best about what sort of criteria was used to dismiss Alfian, because the courts are institutionally not equipped to decide on policies of hiring teachers. It might also conclude that the MOE is under no obligation to give reasons for firing Alfian. If this might be the case, then it is all the more important that we know what Alfian’s legal position is. His sacking is all the more a matter of great public importance if the law finds that the MOE has, in good faith, acted within its powers. The general public must be extremely concerned about the possibility that teachers can be fired if they have not committed things which we know would justify their dismissal. If teachers have been perfectly competent and professional in their jobs, say the pledge and sing the national anthem every morning, not committed crimes against their students or anyone else for that matter, and haven’t been teaching kids immoral stuff ( e.g. drug taking is good, we should participate in orgies etc, we should support terrorism etc etc) why else should they be fired?

    4- I do not apologise for putting out undergraduate-level legal analysis here. I would not be putting this out here if I did not think that this analysis is at least, pointing at the right direction. Plus I do this sort of analysis as my bread and butter work.

    5- PLEASE DO NOT RELY ON THIS ADVICE. ( Hedley Byrne v Heller).

  4. The Truth said

    Hahaha, please do not rely on this advice!

    Good analysis. The problem is that while Law is positivist and absolute, feelings are another thing. Similarly, the Law cannot stop people from making causal links.

  5. […] Alfian Sa’at, one of Singapore’s most prominent playwrights, dismissed from his relief t… […]

  6. Lifeslikethat said

    They asked him to go to an inTRAnet website??? My god! Are these people idiots or just plain stupid? Everyone knows that intranet are only assessible to people who are authorised to access it – in this case, it requires a VPN password. As a relief teacher, Alfian does not have the password or code or whatever.

    That MOE official sure is stooooooooooooooopid!

  7. Typical mentality of “I do it my way and you shall keep your peace” that permeates a large swath of our Civil Service.

    I can think of none better qualified for teaching than Alfian Sa’at, who is the Poet Laureate of Singapore. The very least they owe him and the public is a reason.

  8. rench00 said

    come one… just because someone is a damn good poet does not make him a good teacher. Einstein was a horrible teacher so is Hawking (unless you are terribly intelligent to begin with).

    ergo, one cannot conclude anything about Alfin Sa’at’s teaching abilities unless you see him teach. have you?

    further, planning lessons to painstaking details. what is that supposed to mean? most, if not all, teachers can claim to plan their lessons to painstaking details. i know cos i am a teacher.

    and what do you mean that the students are responding? a few more gleeful sniggers at the things he sketches? or really more interested in the subject and inspired to learn more?

    i think that anyone who blogs about his work the way Alfin Sa’at did about teaching would get into trouble with his boss. it’s quite common sense. teachers have been talked to for publicly commenting about various things (unless, of course, if they don’t get found out…). except that since they are trained teachers (i.e. the state has already invested much in them in terms of training), they don’t get sacked immediately. in any case, think, if someone were to loudly comment in a very public domain that his work environment sucks and that he does not enjoy his work (marking 16 classess of work, which, btw, some teachers do more than that… they set, mark and go through), most bosses (not that it’s necessarily the right thing to do) would sack this person.

    also, i wonder whether the school that Alfin Sa’at taught in is getting in a new History teacher. because that might be the reason why MOE ‘fired’ him. because if the school is getting in a trained teacher, then it has no need of a relief teacher (each school has a fixed number of teachers, relief, contract and trained, that it can have.) so… it could be as innocent a reason as that.

    of course, MOE, being typically civil service, loves to give templatised responses. that is not the fault of the MOE alone, but of the entire civil service. however, that is a seperate issue from what you are suggesting in this entry and in some of the comments here.

  9. Johnna said

    aiyo, i’m sure what moe did was totally legal. c’mon, this is SINGAPORE, where the courts, ministries and politicians are all for one and one for all. a package deal, some minister might say.

    sg is so pathetic, a true and through nanny-state. i’ll eat my shoes if this island can produce any real talents in the global scene (your “talented” multi-million-dollar ministars not counted hor…)


  10. […] should try to get him as a teacher, since ada orang tu dah tak nak, kan…: “Award-winning playwright fired from teaching position” […]

  11. peasantJUDGE said

    Rench000 said:
    ((((i think that anyone who blogs about his work the way Alfin Sa’at did about teaching would get into trouble with his boss. it’s quite common sense. teachers have been talked to for publicly commenting about various things (unless, of course, if they don’t get found out…). except that since they are trained teachers (i.e. the state has already invested much in them in terms of training), they don’t get sacked immediately. in any case, think, if someone were to loudly comment in a very public domain that his work environment sucks and that he does not enjoy his work (marking 16 classess of work, which, btw, some teachers do more than that… they set, mark and go through), most bosses (not that it’s necessarily the right thing to do) would sack this ))))

    Do you teachers get a what-not-to-do list?
    I think sacking someone for something like this is way too severe, and usually a talk-to will be sufficient. No boss likes his employee to blog about his work (unless it makes the boss look good), true, but if an employee doesnt know the boundaries, it’s the boss’s fault.
    You ae giving the MOE too much leeway here, for reasons only known to yourself.

  12. CZX said


    I’ve checked. No, the school didn’t get a replacement teacher.

  13. rench00 said

    just out of curiousity, how do you know that the school has not gotten a full time history teacher? the new teachers aren’t due to join the school till… end of this week. and they start teaching proper at the start of the new term. but if you found out because you know someone in the administration of the school and they told you that no new history teachers have been posted to the school, then yes, it’s definite that they aren’t getting any new History teachers.

    i wonder though. why did the school need a relief History teacher in the first place? perhaps it’s cos some teacher went on reservist/child birth/sick leave. and if that teacher is back, then again, no need for relief teacher anymore.

    we were told to be careful about what we say in the public domain. if we want to write into the Forum pages, must get clearance from higher authorities (exactly who, i can’t remember…).

    so… many other possible reasons for the sacking of Alfin Sa’at. need not be the one that is insinuated by so many in the Singaporean blogosphere.

    in fact, it is more common sensical to think that it is something rather more innocent than a reaction to Alfin’s inclinations/views. i mean… if that were the case, why was he hired in the first place? all these checks are done before MOE hires the person. further, it doesn’t really take much to find out abotu Alfin’s political views, activists involvement, etc. at least far easier than some of the other checks that MOE does on less known personalities (i.e. police checks, etc). ergo, Alfin Sa’at’s sacking must have been a result of what he did after he got hired.

    thus, applying Occam’s razor, it is far easier to think of a less conspiratorial reason for Alfin Sa’at’s sacking. though MOE still deserves to be blasted for giving stupid templatised responses.

  14. Akikonomu said

    Hi Rench00,

    There was a rather interesting, if flawed discussion between Alfian and myself on Blogger Samurai, and it seems this is the reason why he really feels this has nothing to do with his blog, and everything to do with his sexuality, and a campaign against homosexual candidates by MOE:

    “A 20-year old has just written in to me to inform me that MOE has withdrawn their offer of a place for him in NIE, because during the MOE medical checkup it was revealed that he had declared 302 in the army. MOE’s reason for the rejection was that he was ‘medically unfit’ to be a teacher. The boy has no pre-existing medical condition. The withdrawal of offer was made in the first week of June, after the application deadline for the universities have closed. The boy does not know now what to do now, especially since term is starting soon.”

    I’ve reproduced his quote here for the sake of furthering the discussion in an open and honest manner, even though none of us here, including myself, have the great fortune and honour of meeting Alfian in person…

  15. CZX said

    To be fair to Alfian I don’t think he’s ever said this issue is exclusively about his sexuality. To foreground this quote is to be rather disingenous about subverting the issue everyone on the blogosphere is trying to address, the question of transparency, into a debate about Alfian’s personality.

    I also don’t see how him highlighting the plight of this 20 year old amounts to him claiming there’s a ‘campaign against homosexual candidates by MOE’. The hyperbole seems unwarrented.

  16. Deutsche said

    So much about trying to attract the ‘Pink’ dollar. So much about promoting and introducing arts from all over to Singapore. Load of crap I must say. This is a case of paranoia in our system where artistic Singaporeans will end up criticizing from abroad. Too bad this is one of the few rare cases for a rare breed of gifted young thinkers who has the potential to reach to an international audience without being stationed abroad. What a unique place we are in don’t you think?

  17. […] Surf to name a few have covered more ground in issues like the Wee Shu Min incident, the Pay Hike, Alfian’s dissmissal and so on. Even the recent arrest of Basheer has been analysed by the hardworking […]

  18. ganchau said

    Now we have a shortage of teachers and this has to happen!!

    I had signed up as a relief teacher since I left teaching some years ago due to the strain on my vocal chords.

    However, now I am doing extremely well in my real estate work, and have to turn down requests to teach part time. I feel bad each time staff called me up to request me to teach and I have to turn them down.

    I would appeal that everyone who loves to teach be given a chance, albeit his political, philosophical or religious inclination.

    I have loved teaching from young. Right now, in real estate I am still doing some kind of teaching…. training my new recruits how to sell/rent properties:-)

    Long before the government says we are to work till 70, I have already planned to work till I drop for I am one of those who cannot sit still. At 53 years 6 months and 13 days old, I have been inundated with job offers as a chef, tour guide, tutor and trainer. To me work is no longer work when it is fun; it is like basking in the sun! Let us encourage and make full use of every talent we have in this little dot on the world map. Let us not stifle any hearbeat, for every heartbeat is precious and let our hearts beat for the continual progress of our nation.

  19. […] Stark in Uncategorized. trackback Just recently there was an uproar in the blogosphere regarding Alfian’s Saat dismissal from his position as a relief teacher in a secondary school. Basically there were three […]

  20. Boo Jun Feng said

    I guess one would have to search one’s conscience, instead of blurting out everything and cause such a fiasco that even Eunice who has seemingly nothing to talk about actually highlighted this issue.

    Indeed, there are teachers in the teaching profession who are gay, but they are discreet and are professional.

    Perhaps our esteemed Alfian is too loud, proud and happy about his sexuality…well, the initiated should know what i mean.

    Just visit play on a sunday…

  21. […] has lost his job but if he has, I am going to have an EXTREMELY unfavourable opinion of MOE. One Alfian Sa’at incident is quite enough. Let’s see what MOE and/or RI has to say about the issue. Then again, […]

  22. Boo Junfeng said

    Oh wow.. just realised someone posted a comment using my name. how can lidat.. tsk tsk tsk.

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