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Jeanne Ten was presented with an ultimatum: accept a report whitewashing her professor’s academic misconduct, or be denied her master’s degree. Her decision to fight back has cost her dearly. But she has no plans to stop, and in the process, she has revealed a lack of accountability in Singapore’s powerful institutions.
Twenty-one years ago this month, Jeanne Ten began a master’s program in architecture at the National University of Singapore (NUS). She was drawn by the department’s plan to orient towards a humanistic approach to architecture, as opposed to a science of brick and mortar construction. She wrote a thesis on the center of Singapore’s financial district, Raffles Place, and was admitted to study for a PhD in architectural history at the University of Illinois Chicago. Jeanne was on her way to a promising academic career, on the strength of a thesis regarded by an examiner as one that “will undoubtedly stand as the definitive account” of her subject.
What happened instead is a long story that touches upon the Singaporean elite’s privilege and shows the emptiness of Singapore’s reputation for pragmatic, honest governance in its institutions. Jeanne’s thesis supervisor plagiarized her thesis. When she filed an official complaint, the university misled Jeanne, giving her the false impression that her supervisor was exonerated. NUS told Jeanne that she had to accept this finding or be expelled. She refused to be bullied and the university denied her the award of the master’s degree, thereby forcing her to give up her place in the PhD program in Chicago. At the time when NUS expelled her, Jeanne had already moved to Chicago to start her PhD program, as she had already completed all her master’s degree academic requirements and was expecting NUS’s conferment of her master’s degree. She has since been involved in a decade-long legal fight to receive her deserved master’s degree, obtain recompense for her derailed career, and reveal the lack of accountability and abuse of power in Singapore.
An overview of the details of Jeanne Ten’s case from its origins makes the injustice of it more clear. Her thesis supervisor, Dr. Wong Yunn Chii, used her work without attribution as the basis for his own research project. He was awarded a US$60,000 government grant to pursue it. When Jeanne’s attempts to address the matter with him didn’t go anywhere, she filed a formal complaint with the university administration.
NUS Vice-Provost Lily Kong convened a committee to look into Jeanne’s complaint. The committee issued a secret written report recommending that Dr. Wong be “censured” for his conduct towards Jeanne. NUS did not inform Jeanne about this, nor did it allow her to see the committee’s secret report at that time. Instead, Kong sent Jeanne a letter that purported to convey the committee’s findings. This letter said that the committee had found that there was “insufficient evidence” against Dr. Wong, but did not mention any findings against Dr. Wong. This letter did not mention that Dr. Wong was “censured,” either. Jeanne pointed out that any reasonable person in her position would have understood Kong’s letter to mean that NUS had exonerated Dr. Wong, given what Kong had stated about “insufficient evidence” against Dr. Wong, and omitting the truth that Dr. Wong was actually censured by NUS for his conduct towards Jeanne.
Kong later delivered an ultimatum to Jeanne to “choose one or the other”: accept the findings and conclusions of the university investigation, or be denied a master’s degree and be expelled. Jeanne refused. Two reasons were behind her decision. First was the principle of the linking of her acceptance of the results of an investigation to awarding her a degree, which she found to be profoundly oppressive, unethical, and an abuse of power. Second, Jeanne didn’t accept the findings. She didn’t know how the investigation was conducted, NUS had not allowed her to see the committee’s secret investigation report, and she believed that NUS had exonerated the professor of all wrongdoing based on the misleading “insufficient evidence” letter from Kong. To have accepted the findings, she believes, would be craven and dishonest, admitting to making a groundless allegation.
The university then followed through on its threat by expelling Jeanne, which caused her to be deprived of her place in the PhD program in Chicago. And this would only be the end of the beginning. Jeanne filed a lawsuit against NUS, which the university won by relying on what she believes is perjured testimony from Kong denying, against an abundance of documentary evidence, that NUS’s expulsion was retaliation for her refusal to accept a whitewash decision and a cover-up of Dr. Wong’s misconduct. Jeanne is not alone in believing that Kong committed perjury. A British legal scholar and whistleblowing expert, Professor David Lewis, issued to the Supreme Court of Singapore stating that the internal documents appear to show factual contradictions with Kong’s sworn testimony in court.
The perjury claim is crucial for Jeanne’s case, as proving that Kong committed perjury may allow Jeanne to get a new trial, which NUS is trying to avoid. Just days ago, lawyers for NUS applied to the court to place a restraining order on Jeanne to prevent her from making further appeals or starting any new legal challenges against NUS. Looming over all of this is Jeanne’s obligation to pay NUS’s legal fees, amounting to about US$145,000. NUS is now in the process of bankrupting Jeanne due to the court's costs order (of US$145,000) against Jeanne. The bankruptcy is on hold pending Jeanne’s attempt to get the court to hear her application to determine whether Kong committed perjury.
There’s much more to this case. The lawsuit compelled NUS to disclose voluminous internal emails and documents, affording a window into Singapore’s culture of institutional self-protection. The documents revealed that Dr. Wong never completed his project based on the findings of Jeanne’s thesis, but it was falsely listed as a “completed” project on NUS’s official website. Kong orchestrated the downgrading of her thesis to a “B” grade, which required her to make minor amendments, even though both examiners appointed by NUS originally gave her an “A”, which did not require any amendments. Most critically, NUS had to disclose emails between Kong and her accomplices linking the denial of Jeanne’s degree to her refusal to accept the purported exoneration of the professor. These internal documents clearly contradicted Kong’s testimony in court.
The social contrasts cannot be more striking: Kong is now the president of Singapore Management University, a Justice of the Peace, and sits on the Public Service Commission, which appoints officers to public office. Elite lawyers represent NUS while Jeanne represents herself because she can’t afford a lawyer. She lives in public housing with her father, a retired Chinese language teacher. She is effectively black-balled from the job market: bankruptcy would force her employer to fire her in her particular line of work according to Singapore law, and even short of that, the controversy surrounding her makes her the kind of person that employers shy away from in Singapore.
Jeanne may never receive her master’s degree. The derailment from her PhD program due to NUS’s actions against her destroyed her chances of pursuing an academic career in her field of expertise. The years in and out of court she’ll never get back. NUS’s doggedness in fighting this case is about sending a message to other potential whistleblowers and dissidents in Singapore. But it also stands as a testament to Jeanne ’s tremendous strength of character and dedication to a years-long cause, one that she understands as part of a broader struggle for accountability and democratic reform in Singapore. She may yet have the last word.
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TNL Editor: Bryan Chou (@thenewslensintl)
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