Award winning local playwright fired from teaching position

TOC report

aflianAlfian 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.