A former National University of Singapore (NUS) student has exhausted all her life savings of over S$100,000 fighting a legal battle that has ruined her life for the last 10 years.
In a High Court ruling last month, Justice Woo Bih Li, in delivering his judgement on 9 July, reasoned that the claims made by Jeanne-Marie Ten Leu Jiun, 47, on the tort of misfeasance in public office and bad faith by the university failed, based on the available facts.
Ms Ten began her postgraduate studies as a candidate for the degree of Master of Arts in Architecture by research at the School of Design and Environment at NUS in January 2002, and was due to complete her course by mid-2005. She had also "entered into a formal Research Scholarship Agreement" with the University the same month she began her candidature.
It was stated by Ms Ten that Dr Wong Yunn Chii, Associate Professor of the Department of Architecture and Ms Ten's sole supervisor at that time, had "obtained a grant of S$80,200 for a project to create a digital visualisation of Commercial Square which is today known as Raffles Place (“the Visualisation Project").
Justice Woo remarked: "For example, in an email from him [Dr Wong] to her [Ms Ten] dated 5 August 2004, he said, “Your work will be an important basis for the digital visualisation work – it is the content.”
In February 2005, Ms Ten alleged, in an email to Vice-Provost of Education at NUS, Ms Lily Kong, that Dr Wong had "evaded her question as to how he was going to acknowledge her thesis in the project".
He responded instead that he "had the right to use the primary sources from her work in the project because such sources did not belong to her", according to court documents.
Her candidature was eventually ended by the University in September 2006.
Consequently, Ms Ten filed a civil lawsuit against NUS in 2012 on the grounds of breach of contract, the tort of misfeasance in public office, the tort of intimidation, and the tort of negligence.
The court judgement noted:
The [NUS] COI [Committee of Inquiry] continued with its inquiry and issued its report on 20 July 2005. The COI concluded that:
(a) there was no evidence that Dr Wong had plagiarised the Plaintiff [Ms Ten]’s work. Dr Wong’s application for a grant had made sufficient reference to the Plaintiff’s expected contributions (even though the application did not expressly mention the Plaintiff’s name [...]
and wrote, "it is still this court’s hope that the parties will somehow reach a compromise which will see the Plaintiff being awarded the Degree finally. the parties will somehow reach a compromise which will see the Plaintiff being awarded the Degree finally."
Why using a student's thesis to apply for funding without naming the student, not plagiarism?
Justice Woo elaborated in his written judgement:
I note that the Abstract section of the Grant Application Form contained a statement that the Principal Investigator (meaning Dr Wong) was “presently supervising a Masters’ candidate in the historical study of this area; the work is close to a first draft.
In Annex A of the Grant Application Form, under Manpower Costs, there was a similar statement, “It is most opportune that one of [Dr Wong’s] supervisees is close to completing her master’s study of the development of this site”.
Therefore, even though the Plaintiff’s name was not specifically mentioned in the Grant Application Form, it was clear that Dr Wong was referring to her. As far as that form was concerned, Dr Wong was not trying to claim credit for her work.
Speaking to TOC, Ms Ten questioned as to why using a student's thesis to apply for funding from the Ministry of Education (MOE) for his own project, especially without even explicitly mentioning the student's name, does not constitute plagiarism as suggested by the COI's view on the matter above.
This also raises the question of whether or not a vague reference made by Dr Wong is truly sufficient and appropriate in terms of acknowledging Ms Ten's pivotal role in laying down the foundation of the work that enabled Dr Wong to secure a research grant for himself.
She was also perplexed as to why NUS condoned what can be interpreted as questionable behaviour by the supervisor. Ms Ten also revealed that Ms Kong did not inform her regarding this particular conclusion when she was told of the findings of the COI.
Omission of information from Vice-Provost to student
In the judgement, it was also stated that Ms Kong's summary had omitted the COI's conclusion "Dr Wong had failed to comply fully with his duties" as Ms Ten's supervisor.
Subsequently, the COI suggested that Dr Wong ought to "be censured for the manner in which he had supervised" Ms Ten, which included “his failure to systematically clarify how he would acknowledge Miss Ten's work”, opening the room for questioning the validity of the COI's conclusion that Dr Wong did not actually plagiarise Ms Ten's work.
The COI also recommended "that appropriate steps be taken to ensure that Dr Wong is fully aware of the role and duties of a supervisor to his student".
However, it was stated in the court judgement that Ms Ten was not even given "a copy of the COI report", and that she was not informed of the other members of the COI who had decided the outcome of her situation.Ms Ten highlighted the absurdity of not providing the COI report to her, when her complaint against Dr Wong was the very basis upon the formation of the COI in the first place, and thus could not avoid questioning the lack of transparency and accountability from a purportedly "world-class administration" as a result.
Furthermore, Ms Ten believes that there appears to be no guarantee that had she not brought upon legal action against NUS, the knowledge of COI's recommendation to censure Dr Wong will only remain within the University, and will subsequently leave the possibility that Dr Wong will be let off the hook eventually.
Touching on Dr Wong's involvement in the selection of examiners for Ms Ten's thesis, Justice Woo noted the following:
I also agree that it is arguable that VP Kong should have been more candid with the Plaintiff that Dr Wong was the one who made the initial recommendation of examiners. Instead, VP Kong omitted to address this point in her responses.
However, I am also of the view that, in any event, this did not constitute deliberate conduct. VP Kong was merely echoing NUS’ formal position that the head of department would make the recommendation and the dean of the faculty would then decide whether to confirm.
I am of the view that VP Kong honestly assumed, as did all the others involved, that Prof Li and Prof Clancey were persons of integrity. They had also honestly assumed that these persons were nominated purely on merit and not because they were friends of Dr Wong who had been informed that he had an issue with the Plaintiff.
However, Ms Ten wondered that, from a logical standpoint, how it is fair to her for NUS to allow Dr Wong, the same person she is complaining against for misusing her thesis, to be the one to recommend the examiners who will be in charge of marking her thesis, when the COI had already suggested that he ought to be censured for his unsatisfactory supervision of her thesis, adding that this outcome would run contrary to "natural justice".
The judge further remarked "that VP Lily Kong should not have omitted to mention that the COI had also concluded that Dr Wong [Yunn Chii] had failed to comply fully with his duties as a supervisor", and that "her summary gave an incomplete picture", adding that "the omission was not inadvertent [...]".
It was further added in the judgement that "the omission by VP Lily Kong had saved some face for Dr Wong [Yunn Chii]."
Ms Ten postulated that the fact that Ms Kong's omission of the particular finding above was telling of her lack of transparency and accountability to the former, and questioned whether such an action is an acceptable move by an officer of a university that is known to be Singapore's premier public university, and one that is consistently ranked as one of the best universities globally.
She also raised the question of whether Ms Kong was actually keen on helping her, or if the Vice-Provost felt more inclined to protect Dr Wong and NUS instead.
Ms Ten said, "Had I not sued NUS – nobody except NUS would have ever known that the COI report actually recommended that NUS censure Dr Wong Yunn Chii."
NUS: Willing to award degree as long as Ms Ten complies with requirement
According to The Straits Times, an NUS spokesperson stated on 30 July this year that the University was already seeking to grant her the Master's degree, but was not able to do so, as she did not fulfil the necessary administrative requirements.
"NUS remains willing to award the degree to Ms Ten as long as she complies with the applicable requirements as set out in the court judgment," said the spokesperson.
Court: Wrong to impose the Cessation of Correspondence requirement in order to obtain the Degree
Judge Woo in his ruling, noted:
More importantly, it was wrong of VP Kong to impose the first part of the Acceptance requirement as a condition for awarding the Degree. Put in another way, if the Plaintiff had complied with the uploading requirement and submitted Form RO.85, it would have been wrong of NUS not to award her the Degree because she failed to expressly say that she accepted the examination process. However, it does not follow that the imposition of the first part of the Acceptance requirement suggested deliberate conduct. …
... on the second part of the Acceptance requirement, ie, to require the Plaintiff to accept the decision of the COI on the plagiarism issue ... VP Kong ... in cross-examination ... did not accept that she had in fact imposed such a condition on the Plaintiff. As I have mentioned above, she did impose that condition. I also conclude that it was wrong of her to do so.
The letter sent to Ms Ten on the 11 August 2006, asked her to confirm that she accepted the “University’s decisions and will therefore, (a) comply with the uploading requirement as well as (b) cease your correspondence regarding the contents of your email of 27 November 2005”.
The judge noted that since Ms Ten was not obliged to accept the COI’s decision on the plagiarism issue, she was also not obliged to cease correspondence on the issue. Therefore, he expressed the view that VP Kong was also wrong to impose the Cessation of Correspondence requirement that the Ms Ten had to accept in order to obtain the Degree.
Civil suit about "the wrongful termination of my MA candidature by NUS": Ms Ten
In a blog post dated 18 July last year, Ms Ten explained her reasons for initiating legal action against NUS:
This lawsuit is not just about the negligence of Dr Wong as a supervisor or his professional enrichment through the use of my thesis. Most importantly, it is about the wrongful termination of my MA candidature by NUS. The termination of my candidature has affected my life. NUS failed to observe due process in investigating my complaint against Dr Wong, and penalised me for my refusal to accept the NUS’ dubious investigation.
A public body like NUS is financially strong to drag this out in court. The longer it drags, the more painful and difficult it is for an individual like me to seek justice. This lawsuit is also about representing the voice of those who cannot afford to access equal legal resources.
NUS managed to withhold crucial information about facts related to my lawsuit until as late as July 2015, when it eventually disclosed information that would adversely affect its case. To date, I have hundreds of thousands of legal fees to pay and I have already spent more than S$100,000 in fees.
Not only has NUS tried to strike out my case a number of times, NUS had also tried to make me a bankrupt by issuing me a "statutory demand" under The Bankruptcy Act (dated 3 May 2016) to pay the cost orders in the interim applications that I had lost to NUS.
She elaborated on her heavy financial costs that has arose from the legal battle against NUS, and has appealed to the public for donations as a means to help her seek justice and, consequently, to finally obtain her Master's degree as well as damages as a result of NUS' refusal to grant her the degree:
I do not want to drop this matter because I believe that justice should be served. And I think Singaporeans will not allow such an injustice to happen. I hope that my 12-year battle with NUS will make it to Court.
I’m asking Singaporeans to stand behind a fellow Singaporean, and crowdfund justice. It is truly unfortunate that I have to raise $11,000 just for the Court hearing fees and at such short notice. NUS has used its own power to bully me and is able to use the legal system to its advantage as a result of the unequal access to resources.
While Ms Ten eventually managed to raise the amount via crowdfunding and continued with her trial, she is now faced with a huge claim from NUS for their legal costs.
TOC understands that NUS filed S$600,000 for its legal cost against Ms Ten.
When asked what are her plans moving forward, Ms Ten said, "I am considering action against the individuals who have ruined my life in the last ten years and caused me to lose my life savings in legal costs. When the fees are slapped against me - I have no money left so I guess NUS will sue me and make me bankrupt."