SINGAPORE: A teacher accused of pocketing S$40,000 from students broke down in court on Monday (Jun 24) as she described how she was "humiliated" and escorted by police officers in handcuffs in front of teachers and students.
Maslinda Zainal, then Head of Department (HOD) for English at Woodgrove Secondary School, took the stand for the first time and told the court how Ministry of Education (MOE) investigators "harassed" her despite her telling them what she had used the money for.
The 44-year-old, who has a master's in education and had seven to eight teachers reporting to her at the time, is contesting two charges of criminal breach of trust as a public servant. She is accused of misappropriating about S$40,000 meant for students' learning materials between January 2016 and April 2017.
Dressed in black, Maslinda took the stand for an ancillary hearing into the taking of a police statement.
Bursting into tears and sobbing at various parts of her testimony, Maslinda told the court that she had stayed up late marking her students' essays the night before she was arrested.
The next morning, the vice-principal of the school told her to meet her at a conference room, where MOE investigators were waiting for her.
She said she did not know why they wanted to see her, and was told that the principal had made a complaint against her for over-collecting money from students. The evidence of the alleged crime was purportedly kept in a thick, red ring file the investigators had.
Maslinda, who has since been suspended, said she asked to look at the file but was not allowed to.
"I WAS TREATED AS IF I WAS GUILTY": ACCUSED
"After this, she started accusing me of using the money for things which I have never done," said Maslinda, referring to one of the investigators. "She told me that I have used the money to pay for down payment of a property, to buy luxury products for myself. She accused me of splurging on myself, giving the money to others."
Maslinda said she explained that she had used the extra money to buy items for students such as assessment books and stationery, all of which were in her cubicle. However, she did not have any receipts or invoices to prove this.
"She told me if you don't have receipts or invoices, then we cannot take that into account, (it's) your personal expenses," said Maslinda. "I said - how can they be my personal expenses if the items are all sitting in my cubicle?"
After this the MOE investigators "ransacked" her cubicle, Maslinda said, going through her cupboard, drawers and looking under her desk.
When prompted by defence lawyer Singa Retnam to share how she felt, Maslinda said: "I was very disappointed because regardless of what I said, regardless of what I had shown to (the investigators), they were still harassing me and asking me what I did with the money."
"I was treated as if I was guilty, I was treated as if I was a criminal," said Maslinda.
She said she told an MOE investigator that she had "given up" because the investigator was still "harassing" her to admit that she had used the money, even though she had explained what she used the money for.
I FELT HUMILIATED: ACCUSED
The police arrived and handcuffed Maslinda, escorting her down to the carpark where a police car waited.
"There were teachers and students at the time, your honour," Maslinda told District Judge Ng Cheng Thiam, breaking down and crying. "I felt ... humiliated."
Maslinda said she was taken to Jurong Police Station and cuffed to a railing at the basement carpark for about an hour, before she was taken for photo-taking, finger-printing and blood-sampling.
"They took away my belongings, they told me to remove my hijab and they also took away my spectacles," said Maslinda. "I told this officer that I can’t see without my glasses, but she insisted that I surrender my spectacles."
She began sobbing again when describing how she asked to call her husband as her son, who went to Woodgrove Secondary, was waiting for her to take him home.
She claimed that a police officer, Station Inspector Navindeer Singh, accused her of taking about S$300,000. He came to this figure by multiplying S$20,000 - the approximate figure for each of her two charges - by 15 years, the total time she had been at the school.
"I told him that I did not do such a thing and I broke down and cried very, very badly," said Maslinda. "He then threatened me. He said - as a civil servant, when you're charged with criminal breach of trust, are you aware that you're facing a life sentence, you will never see your family ever again."
She claimed that the officer said the police would let her off and not charge her if she signed on a statement they had prepared for her and agreed to pay "whatever amount" they asked her to.
Claiming that she was "really very, very scared", Maslinda said she would agree to anything and signed the statement without reading it.
In one of the statements she had given to police, Maslinda admitted to taking about S$10,000.
The prosecution in its cross-examination said Maslinda had made several allegations in the hearing that were not previously made through her lawyers.
Deputy Public Prosecutor David Koh put it to Maslinda that with her experience and education, she would have signed on a police statement only if it contained her words.
She answered that logically, one would think that someone with her education and experience would sign a statement only if it were hers, but disagreed that she had done so, as she said she was very fearful at the time.
The trial continues for the rest of the week.
If convicted of criminal breach of trust, Maslinda can be jailed up to 10 years and fined for each charge.