Are we Students, or are we Lovers?

An exploration of the implications of student-teacher relationships

by Zhang Chuangzhong

In a student’s journey from the formative to the educated, teachers are the beacons of light illuminating the path before us. Playing such an important role, the teacher-student relationship is inevitably close, and in some situations, almost intimate. The question then arises: when does such a relationship cross the threshold from professional to personal? Is a casual invitation to the tutor’s house, or perhaps a cup of coffee at a nearby café, an illicit affair?

Recent headlines have revealed such a complication, with the relationship between student Darinne Ko and professor Tey Tsun Hang branded as ‘sex for grades’ by the media. Conversely, both parties have alleged that their relationship was born out of mutual attraction, with the gifts given out of affection, not bribery, and the grades awarded out of academic excellence, not partiality. In every teaching contract, there is invariably a clause stating that a teacher must maintain professional boundaries in his or her interactions with students. In NUS, for example, the Code of Conduct mandates staff members to ensure that their private activities are not in conflict with professional obligations. The university enforces this by demanding that their staff declare any personal relationships that result in a conflict of interests, as well as any gifts received from students that are worth more than a hundred dollars.

However, while boundaries of professionalism are demarcated, such clauses are often vague and fail to explicitly and specifically detail the limits of such a relationship. Yet it is admittedly difficult to determine the exact degree of familiarity that begins to contravene a professional relationship, given the infinitely complex nature of interpersonal relationships.

Further, partiality is also punishable as a crime. Under the Prevention of Corruption Act (PCA)1, a person will be found guilty for corruptly giving or receiving from another a gratification as an inducement or as a reward for doing or forbearing to do something. Under this provision, the courts will consider a person ‘corrupt’ if he or she induces another to act dishonestly or unfaithfully. However, it is oftentimes difficult to assess a person’s intention behind a certain gift. Corruption, therefore, is an insidious shape shifter taking many forms, from the innocuous keepsake to the devious seduction. This difficulty was recognized by the courts in Chan Wing Seng v PP2, where they have ruled that a precise definition of ‘corrupt’ should be avoided, given that such a definition may unnecessarily restrict the section and compromise its effect. Further, given that ‘gratification’ encompasses a wide range of acts, it is consequently difficult to determine if a gift or favour is presented under the guise of corruption. The result is that the PCA casts a wide net, which bestows upon the courts a wide discretion to exercise their authority.

Hence, these laws suggest that the scope for a personal student-teacher relationship is extremely narrow. What, then, is to be made of a genuine friendship or relationship blossoming between student and teacher? Friendships, much more relationships, can arise out of the most unexpected of situations, and given the extensive amount of time students spend around teachers, it is not unreasonable to expect a few close friendships developing. To maintain a harmless relationship without risking any misconstruction, the obvious solution will be to keep everything aboveboard, with outings carried out in groups, and gifts kept to simple cards and trinkets. More drastically, the parties can perhaps implement a hiatus to delay any further deepening of the relationship until the student graduates. Then again, who can fathom the intricacies of human relationships? Regulation may not always prove to be the most feasible of solutions. Where relationships grow more and more intense, risks will inevitably be taken, as both parties war with their conflicting emotions. The line between the professional and the personal will be consequently blurred.

However, it should be noted that the consequences of contravening the law are dire. Not only will the teacher lose his job and face criminal punishment, but the student will be implicated as well. Punishment under the PCA entails a fine of up to a hundred thousand dollars or imprisonment of up to five years, or both. Interestingly, even if the person is not convicted, the consequences are catastrophic as long as the charge can be made out. Both parties will have their credibility and moral integrity damaged by the media, which has both the ability and the tendency to gleefully disclose the names and personal details of accused persons. Further, given the social stigma attached to such cases, coupled with the relatively conservative nature of Singaporeans, this damage will be irrevocably destructive to the parties’ social and professional lives. Even a complete acquittal, then, will be of little significance if reputations were shredded in the process.  The headlines and media hype over Tey and Ko’s case highlights this very situation, where derogatory comments on the parties’ actions, background and even looks are splashed across every media channel.

One cannot help but wonder if all these could have been avoided. If the school could have implemented a system to manage such relationships at the onset, such controversy could have been avoided. As it currently stands, the university has indeed recognized the inevitability of familial relationships by regulating the extent to which such relationships interfere with professionalism. Professors are required to declare any relatives who have entered the school and are accordingly prohibited from teaching them, setting and even discussing examinations. Perhaps the university could consider extending these measures to student-teacher relationships. Such measures could have allowed Koh and Tey to seek recourse by declaring and subsequently abiding by the accompanying regulations, instead of keeping their relationship in the shadows, only to have the blinding light of the law expose their affairs.

“Let us not to the marriage of true minds admit impediments”. Shakespearean fans will resonate with the idealism in his words, even as cynics scoff. Yet it must be qualified, that there is a proper place and time for a friendship or relationship to be borne to fruition. For two parties who are of one mind, surely a few short years will be a small price to pay. The hasty, however, bears a most burdensome risk, as Tey and Ko are finding out for themselves. Moreover, given that Tey and Ko are no longer seeing each other, one cannot help but wonder if the risks that they took for that short affair were worth such a costly venture.

Taken from the Dean’s Message to the Student body: It was never the prosecution’s case that grades were in fact tampered with. NUS Law is acutely aware that grades and degrees shape the future of the graduates, and the school’s reputation as an institution. The school is conducting a review to ensure the integrity of the grading system and thus far have found no evidence of any irregularities.

[1] Cap 241, 1993 Rev Ed

[2] [1997] 1 SLR(R) 721