O-level cheating case: Warrant of arrest issued against ex-principal who didn’t turn up in court

Poh Yuan Nie had been assisted by her then-tutors to help six students cheat during the 2016 O-level examinations. PHOTO: ST FILE

SINGAPORE – A warrant of arrest has been issued against the former principal of the now-defunct Zeus Education Centre, who was earlier sentenced to four years’ jail over multiple counts of cheating involving six candidates in the 2016 O-level examinations.

Lawyer Peter Fernando, who had earlier represented Poh Yuan Nie, 56, told The Straits Times on Thursday that the warrant of arrest was issued after she failed to turn up in court to begin her jail sentence. “I don’t know where she is now,” said Mr Fernando, who had discharged himself from representing her following a pre-trial conference on Wednesday.

Poh and her niece, former tutor Fiona Poh Min, 35, were each convicted in 2020 of 27 charges of engaging in a conspiracy to cheat. Fiona Poh was then sentenced to three years’ jail.

The pair then took the case to the Court of Appeal in a procedure known as a criminal reference, seeking to have the apex court determine a question of law of public interest.

The issue posed to the court turned on the meaning of the word “dishonest” in the phrase “dishonest concealment of facts”.

The pair’s lawyers argued that the meaning of “dishonest” has to be determined with reference to the definition of “dishonestly” under Section 24 of the Penal Code.

The provision states that a person is said to do an act dishonestly if he or she does it with the intention of causing wrongful gain or wrongful loss to another person.

The prosecution argued that a plain or ordinary meaning of “dishonest” should be adopted instead.

In a written judgment on Monday, the apex court agreed with the prosecution that the word “dishonest” must be interpreted as being used in the ordinary sense of the word rather than in the special sense given to it by Section 24 of the Penal Code.

The court also concluded that the word “dishonest” describes the mental state of the accused when committing a cheating offence.

Poh Yuan Nie, also known as Pony, had been assisted by her then tutors, including her niece, to help the students cheat in their papers during the examinations. They committed the offences on multiple occasions in October 2016.

The prosecution had earlier stated in its submissions that Poh Yuan Nie was paid $8,000 per student by Mr Dong Xin – a Chinese national – to provide tuition for the youngsters to help them pass the examinations and enter local polytechnics.

A few hours before each examination, a group of people, including Fiona Poh and then tutor Tan Jia Yan, helped to tape communication devices on the students.

Tan, then 34, was sentenced to three years’ jail in 2019 over her role in the ruse.

The students then sat the examinations with the devices taped to their bodies, carefully concealed by their clothes.

Tan also sat the examinations as a private candidate and used the FaceTime application on her phone to present a live stream of the question papers to the tuition centre. Her accomplices then worked on the questions they received via the live stream before the students were called and had the answers read out to them.

Poh Yuan Nie oversaw the entire process, said the prosecution. Tan and Fiona Poh reversed their roles for mathematics paper 2 as Tan was better at the subject.

The prosecution had stated that this criminal set-up succeeded for three papers from Oct 19 to 21 in 2016. But it got exposed on Oct 24 that year when an alert invigilator heard unusual electronic transmissions and voices coming from one of the students.

After the examination, the student was taken to an office where he handed over the devices, including Bluetooth receivers and an earpiece. He also came clean about how the ruse was carried out.

Poh Yuan Nie still has pending charges, including multiple counts of cheating. A review of her arrest warrant will be held on Jan 18, 2023. Fiona Poh has one pending charge of intentionally obstructing, preventing, perverting or defeating the course of justice. Her pre-trial conference will be held eight days later.

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