Singapore’s Ngee Ann Poly lecturer under probe for allegedly making Islamophobic remarks, may be dismissed if warranted

A screengrab from a video showing Tan Boon Lee (right) arguing with Dave Parkash and a screengrab from Ms Nurul Fatimah Iskandar's Instagram post. — Pictures via Facebook/Dave Park Ash and Instagram/Nurul Fatimah Iskandar
A screengrab from a video showing Tan Boon Lee (right) arguing with Dave Parkash and a screengrab from Ms Nurul Fatimah Iskandar's Instagram post. — Pictures via Facebook/Dave Park Ash and Instagram/Nurul Fatimah Iskandar

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SINGAPORE, June 11 — Ngee Ann Polytechnic is investigating an alumnus’ account of how a lecturer was said to have made personal and derogatory remarks on Islam, and will not hesitate to take disciplinary action, which includes dismissing the lecturer.

Second Minister for Education Maliki Osman said this in a Facebook post yesterday, where he expressed his shock and disappointment at the alleged behaviour of the lecturer, Tan Boon Lee.

The accounts against Tan surfaced when former Ngee Ann Polytechnic student, Nurul Fatimah Iskandar, 22, took to Instagram to claim that she was on the receiving end of Islamophobic comments made by the senior lecturer at the polytechnic’s School of Engineering. 

She did this after Tan was captured confronting an inter-ethnic couple and made racist remarks to them in public. The video went viral last Sunday.

He was seen having an argument with Dave Parkash, a Singaporean who is half-Indian and half-Filipino, about Parkash dating a woman who is half-Chinese and half-Thai. He also accused Parkash of being racist for not “marrying” an Indian girl.

He has since been suspended from work by the polytechnic.

Nurul’s Instagram post, which also went viral, claimed that Tan had used lesson time on June 28 in 2017 to have a “full-on discourse about Islam which escalated so badly”.

Some former students at the polytechnic also took to social media to talk about their encounters with Tan.

Other than derogatory remarks he purportedly made about Muslims, he had also made insensitive remarks about Christianity, one alumnus claimed. 

In response to TODAY’s queries, Ngee Ann Polytechnic said that it is aware of allegations made by an alumnus on social media against the lecturer who “inappropriately discussed religion in class” in 2017.

“We strive to ensure that our campus remains a safe and conducive space for learning at all times and we deeply regret the experience our alumnus went through,” it said, adding that the school has reached out to Nurul for more information. 

The polytechnic also stressed that it has a zero-tolerance approach to any form of misconduct by members of its community. 

“Our staff members are expected to respect the cultural, ethnic and religious differences when interacting with students and other staff members. They must uphold secularity and impartiality at all times, in line with our staff code of conduct.”

It also said that the polytechnic will “not hesitate to take disciplinary action, including dismissal, if appropriate”.

Students and alumni who have encountered similar experiences are encouraged to contact the polytechnic via email at [email protected]

Dr Maliki said that Ngee Ann Polytechnic and the Ministry of Education (MOE) take a serious view of this incident.

“There is no place for any anti-ethnic and anti-religious remarks in our education institutions, and even more so from an educator.”

He added that MOE and education institutions here have a zero-tolerance stance towards any behaviour or remark that is intentionally insensitive and derogatory to any race or religion.

“All our educators are expected to uphold the code of conduct set out by their institutions, which states clearly that they must uphold secularity and impartiality at all times.”

Talked about verses from Quran

Nurul, who is now an electrical engineering undergraduate at the National University of Singapore, said that the incident she recalled happened in her second year of the electronic and computer engineering course she took at the polytechnic.

Tan taught her class for a programming module once a week.

That day, he had allegedly referred to several websites in class, pointing out verses from the Quran, Islam’s holy book, and translated them at face value.

He also purportedly singled out Nurul, who was sitting in the front row, and asked if she agreed with him. This rendered Nurul speechless.

Nurul said that she was fresh out of 10 years of the madrasah (Islamic school) system and trying to assimilate into a new secular environment. She added that she was the only Muslim in class at the time.  

She later left the class to wait for Tan to finish his “unsettling speech”. 

‘Had to bite my tongue’

Nurul told TODAY that the incident happened only once that semester and she lodged a complaint with the school afterwards. She did not receive any response, she added. 

She could not provide a copy of the email she sent then because her student email account was deactivated when she graduated.

“He was generally rude and condescending but he did not outwardly make any racist comments to me (after the incident).

“Even if he did, I would have let it pass. I had to bite my tongue a lot because I was a scholarship student and I had to protect my grades.”

What others say

Nurul’s Instagram post, which has received more than 25,000 likes, prompted many former and current students to talk about their experiences.

One Instagram user claimed that Tan had made remarks about Christianity in class, which “caused an outrage” among the students.

Another user, a third-year Ngee Ann Polytechnic electrical engineering student, told TODAY that he recalled Tan mentioning “something to do with Malays and Islam”, which offended his Muslim classmate during class. He did not want to be named as he did not want to be identified by the school.

Sky Liu, a third-year electronic and computer engineering student who was taught by Tan during an overseas immersion programme in China two years ago, said that he was shocked by recent events.

The 19-year-old described Tan as being sociable and cheerful during the month-long trip and said that race and religion were not topics brought up at the time. 

He also said that Tan could teach “relatively well”, adding that “he did explain things in a way that I understood”.

Nurul was however of the view that her former lecturer’s approach to discussing race and religion can cause strife within the community.

“I strongly believe that understanding different faiths is a fundamental aspect of social harmony,” she added. 

“Taking the information at face value and making sweeping misconceptions may lead to a false understanding of what Islam truly means.” 

Dr Maliki said in his Facebook post that there are many opportunities in society, especially in schools and institutions, to learn more about one another, and “understand and appreciate the differences and common ground that we share as we strengthen our social cohesion”.

“We can and must do better.” 

In an interview with CNA938 radio station on Thursday, Law and Home Affairs Minister K Shanmugam said that incidents involving racist behaviour have happened in the past but did not get aired as much.

“We must also accept that things are different now. People, and racial sensitivities, are also heightened and there have been more in-your-face incidents,” he said.

“I am not quite able to say that’s only because of social media. But, we shouldn’t go away thinking that this is new... I made the point that racism has always existed and I have said that years ago.”

TODAY has reached out to Tan for comments. — TODAY

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