SINGAPORE, Aug 12 — A former head of department (HOD) at Woodgrove Secondary School today lost an appeal against her conviction and jail sentence for misappropriating S$40,000 that students had forked out for learning materials.

Maslinda Zainal will begin serving her one-and-a-half-year jail term on Aug 26, after asking for time to find a replacement for some classes she has been teaching.

The 47-year-old veteran English teacher was found guilty last year of two counts of criminal breach of trust as a public servant following a trial in the State Courts. She then filed an appeal in the High Court.

She had been head of English at Woodgrove Secondary — located along Woodlands Avenue 6 — from 2006 until her arrest in 2017, and has been suspended from duty since then. She earned a gross monthly salary of S$8,800 at the time.

She was in charge of collecting money that students had given to their English teachers for the learning materials, known as “Excel packages”. She also liaised with the bookstore that printed the packages.

She accepted that she knew what she paid the bookstore for printing the packages was less than what she received from the students.

However, in her appeal, she challenged the surplus amounts listed in her charges.

She argued that she was not dishonest but merely negligent, and claimed that she spent all of the surplus cash on stationery and assessment books to be used by students and teachers.

High Court judge Chua Lee Ming agreed with the lower court judge, who had convicted Maslinda, that only part of the surplus amount was spent for that purpose. She used the rest on her personal expenses.

Maslinda had also admitted in a police statement that she kept the extra money for herself because it was a hassle to return it to the students, and that she did not tell other teachers or her husband about it.

As for the quantum of the surplus amounts, Justice Chua reduced it by S$12 after accepting that Maslinda collected money from a class of 34 students instead of 33 students.

The judge then rejected Maslinda’s other arguments, saying that the rest of the total misappropriated sum was proven by way of booklists given to students, class lists and evidence given by other teachers.

He agreed with the prosecution that one of Maslinda’s contentions “smacks of desperation”. She had brought up a new allegation that evidence of the amounts collected was not reliable because some of the teachers who testified were not named in the class lists.

Justice Chua further agreed with the lower court judge that Maslinda betrayed the trust she held as an HOD, and that her actions “have harmed public confidence in the teaching service”.

“Her submissions included blaming the school for not having implemented a better system for the collection of monies from the students. This demonstrated a lack of remorse,” Justice Chua added.

He then ruled that Maslinda’s sentence was not manifestly excessive. Maslinda had taught for about 20 years and held a master’s degree in education. As department head, seven to eight teachers reported directly to her.

Her offences from 2016 to 2017 came to light when the school's lower-secondary English head, Ms Jacqueline Chan, asked the bookshop seller on the first day of school in 2017 for a copy of the invoices for the books.

The seller responded that Maslinda had told her to give the invoices only to Maslinda and not to hand them to Ms Chan.

When Ms Chan eventually obtained a copy of the invoices, she realised there was a discrepancy between the amounts being collected by the teachers and the amounts on the invoices.

She later flagged the issue to a vice-principal. Investigators from the Ministry of Education, and the police were later called in.

All 20 teachers in the school's English department testified in court during the course of the trial and they said Maslinda did not tell them about the excess money being collected.

For each charge of criminal breach of trust as a public servant, Maslinda could have been jailed up to 10 years and fined.

She was represented by defence lawyer Singa Retnam from IRB Law along with Ms Josephine Costan from David Nayar & Associates. The prosecution was led by Deputy Public Prosecutor David Koh. — TODAY