Think “international manhunt” and the image that likely springs to mind is that of a hardened criminal like a murderer, bank robber or billion-dollar fraudster – not the middle-aged boss of a high school tuition center.
But that’s who’s at the center of a Red Notice issued this week by the International Criminal Police Organization, or Interpol, which facilitates police cooperation between 194 countries.
Poh Yuan Nie, 57, is thought to have fled Singapore after masterminding an elaborate cheating scam during the Southeast Asian country’s annual GCE O Level examinations, which students take during their final year of high school.
Poh failed to surrender to police after a court sentenced her to four years in prison for running the scam, in which she and three of her tutors fed answers to students using a system of bodycams, earphones and bluetooth devices.
Private tuition centers are big business in the wealthy city-state where the pressure for students to perform well can be overwhelming and it is not unusual for monthly fees at established private tuition centers to cost up to 2,000 Singapore dollars (around Ksh.187,185).
According to early court documents, Poh, 57, and her three accomplices – her niece Fiona Poh Min, ex-girlfriend Tan Jia Yan and a Chinese national named Feng Riwen – were each paid 8,000 Singapore dollars (around Ksh.760,975) by a man from China to help six students aged between 17 and 20 – also from China – pass the GCE exams in 2016 so they could enter local colleges.
The payment would have been fully refunded if the students did not pass the exams.
Under Poh’s instructions, the six students wore skin-colored earphones and taped mobile phones and bluetooth devices to their bodies so that they could be fed answers by Tan who posed as a private student sitting the same test papers.
With the help of a hidden camera phone taped to her chest, Tan live streamed the questions to Poh and the two other tutors back at the tuition center, who then worked out the answers and fed them to the students.
They were rumbled when an exam invigilator heard unusual noises coming from one of the students, who came clean when questioned.
After a year-long trial that ended in 2020, Poh was convicted on 27 counts of cheating and sentenced to four years’ jail. Her Red Notice on Interpol included a mugshot and listed her charges of “abetment to commit cheating.”
Singapore police, who requested the notice from Interpol, said Poh had been due to begin her jail term in September, but failed to surrender herself. Her three accomplices are all currently serving their respective prison terms, police said.
“Poh was convicted for a series of cheating offenses, having conspired with students to cheat in the 2016 GCE O Level examinations,” the Singapore Police Force said in a statement, adding that local warrants had also been issued for her arrest.
“She was ordered in September 2022 to surrender herself to serve her imprisonment term but she did not do so.”
According to Interpol, global law enforcement units are requested to locate and arrest people under Red Notices – pending extradition, surrender or other legal actions.
The case has put the spotlight on a school system that is ranked among the world’s best and is known for its competitiveness.
Singapore’s government has implemented a raft of reforms in recent years aimed at easing the mental burden on students who can face immense pressure to achieve good grades.
The GCE O Level exams can be a particularly stressful time, as they define a student’s entire high school performance and determine which local college or vocational institute they can go to.
The exams, known in full as General Certificate of Education Ordinary Level, are national tests in mathematics, science, languages and humanities.
They are conducted jointly by the Cambridge Assessment International Examination and Singapore’s Ministry of Education. They are not the same as the annual British GCSE examinations.
GCE exams are usually taken by students aged 16 and 17 and are also open to private candidates. Every year around 30,000 students sit the exams, according to MOE estimates.