|AFTER all the reports of his designer togs and red Ferrari, I decided to ask the stylishly-dressed man about the label of the jacket he wore yesterday.
| MY SIDE: Mr Benny Yap, whose two schools offered fake degrees, held a press conference yesterday. TNP PICTURE: MOHD ISHAK
He raised his eyebrows.
Then his puzzled look gave way to one of amusement. He broke into a slight grin.
‘This is just Giordano,’ Mr Benny Yap Chee Mun said with a chuckle, fingering the collar of his black jacket.
The 39-year-old is at the centre of a controversy over fake degrees offered by his Brookes Business School and Stamford Global Learning Centre.
The schools were ordered to close last week for contravening the Education Act.
The Straits Times reported last month that Brookes was peddling fake degrees from reputable institutions such as the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology (RMIT).
In the short time that I had with Mr Yap after the press conference he held yesterday, he revealed that he earned about $12,000 a month as owner/director of the two schools.
Surely he lives well then, I asked, seeking to understand the essence of the man who cut a smart figure in a grey shirt with a white mandarin collar under his jacket, pairing it with dark blue jeans and black dress shoes.
Does he live lavishly?
‘No, I don’t, though I would love to,’ he replied candidly.
He lives in a five-room flat in Sengkang with his family.
He portrayed himself as a family man: ‘I might as well tell you this: I don’t drink and I don’t smoke.’
Does he gamble?
‘No, I don’t gamble,’ he answered, smiling. He added that he is a Buddhist and goes to the temple occasionally.
His eagle-eyed lawyer, Mr Subhas Anandan, who stood near Mr Yap, added with a grin: ‘He doesn’t womanise either.’
Mr Yap has a son, 10, and a five-year-old daughter with his wife of more than 10 years.
Mr Anandan added that he has spoken to Mr Yap’s wife and sister, and is certain that his family is ‘standing by him and supporting him’.
While he admitted having a ‘passion for racing, go-karting and sports cars’, Mr Yap said that he has never owned a sports car.
Instead, he drives a 3 Series ‘second-hand Beamer’ (BMW).
Mr Yap remained calm and composed when reporters grilled him earlier about the events that led to the closure of his schools.
He appeared tired only once when he closed his eyes and rubbed his temple with his right hand. That lasted barely two seconds.
He looked at me intently when I asked him questions, and kept his gaze fixed on me as he answered.
The well-spoken man appeared confident and earnest.
Mr Anandan told me how Mr Yap approached him to be his lawyer. Said Mr Anandan: ‘He came to my office and, like all clients, he was worried and came to talk about his problems.’
Mr Anandan added that Mr Yap was the one who wanted to hold a press conference to clarify some reports.
The clarifications: He never intended to cheat students, and he never changed his handphone number to avoid the press.
He explained that he merely diverted his calls to his school, and had instructed his staff to answer the calls. He did this because he is under police investigation, and did not want to be disturbed.
Mr Yap said: ‘I am a victim, I’m definitely not out to cheat students.’
He claimed that he was ‘scammed’ by a Vietnamese man, known only as Mr Suong, who claimed that he was from RMIT’s offshore campus in Vietnam.
He paid Mr Suong about US$10,000 ($14,500) for the right to offer RMIT business degree courses and to use its syllabus.
Students who ‘graduated’ with the school’s bogus degrees have been outraged. Many have already landed jobs and are worried about being found out by their employers.
Genuine RMIT graduates, too, are upset. They are worried that the credibility of their certificates would be tarnished.
Mr Anandan said Mr Yap ‘is paying a heavy penalty for the things he should have done,’ including exercising more ‘due diligence’ and refunding students.
Mr Yap said he has been forking out money from his own savings to refund about 50 students, most of whom were supposed to get RMIT degrees.
Some had completed their studies at Brookes, while the others were halfway through.
Each student received $12,000 to $17,000.
Mr Yap claimed he had spent between $1 million and $2 million on compensation, staff salaries, and refunds so far.
He said he found out about the closure of his schools only after they were ordered closed.
Call from MOE
‘My staff SMSed me after MOE (Ministry of Education) called my handphone and was diverted to the school.
‘That was how I found out,’ he said, adding that he was ‘very shocked’ as he did not expect it.
‘My main goal now is to help the students, to transfer them to other 0000 schools,’ he said.
About 90 students have been transferred, he added.
He could not say how many students are enrolled in his schools but, earlier reports said Brookes had about 400 students.
Having been in the business for a decade, will he return to education if this saga blows over?
With a tinge of sadness, he said: ‘I’d love to, but I don’t think I can.’