Details of the pathological torture suffered by Annie Ee Yu Lian, no less at the hands of a couple whom she regarded as family, have shocked the conscience of the Singapore public. When Miss Ee, 26, died after eight months of abuse, an autopsy report revealed that she had 12 fractured ribs, seven fractured vertebrae, a ruptured stomach, and a body crowded with blisters and bruises. The cause of her death was acute fat embolism. The beatings had been so severe that fatty tissue below the skin had separated from the muscle and entered her bloodstream, interfering with blood getting oxygen in the lungs and leading to progressive cardiac and respiratory failure. Thus ended an innocent life at the hands of two criminals, who have been jailed for lengthy periods, with the man being given the cane as well. In the immediate future, Singapore will be safe from these two deformed caricatures of humanity, but what about other Annie Ees and other monsters?
The answer must lie in the preventive stance that Singaporeans are prepared to take against brutality in their midst. What is almost as horrifying as the bruises that were found on that unfortunate woman is the realisation that no one tried to help her. Admittedly, so great was her psychological dependence on her tormentors that she tried to cover up the reason for her extensive bruises. Nevertheless, she had come in contact with neighbours, colleagues and, on separate occasions, a clinic assistant and doctor. How she could have gone through these encounters, without anyone alerting the police, must trouble the moral imagination. It is not that any of them necessarily was irresponsible or callous, but the ease with which she slipped through the safety net of social vigilance is vexing, to say the least. Abuse cannot be fought unless there are people willing to fight it.
One reason advanced to explain the lapse in Miss Ee's case is that Singaporeans are not comfortable culturally with prying into the lives of others. Also, some potential whistle-blowers could be concerned about compromising their own safety should they be identified. The second consideration cannot be dismissed, but Singapore is not a lawless society. There is sufficient regard for the law and its astringent reach to deter those who would seek to go after whistle-blowers who cooperate with the police or are prepared to take a stand in court.
It is the first reason that is problematic. Individuals, families and organisations all enjoy a right to privacy. However, that claim ends when they enter the lives of others, violently in many cases and fatally as in Miss Ee's instance. Every Singaporean must ask what she or he would have expected others to do had she or he been the victim. Intervene, of course. In that case, every Singaporean has to intervene for others. It was too late for Annie Ee. It must not be so for others.