Should maid abusers who cane their employees or even burn them get higher sentences?
This is the issue a High Court panel of three judges that includes the Chief Justice will consider as it looks into the appeal of a couple convicted of caning and slapping their maid, and subjecting her to other humiliating "punishments".
This comes a year after Chief Justice Sundaresh Menon signalled the need to review sentencing benchmarks "upwards" for maid abuse when an appropriate case came before the court.
He said the lower courts "might not have sufficiently taken into account the acute need for deterrence" and also not have appreciated the need to calibrate sentences across the full range of punishments laid down by Parliament.
Yesterday, such an appropriate case presented itself. Former regional IT manager Tay Wee Kiat and his wife Chia Yun Ling, sentenced to jail terms of 28 months and two months, respectively, for abusing their Indonesian maid, are appealing against the guilty verdict and their punishment. The prosecution has asked the court to increase the sentences for Tay, 39, and Chia, 41.
Among other things, Tay was found guilty of forcing Ms Fitriyah to stand on one leg on a stool while holding another stool in her hand. She had to maintain the position for half an hour, with a small plastic bottle shoved into her mouth. He had also hit the maid with three canes bundled together, and made her and another maid slap each other 10 times. Chia was found guilty of slapping and punching Ms Fitriyah.
They were charged with causing simple hurt to the maid, which carries a maximum of three years in jail. The couple are also on trial for abusing another maid, 28-year-old Myanmar national Moe Moe Than.
At the appeal hearing yesterday, the prosecution, represented by Solicitor-General Kwek Mean Luck, said it was timely to review current sentences to deter the abuse of maids. He said that even after penalties were increased by Parliament in 1998 - when it was decided that maid abusers would face 1.5 times the typical jail term for offences including causing hurt and causing grievous hurt - there were 24 cases of maid abuse involving simple assault last year. This is the highest since numbers dipped to 15 in 2013.
Mr Kwek proposed three sentencing categories, depending on the degree of harm and the level of culpability. Jail terms will start from three months for "one-off" cases with minor or no injury, like a single slap. It should be at least nine months in jail for offenders who use objects like a cane to cause visible injuries - the second category.
Abuse involving severe harm and culpability, including burning the victim, will fall under the most serious category, with jail terms of at least 18 months. Under this proposal, Tay should get 38 months in jail and Chia, three months.
The couple's lawyer Wee Pan Lee argued that they should be cleared of the charges, pointing out inconsistencies in the maid's testimony.
He also took issue with the prosecution over "shifting the goalposts" in several charges against Tay. For instance, one offence was originally said to have taken place between noon and 1pm on Oct 18, 2012. After Tay produced records to show he was at work, the timeframe was widened to between June and December 2012.
The court, which also includes Judge of Appeal Tay Yong Kwang and Justice See Kee Oon, will give its decision at a later date.