Maid abuse case: Employer's wife has suffered from anorexia and obsessive-compulsive disorder

Chong Sui Foon (left) and her husband Lim Choon Hong on the third day of their trial.
Chong Sui Foon (left) and her husband Lim Choon Hong on the third day of their trial.ST PHOTO: WONG KWAI CHOW

SINGAPORE - The man on trial for underfeeding his former Filipino domestic worker on Wednesday (Dec 16) spoke of his wife's obsession with cleanliness and her mental illnesses - anorexia nervosa and obsessive-compulsive disorder.

Businessman Lim Choon Hong said he often travelled for work, and left charge of the household to his wife, Chong Sui Foon.

Lim said Chong, who is currently taking psychiatric medication, did not intend to harm their helper Madam Thelma Oyasan Gawidan.

"I do admit that Thelma has lost weight, but it's definitely not because of my wife's evil intention or the wickedness in her heart; it's just unfortunate," he said while crying.

The couple, both 47, face charges of failing to provide Madam Gawidan, 40, with adequate food, contravening the Employment of Foreign Manpower (Work Passes) Regulations 2012. Under the law, employers have to bear the cost of food for their helpers.

Testifying on the third day of the trial, Lim said Chong left school after primary five, and was educated in Chinese. Lim, meanwhile, stopped school after his O Levels. The couple married in 1990.

 

"My wife is not academically inclined; she's a simple person."

"There's no evil in her heart.... she didn't do this to hurt anyone," he said in between sobs.

"There's no point depriving another human being of food."

Lim said he first met Chong shortly before he joined the army as a combat medic. Prior to meeting her, he had heard that she had "a tendency to be obsessive about cleanliness and food".

He found out, after their marriage, that she had seen a psychiatrist, and was warded a few times for anorexia nervosa - an obsessive desire to lose weight by refusing to eat. Once, when she was 16 or 17, she spent over a month at the Mount Elizabeth Hospital.

She also suffered from obsessive-compulsive disorder, and treated cleanliness " like a religion".

 

Because of preference for a simple and bland diet, and her tendency for cleanliness, Lim said their lifestyle "revolved around food and cleanliness". This created stress in the household, "but it never harmed anyone," he added.

In 2010, however, their second child, a son, ran away from home "because of my wife's tendencies," Lim said. Their son has yet to return. The couple now live with three other children; their eldest child, a daughter, is aged 21.

There was no cooking done in their condominium in Cuscaden, and there were also no snacks at home. It was kept bare, and packed food was bought "for simplicity".

"If the kitchen is dirtied, to clean it takes a long time. My wife won't mop it and be done," Lim said.

The family normally ate two meals a day, but sometimes husband and wife would only have a single meal. Occasionally, Chong would not eat at all.

"My wife mainly takes bread; she doesn't like anything else," Lim said. Sometimes, she ate rice.

On her obsession with cleaning, Lim said that before tidying up a wardrobe, Chong would take the clothes out and place them on a "protective sheet", clean the cupboard, and then put the clothes back. If Madam Thelma was doing the cleaning, she would have to take a shower first, he later added.

"It really beggars belief," he said, breaking down. Chong, who sat in the dock, also cried as she listened to her husband's testimony.

Since cleaning the rooms would take up much time, the family ended up "camping out in the living room", so that the rooms could be cleaned less frequently, Lim said.

They also showered in the public toilet next to the swimming pool, to save time having to clean the home toilet after each use, he claimed.

 

As the household ran on a fixed "schedule", Lim said he and Madam Gawidan at times skipped bathing, "because the opportunity to shower or the window has disappeared".

While the helper did request for a transfer, Lim said he persuaded her to stay on until he sold the home.

During his cross-examination by Deputy Public Prosecutor (DPP) S. Sellakumaran, Lim was shown a photo of Madam Gawidan, taken a few days after she fled and sought refuge at a shelter in April last year, when she was 29kg.

Lim said he only noticed that the helper started to look that thin around February or March last year. "If she looked like this, I would definitely be shocked," he said.

Asked why he did not think there was anything wrong with her when he saw how frail she later was, Lim said: "She didn't complain. I would expect her to tell me if she was feeling unwell, but she did not."

Lim also denied that the maid had spoken to him about the inadequacy of her food. She only spoke to him about "food in general", he said.

His response to her, he told the court, was: "The whole household is like that, so you just follow."

Lim said he also knew Madam Gawidan "always ate her food; she finished her food". And she was also given meat, eggs and vegetables.

He would sometimes walk past her eating in the kitchen, he said.

But pressed by the DPP, he conceded that he had never seen what she ate, or seen her eating at all.

Asked to clarify how he knew what she ate, or if she ate at all, Lim said in exasperation: "She has to eat right? She doesn't run on air."

Earlier on Wednesday, maid agency owner Toh Ah Choon told the court that Lim's previous Indonesian maid had transferred out of the home after a short while. She had complained to him that she was given bread and instant noodles to eat.

Madam Gawidan now works for another family. Mr Lim's family has moved to the D'Leedon condominium at Leedon Heights.

The trial is expected to resume next month. If convicted, Lim and Chong each face a fine of up to $10,000, imprisonment of up to 12 months, or both.