SINGAPORE - The tragic death of Ms Annie Ee, the intellectually disabled waitress who died after prolonged abuse, underscores the importance of the community watching out for its most vulnerable members, said Minister for Social and Family Development Desmond Lee on Tuesday (Jan 9).
He added that the role of legislation to protect people like Ms Ee, who went out to work and looked after herself, "cannot be further emphasised".
With laws like the Penal Code, and the Vulnerable Persons Bill slated to be introduced this year, the authorities can haul abusers to court and also step in to protect vulnerable adults, he told Parliament.
But legal protections alone are not enough, he added.
"None of this would be effectual unless family members, colleagues, neighbours, passers-by, people who interact and suspect something amiss happening, to not just persons with intellectual disability but to persons with disability, to children, to vulnerable adults, step forward, raise the alarm bell and bring their suspicions to the attention of the authorities," he said in response to a question from Dr Lily Neo (Jalan Besar GRC).
In the case of Ms Ee, The Straits Times reported that an elderly neighbour had noticed bruises around her eyes on two occasions.
The 26-year-old had explained once that she had fallen and another time that she had been beaten by a colleague, and the neighbour did not report the injuries to the authorities.
Ms Ee's death, which Mr Lee described as "horrific", came under the spotlight in November last year, after her abusers Tan Hui Zhen, 33, and Pua Hak Chuan, 38, were sentenced to jail and caning for torturing her.
The husband-and-wife pair, who Ms Ee had been living with after being estranged from her family, had repeatedly beaten her over a period of eight months. She died from multiple injuries in their Woodlands four-room flat.
Dr Neo suggested that the Ministry of Social and Family Development (MSF) could have put Ms Ee under the Public Assistance Scheme so that she could have avoided living with people who abused her.
She also suggested having a national register of intellectually disabled persons so that the authorities can track and assist them.
Mr Lee did not directly respond to the suggestions, but he said help is being provided such as through pre-schools to day activity centres, for instance, to a wide range of people with intellectual disabilities from mild to severe.
On expanding the Public Assistance Scheme to cover those with intellectual disabilities, he said: "We will continue to review our schemes."
Meanwhile, Mr Lee said his ministry's network of Family Services Centres handle an average of 1,400 cases of family violence each year.
The Family Justice Courts also receive about 2,800 applications for Personal Protection Orders and issue about 1,200 such orders, he said in response to Ms Lee Bee Wah (Nee Soon GRC) who asked if more can be done to identify and help victims of family violence.
He added that his ministry's hotline receives about 60 calls a year for help with family violence matters, with one-third of the calls made by non-family members.