Employers who starve their maids may face stiffer jail terms than the 10 months a couple in a recent high-profile case received after their conviction in March last year.
Chief Justice Sundaresh Menon said the couple would have been handed a "significantly higher" jail term had they been charged in 2015 under the Penal Code instead of the Employment of Foreign Manpower Act (EFMA).
Under the Penal Code, voluntarily causing hurt carries a maximum of two years' imprisonment and voluntarily causing grievous hurt (VCGH) carries a maximum of 10 years' imprisonment.
His comments come in judgment grounds earlier this month explaining why he set aside Chong Sui Foon's three-month jail term and her husband Lim Choon Hong's sentence of three weeks.
Lim, who was also fined $10,000 in the State Courts, and Chong were sentenced to 10 months' jail each after the prosecution's appeal in the High Court on Sept 15.
The Chief Justice, who heard the appeal, said a 10-month jail term "should not be misconstrued as saying that such a punishment would always be sufficient for the type of offending conduct that is presented here, even if a charge had been presented under a different provision".
He said if the prosecution had proceeded with a charge of voluntarily causing hurt, "the same level of culpability would likely have resulted in a significantly higher sentence because of the wider sentencing range that would have been afforded the court in that situation".
"Even more is this the case when one factors in the enhanced penalties for offences against domestic maids," said the Chief Justice.
He noted the case had been initiated by the Manpower Ministry and by the time the public prosecutor "took carriage of the matter", some time had passed and the public prosecutor had used prosecutorial discretion to pursue the case under the EFMA.
The couple had pleaded guilty in March last year to a single charge of starving their maid over 15 months, causing her weight to plummet from 49kg to 29.4kg. Lim, 48, a freelance trader, had failed to provide the maid Thelma Oyasan Gawidan with adequate food while Chong, 48, a housewife, had abetted him.
During the appeal, Deputy Public Prosecutor S. Sellakumaran called for the maximum 12 months' jail under EFMA, citing the extent of abuse which denied her basic human right to adequate nutrition. But the defendants' lawyer Suresh Damodara urged the court to see the issue in the context of some mental illness issues affecting Chong.
The Chief Justice pointed out that there was no causal link between the mental illness and the couple's conduct. He said Chong's conduct "seemed to defy explanation".
He declined to impose the maximum 12 months after taking into account the $20,000 compensation paid to the victim and that it was not shown that they had acted in order to be cruel."It is imperative in this milieu of circumstances that we as a society ensure that these foreign workers are treated decently and accorded the sort of guarantees of human dignity that we would accord to any human being," he said.
A spokesman for the Attorney-General's Chambers said "it would have preferred to proceed on VCGH charges against the accused persons". But time had passed and the victim had asked to return home, among other things."In future cases involving maid abuse, the prosecution will look at the facts of each case and may charge the accused under different legislation, depending on the circumstances."