Thinking Aloud

The curious case of the maid, the business tycoon and the pink knife

While reviews of the dramatic case go over what led to a wrongful conviction of a domestic maid that was overturned on appeal, the authorities must also probe deeper to look at systemic weaknesses and underlying biases.

Ms Parti Liyani and her lawyer Anil Balchandani leaving the Supreme Court on Sept 4, 2020. PHOTO: GRACE BAEY

At a recent dinner with friends, two views prevailed on the case of a domestic helper of a powerful business leader in Singapore, who was acquitted of the theft of $34,000 worth of items on appeal.

One friend grumbled at why the media was still fixated on the case when the appeal was over and she had been acquitted. Was this a case of chao leng fan, or frying cold rice, she asked.

I ventured the view that there were public interest issues involved, and that government agencies were reviewing the handling of the case.

Indonesian domestic worker Parti Liyani, 46, worked for Mr Liew Mun Leong and his family from 2007 to 2016. Mr Liew, 74, is best known as former CEO of property group CapitaLand. He resigned last Thursday as chairman of the Changi Airport Group and other corporate positions, following public outcry over the court case.

In addition to her employer's home, Ms Parti had been asked to clean the office and then the house of Mr Liew's son Karl, which is against Ministry of Manpower (MOM) regulations on deployment of foreign domestic workers. She made known her unhappiness over the arrangement. Relations between her and the younger Mr Liew appeared to sour. He terminated her employment, while the elder Mr Liew was overseas, giving her two hours to pack the same day. When dismissed, she threatened to report the family to MOM for illegal deployment.

The Liew family's version is that they had been suspecting her of stealing from them and arranged to have her sent back on Oct 28, 2016. After she had left with her travel luggage that day, leaving three boxes of belongings, the family checked the maid's boxes, and found items that they alleged were stolen. On Oct 30, Mr Liew, who had returned from his trip, and his son Karl filed a police report accusing Ms Parti of theft.

The case has riveted Singaporeans, as details emerged from the appeal judgment. Like many Singaporeans, another friend at the dinner had clearly been following it closely. She could recount instances of inconsistencies in the evidence of the Liew family over the allegedly stolen items.

One example: a used bedsheet Mr Karl Liew claimed he had bought from Habitat in Britain and valued at $100, had the same pattern as a quilt cover with an Ikea label that had been found in Ms Parti's boxes. Mr Karl Liew's wife Heather Lim testified that she had never seen the bedsheet in Ms Parti's room or on her bed.

In contrast, Ms Parti recognised the item and said she had bought the bedsheet and quilt cover bed set at Ikea, Alexandra, for $49.

The High Court judge hearing the appeal, Justice Chan Seng Onn, concluded: "On a totality of the evidence, and in particular, the objective evidence which strongly suggests that the bedsheet was from Ikea, I find that Karl fabricated his testimony about having purchased the bedsheet from Habitat in the UK. Instead, I believe Parti's evidence that she purchased the bedsheet together with the quilt cover as a set from Ikea. Clearly, the conviction for theft of the bedsheet is against the weight of the evidence and is not sustainable."

This short quote, on one single item among the list of about 144 items Ms Parti is accused of stealing, gives a flavour of the level of detail and close reasoning of Justice Chan's judgment, which is available online.

Justice Chan had also pointed to a commonsensical point: that it was "rather unusual" that the alleged stolen items appear to be spoilt, broken or of no value to the alleged owners. Ms Parti's defence was that the items were discarded and found by her, given to her or purchased by her. Some were also not packed by her, she had claimed. Justice Chan found that the prosecution had not proven their case beyond reasonable doubt, and acquitted her.

The acquittal has spawned many reports on mainstream and social media, with Singaporeans following the details, and not shy to make their views known online.

The authorities too are taking note. The Attorney-General's Chambers (AGC) said Justice Chan's "findings do raise questions which warrant further investigations" and it will study the judgment to assess what further action, if any, ought to be taken in this case.

The Ministry of Manpower said it is in consultation with the AGC as to whether further action ought to be taken in this case.

The police said that they would be looking into several observations on police investigations made by Justice Chan.

Law and Home Affairs Minister K. Shanmugam said the agencies looking into the High Court's judgment take the judge's comments "very seriously".

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"Something has gone wrong in the chain of events. We have to look at that, and deal with what went wrong," said the minister. However, he also added that people should not "prejudge which part of the process went wrong" while reviews are being conducted.

"In the process, we should not be defensive. It should not be a witch hunt. We have to find out what happened, why it happened and then deal with it," he added.

Delivering blind justice

What is one to make of this case?

At one level, it is a story of how persistence and belief in oneself can prevail against insurmountable odds. Ms Parti said she never believed herself guilty.

At another level, this is a story of how a group of dedicated social activists helped a domestic maid take on the system - and won, within the system.

Ms Parti was aided by a bevy of migrant worker activists and rights groups, who found a stout champion for her in defence lawyer Anil Balchandani, who acted pro bono in the case and appeal that stretched four years. He earned warm praise from Justice Chan for his detailed and persuasive submissions, and his dedication to his pro bono work.

As Justice Chan's judgment made clear, there were flaws in the justice system beginning with the police investigation to the trial itself that had led to her earlier conviction.

In overturning the conviction on appeal, Justice Chan both exposed a potential flaw in the court system and righted it, within the court system itself.

This last point bears repeating.

This is a case, as Mr Shanmugam noted, of how justice is both blind and justice has been delivered. He made this statement while saying that the justice system is impartial to all and fair, and the status and position of the parties involved does not matter.

Indeed, if errors were made, they should be pointed out in the review and remedial steps taken to correct and prevent them. But the individual flaws should not be necessarily taken as signs that the edifice is crumbling.

Theories must fit the facts

Unfortunately, the emotive factors of this case are so strong that many Singaporeans are liable to project into this case their own feelings about the ills of Singapore society, regardless of how well the facts fit the theories.

So those who believe that Singapore's system is inherently elitist, with the elite having their own set of rules, will see evidence of bias by law enforcement officers in the face of a privileged and powerful complainant.

They may also point to aspects of the Liew family's behaviour as evidence of moral decay among the privileged. Already, interesting articles about how the rich are mentally geared to behave in a self-seeking behaviour are circulating online.

Some may see in this case evidence of their belief that the Singapore system is stacked in favour of the rich and well-educated, against the man in the street and the ordinary worker. But this view ignores the truth of what happened - which is that a poor worker won a court case against a rich, powerful family.

While many critics will be tempted to drape their pet theories of Singapore's societal decline onto this convenient frame, I hope that most Singaporeans will be fair-minded and balanced in assessing the case, especially as the authorities start to figure out what went wrong to result in the earlier conviction.

At the same time, however, Singaporeans have every reason to expect that the reviews must dig deep into the facts of the case, and probe the motivations that drive behaviour.


Probing deep

The key aspect of this case that deserves serious study in any review is this: how the justice system worked to deliver a guilty verdict against Ms Parti in the first trial.

Some salient facts made evident from the judgment: The police investigating officer had put out a warrant of arrest on Oct 30, 2016, the same day Mr Liew made a police report against Ms Parti for theft.

But the officer visited the Liew residence only five weeks later, on Dec 3, to document the allegedly stolen items. This was a day after Ms Parti, unaware of the theft charges, flew back to Singapore from Indonesia to try to find another job. She was arrested at the airport on arrival.

The alleged stolen items from the three boxes were left in the home for the family to use meanwhile, even after they were documented. They were received into police custody much later - on April 18, 2018.

Justice Chan pointed out that there was a break in the chain of custody of evidence, leaving open the question of whether the allegedly stolen items were accurately documented. They could also have been mixed up with other items or otherwise contaminated. He also found that statements had been taken from Ms Parti without an interpreter in her native Bahasa Indonesia present.

The sequence of events raises questions over police process.

Justice Chan also took issue with the judgment of the trial judge, going over her decision on each charge. The most damning aspect of his careful analysis of the trial judge's decision-making process is his statement that the trial judge had "misapplied the legal and evidential burdens of proof".

One example: Ms Parti was accused of stealing some kitchenware items found in her boxes to be shipped back to Indonesia. She said they were her items bought from a thrift shop, Hock Siong. The trial judge had noted that no witness from Hock Siong was called to corroborate Ms Parti's story.

Noted Justice Chan: "The judge essentially drew an adverse inference (though not explicitly stated as such) against the defence for its failure to call a witness from Hock Siong to the stand to verify the veracity of Parti's alleged patronage of Hock Siong.

"In my judgment, this constitutes an impermissible reversal of the burden of proof on the accused. It appears that the same standard of proof was not demanded or required of the prosecution."

Ms Parti (right) was aided by a bevy of migrant worker activists and rights groups, who found a stout champion for her in defence lawyer Anil Balchandani. PHOTO: ST FILE

Referring to another item, a pink knife, in the charge, Justice Chan noted: "No adverse inferences were drawn against the prosecution from failing to call witnesses who could corroborate or support Karl's internally contradictory testimony regarding his alleged ownership of the pink knife, when there was no investigation."

The pink knife in question was an item Mr Karl Liew said that was bought when he was a student in Britain, which he had brought back to Singapore in 2002. But on questioning, he admitted that the knife was of a modern design that could not have been in production in Britain before 2002.

Citing this as "another example of Karl's internally inconsistent evidence that went against both his claim of ownership of the pink knife and his credibility", Justice Chan noted that the trial judge had failed to address this.

He added: "I emphasise that an accused person is presumed innocent and this presumption is not displaced until the prosecution has discharged its burden of proof... Simply put, it is not the responsibility of the defence to disprove the prosecution's case."

It is striking that an appeal judge sees fit to remind a lower court judge of such a basic pillar of the law - innocent until proven guilty.

From investigation stage to trial, it would appear that some questionable decisions were made.

The Law Ministry and its related agencies will, I hope, sieve through the evidence to come to a conclusion on the particular merits of this case, in answering how the first trial delivered a judgment found to be so faulty, and take remedial actions.

Whatever the findings, I hope the review process goes further, and that it does not shirk from the tougher, underlying questions around bias and privilege.

To what extent were law enforcement individuals and the judiciary officers acting out of implicit or explicit bias that accorded the Liew family more respect and attention than was given to the accused, a foreign domestic worker?

It is well known in law enforcement worldwide that officers discriminate on the basis of race, socioeconomic class and immigration status. Was this a factor in the way the investigation was handled?

Even more important is to consider what aspects of our justice system creates obstacles for the poor and less-resourced. What can we do to tilt the scales of justice to a more balanced distribution?

The underlying question to consider is whether our justice system is organised in such a way that poor and uneducated foreign workers are given short shrift in their search for justice. If so, can we review what the barriers are and identify the necessary steps we must take to ensure justice is blind to social status, wealth and nationality?

Whatever the results of the review process, however, Singaporeans should also bear in mind that no system, however well designed, is perfect. Even as gaps are identified and fixed, we should also be realistic and accept that lapses in process and judgments will always occur in a human- designed and human-run system.

This is precisely why most court cases are open to the public and the media, and why there is a process of judicial appeal. That worked in this case, and rightly so. Keeping the court process open, subject to scrutiny and checks and balances, is a key plank in building credibility and establishing trust in the judicial process.

The case of Ms Parti Liyani, appellant against public prosecutor, respondent numbered SGHC 187, is an opportunity for Singapore to take a good hard look at how our justice system fares when it comes to defending the vulnerable foreign workers in our midst.

I hope that, just as we want Singaporeans to be fair-minded in assessing this case, and test their theories against the facts, the authorities reviewing the case will be similarly fair-minded and probe for underlying biases and systemic flaws beneath the particular facts of this case.

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