by Teo Soh Lung
The prosecution of Parti Liyani, an Indonesian domestic worker for four counts of theft ended happily for her but not for the complainant, Liew Mun Leong. Liew, his daughter, son and daughter-in-law have their names sullied even as Temasek, Surbana Jurong and Changi Airport Group continue to heap praises on him.
Liyani’s case has highlighted the plight of migrant workers in Singapore and reveal many unsatisfactory facets of our justice system, not least, the attitude of our police and Attorney General’s Chambers (AGC) when it handles complaints against the powerless poor.
We owe it to pro bono lawyer, Anil Balchandani and Humanitarian Organisation for Migration Economics’ (HOME) for this rare and unprecedented victory of the poor.
Balchandani’s hard work is appreciated by appeal judge, Justice Chan Seng Onn who said of him:
“… I would like to commend Mr Anil for the pro-bono services that he has rendered for this case: the trial itself took 22 days with extensive cross examination of the Prosecution witnesses; his trial submissions for both conviction and sentence totalled 279 pages (excluding authorities and other attachments); the appeal hearing stretched over 3 days; his submissions for the appeal totalled 221 pages (excluding authorities and other attachments); his written submissions were detailed and well-footnoted; his arguments were persuasive; he explored carefully every aspect of the Prosecution’s case and scrutinised the voluminous evidence in the transcripts in order to mount his client’s defence both at the trial and the appeal with clarity; he analysed the grounds of decision of the trial judge in great detail to submit on areas where the trial judge had erred in her findings; he handled all these matters singlehandedly and had shown much dedication in his pro-bono work for this case.”
The judge’s dispassionate, cool and clear judgement is exemplary of a truly fair-minded, meticulous and courageous judge. He did not use a single harsh word for the shoddy investigation work of the police or the illogical conclusions drawn on facts by the trial judge. He called a spade a spade when he judged on the credibility of testimonies of witnesses.
Justice Chan’s judgement is devastating for Liew Mun Leong, his daughter, son and daughter in law. Not one of them emerged unscathed. This has not escaped the sharp-eyed netizens who are now busy digging out their connections in the unwieldly corporate world where many of their leaders, I suspect, have lost their moral compass.
In summarising his decision to acquit Parti Liyani on all four charges, Justice Chan said:
“… I allow Parti’s appeal against all four charges against her. I first observe that in the present case, which involved a voluminous number of items, the proper handling of the evidence by the police and recording of the allegedly stolen items is crucial in order to preserve the chain of custody of the items. Coupled with the existence of an improper motive by members of the Liew family for mounting the allegations against Parti, I find that the convictions against Parti are unsafe and accordingly acquit her of all the charges.”
That there was an “improper motive by members of the Liew family” was a bold finding. That employers lodge complaints against migrant workers in order to ensure that they are black-marked and would never return to work is a practice that is known but never challenged.
A cool, clear and measured tone runs through the entire judgement. I hope the Minister of Law, the AGC and Ministry of Manpower (MOM) will take note of all the issues raised in the judgement and implement immediate measures to protect migrant workers from suffering the same fate as Liyani.
PARTI LIYANI SHOULD NEVER HAVE BEEN PROSECUTED
I suspect that in lodging the police report, Liew Mun Leong never expected Liyani to be prosecuted. He had made the report purely “for the record”. He never expected Liyani to return to Singapore and to be arrested at the airport a month later. After all, the Liews had dismissed her without any reason, giving her just 2 to 3 hours to pack up and leave, a practice that is common and known to employment agencies and employers.
I suspect too that this practice is also well known to MOM which takes the stand that since the Employment Act does not apply to domestic workers, employers are free to dismiss them in this cruel manner. This is something that MOM and embassies should seriously look into and rectify. Embassies should work harder to protect their nationals who come here to work in order to send hard earned cash home.
For the reason that a prosecution of Liyani was never anticipated, Liew’s report was carelessly drafted, not because he did not have the time to check and enumerate the alleged “stolen properties” but because, as the judge ruled, he thought that the report would prevent Liyani from returning to Singapore to lodge a complaint with MOM. Liew had included in his crucial first information report these items — hard disks worth $500, towels worth $100, gadgets worth $1,000. These items were subsequently not included in any of the four charges brought against Liyani. Any investigating officer would have questioned why these items were dropped from the list of “stolen properties”. An experience judge would have questioned this omission too. But this was not done.
Like Liew Mun Leong, the police too, I suspect, did not expect a prosecution of Liyani. The issue of a warrant of arrest against her after recording the complaint of Liew Mun Leong was probably a standard practice. They did not even bother to visit the scene of crime to seize the properties allegedly stolen. This again is probably a usual practice for domestic workers who have been repatriated. It probably never crossed their mind that Liyani would return one day. And here I wonder how many migrant workers have been wronged but have been compelled to leave Singapore at short notices, never to return.
When Liyani returned to Singapore on 2 December 2016, she was arrested upon arrival, detained and subjected to interrogation. This I think is the efficiency of technology! Once the warrant of arrest is entered into the system, the airport arrival terminal sounds the alarm. But what I don’t understand is why the police did not refuse the entry of Liyani and save all the hassle! Somewhere along the chain, someone may have forgotten about the case!
From the judgement, I gather that many of the things she carried in her bag were allegedly stolen from the Liews. These were seized and added to the items of alleged stolen properties!
The trial judge noted in her judgement:
“… Her bags were found to contain more items belonging to the victims. These items included:
a. The two Longchamp bags;
b. One Gerald Genta watch;
c. One Helix watch;
d. Two white iPhones with accessories;
e. One black Braun Buffel wallet;
f. One black Gucci wallet;
g. One Prada bag;
h. One Gucci sunglasses with red stains.
It is interesting that the appeal judge noted that all the above items were either used, old or damaged. I wonder why it didn’t cross the mind of the investigating officer to ask why a person who had committed theft of these items would bring them back to Singapore. I wonder too why the Liews (daughter, son and daughter in law) when shown these old and broken items by the investigating officer did not tell him that they were either discarded items or were given to Liyani.
Their claim to ownership by attaching ridiculous values to each item, for eg $25,000 for the broken Gerald Genta Watch which was reduced to $10,000 by the trial judge upon hearing the evidence of the defence expert witness, probably increased the number of charges against Liyani. From the theft of Liew Mun Leong’s properties, Liyani had to face 3 additional charges of theft of discarded properties of daughter, son and daughter in law. In the end, these additional charges simply embarrassed their standing in high society. The inclusion of 120 items of used clothings and 2 counterfeit watches further damaged their reputation.
I am puzzled as to why the prosecution proceeded with the case despite knowing that all or at least most of the goods were used, broken or old, things that rich people would discard without a second thought. Were they pressured by the fact that the complainant is a well known and powerful person?
If the prosecution was under some self-inflicted pressure, they certainly prosecuted with vigour. Liyani faced four charges (with one more being stood down) even though (if convicted), she was a first offender. This practice of heaping charges on an accused person who claims trial is well known.
Under the law, if a person is convicted of at least 3 charges, two of the sentences would run consecutively. By proceeding with four charges, the prosecution probably hoped an accused person would plea bargain and plead guilty to at least one charge on the promise of a withdrawal of the remaining charges.
For a migrant worker the temptation to plead guilty, serve a shorter prison sentence and be repatriated is tremendous. I suspect many guilty pleas were extracted from accused persons because they could not withstand the pressure of risking convictions of more than 3 charges.
For standing up to the pressure, I salute Liyani for her courage. Her lawyer and HOME have done a great job in believing and supporting her claim of innocence throughout the four years.
Justice Chan Seng Onn has delivered a judgement that should wake up those who are in charge of law and order.
Before I retired from legal practice more than 13 years ago, I had noticed a sea change in the attitude of prosecutors handling criminal matters. Police prosecutors have been replaced by highly qualified and legally trained personnel from the AGC. I hear complaints about their being arrogant. As a senior lawyer, I too had been snubbed when duty prosecutor refused to see me.
I remember one instance when my case was stood down by a senior judge who advised that I should see the duty prosecutor. My client had, like Liyani, faced more than 3 charges of shoplifting some goods of little value. He was a good man and was a first offender. He shoplifted not because he needed those items but I suspect, he was crying for help. He did not attempt to conceal the items he took. The duty prosecutor rejected my request to reduce the number of charges.
I returned to court and informed the judge. My client pleaded guilty to all the charges and I asked for probation for my client. In those days, it was rare for adults to be granted probation. The judge granted my request, much to the surprise of the prosecutor and lawyers. I suspect he was not too happy with the attitude of the duty prosecutor.
Arrogance can arise as a defence mechanism to the lack of confidence and experience. It can also come about because of the desire to win at any cost.
In Liyani’s case, there was the charge for theft of a spoilt Pioneer DVD player. I was shocked that the fact that that dvd player could not play dvds was not disclosed at the trial but was only admitted at the appeal.
Both the police and the public prosecutor knew that it was “spoilt” before the trial. If they had acknowledged this fact, Liyani’s defence that the owner had wanted to throw it away but that she kept it would have succeeded. This is not only a professional flaw but a character flaw on the part of the prosecutor.
The only reason I can think of for this non-disclosure is that the prosecutor wanted to win the case at all costs. This should never be the attitude of prosecutors. I hope Liyani’s case will put an end to such attitudes.
The AGC, MOM and Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) have a lot to do to improve their established system. They should not spend time trying to POFMA young activists but concentrate on improving the system that has been deteriorating over the years.
Turning a blind eye to these serious issues is detrimental to our country. We may have the best technology, machines and money, but what is the point when we have lost our soul.
Liyani has opened the Pandora Box. Let’s empty it and recover our soul.