Parti Liyani, justice, and blank cheques in Parliament
I’d planned to put the Parti Liyani updates in a regular weekly round-up, but so much was said and done that I’m making it the weekly round-up, and sending it out early. There won’t be a round-up this Saturday because this issue is already quite full-on. We’ll be back to regular programming next week.
Need some background?
We, The Citizens had three previous special issues on the High Court decision acquitting Parti Liyani (and matters raised by the judge), the subject of access to justice and whether Parti’s acquittal means the system works, and the matter of illegal deployment of domestic workers (which is a little less relevant to this issue, but I’m including for completion’s sake).
In a nutshell, though, just to make sure we’re covered before diving into this issue: Parti Liyani was an Indonesian domestic worker in the household of the rich and well-connected Liew family. After she was sacked, they accused her of theft and reported her to the police. She was initially convicted at the State Court level, but was fully acquitted by the High Court.
Given the wealth and prominence of the Liews and the points of concern raised in the High Court judgment, Parti’s case has drawn lots of public attention and prompted questions about police investigations, prosecution conduct, inequality, and whether there are double standards in our justice system.
After the acquittal, the AGC said that they would study the judgment and assess if further investigation will need to be carried out (and as it turns out, they did). Leave has been granted for a disciplinary tribunal to look into the prosecution’s conduct during the trial relating to how they’d presented a DVD player as functional when it was later found at the appeal stage to not be so. Parti also said in a statement on Wednesday that she’d filed a complaint in July 2020 against police officers handing her case.
K Shanmugam’s ministerial statement
On 4 November, Law and Home Affairs Minister K Shanmugam gave his ministerial statement on the case and the questions that came out of it. It’s a really long speech, split into three parts, with annexes, which you can find here, here, and here.
I’ll give you the tl;dr version (they’re mostly from Part 1 of the speech, if you only have time to read one part). I’ll keep most of my own comments for the end of this issue, but will include some interjections in brackets and italics where relevant.
- Based on the Liews’ report, the statements from Parti Liyani, the items found on her when she was stopped at the airport in December, and other evidence, the AGC felt that there was case to prosecute, and that it would be in the public interest to do so.
- There was no undue influence on either the police or the AGC to handle the case any differently simply because Liew Mun Leong and his family were the ones to report it.
- The High Court decision is final. The ministerial statement was not about reopening the matter. (but…)
- Shanmugam produced “further evidence” gathered from investigations that took place after the High Court judgment to suggest that what Parti Liyani had said when she was sacked was “quite different” from the inference made by the High Court. The High Court judge had found “existence of an improper motive by members of the Liew family for mounting the allegations against Parti” — that is, that they could have reported her for theft because they wanted to stop her from reporting them to MOM for illegal deployment. However, Shanmugam said that, in further investigations, a maid agent said that Parti had talked about reporting the family to MOM for not giving her enough notice of her termination, and that she didn’t mention complaining about anything else. The agency also said that they had twice offered to assist Parti with lodging complaints, but she decided not to. (Parti Liyani was not interviewed again for her account of this matter during these further investigations.)
- The break in the chain of custody of the evidence (i.e. the allegedly stolen items) was a lapse and the police will have to do better in the future. The officer involved had had a lot on his plate and was “in a predicament”. But Shanmugam said that not all the items that Parti was accused of stealing had been affected by this break; she had said in police statements that she had taken some items, while others were in her possession.
- On the issue of Parti not being given a Bahasa Indonesia interpreter for four police statements (she had an interpreter for the fifth one), Shanmugam said that the police “believed in good faith” that she could speak Malay. According to him, the recorder had asked Parti if she wanted to give her statement in Indonesian or Malay, and she’d chosen to speak Malay and did not ask for an Indonesian interpreter. That said, Shanmugam also noted that the police “accept that there are differences between Bahasa Indonesia and our Malay, and in specific words, some words, could mean different things in the context of this case. And that can make a difference if Ms Liyani didn’t know the different meanings.”
- The Liews had had a “cavalier attitude” in giving evidence, such as claiming items and ascribing values to the items they accused Parti of stealing.
- In relation to the decision that the district judge had reached, and how the High Court judge had disagreed, Shanmugam said that “the views expressed by the High Court fall within the range of cases where an Appellate Court disagrees with a Lower Court.”
Aside from these main points, Shanmugam went into some detail about inconsistencies in Parti’s statements to the police — they were even meticulously listed in annexes to his speech — even though the High Court had been over those statements, considered them, and acquitted her all the same. He said things like this:
“There are various aspects of Ms Liyani’s evidence which prima facie raise skepticism. There were inconsistencies in many of her answers. Answers changed from one statement to another, and from her statements to her evidence in Court. Several aspects of her evidence in Court also raised questions. Items which were said to be found in the trash, for example. I will leave members to reach their own views.”
The Workers’ Party’s motion
Apart from Shanmugam’s ministerial statement, the Workers’ Party also moved a full motion, which read:
“This House affirms that fairness, access and independence are cornerstones of Singapore’s justice system, and calls on the Government to recognise and remedy its shortcomings in order to enhance justice for all, regardless of means or social status, including facilitating a review of the justice system.”
Multiple WP MPs stood up to support this motion, which is linked to Parti’s case, but actually goes beyond it to talk about the justice system in broader terms. They suggested that there were things that the government could immediately act upon, such as composition fines, bail reform, training for law enforcement officers, improvements in the way statements are taken (particularly when it comes to language barriers), and considering the position of victims of crime. They also suggested setting up a Constitutional Commission headed by a judge from the Supreme Court, and with experts in criminology, sociology, and strong firsthand experience working with the poor, to look into more complex matters relating to the criminal justice system.
“Have there been domestic helpers, work permit holders and even poorer Singaporeans who believed they were innocent, but have pled guilty to charges because they did not know their rights or could not afford to fight their cases? If we are being honest, we should not ask whether there have been such persons but rather how many there have been.”
— Sylvia Lim in Parliament on 4 November 2020
Sylvia Lim talked about the struggles that some face in obtaining justice: some can’t afford lawyers, and end up unrepresented in court, up against the state and all its resources. Others might not be able to afford bail. People who aren’t competent in English might not be able to check that their statements were recorded accurately, and have to rely on what their interpreters are telling them — this leads to problems further down the line when the accuracy of statements are disputed in court (if it even gets that far).
And then, in relation to work permit holders, Lim refers to this horrific case from 2008:
“…in 2008, police investigated a case of sexual assault on a university student at Clementi Woods Park. In a questionable exercise of power, blood samples were taken from 200 foreign workers at nearby construction sites. When I filed a Parliamentary question on the legal basis for such action, the Minister stated that it was permitted because ‘the workers had voluntarily given their consent’. I assume the workers might have signed consent forms, but what is the quality of that consent? More importantly, what signal is being sent about institutional attitudes? Why did the police not ask nearby homeowners to voluntarily give blood samples too? Just imagine if that had been done.”
He Ting Ru highlighted the importance of access to legal representation and legal aid, highlighting that “approximately 40% of accused persons who claim trial appearing unrepresented at the State Courts during the pretrial stages”. She asked: “what would the chances be that Parti Liyani or Portela Vilma Jimenez would have secured an acquittal upon appeal if they had not been represented by a defence lawyer?” Given this number of unrepresented persons, He argues that Singapore’s legal aid schemes are still limited in reach.
Pritam Singh talked about the prosecution’s duty of disclosure, and the “tremendous asymmetries of information between the Prosecution and the Defence, with the system structurally weighted in favour of the former.” He suggested that the prosecution’s disclosure obligations be codified in the Criminal Procedure Code. He also talked about the problems with the Attorney-General’s dual role: as legal adviser to the government and as public prosecutor, reiterating calls WP had previously made for the roles to be split.
Leon Perera proposed creating the office of an Ombudsman, as mentioned in WP’s election manifesto: “An Ombudsman would provide access to an independent public office with the remit and resources to investigate potential wrong-doing, errors, lapses or weaknesses in the conduct of public officials. The office of the Ombudsman would be open to Singaporeans of all backgrounds and income profiles.”
Dennis Tan talked about the way that judges are selected, and how legal officers can be posted from the Ministry of Law to the AGC to the State Court judiciary and out again. He emphasised the importance of judicial training.
Gerald Giam addressed the many barriers in the way of migrant workers when it comes to accessing justice in Singapore: investigations can take a long time, during which they might not be able to work, and have to figure out how to meet needs like food and accommodation. He talked about how we need to address the up-stream problems that leave migrant workers so vulnerable, such as dealing with the high recruitment fees that they have to pay.
Jamus Lim talked about why we should care about the state of our justice system, and the “implications for business competitiveness and the economic viability of our nation.”
…and how it was undermined
Based on the transcripts of the speeches, the Workers’ Party team covered quite a lot of ground. But their motion didn’t get passed in the end; instead, an amended version went through instead.
The photo below, posted on Facebook by Perera, shows how their motion was — and let’s be frank here — hijacked by the PAP and turned into meaningless self-praise while also removing any mention of a review of the justice system.
K Shanmugam also responded to the WP’s speeches and comments from other members of the House. His response included talking about why he doesn’t want legal aid to be made mandatory in Singapore, that it’s not going to always be possible for the police to record statements in the language the witness speaks, and that the government is looking into setting out disclosure requirements in law.
Karl Liew has been charged today with giving false information and evidence. Disciplinary action is also being taken against a police officer and his supervisor for the five-week gap between the Liews’ report and visiting the scene.
I’m really troubled by how much of Shanmugam’s ministerial statement appeared to be aimed at discrediting Parti Liyani, even though he himself said that the High Court’s decision was final and he wasn’t trying to reopen the judgment.
It was unfair of him to bring in “additional evidence” (ie. the testimony of an employment agent) in a setting where Parti was not able to respond. Shanmugam himself admitted that this new evidence was “untested” because it wasn’t brought up in court.
By bringing these things up outside of the courts and in a setting where Parti cannot defend herself, he muddies the waters, leading to comments like this from Bertha Henson: “I am convinced by his arguments, however, that the police and prosecutors were right to charge Indonesian Parti Liyani for theft. They are clean. The system is clean. But Mr Shanmugam’s delivery is so powerful that I am wondering if Ms Liyani is clean.”
Separately, Murali Pillai’s amendments to the Workers’ Party motion are outrageous. It completely undercut the entire point of the motion, turning a very important statement on an issue of great public interest into farce.
I don’t know if Singaporeans found what transpired in Parliament yesterday sufficient to assuage concerns about our justice system, but it made me disappointed and heartsick. Should we be proud of the scene of a minister standing up in Parliament to discredit an already acquitted domestic worker, using new evidence that was not presented in court and that she could not respond to? How are we going to get anywhere if it’s so difficult to face up to real shortcomings without being arm-twisted into “affirming” that the government is doing a good job?
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