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The acquittal of Parti Liyani: What the judge said

Parti Liyani has finally been vindicated. On 4 September, a High Court judge overturned the conviction and sentence handed down by a district court judge, and acquitted the former domestic worker of theft.

This news has come as a huge relief to Parti and all the volunteers who have supported her and followed her case closely for years. But this case isn’t just about one Indonesian migrant worker’s struggle: it’s also unearthed issues about power, exploitation, and due process in Singapore, leaving questions for state organs and elite institutions to answer.

There’s quite a lot to unpack, so I’ll be spreading this out over multiple special issues of We, The Citizens. In this first part, let’s take a look at the High Court judgment, and the problems surfaced within.

Yani’s employers

Between 2007 and 2016, Parti worked for the Liew family in their house in a pretty posh part of Singapore. The Liews aren’t just any family: the patriarch is Liew Mun Leong, the former CEO of CapitaLand, which describes itself as “one of Asia’s largest real estate groups”, and current chairman of both Changi Airport Group and Surbana Jurong, an urban and infrastructure consultancy owned by state investment company Temasek Holdings.

(Photo: A screencap from a Straits Times video interview with Liew Mun Leong.)

It’d be an understatement to say that the Liews lead comfortable lives; in an interview with the Straits Times last year (paywalled), Liew, who is in his 70s, said: “I’ve settled my life, my children’s lives and I’ve also looked at the future and there’s nothing I need that I cannot afford.” The article added that he could, in fact, live comfortably off the interest on his wealth.

When Parti first started working for the family, she earned $300 a month — an amount that had doubled to $600 by the time Liew terminated her employment in October 2016. At points during her employment, she was required to not only clean Liew’s home, but also his son Karl Liew’s office, and, after Karl moved out of the family home, to clean his new home as well. For this, she was occasionally paid token amounts. (For reference, if you hire a part-time cleaner through an agency like Helpling, the rate is about $20 per hour.)

Notwithstanding this occasional extra money, what the Liews did is in clear breach of regulations set forth by the Ministry of Manpower, and is considered illegal deployment as domestic workers are only supposed to carry out household and domestic labour at the residential address stated in their work permit.

Allegations and defence

The Liews decided to sack Parti in October 2016. According to Liew, he’d decided to let her go because he’d suspected her of stealing from them. Since he was abroad at the time, his son Karl was the one who gave Parti her termination notice on 28 October. She was told that she would be repatriated to Indonesia.

With only two hours to pack up her belongings and go, what followed was a mad rush. Parti had to pack her bags, and, with the assistance from two of the Liew family’s drivers, also dumped things into three large boxes, which she asked the Liews to ship to her in Indonesia.

A day after Parti’s departure, the Liews opened the three boxes and claimed that they’d found items that belonged to them. On 30 October, upon his return to Singapore, Liew filed a police report accusing Parti of theft. At this point in time, the police did not visit the Liew’s home, nor ask to see the alleged stolen items. (More about the police investigation in the next section.)

Parti was arrested upon her return to Singapore in early December, and subsequently charged with four counts of theft. Among the items the Liews accused her of stealing were DVD players, bags, watches, clothing, bedsheets, kitchenware and utensils, which were valued at tens of thousands of dollars.

With the pro bono representation of Anil Balchandani, Parti insisted that she hadn’t stolen anything. Instead, she said that she’d either bought or been given some of the items, and picked up others after they’d been discarded. As for some of the remaining items, she claimed that she hadn’t packed them into the big boxes at all.

Parti argued in her defence that the Liews had accused her of theft so as to prevent her from carrying out her threat of reporting them to the Ministry of Manpower for illegal deployment.

At this point, I think it’s important to remember that, for migrant workers like Parti, whose right to work and remain in Singapore is extremely precarious, a police report for something like theft could have serious repercussions, such as blacklisting and jeopardising her ability to seek new employment in Singapore.

Ultimately, Justice Chan Seng Onn was persuaded by the defence’s arguments:

In my judgment, there is reason to believe that the Liew family, upon realising her unhappiness, took the pre-emptive first step to terminate her employment suddenly without giving her sufficient time for her to pack, in the hope that Parti would not use the time to make a complaint to MOM. Once she made express her desire to complain to MOM after her sudden termination on 28 October 2016, the Liew family followed up with the police report to ensure her return would be prevented. In my view, the Liew family might not have made a police report had Parti not made her express threat on 28 October 2016 to report the matter to MOM.

The High Court’s written judgment also points to flaws in the police investigation, the testimony of members of the Liew family and the findings of District Judge Olivia Low, and the actions of the prosecution.

Let’s take a look at each of these issues…

The police investigation — 😟😟😟

When Liew Mun Leong first made the police report against Parti on 30 October 2016, the police neither visited their home, nor did they seize the items that were alleged to have been stolen. As Justice Chan Seng Onn noted in his judgement, “the only action taken by the police was to issue a Warrant of Arrest against Parti.”

It was only on 3 December 2016, after Parti had been arrested at the airport upon her return to the country and five weeks after the initial report, that the investigating officer even visited the house. During those five weeks, the police had also told the Liew family they were free to use the allegedly stolen items, as long as they didn’t throw anything away. When asked why he hadn’t seized the items right away, the investigating officer, Tang Ru Long, said that he wanted to avoid “re-victimising” the family. The police only took the allegedly stolen items from the three boxes into their custody on 18 April 2018 — way over a year after the first police report had been made.

As the judge points out, this failure to secure the chain of custody of the evidence has had a huge impact on the case. “This creates a real possibility of a mix up of the items,” Justice Chan wrote. “Items were removed from the three jumbo boxes for the Liew family’s daily use over a period of time and then items used daily were put back into the boxes, with no clarity if the returned items are the same items that have been removed earlier.”

To add to this confusion, “the items allegedly stolen by Parti as reported in the FIR [the first police report made on 30 October], which was vital contemporaneous evidence, were different from the items listed in the charges brought against Parti.” All this meant that there were grounds to doubt that the items Parti had been accused of stealing were really the same items documented by the police over a month later.

Furthermore, it was established that, during some of the police interrogations, Parti had not been given an official Bahasa Indonesia interpreter. Instead, the questioning had taken place with a mix of English and Bahasa Melayu. While it’s possible for Indonesian and Malay speakers to kind of understand one another in daily conversation, there’s still enough difference between the two languages for misinterpretation and misunderstanding — issues that are further exacerbated in the context of an investigation, where the stakes are high. Why did the police proceed with taking statements from Parti when no interpretation into her native language was available?

The inconsistent Karl and the district judge’s findings — 😒😒😒

Justice Chan Seng Onn also questioned the credibility of some members of the Liew family; in particular, Karl Liew. The High Court judge so doubted Karl Liew’s credibility that he took issue with District Judge Olivia Low’s assessment of him as “largely credible”, and her decision to remove some of the allegedly stolen items from one of the charges against Parti (and then proceed to convict).

As he wrote in the High Court judgment:

The alleged items were mostly removed from the 2nd charge because there existed a reasonable doubt as to whether some of the items in the original 2nd charge were Karl’s. Once the Judge found on that basis that the conviction in relation to the seven items allegedly in Karl’s possession could not be sustained, it was incumbent on her to reappraise the entirety of Karl’s credibility in that light, instead of simply justifying Karl’s ostensible lack of credibility with his inability to recall if some items (including smaller-sized female clothing) had ever been in his possession or if he had ever worn them.

It would take too long to detail the court’s findings on every allegedly stolen item, so here are some highlights:

The prosecution and the DVD player

One of the items Parti was accused of stealing was a Pioneer DVD player. In her defence, Parti said that she’d been told to throw it out because it was broken, but had decided to keep it to see if she could get it fixed in Indonesia. The condition of the DVD player, then, was key to either supporting or discrediting testimony in court.

During the trial, the prosecution plugged the DVD played into a monitor and played images off of it. “The Prosecution employed the above demonstration to confront Parti. This resulted in a concession from her that the Pioneer DVD player was actually working, contrary to her defence,” Justice Chan wrote in his judgment.

But when the DVD player was again plugged in and tested upon appeal, it was found that the it did not work in “DVD player mode”. Justice Chan then wrote:

On appeal, the Prosecution conceded and agreed with the Defence that during the trial below, there were already difficulties with the functionality of the Pioneer DVD player in playing the DVD disc but not in playing the recorded clip in the hard drive of the DVD player. The fact that there were such difficulties with the functionality of the Pioneer DVD player was however neither disclosed to the accused prior to the cross-examination of Parti on the working condition of the Pioneer DVD player nor to the Judge in the trial below. If the Prosecution had known of this defect in the Pioneer DVD player during the trial below, it should have fully disclosed it. The trial court could be misled into thinking that the Pioneer DVD player was in a good working condition when questions were (and unfairly) put to Parti was on the basis that the DVD player was still in a good working condition after an incomplete demonstration of its important functionalities during the trial.

Why hadn’t the prosecution disclosed this important fact during the trial?

(Parti Liyani and her lawyer Anil Balchandani. Photo by Grace Baey)

Why Singaporeans should care

As I said up top, this isn’t just about one Indonesian domestic worker being accused of theft. Justice Chan Seng Onn’s judgment points to problems in the way the police handled the case, the district judge’s assessment of testimony from the Liews, and the prosecution’s behaviour at trial. These pose serious questions about due process and professional ethics. If not addressed properly, with clear accountability and efforts to deal with what went wrong, it could damage public trust in these institutions, feeding a sense that the law, and law enforcement, work differently for people with wealth and privilege.

Given the interest that this case has attracted, the Attorney-General’s Chambers has said that they will be studying the judgment, which “raises questions which warrant further investigation”. They say that they’ll assess if “further action” should be taken in relation to this case, although it’s not yet clear what sort of action they mean.

The Ministry of Manpower has also released a statement saying that Parti had made a complaint against the Liews about illegal deployment in 2017 (after being accused of theft), and that they’d looked into it and issued a caution to Liew Mun Leong and an advisory to Karl Liew. It’s not clear what was actually said in the caution or advisory, so let’s see if MOM will shed more light on this in the coming days.

It’s great that she doesn’t need to go to prison or carry the accusation of being a thief around with her anymore, but the fact remains that Parti Liyani has been put through an ordeal and has had to spend years unable to earn a living to support her family. HOME has started a fundraiser for her — donate here.

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