Over the years, I have read plenty of court judgments, usually containing several pieces of case law and precedents to buttress some legal point. I have to take time to understand them. But the court judgment on the acquittal of the maid in the recent controversy involving an establishment figure was a breezy read. It looked like the Justice Chan Seng Onn merely applied a lot of common sense.
Now, common sense, I can understand. Which makes me wonder why the same common sense was not applied right from the beginning, October 26, 2016, when Parti Liyani, 46, was told to leave the home of Mr Liew Mun Leong where she had been employed for the past eight years.
Here’s a brief for those who have been living under a rock:
Parti was told to leave the Chancery Lane house on Oct 28, because she was believed to have been filching things from the family over time. Two days later, Mr Liew filed a police report against Parti after finding out that she had some of the family’s belongings stashed in three boxes that were to be sent back to her in Indonesia. She was arrested when she returned to Singapore on Dec 2. The trial was held in March 2018 and Parti was sentenced to 26 months jail. Her pro bono lawyer appealed the conviction and she was acquitted earlier this month.
The fall-out has been tremendous, with a promised review of the “system’’ and Mr Liew, 74, taking early retirement from his corporate positions, including the chairmanship of the Changi Airport Group.
This does not seem to be a case of an appeal judge overturning the sentence of a lower court on some legal point or another, resulting in some lesser punishment. This case led to an acquittal of the David versus Goliath variety with all charges quashed. A mere reading of the judgment would make anyone wonder whether the odds were stacked against the maid right from the beginning by one side of the legal system, right up to the district judge.
I confess that when news first broke in March 2018 about trial, I was horrified at the scale of the thieving, amounting to some $34,000, and how the maid was devious enough to try “smuggling’’ the items, including plenty of brand-name goods, back to Indonesia. District Judge Olivia Low said then that “the quantity and variety of stolen items showed that (Parti) took these items out of greed, and not need, and certainly not because she was into recycling or ‘up-cycling’ as the defence has called it’’. She described Parti’s request for Mr Liew’s son, Karl, to have the boxes of loot shipped to her as a “brazen act of committing theft right under their very noses’’.
I can imagine how the case would have affected the imaginations of many maid employers. Stories were no doubt told in hair salons and over tea, about disloyal maids who steal from their bosses and how employers should be alert about “missing items’’ in the home. There could even be sympathy for the Liew family, which had been conned by a maid they thought was loyal.
How the tables have been turned!
Now there is an outpouring of sympathy for the maid, admiration for her pro bono lawyer, Mr Anil Balchandani, and, predictably, disgust at the behaviour of a well-off family who came across as petty, conniving and, to put it mildly, cheap. (They deployed her illegally to work in Karl’s house. She was paid $20 each time. Only three occasions , said the Liew family. Every week, she said.)
Media coverage of the first trial has been patchy. During the initial sentencing, the judge castigated the defence lawyer for bringing up “irrelevant issues’’ and Parti for not showing remorse. Parti had maintained that she only took items that the family wanted to dispose of or had left in the trash. She said others were her own belongings, had been left behind by an earlier maid, or had been given to her by a friend.
At the appeal stage, a lot was clarified. The “stolen” items included a DVD player valued at $1,000 (which cannot play DVDs), two Longchamp bags worth $400 (which she picked up from garbage thrown away in the posh neighbourhood), a Gerald Genta watch worth $10,000 (knocked down from $25,000), two white iPhone 4 smartphones with accessories valued at $2,056 (outdated models probably thrown away by Karl and his wife), 115 pieces of clothing valued at $150 each (some of which are Parti’s, given by friends or taken from the trash – this includes a tee-shirt the family had used as a rag), and bed linen (said to be from Habitat in the UK, but which Parti bought from IKEA).
To this layman, it appears that Justice was re-doing the trial, that is, going over old ground and coming up with different conclusions. The key issue was whether the prosecution had proved its case beyond doubt or whether there could be “improper motives’’ or collusion among the family members to frame Parti for theft. At the earlier trial, not much emphasis appeared to have been given to the threat Parti levelled at the Liews before she left: that she would complain to the Manpower ministry about being made to work at two homes. This left some doubt as to the motives for the police report: that it was to stop her from talking to MOM lest the family be penalised or barred from employing maids.
There was some legal nitty-gritty but quite a lot of the judge’s findings was based on common sense. For example:
- You don’t have to read crime novels or watch CSI on television to know that when people report a theft, police will go and check out what’s missing and won’t tell the supposed victim to carry on using the supposed loot. And this should happen even if the supposed thief has scooted off. Police only visited the family some two months later.
- You don’t need a business mind to know that valuation of properties and assets should be done independently, rather than rely on the word of an interested party as to their worth. And that when you catch them out inflating a price, like affixing $25,000 for a spoilt Gerald Genta watch, you should start wondering about the prices affixed to the rest.
- You don’t need to be cynical to start doubting someone who says he can’t remember, mistook items as stolen, says he bought something even when it hadn’t been in production at that time or says he wears women’s clothing that’s too small for him.
- You have probably never used a DVD player before if you don’t think of testing it by inserting a DVD in it to see if it works. The prosecution’s “sleight-of-hand’’, by demonstrating to the court that the player’s hard drive was working, instead of the more usual method of examining whether it plays DVDs (not working) is worrying.
- You don’t need to be legally trained to know that the burden of proof lies with the prosecution and not the defence, which was admonished for not calling up a hardware store seller to testify that the maid had bought the forks and spoons herself.
- You don’t need much common sense to figure out that people won’t steal something they don’t need or even use, like a pair of $2 chopsticks.
Much public anger has been expressed since the verdict, suggesting that action be taken against the family for making a false police report or to compensate Parti for what she had gone through.
I am sure there are people who genuinely believe that they have been wronged and will make a police report seeking redress, even though the perpetrator is already out of the country. Mr Liew himself described it as his civic duty. Perhaps, the family had hoped she would be caught entering the country later and punished according to the law, or prevented from entering.
This certainly seemed to be what happened. The police didn’t do much until she entered the country in December that year, which means her name must be on a blacklist. That could also be why the police only called on the family after her arrest. Whether this is SOP, I don’t know.
What should be borne in mind, however, is that Mr Liew wasn’t the one in the dock. And for the judge to cast doubts on the motives of the Liew family doesn’t mean he or his family members are irrevocably guilty of having “improper motives’’. To tender an apology, as some people have asked for, would be implying this.
Whether they harboured such motives or not, the case is so terribly tawdry: the idea that a family of Mr Liew’s status would go after a maid because she took items that were damaged, frayed, spoilt, used or fit for disposal. There was even “one leather “Vacheron Constantin” watch with unknown value’’ (which turned out to be a fake) and a $50 Helix watch that was actually a corporate gift.
People who are not affluent will pick up discarded stuff in the hope that they can be repaired or still be of use. I can understand this trait even if the Liews, the prosecution and the district judge couldn’t. But that benefit of the doubt was not given to Parti. Rather it seemed to have been conferred on the Liews instead.
Why are people angry? I believe it is the result of a perception that people in high places or members of the Establishment elite in Singapore have it too good. That they will get a pass while the lower orders get it in the neck. That they will get better treatment and can afford better counsel, while less privileged will have to depend on charity and the largesse of others. That their strong “connections’’ in the Establishment will either speak up for them or work behind the scenes to smooth the way for them.
(The statement that Attorney-General Lucien Wong had not and will not have anything to do with the case adds to the perception of a tight-knit elite community. He recused himself for personal reasons which I take to mean refers to having sat on the same Capitaland board as Mr Liew in the past. Mr Wong also thought it necessary to make the point that they were not friends.)
Are these worthy thoughts? Or the crowing of the envious on seeing the great, humbled? Why do such thoughts even surface?
I will make some generalisations here. It has to do with discontent over more tangible matters – that bosses will not get the rap but subordinates get the sack (think of recommendations of committees of inquiry), that an under-privileged person will have his dignity undermined by agencies determined to preserve their reputation (think CPF Board and Ministry of Social and Family Development), by suggesting that the better-educated are more suited for rehabilitation that the rest (yet another court case), and by not imposing a tax on the rich but denying the need for a minimum wage.
The current public dismay is fed by such sentiments, whether they are wrongly or rightly held.
It is not helped by well-meaning persons (I am referring to Temasek) suggesting that Mr Liew’s achievements, as a businessman and a corporate head honcho, be borne in mind when people subject him to the court of public opinion. Mr Liew is a big boy who can speak for himself and his family. And he did.
I believe Mr Liew did the right thing to step down from his corporate decisions, because public opinion is affecting the image and reputation of the agencies he was involved. It is difficult for people who, having been convinced that he might have done something wrong, to separate the personal from the professional. It is, after all, a trait that we have imbibed – that honesty must be the basis of all dealings and any hint of dishonesty should be stamped out.
But rather than turn the guns at the Liews, the focus should be on the processes and integrity of the system that allowed such a travesty of justice to reach this stage before it was, thankfully, averted.
If the legal system sees fit to take action against him or his family later as a result of this case, and is successful in securing a conviction, I am quite sure his myriad contributions would play a part in mitigating any sentence.
As Law and Home Affairs Minister K Shanmugam said: “We have to find out what happened, why it happened and then deal with it. And be accountable. That’s the best way to build trust in public, in the system. To come out in public and say what steps we have taken once the reviews are done.”
This review should be done soon, to stop the spread of sentiments that the small guy will always, always lose any fight against the big boys.