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Parti case: The news from Parliament

The news is: Mr Karl Liew will be charged with perjury tomorrow. This announcement comes after a ministerial statement in Parliament earlier today which I don’t really know how to describe. I will stick with a neutral term, like, eye-opening. 

I guess many will rejoice at the State’s decision, and I can anticipate calls for a similar pound of flesh to be excised from the father, Mr Liew Mun Leong. 

But after the more than two-hour monologue in Parliament by Law and Home Affairs Minister K Shanmugam, I am still trying to wrap my head around the processes involved in the legal system. 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.

Not that he is about to re-open the case nor judge the rightness or wrongness of the acquittal. He made that clear from the start. He had to refer to the case, the judgments and the investigation process and the results of the review to answer questions that have been raised about the impartiality of the legal system, he told Parliament. His intent was to assure the House that everyone gets a fair shake in the Singapore system, whether a foreign domestic worker or a corporate chieftain. The David-versus Goliath end result was really evidence that the rule of law is working, he said. 

So he took the House through the steps taken by the police and Attorney-General’s Chambers which led them to proceed to charge Ms Liyani. There was no reason to doubt the authenticity of the police report Mr Liew made, nor question his motives, he said. In fact, Parti herself had admitted initially to taking 10 to 15 items of male clothing without permission – a statement she later retracted. 

He asserted that there was no “influence peddling’’ on the part of the Liew family to subvert the process. The higher ups in the police and prosecution didn’t even know about the case until it broke in the media. As far as the public officers were concerned, it was just another theft case, one of 14,000 that are filed annually.

As for the much put-upon Attorney-General Lucien Wong, the House was told that he  recused himself from anything to do with the case when it blew up later not because he was a friend and former fellow board member with Mr Liew, but because he had great differences of opinion with the man in those days. (Woah. How many of you thought otherwise?) 

I was wondering how open the minister would be about the case, which had exercised the minds of Singaporeans since September. Public sympathy was for the maid, helped by a pro bono lawyer and a non-government organisation. On the other hand, Mr Liew was castigated on social media so much that he left all his corporate positions, including chairman of Changi Airport Group, to spare the companies pain. 

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Before Mr Shanmugam spoke, Leader of the House Indranee Rajah asked that a Standing Order which restrains comments on court cases in Parliament be waived, given the public interest and the need to put to rest suspicions about the application of the law of law here. That was a hint that we’d be hearing quite a bit. How much? 

The minister went into the case with a fine tooth-comb, referring to investigation processes, notes from the Attorney-General and comments from the State Court judge who had sentenced Parti to 26 months jail, and the High Court judge who later acquitted her. He came armed with eight appendices detailing what she was said to have filched or picked up from the trash, inconsistencies in her statements to police and on the stand and, more interestingly, how not all 51 items were part of the break in the chain of evidence. 

While he was clearly annoyed at Ms Liyani’s inconsistent statements, he also had tough words for the Liews, whom he said adopted a “cavalier attitude’’ towards identifying items when they were not sure of their provenance and indiscriminately ascribing values to them. They should have treated making a police report more seriously.

In case you forgot, High Court judge Chan Seng Onn acquitted Ms Liyani because he wasn’t convinced that the Liews’ motive for making a police report about the theft was proper. He was inclined to think that they could have made the move to stop their former maid of eight years from returning to Singapore and complaining to the Manpower Ministry about being illegally deployed at the afore-mentioned Karl’s house. 

Karl wasn’t a reliable witness as well. For example, he had testified that a Gucci wallet, a Braun Buffel wallet and a Helix watch were given to him by his family members. Yet none of his family members could recall this. Hence, the charge tomorrow.

Then comes the rather damning lapse in investigation: it took police more than a month to followup on the police report Mr Liew made on 30 Oct 2016, by which time anything could have been done to the supposed purloined items. This is the “break in the chain of custody’’ of evidence part.

Given the parliamentary waiver, I thought Mr Shanmugam would also talk about the prosecution’s conduct of the trial, which will be reviewed by a disciplinary tribunal. Alas, he said he would rather not talk about the case since it could involve penalties. In fact, he said House Leader Indranee Rajah and Leader of the Opposition Pritam Singh agreed not to get into this matter. 

So we will have to wait to hear about that infamous DVD player which didn’t work perfectly. Earlier today, Ms Liyani released a media statement which threw in another instance of supposed prosecutorial shenanigans during the trial – a Gerald Genta watch that works only when shaken.  

The fresh points Mr Shanmugam revealed earlier today:

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  1. Although Ms Liyani did threaten the family about complaining to MOM as she was sent packing on 28 October 2016, she didn’t actually say what the complaint would be about. In course of reviewing the case after the acquittal, investigations produced an eye-witness who said that Ms Liyani was referring to the “short notice’’ period she had been given. Also, her maid agent twice offered to help her make a report with MOM but she declined. She did so only after she was charged the next year. 
  1. The break in the chain of custody only covers the items contained in three bags left in the Liew’s house. But there were also items like a Prada bag and a pair of Gucci sunglasses that were found on her when she was arrested on her return to Singapore on Dec 2. 
  1. Her dismissal wasn’t “sudden’’. The Liews had been harbouring thoughts of dismissing her since mid 2015 because they suspected that she had been filching stuff. Mrs Liew saw a maid agent a few times after that. But the family made up its mind in September the next year after Mr Liew found that his power bank was missing.  Ms Liyani was dismissed on the same day the new maid arrived for work. She had suggested that she was dismissed because she had said “no’’ to working in Karl’s house the week before. 

Mr Shanmugam made it plain that he wasn’t contesting the judgment, which was final. The court, he said, can only rule based on the evidence put before him. In this case, the prosecution didn’t think that the reason for her dismissal was material to the case, and focused their attention on the alleged theft. Nor was the judge apprised of what she had actually said about complaining to MOM.

He stressed that this was evidence untested in court. “But since this has come up during the further investigations, as to whether the Liews committed an offence, I am duty bound to set out in this House. I cannot come here and go through the facts without telling you that we have this further information which only came about because the further investigations into the Liews’ conduct was directed by the AGC.’’

Several times, he said that he was giving context about the case, to show how the police and prosecution came to the decision  to charge Ms Liyani. For example, was there any reason at that time for police to doubt the authenticity of the police report or that she had been dismissed on suspicions of thieving? 

“We are not here discussing whether the specifics of the conduct of the trial were right or wrong. My task before this House is to set out what happened, and what we have found out since the High Court judgment and based on that, examine whether there are any systemic issues, and whether there was any influence-peddling.’’

I thought Mr Shanmugam tried very hard not to put himself on the spot. He was trying to debunk views that the system favours the powerful with facts, including dredging up Establishment names who have got the stick in the past. At the same time, he was trying to explain how the legal system works, that is, it is normal for courts to disagree on conviction or sentences. Ms Lyani’s case belonged to the 10 per cent of appeal cases to a higher court which quashed the conviction or reduced the sentence. 

But he was clearly protective of his Home team. While stating that lapses must be dealt with, and action taken against officers involved, he was sympathetic towards his “over-worked” crew.

Singapore’s 1,100 investigating officers deal with 66,200 criminal cases a year. Including full-time National Servicemen, the ratio of police to population is 0.23 per cent compared to Hong Kong’s 0.39 per cent, he said. As for the specific officer involved, he referred to his heavy caseload as well as being beset by personal problems.

So what will change after this?

  1. The AGC will from now “seriously consider’’ looking into allegations of perjury or other serious offences should such findings arise in court judgments or legal proceedings. I am perplexed by this because I’ve always thought that was the case.
  2. The AGC will draw up guidelines for the valuation of items in property offences.
  3. Police will ask accused persons for their language of choice and inform them that they can ask  for an interpreter at any time. 
  4. Police will take better quality pictures, in colour, with items properly displayed for identification. If you’re wondering about this, Ms Liyani was shown black and white photographs of the items at first.
  5. The workload of investigating officers will be reviewed and the police are looking into online case management systems. 

Of course, Mr Shanmugam said a lot more about upholding the rule of law and being swift to stamp out all vestiges of corruption or influence peddling. You can read them in the mainstream media.

I’m all agog over just one point he made: He said that if People’s Action MPs were found wanting in some way, even if it wasn’t anything criminal or unethical, he would have a chat with the relevant MP over a cup of coffee. “When they leave, the issue is usually resolved. And if it is not resolved, Then they don’t remain as MPs.’’ 

My goodness! Which MPs have been invited to lim kopi with the minister?

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An ex-journalist who can't get enough of the news after being in the business for 26 years

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