SINGAPORE: A Singaporean couple is on trial for allegedly starving their Filipina domestic helper. She weighed just 29kg when she escaped from their Orchard Road condominium in April 2014.
Lim Choon Hong and wife Chong Sui Foon, both 47, face one charge each under the Employment of Foreign Manpower Act, which states that employers are responsible for the "maintenance" of their foreign employee, including proving them with adequate food.
Ms Thelma Oyasan Gawidan, 40, had worked for the couple for almost 1.5 years before she escaped and sought refuge at HOME, a non-profit organisation that assists migrant workers, including domestic helpers.
Ms Thelma lost 20kg whilst working for Lim and Chong. She told HOME of only being given instant noodles to eat twice a day for over a year. On some occasions, she was given bread.
Ms Thelma Oyasan Gawidan lost 20 kg over a 15-month period while working for Lim Choon Hong and his wife Chong Sui Foon at their condominium in Orchard. (Photo: Jason Quah/TODAY)
Chong also only allowed her to shower once or twice a week, keeping tabs on Ms Thelma to make sure she did not use any hot water, despite forcing her to shower in the condominium's public toilet, Ms Christina Quek, the investigation officer in charge of the case, told the court.
HOME reported Ms Thelma's conditions to the Ministry of Manpower, who directed the NGO to send Ms Thelma for a medical check up.
In court on Monday (Dec 14), Dr Lim Huiyu, senior resident at Tan Tock Seng Hospital's department of gastroenterology and hepatology who examined Ms Thelma in April this year, testified that she suffered "significant weight loss due to insufficient intake of food". This conclusion was arrived at after ruling out medical or organic causes. So malnourished was Ms Thelma that she did not have her period for a year, the doctor said.
"I WAS SHIVERING FROM HUNGER"
Ms Thelma took the stand on Monday afternoon, and guided by Deputy Public Prosecutor Tan Soo Tet, detailed her alleged ordeal.
The couple asked her to work odd hours, telling her to sleep in the storeroom in the day and putting her to work overnight. Ms Thelma brought up a particularly draining episode when she woke up on a Monday at 7pm and was made to work without rest till Wednesday. She had told Chong she was tired from working over 24 hours, but was told to"hurry up and finish", Ms Thelma told the court.
The petite woman also recalled how she was "shivering from hunger". "When I am still hungry, I will ask for more ... sometimes she will give me more, but the next meal I will get less", Ms Thelma said.
Chong would sometimes add some meat and vegetables to her food, Ms Thelma told the court, but in the form of "one slice of tomato ... or cucumber". As for meat, Ms Thelma pointed to her little finger to indicate the size of the portion. "Is that all?", DPP Tan asked. "Yes. I always felt hungry," Ms Thelma added.
"I DIDN'T RECOGNISE MYSELF IN THE MIRROR"
Ms Thelma was never allowed to eat out with the family. Even when Lim and Chong brought their three children to stay at Raffles Hotel, they packed instant noodles and bread for Ms Thelma.
"I became skinny. I didn't recognise myself when I looked in the mirror," Ms Thelma said. She broke down sobbing at one point, and had to be given a 10-minute break to compose herself.
The 40-year-old also told the court she felt weak in general, and that her clothes were getting looser. After a while, her hair started dropping out. She stopped getting her period in February 2013, a month after starting work for the couple.
Ms Thelma told the court that she tried to plead with Chong for more food on one of the instances when the Singaporean was supervising her whilst she showered. "I pleaded with her when she was in the bathroom with me: 'Look at my body, I am skin and bones already'". But Chong pretended not to have heard her, she said.
Ms Thelma sobbed uncontrollably in court and covered her face when shown pictures of herself at 29kg, after running away from her employers' home.
If found guilty, Lim and Chong could be jailed up to 12 months and/or fined up to S$10,000.