SINGAPORE: After being mistreated and starved for over a year, Ms Thelma Oyasan Gawidan fled her employers’ home. She had been asked to clean around the lift lobby outside the unit, and took the opportunity to escape when she realised that she had been left alone.
Her employers, husband and wife Lim Choon Hong and Chong Sui Foon, both 47, are on trial for starving Ms Thelma, causing her weight to drop from 49kg to 29kg in almost 15 months.
The court heard on Tuesday (Dec 15) that Ms Thelma, 40, had not attempted to escape earlier, as her employers were always following her around the house. “Every movement I do in the house, they are following, watching me, scolding me," she told the court.
Ms Thelma Oyasan Gawidan (Photo: Jason Quah, TODAY)
Ms Thelma, who weighed just 29kg when she escaped in April 2014, ran to Far East Shopping Centre, close to the couple's Orchard Road condominium, and hid there. She stopped a fellow Filipina, who lent Ms Thelma her phone. Ms Thelma called the only number she knew by heart: That of Ms Lilibeth, who is from her home town. Ms Lilibeth came to her aid and took her to the HOME shelter at Lucky Plaza.
Although she had a mobile phone of her own, she was not allowed to use it, Ms Thelma said, telling the court that her phone was in her locked suitcase which was taken away by her employers.
The court heard that Ms Lilibeth had attempted to get in touch with Ms Thelma once before, after Ms Thelma’s family became worried when they did not hear from her for an extended period of time. Ms Lilibeth relayed their concerns to the Philippine embassy, who then got in touch with Ms Thelma via her employers.
Ms Thelma, who cried in court as she spoke about her family, said; “I was informed by Larry (from the Philippine embassy) that Lilibeth came to the embassy enquiring about me, because I had no communication to my family, and I hadn’t sent any money - as if I just disappeared from them.”
She is married with three children, aged 17, 15 and 11.
Speaking of her living conditions and mistreatment, Ms Thelma told the court on Tuesday morning that in addition to Chong supervising her showers in the condominium’s public toilet, her employer would also accompany her to the public toilet when Ms Thelma had to urinate. She was not allowed to use the bathroom in the house for any reason, Ms Thelma said, dabbing at her tears with a tissue.
Chong and Lim also withheld her salary, and did not allow her days off. To justify holding back her wages, Ms Thelma said her employers told her that “by the time I return home, I have a lot of money to bring home and I don’t have to spend anything”.
Ms Thelma, who had no access to communication devices, was also forbidden from communicating with anyone outside the family. Once, she was caught trying to seek help from the next door neighbour’s Indonesian maid by “making a hand gesture about my stomach” to signal hunger, but Chong caught her in the act and told her she was not allowed to speak to anyone, Ms Thelma said.
The woman also recalled two other instances when her fellow Filipinas commented on her skinny and frail frame. The first time, when she was in the market with her employer, "one Filipina maid noticed me, asking me why I am so skinny”. The second occasion happened when the family travelled to Hong Kong and brought Ms Thelma along.
“We were inside the elevator with other Filipina maids, they asked me where I’m from and they asked me: 'Why are you so skinny? Your employer is not treating you well'”, Ms Thelma said, adding that the Filipinas had encouraged her to report her employers to the authorities.
WHY SHE PASSED UP CHANCES TO FLEE
Under questioning by the couple's lawyer Tan Hee Liang, it was revealed that because the couple travelled frequently for Lim's work, their children and Ms Thelma were often sent to live at Chong's mother's Bedok flat.
Ms Thelma testified that she felt happier staying at the Bedok flat, because while she still felt she was being watched by Chong's mother, she was allowed to eat, shower on a daily basis and sleep at normal hours.
She earlier testified that the security guard at the couple's Orchard Road condominium had chased after and shouted at her when she ran out of the condominium gates in an attempt to flee. When asked why she did not take the chance to escape from the Bedok flat, Ms Thelma said the thought did cross her mind, but that she was scared and did not know where to go.
She also repeated several times that she "did not have the courage" to flee initially, something which the defence jumped on.
"What I cannot understand is that if (Lim and Chong) were at fault, what is it that makes you lack the courage?", the couple's lawyer asked Ms Thelma.
The maid told the court: "I still wanted to earn money for my family, (so) if I can withstand the (mis)treatment, I will", she said. The only time she had suggested to her employers to send her back to the maid agency, they threatened to repatriate her to the Philippines instead, she said. She decided to try and stick it out, she said, "to complete my contract ... on good terms".
Mr Tan also challenged Ms Thelma's allegation that her wages had been withheld, and brought up the one occasion Lim helped her send money to her family in March 2014 for her daughter's graduation. Ms Thelma said this was "because I pleaded (with them) ... for so long". She added that Lim sent the money after the Philippine embassy had called to enquire about her well-being.
The defence lawyer also questioned why the maid did not seek help from people she came into contact with. She could have complained to the embassy official who called her, or to passersby she met on the street, he said. Ms Thelma reiterated repeatedly that she was always accompanied by her employers and was too fearful to speak out in their presence.
The trial continues on Wednesday.