SINGAPORE: An inference the High Court made about a major factor in acquitting former Indonesian maid Parti Liyani’s was “quite different” from what she said, Law and Home Affairs Minister K Shanmugam told Parliament on Wednesday (Nov 4).
The minister was referring to what Ms Parti said to two family members of former Changi Airport Group chairman Liew Mun Leong about complaining to the Ministry of Manpower (MOM), after she was told she had been dismissed.
READ: Chief Justice grants investigation into Parti Liyani's complaint of misconduct against prosecutors
Ms Parti was convicted in March last year of stealing S$34,000 from Mr Liew and his family, but the conviction was overturned by the High Court on Sep 4.
In Justice Chan Seng Onn's judgment, the judge outlined several issues with the conviction findings and how the case was handled.
The judge also noted that a “police report was made just two days after Parti made explicit to two members of Liew’s family of her intention to lodge a complaint to the MOM (Ministry of Manpower) about being required to work illegally at (Mr Liew’s son) Karl’s residence ... and at Karl’s office”.
But according to Mr Shanmugam, subsequent evidence showed that Ms Parti actually said: “I want to complain, because you give me too short notice.” Mr Shanmugam said a maid agent who was present confirmed this.
“Ms Liyani did not say that she wanted to complain to MOM about anything else,” Mr Shanmugam said in his ministerial statement on the case. “As can be seen, this is quite different from the inference that the High Court had made.
“But the High Court understandably and naturally went on the basis of the evidence and the submissions made to it. The High Court didn’t have the benefit of this additional evidence.”
This is important because Mr Shanmugam said the High Court’s decision was premised on two “key findings”, one of which was reasonable doubt as to whether the Liews had an improper motive for making the allegations against Ms Parti.
Mr Shanmugam said if it is shown that there was reasonable doubt that the Liews had an improper motive, then what they said about Ms Parti and the theft of items “could become questionable”.
“In this case, the High Court came to a view on motive, that there was a reasonable doubt as to whether the Liews filed the police report to prevent Ms Liyani from filing an MOM complaint against them for having deployed her to work outside their house,” he said.
READ: Timeline: How former maid Parti Liyani was acquitted of stealing from Changi Airport Group chairman's family
“Motive appears to have been a key factor in the judgment.”
Mr Shanmugam said the High Court had noted that Ms Parti did not say what she was going to complain to MOM about.
And so when the judge said that Ms Parti was going to complain about being made to work outside Mr Liew’s house, Mr Shanmugam said this was an inference made based on the evidence and submissions made to the court.
“Based on this, the High Court also said that Liew Mun Leong and Karl must have been concerned, and therefore there is reasonable doubt as to whether they had a motive to make allegations and a police report against Ms Liyani,” Mr Shanmugam said.
“The court in fact said this threat by Ms Liyani ... to lodge a complaint with the MOM was ‘most critical’.”
WHAT DID PARTI LIYANI MEAN?
What Ms Parti seems to have said, based on subsequent investigations, is that she wanted to complain to MOM because she was given too short of a notice before her employment was terminated, Mr Shanmugam said.
Mr Shanmugam said this evidence was obtained during internal reviews by the Attorney-General’s Chambers and further investigations by the police, announced after the High Court issued its decision.
However, Mr Shanmugam said the prosecution did not obtain or put forward this evidence because the issue had not been raised by the defence in its case for defence or at the pre-trial conferences.
“In this case, the matter was raised when witnesses were on the stand and in submissions,” he said. “The prosecution did not see a need to deal with the issue by bringing in new evidence."
Further investigations also revealed that the maid agents had twice offered to help Ms Parti with lodging the MOM complaint, but she declined, Mr Shanmugam said.
Ms Parti lodged her complaint about illegal deployment in September and October 2017, after she was charged. MOM said in September that it had in May 2018 issued Mrs Liew Mun Leong and Karl a caution and an advisory respectively over the complaint.
DIFFERENT TERMINOLOGIES ON MOTIVE
Mr Shanmugam said the High Court also used different terminologies to describe the Liews’ motive: Reason to believe, reasonable doubt, an improper motive, the improper motive, and the existence of an improper motive.
Mr Shanmugam thinks it is a “fair assumption” that the High Court intended to say there was a reasonable doubt as to whether the Liews had an improper motive, not that they in fact had an improper motive.
BREAK IN CHAIN OF CUSTODY
Another “key finding” that led to Ms Parti’s acquittal, according to the High Court, is that there had been a break in the chain of custody of the allegedly stolen items.
Mr Shanmugam said this break applies to items recovered from the boxes, and not the items seized from Ms Parti.
READ: Maid acquitted of stealing from Changi Airport Group chairman’s family hid her ordeal from her family
The High Court found there had been a break in the chain of custody of these items from Oct 29, 2016, when the Liews found them in the boxes, to Dec 3, 2016, when police visited the scene. The Liews had also used the items during this time.
“The High Court therefore said the case of theft is not proven because it can’t be proven that Ms Liyani took them,” Mr Shanmugam said. “There could have been interference when the boxes were with the Liews.”
As for items that Ms Parti admitted to packing into the boxes, Mr Shanmugam said it does not matter whether there was a chain of custody or whether the chain was broken, “because she clearly intended to take these items”.
“Where she admits to packing the items, or taking them, then the only question is whether it belongs to the Liews or to Ms Liyani, or if for some reason, she is entitled to keep the items,” he said.
The break applies to the items Ms Parti did not admit packing into her boxes, namely two DVD players, some clothing said to belong to Karl, and three bedsheets and one blanket also said to belong to Karl.
“Looking at the facts, the High Court’s view that there was a break in the chain of custody is understandable in respect of these items,” Mr Shanmugam said.
Despite that, Mr Shanmugam noted that if the items possibly affected by the break were removed, there would still be four theft charges against Ms Parti.
FILING OF POLICE REPORT
Mr Shanmugam highlighted that the High Court had said the Liews filed the “urgent” police report to prevent Ms Parti’s return and so that she could not file a complaint with MOM.
The minister said making a police report would not have prevented Ms Parti from returning to Singapore or filing a complaint with MOM if she was serious about doing so.
READ: Changi Airport Group chairman suspected maid of stealing for years, but tolerated her behaviour
“Should Ms Liyani attempt to return, police investigations would also require her to remain in Singapore, once again offering her further opportunity to pursue an MOM complaint against the Liews,” he said.
Mr Shanmugam pointed out that Mr Liew had stated that he was lodging the police report for record purposes, as he was afraid that Ms Parti’s boyfriends might cause a nuisance or break into his apartment.
Ms Parti had asked for three boxes to be sent to her after she left the country following her termination, but the Liews had opened the boxes and were not going to send them to her after saying their items were in the boxes.
“In the circumstances, is it understandable that a police report is filed?” Mr Shanmugam said. “Is it possible to think that Ms Liyani or persons acting on her behalf will ask what happened to the items, and may accuse the Liews?”
SUDDEN TERMINATION OF EMPLOYMENT
Mr Shanmugam highlighted that the High Court considered the termination sudden, since there was no evidence of items that had gone missing in the period around her termination on Oct 28, 2016.
Further investigations conducted after the High Court decision showed that Mr Liew’s wife had told the maid agency by the end of 2015 that she wanted to get a new maid and that she suspected Ms Parti of stealing, Mr Shanmugam said.
Mr Liew decided to terminate Ms Parti’s employment after a power bank he had received as a gift in May 2016 disappeared.
His wife visited the maid agency in September 2016 and chose a replacement helper. Ms Parti was dismissed on Oct 28 that year because the new helper become available on that day.
Mr Shanmugam said investigations show that the decision to terminate Ms Parti was not sudden, as it was being considered from late 2015, and that the Liews had decided on a replacement maid in September 2016.
“The police didn’t go into this earlier; there was no reason for the police to believe that the termination was for reasons other than the alleged theft,” he said.
PARTI LIYANI GAVE INCONSISTENT ANSWERS
Mr Shanmugam said various aspects of Ms Parti’s evidence raised scepticism, including inconsistencies in many of her answers and several parts of her evidence in court.
“Items which were said to be found in the trash, for example,” he said. “I will leave members to reach their own views.”
And while the State Courts found Ms Parti “quite untruthful”, Mr Shanmugam said the High Court gave her the “benefit of doubt” because it was troubled by Karl’s “improbable, unreliable statements”, as well as the Liews’ conduct and inconsistencies in their testimonies.
The High Court also made points on the reliability of Ms Parti’s statements. “If there were issues with the statement taking, then that affects the question of whether there in fact inconsistencies in her statement,” Mr Shanmugam said.
Ms Parti gave a number of reasons for her inconsistent answers, including how she did not understand the questions posed or how the interviewers did not understand her answers.
“For example when she admitted to taking the 10 to 15 items of male clothing, she meant to say something different from what was recorded in her statement,” Mr Shanmugam said.
LANGUAGE IN PARTI LIYANI’S STATEMENTS
Mr Shanmugam said police recorded five statements from Ms Parti, the first four of which were in Malay. The final statement was recorded with the aid of a Bahasa Indonesia interpreter.
Mr Shanmugam said the law requires a written statement to be read over to the person who gives it, usually in English. If the person does not understand English, it must be read over in a language the person understands.
The High Court found that there had been a breach as Ms Parti had not been given a Bahasa Indonesia interpreter for her first four statements, although it said the statements remained admissible as evidence as the breach was not a “flagrant violation”.
“In this case, the police officers believed in good faith that Ms Liyani understood Malay,” Mr Shanmugam said, adding that Ms Parti had worked in Singapore for 20 years.
“The recorder asked Ms Liyani in Malay whether she wished to give her statement in Malay or in Bahasa Indonesia. She chose to speak in Malay. There is no significant difference between Malay and Bahasa Indonesia in the asking of that question.”
Furthermore, Mr Shanmugam said Ms Parti did not ask for an interpreter during the recording of her statements, and that the recorder had testified in court that they were able to communicate without difficulties.
“The High Court said that the differences in the two languages could create reasonable doubt on the accuracy of the statements recorded,” he added.
“(The law) makes clear, the key requirement is that the interviewee understands what is being said.”
Mr Shanmugam said Ms Parti’s final statement, when she was provided with a Bahasa Indonesia translator, dealt with the majority of areas covered in previous statements and the items in the charges given to her.
“So on that basis, her final statement is not affected by any interpretation issue,” he stated.
"SIGNIFICANT PUBLIC INTEREST"
Before Mr Shanmugam delivered his statement, Leader of the House Indranee Rajah addressed Members of Parliament (MPs).
She highlighted that the statement and discussions would likely go into matters that may also "be relevant to existing proceedings". As such, she moved a motion to lift the application of the Standing Order which says that reference should not be made to matters which are pending before the courts.
"There is a clear public interest for the questions raised about our criminal justice system to be addressed sooner, rather than later," Ms Indranee said, noting that Ms Parti's case has generated "significant public interest".
"It is not clear when the existing proceedings will conclude, and it is not satisfactory to defer the Parliamentary discussion of the case for months or indefinitely.
"This should not be regarded as a general precedent, but something that is necessary for present circumstances," she added.
"I would also urge Members to exercise judgment in their speeches and clarifications, and to be prepared to substantiate any factual point they are making."