SINGAPORE: The Singaporean couple who starved their Filipino maid for 15 months were sentenced to jail on Monday (Mar 27).
Trader Lim Choon Hong was jailed three weeks and fined S$10,000, while his wife Chong Sui Foon was jailed for threemonths.
The prosecutors, who asked for 12 months' jail for each person, said they will appeal the sentences.
Lim and Chong, both 47, were found guilty in March last year of failing to provide their domestic helper, Thelma Oyasan Gawidan (pictured below), with enough food while she was working for them. Ms Gawidan was given only slices of white bread and instant noodles to eat twice a day for more than a year, causing her to lose almost 20kg in the time she worked for the Lim family.
The maid’s pleas for more food fell on deaf ears, and she had nowhere to turn to for help as her employers took her mobile phone and passport from her.
In April 2014, Ms Gawidan managed to escape, running until she found a pay phone from which she called a friend. She was then taken to HOME, a welfare organisation for migrant workers in Singapore.
She weighed just 29kg at that point.
Three days into their trial in December 2015, Lim and Chong pleaded guilty to starving Ms Gawidan.
In her defence, Chong claimed her mental illness was to blame as she suffered from an eating disorder as a teen and has been diagnosed with obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) as an adult.
She said she fed Ms Gawidan bread or noodles because the food would not “dirty” the house and could be consumed quickly, leaving the maid more time to do her chores.
However, District Judge Low Wee Ping decided in December last year, after hearing from three psychiatrists, that Chong’s OCD was “not linked” to her behaviour towards Ms Gawidan. While Chong deprived Ms Gawidan of food, she force-fed her husband and children, psychiatrists said.
Judge Low found Chong’s behaviour “stemmed from and reflected a selective and discriminatory perception and treatment of the victim”, and had nothing to do with her OCD.
The couple had paid their former domestic helper S$20,000 as part of a settlement agreement, which precludes the maid from suing them in civil proceedings.
Prosecutors accused Lim and Chong of using the payment “as a tool to get a lower sentence”, pointing out the offer was made only after Judge Low said he was considering a jail term.
Deputy Public Prosecutor Tan Soo Tet said the payment serves to “extinguish any (civil) claims” the victim might bring against her former employers, and should not be taken to be “a genuine show of remorse”.
If it was, the offer should have come a lot sooner, DPP Tan said. He pointed out that the issue of compensation “only came about (this month) - almost three years after the victim had run away, two and a half years after (Lim and Chong) were charged and more than a year since their trial began in December 2015”.
“(This is) clearly a tool to get a lower sentence,” DPP Tan said.
The prosecutor also argued it was “offensive” for the defence to “trivialise” Ms Gawidan’s weight loss. The defence had likened the maid’s weight loss - almost 20kg in 15 months - to someone who loses weight under a weight loss programme.
“She was starved … beyond the imagination of most people. To suggest this was not severe and unnatural is preposterous,” DPP Tan said.
The couple’s lawyer, Raymond Lye, said his clients were genuinely remorseful, pointing to their full acceptance of the settlement agreement drafted by lawyers for Ms Gawidan.
The couple had initially offered S$10,000, but immediately agreed to S$20,000 when the amount was suggested by Ms Gawidan’s lawyers, Mr Lye said. “Their agreement to Ms Gawidan’s request, without negotiation … shows genuine remorse and regret,” the lawyer said.
The exchange prompted Judge Low to question: “Does this mean you can pay your way out, because you can afford it?”
In the end, Judge Low accepted the couple had shown remorse and sentenced them to jail terms in line with what Mr Lye had proposed.
The lawyer had pressed for a jail term of between four and 12 weeks for Chong, and half of that for Lim.
Lim cried silently in the dock as he was sentenced to three weeks’ jail and the maximum S$10,000 fine. Chong remained stoic as she was sentenced to three months’ jail.
Mr Lye confirmed the couple will not appeal.
The couple are on bail of S$3,000 each pending the hearing of the prosecution's appeal, which will be heard at the High Court.
For failing to provide Ms Gawidan with enough food, the couple, who have four children, could have been jailed up to one year and/or fined S$10,000.
COUPLE PERMANENTLY BARRED FROM HIRING MAIDS
In a media release shortly after Lim and Chong were sentenced, the Ministry of Manpower (MOM) said the couple have been permanently barred from employing foreign domestic workers.
"The ministry has zero tolerance for abuse and mistreatment of workers," said Jeanette Har, director of the well-being department at MOM’s foreign manpower management division.
"The conduct of Lim and his wife is reprehensible and MOM will prosecute individuals who fail to safeguard the well-being of the worker. We are glad that Thelma's physical condition has improved and she is now working for a new employer."