SINGAPORE: The Singaporean couple who starved their Filipino maid for more than 15 months had their jail sentences increased to 10 months on Friday (Sep 15), after an appeal by the prosecution.
The High Court agreed that their original jail terms were “patently and manifestly inadequate”. Chief Justice Sundaresh Menon said the couple had “systematically deprived” the maid of food and “denied her her basic human right to nutrition”.
Trader Lim Choon Hong and his wife, Chong Sui Foon, were convicted in March 2016 of failing to provide their helper, Ms Thelma Oyasan Gawidan, with enough food while she worked for the family at their Orchard Road condominium from January 2013 to April 2014.
Lim was originally sentenced to three weeks’ jail and fined S$10,000, while Chong, a housewife, was sentenced to three months’ jail. Prosecutors appealed the decision, seeking 12 months’ jail, the maximum sentence for the offence.
The court heard that the couple had fed Ms Gawidan a “bizarre” diet of plain bread and instant noodles. By the time she managed to flee the household in April 2014, she weighed just 29kg. She had lost 40 per cent of her body weight, and her BMI of 14.4 was an indication that she was grossly undernourished.
In addition to starving Ms Gawidan, Chong subjected her to other “degrading” conditions, Deputy Public Prosecutor Sellakumaran said. For example, she was not allowed to shower or use the bathroom at home, and was forced to do so at a public toilet, while Chong watched.
The couple saw the maid “as a lesser being”, said the prosecution. “They viewed her as a cleaning unit."
Chong was diagnosed with obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD), but a judge had ruled that this had nothing to do with how she starved Ms Gawidan, noting that the rest of the family enjoyed a proper diet. Psychiatrist Dr Stephen Phang had also said that Chong’s behavior was due to “a selective and discriminatory perception” of the maid, and is not related to her OCD.
The prosecution also urged the High Court not to consider the S$20,000 in compensation Lim and Chong paid to their former maid. They paid Ms Gawidan off to avoid civil proceedings and to avoid a lengthy jail sentence, rather than out of genuine remorse, the prosecution argued.
The couple’s lawyer, on the other hand, said their offences should be considered in the context of their “unhappy household”. Chong’s mental illness affected the whole family, which had to “follow particular regimes” and “unusual routines” as a result of Chong’s OCD, said lawyer Suresh Damodara said.
It is “a very sad set of circumstances this family went through,” he told the court.
MAIDS PARTICULARLY VULNERABLE
In increasing the couple’s sentences, Chief Justice Menon said domestic helpers are “particularly vulnerable victims and in need of constant protection”. Maids “don’t have a voice” and are completely dependent on their employers, he added.
"It is imperative ... that we as a society ensure that these foreign workers are treated decently and accorded the sort of guarantees of human dignity that we would accord to any human being," he said.
Chief Justice Menon also noted that a "misstep" in the prosecution led to the appeal.
The couple was charged under the Employment of Foreign Manpower Act with not providing the maid with adequate food and medical treatment, an offence that carries the maximum jail term of a year.
Other possible charges under the Penal Code, which may have resulted in higher sentences, were not brought against them.
Lim and Chong had “subjected (Ms Gawidan) to systematic cruelty and denied her her basic human dignity,” the Chief Justice said. As for Chong’s defence that her mental illness was to blame, he said her cruelty “seemed to defy explanation”.
While CJ Menon thought that their acts fell in the "very high end of culpability", he also noted that the prosecution had not established that the couple acted to be cruel and that in the end, compensation was offered and paid to Ms Gawidan. Therefore, he did not sentence them to the maximum jail term of 12 months.
In sentencing the couple to the same length of time in jail, CJ Menon said there is “no distinction” to be drawn between the culpability of husband and wife. As Ms Gawidan’s employer, “it was (Lim’s) legal duty to safeguard the victim … and with full knowledge of what was happening (to her), he turned the other way and allowed the cruelty to continue”.
Chong will serve her 10-month sentence first, after which Lim will serve his. CJ Menon allowed the couple to stagger their sentences so that at least one parent will be around for their children.