SINGAPORE: The Manpower Ministry (MOM) is reviewing the reporting system for doctors who conduct the mandatory six-monthly examinations for foreign domestic workers, after the death of a helper from Myanmar in a harrowing case of maid abuse.
Ms Piang Ngaih Don, 24, was punched, stamped on and starved by her employer until she weighed 24kg days before she died in 2016 from a brain injury. She was about a year into her first job in Singapore.
Employer Gaiyathiri Murugayan, 40, pleaded guilty on Tuesday (Feb 23) to 28 charges, including culpable homicide, voluntarily causing grievous hurt by starvation, voluntarily causing hurt by a heated substance and wrongful restraint. Another 87 charges will be considered in sentencing.
The prosecution is seeking life imprisonment. The judge has adjourned sentencing to a later date.
READ: Woman admits killing maid; starved her to 24kg and assaulted her almost daily in 'utterly inhumane' case
MOM said on Wednesday that Ms Piang Ngaih Don attended and passed her first medical examination on Jan 19, 2016. She visited the same doctor in May for a runny nose, cough and swelling on her legs.
“Nothing adverse was flagged to the authorities’ attention on either occasion,” MOM said.
The clinic was identified in court documents as Bishan Grace Clinic.
The court heard that the doctor had seen bruises around the maid's eye sockets and cheeks, but Gaiyathiri claimed that the victim fell down frequently as she was clumsy.
Gaiyathiri turned down the doctor's suggestions for further tests on the victim's swollen legs in case of underlying conditions.
Ms Piang Ngaih Don died in July, two months after her last visit to the doctor.
Manpower Minister Josephine Teo told reporters on Thursday that MOM is reviewing how doctors report these medical examinations, pointing out that most employers comply with the requirement of having their maids go for the check-up.
“Doctors also have a duty to report to the police or MOM if they are detecting signs of abuse or distress,” she said. “We have made this point explicit in 2017, and we will have to further strengthen this.”
When asked if this case showed a lapse in reporting procedure by doctors, Mrs Teo said she was not able to comment on doctors’ “level of responsibility”. “That is something that the Ministry of Health would have to look into,” she said.
READ: Myanmar maid's death: Employment agent spoke to helper on 2 occasions but did not pick up any issues, says MOM
Mrs Teo said the review of the reporting system for doctors has been ongoing, adding that MOM will have to look at the “whole spectrum” of issues.
This includes reviewing how community and partner organisations can better and more quickly identify signs of distress in maids, and how it can improve safeguards against abusive employers, she said.
Mrs Teo said on Wednesday that MOM’s review will continue even as the case is tried in court. It will look into areas like the threshold for blacklisting errant employers and improving measures to detect abuse.
MOM also said earlier that Ms Piang Ngaih Don’s employment agent had spoken to her twice during her first six months of employment, but did not pick up any issues.
When asked on Thursday how much responsibility the agent has to take in this case, Mrs Teo said maid agencies are subjected to licensing conditions and a system of demerit points if they do not meet obligations.
“I don't want to comment too much on this particular case, except to restate what was carried in our statement,” she said.
“The employment agent was in contact with the helper on two occasions, at least. And at the time, he did not detect anything that was indicative of distress. So these are the facts that are known right now.”
READ: Myanmar maid's death: Murder charge for employer was reduced based on evidence, says Shanmugam
MOM also said on Wednesday it will intensify efforts to reach out to and interview all new foreign domestic workers.
When asked if this would mean interviews at employers’ homes, Mrs Teo said MOM will explore a range of options.
“But the important point is this: Where we are starting from is the safety of the foreign domestic workers,” she said.
“If there are areas where we can improve on to strengthen the support to the foreign domestic workers, we will do so. So we are taking on board all suggestions that have been surfaced to our attention. We are looking at what are the ways in which we can do this.”
EMPLOYER’S CONDUCT “SHOCKING”
Recounting how Ms Piang Ngaih Don was abused, Mr Shanmugam said the “bestiality” of Gaiyathiri’s conduct was “shocking”.
“Ordinary people are capable of extreme evil, and evil lurks in people who seem ordinary,” he said.
“There are two pillars in any society to keep evil in check: One is education. Two, we need rule of law that keeps such evil in check. The law has to come down with full force when the rules are broken.”
He added that Gaiyathiri was originally charged with murder following a recommendation by the Attorney-General, but this was brought down to culpable homicide due to the evidence that surfaced.
"Normally, it is not easy in such cases because there is no independent evidence," he added. "The foreign domestic worker has passed away. And, you will only have the word of the people who are accused or related family members," said Mr Shanmugam.
READ: Minister Shanmugam explains charges brought against the woman who admitted to killing her Myanmar maid
Mrs Teo said “there is simply no place” for abuse against foreign domestic workers in Singapore.
“The Singapore Government takes very seriously the safety of all of our foreign domestic workers who are here,” she stated.
“There are safeguards in place, but we must do better to prevent such an egregious incident from ever happening again.”