Singapore’s justice warriors

SEPT 13 — Parti Liyani is not a celebrity but the 46-year-old Indonesian domestic helper is now famous across Singapore. She’s become prominent not so much for any particular talent or viral TikTok dance but for her simple tenacity.

Parti was employed by a prominent local family. Her employer was Liew Mun Leong, chairman of Changi Airport Group and Surbana Jurong; two multi-billion dollar corporations.

She was employed by the Liew family from 2007 to 2016. In 2016, her employment was terminated and the Liew family subsequently accused her of stealing S$50,000 (more than RM1.5 million) worth of their possessions.

In December 2016, she was arrested and in March 2019, she was found guilty of theft and sentenced to over two years’ imprisonment.

Parti appealed the conviction and maintained that her initial termination and the charges of theft were to prevent her from making a complaint to the Ministry of Manpower against her employer.

She said she has been made to clean not only her employer’s residence but also the residence and office of his son and that she wasn’t paid extra or fairly for working at the second location which is illegal under Singapore law.

The judge presiding over Parti’s appeal found her innocent, upheld her appeal and acquitted her of all charges. The judge asked questions about the motivations of the family in accusing her of theft in the first place.

“There is reason to believe that the Liew family, upon realising her unhappiness, took the pre-emptive first step to terminate her employment suddenly without giving her sufficient time for her to pack, in the hope that Parti would not use the time to make a complaint to MOM.”

The judge went on to state that he believed the accusations of theft were also made to prevent her from making an MOM complaint. “In my view, the Liew family might not have made a police report had Parti not made her express threat on Oct 28, 2016 to report the matter to MOM.”

That Liew brought charges against Parti to prevent her from making a complaint is a potentially serious matter and shortly after the verdict, he resigned from his chairmanship in both companies.

The whole affair might seem like just another dispute between employer and helper but this was a real David vs Goliath battle.

A domestic helper put her foot down regarding extra underpaid cleaning duties and had the tenacity to fight on after being accused and even initially convicted of theft. Her determination caused the downfall of one of Singapore’s most prominent corporate figures.

That a domestic helper earning a few hundred dollars a month could prevail against such a well-resourced opponent is a resounding victory for our judicial system.

The verdict and subsequent resignations make clear that there can be real consequences even for the most wealthy and powerful for violating the rights of some of the least powerful members of our society.

A lot of people actually deserve credit for making this possible.

Principally of course Parti Liyani who kept fighting on when she could have pleaded guilty at an earlier stage and would probably have simply been deported with a fine.

She bravely protested her innocence and opted to fight for her rights via the courts. Home, an NGO which works to assist domestic helpers, also stepped in and offered her shelter, financial support and worked to find her legal counsel.

Lawyer Anil Balchandani, who took on the case without charging for his time, also deserves a lot of praise. High Court Justice Chan Seng Onn delivered a very clear verdict and obviously gave the case a lot of time and thought — it lasted over 20 court sessions.

Ultimately a number of people worked very hard for very little money to make this happen and this is really encouraging.

That Parti Liyani was able to stand her ground and walk free is itself a victory and that many people were willing to give up their time to ensure justice is a victory for Singapore too.

* This is the personal opinion of the columnist.

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