CLD Criminal Law Basics

Maid Abuse in Singapore – Clarifying Commonly Held Misconceptions

At the point when this article was written, less than two months into 2016, two cases of maid abuse[1] had already been reported in the local news. In one case, a 75-year-old retiree suffering from schizophrenia and depression was found by the court to have poured bleach and slapped a Foreign Domestic Worker (“FDW”). During the 10 months working for the accused, the FDW lost 10 kg and eventually suffered serious injuries from an attempt to escape her abusive employer by climbing out of the window of the condominium apartment she was working in[2]. This article aims to identify and clarify some commonly held misconceptions amongst Singaporeans on the subject of maid abuse in relation to the law. Firstly, this article will challenge the misconception that “maid abuse” contemplates only physical abuse. Secondly, it will explore the defence of mental illness and explore some cases where it was successfully or unsuccessfully raised by the accused. Finally, it will tackle the tremendously flawed idea that FDWs are unable to do anything to help themselves when faced with abuse, and show how FDWs can in fact be instrumental in the successful conviction of abusive employers.

Context

Reporter Mr Lee Han Shih, in an article for the Business Times, very aptly observed that “[m]any maids come from a background which carries with it a natural fear that the police are working for the rich, and are reluctant to seek their protection even when the opportunity presents itself”[3]. This illustration is but one of many that show how misinformation or misunderstanding of the law and those who enforce it unwittingly allows for abhorrent abuse to carry on undetected, and obstructs the law from achieving its intended purpose of protecting the vulnerable in society. In recent years, there has been an upward trend of cases of maid abuse reported, with 1,330 cases in 2012 rising to 1,404 in 2014[4]. There is an urgent need to arrest this disturbing trend, and this article humbly hopes to contribute to the solution by addressing misinformation in the hopes that employers would better understand the long arm of the law, and FDWs would also understand how they can be better equipped to be part of the solution to their own plights.

Misconception 1: Emotional abuse is not maid abuse

It is a common wrongly held belief that emotional abuse of FDWs is not against the law. In reality, emotional abuse is often central to the sentencing of abusive employers found guilty by the law. In the recent case of PP v Rosman bin Anwar and another[5] (“Rosman bin Anwar”), the High Court allowed an appeal by the public prosecutor that a sentence of 2 weeks for an abusive employer was “manifestly inadequate” given the extent of emotional suffering by the FDW. As a result, the sentence was increased threefold to 6 weeks. The Court of Appeal in the case of ADF v Public Prosecutor and another[6] similarly recognized the importance of emotional abuse to the severity of the sentence meted out. In this case, an employer used his identity as a police officer to intimidate the FDW in his employment and subjected her to dehumanizing practices such as keeping a notebook secured around her neck with a rubber band in which she had to record her every action and meal throughout the day. It is clear that the law takes emotional abuse seriously, and that it is an important consideration when courts are deciding on the severity of sentences.

Misconception 2: Mentally ill employers will always be able to escape harsh sentences even if found guilty of maid abuse

In the wake of the widely publicized case late last year – where an employer allegedly starved the FDW employed by her and attempted to justify the abuse to be a result of various mental conditions[7] – this point aims to address some skepticism that might be held by the public surrounding the defence or mitigating pleas of mental illness in maid abuse cases.  The justification for considering mental conditions in cases of maid abuse is well explained in Soh Meiyun v PP[8] (“Soh Meiyun”), where in referring to the accused who was suffering from extremely severe depression and Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, Justice Chao Hick Tin observed that “the more serious an individual’s psychiatric problems, the greater the strain and stress she is put under by events in her life.” The learned Judge further went on to note that in some instances, the effect of such a strain on the individual would allow emotions to reach breaking point more easily, and in such instances where the breaking point is reached and the employer lashes out, the degree of harm she is likely to cause is greater. In such situations, it may be justified to find that the accused had lost control of their action, and as such did not intend to cause the harm that resulted. The position of law is clear that the Courts will recognize mental illness as a defence where it is justifiable and the elements are proven.

It must be noted however, that courts are extremely discerning when deciding whether to permit such a defence or mitigation. In three cases cited in the aforementioned case of Soh Meiyun, the courts still imposed the maximum sentence for the charges made in spite of proven mental conditions suffered by the accused. In PP v Koh Soon Kee, and PP v Kiew Seok Inn, the defences of major depression were not accepted, while in PP v Pooja Tanwani, claustrophobia was found to be insufficient to justify abuse. The factor that distinguished these cases from that of Soh Meiyun was that the accused were unable to prove that the mental illnesses were of such a great severity that they could be accepted to have led to the accused having intended to commit the crime. Ultimately, in the interest of justice, the approach by the law can be said to be in weighing out the extent to which the mental condition had impaired the accused’s ability to intentionally commit the abuse. While it is admitted that the suffering by the victim is just as unacceptable regardless of whether the abuser suffers from any recognized condition, the purpose of the law here is fundamentally to apportion guilt and not blame. As such, in situations where the mental condition of the abuser is not sufficiently severe that it would have prevented him/her from being responsible for their action, they would certainly be unable to escape harsh punishment.

Misconception 3:  FDWs are not able to do anything about abuse prior to intervention by the police or Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs)

This is most definitely untrue, and it is most unfortunate that many believe this to be accurate. Very often, FDWs opt to tolerate what they perceive to be mild or tolerable instances of abuse, particularly when it manifests in verbal abuse or low levels of discomfort. Reasons why FDWs choose to do so is not the subject of this discussion, but it is noted that it is clearly their prerogative to do so if such tolerance is not coerced and made with informed choice. However, FDWs should be aware of steps they can take that will help prevent an escalation of abuse, or in the alternative help gather evidence to facilitate investigation by the police should the need arise. In the abovementioned case of Rosman bin Anwar, the diary kept by the FDW recording the instances and circumstances with which she was slapped and kicked by her employer was crucial in corroborating her recounts of the abuse that happened over the extended duration of her employment.

As recognized by the Minister for Home Affairs in the 1998 parliamentary session[9], “full-time domestic maids are usually female and are totally dependent on their employers for food and lodging. Having travelled long distances to work in Singapore, many of them are totally deprived of their support network of family and friends”. Moreover, “Maid abuse usually takes place in the privacy of the home where offences are hard to detect” (PP v Chong Siew Chin[10]). Consequently, FDWs have to be proactive in understanding their rights and avenues they can turn to for help, and also in recording any treatment they feel uncomfortable about. A list of such avenues is provided in Annex 1.

Conclusion

In a final analysis, in light of the tragic upward trend in cases of maid abuse in Singapore, it is certainly beneficial to better understand the position of the law with regard to how allegations of abuse are treated by law enforcers and the courts. While this article has by no means conclusively shed light on the areas of law relating to maid abuse, it hopes to have been a good starting point for broader accurate discourse on the topic.

Written in 2016 by Mark Lim (NUS Law class of 2019)

 

Annex 1: Avenues victims of maid abuse may turn to for help

If you are a Foreign Domestic Worker who has been abused, or you know or suspect of a Foreign Domestic Worker who has been abused, here are some avenues you can turn to for help:

Agency/AvenueContactRemarks
Police999(emergency)

1800 255 0000

If you would like to report a case of maid abuse, you can call the police who will investigate further into the matter and put you in contact with organizations that will be able to help you if necessary.

H.O.M.E.1800 797 7977 (toll free)HOME is a non-government organization that works for the well-being, justice and empowerment of migrant workers and trafficked victims in Singapore. Their staff provides counseling and employment advice to workers, runs shelters and provides legal aid to foreign workers who require it.

Law&You[email protected]

 

 

Law&You is started by a group of law students and HOME, and aims to provide foreign domestic workers with information on the law and their rights. Please feel free to drop them an email if you have any questions, or search “Law & You” on Facebook.

 

[1] While this article aims to accord proper dignity to FDWs by avoiding the use of the term “maid” which is correctly often viewed to be derogatory, it also recognizes that many areas of the law, including section 73 of the Penal Code, still use the term. For the avoidance of confusion, this essay will use the term “maid abuse” to refer to the abuse of FDWs. Any offense is deeply regretted.

[2] Amir Hussain, “Probation for retiree guilty of maid abuse”, The Straits Times, 11 February 2016.

[3] Lee Han Shih, “Silence on maid abuse must end”, Business Times, 27 July 2002.

[4] Catherine Robert, “Maid Alleges Abuse by Fellow Myanmar Employers”, The New Paper, 20 December 2015.

[5] PP v Rosman bin Anwar and another [2015] SGHC 247; [2015] 5 SLR 937

[6] ADF v PP and another [2009] SGCA 57; [2010] 1 SLR 874

[7] Shaffiq Alkhaib, “Maid Abuse Trial: Wife has Anorexia and Eats Mostly Bread Herself”, The New Paper, 17 December 2015

[8] Soh Meiyun v Public Prosecutor [2014] SGHC 90; [2014] 3 SLR 299 at [51]

[9] PP v Chong Siew Chin [2001] SGHC 372; [2001] 3 SLR(R) 851 at [40]

[10] ibid at [43]

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