In March of 2019, a 46-year-old Indonesian maid by the name of Parti Liyani was arrested and charged for allegedly stealing more than S$34,000 worth of items from her employer—Chairman of Changi Airport Group and ultra-wealthy business mogul, Liew Mun Leong.
The alleged stolen items included clothes, wallets, luxury handbags and watches.
Parti maintained that she had never taken anything from her employers in the first place, and that most of the items were either thrown away by the owners, given to her, or misplaced.
Three jumbo boxes were found containing the allegedly stolen items, but these had been hurriedly packed by the family’s drivers when the Liew family suddenly fired her in October 2016.
They were initially meant to be delivered to her in Indonesia, but the delivery never happened.
They were left at Liew’s residence—so she never received these items that she allegedly “stole”. Parti upheld that she had no recollection of packing many of the stolen items found in these boxes.
The original verdict—explained
Regardless, she was found guilty by District Judge Olivia Low on four theft charges, and faced a sentence spanning up to 7 years in prison and a hefty fine. The judge did not see any reason why the family would take such deliberate measures to frame and conspire against her, especially when they’ve employed her for a number of years. In her closing statements, she said:
“They had in fact compensated her for the termination and was even willing to pay for the shipping of her items back to Indonesia.
On the contrary, the modus operandi of the accused was to take a variety of items from different family members thinking that these would go unnoticed by them.”
Determined of her innocence, Parti appealed the case, backed with the support of lawyer Anil Balchandani and Humanitarian Organisation for Migrant Economics (HOME) volunteers.
Justice vs Judge
After a long trial, High Court Judge Justice Chan Seng Onn acquitted Parti of all charges on September 4, 2020, exposing the fact that there were many inconsistencies in the initial investigation.
It turned out that the Liew family had quickly made a police report against her in a bid to prevent her from reporting them to the Ministry of Manpower (MOM). Initial events uncovered that they had instructed her to clean the house and office of Karl Liew, Liew Mun Leong’s son, on multiple occasions and in addition to her daily duties.
This was a serious contravention to MOMs regulations, and it was enough to cause huge concern for the Liew family.
When they accused her of theft, she had threatened to report them. It explained their sudden decision to terminate her contract, and giving her an extremely short-notice to leave the country and return to Indonesia. They then lodged a police report in order to prevent her from ever coming back. If she did, she would be immediately arrested.
In his closing statement, Justice Chan said:
“In my judgment, 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 to pack, in the hope that Ms Parti would not use the time to make a complaint to MOM.”
Karl Liew was further found to be inconsistent in his testimony, and that many items found in Parti’s possession appeared to be dysfunctional. This aligned to her defence that they were all discarded items that she had found in the bin.
“(Mr Karl Liew’s) evidence was internally inconsistent and contradicted by the other witnesses.
“(His) testimony that he had in his possession multiple female items that Ms Parti allegedly stole from him is also highly suspect.
“It is unclear how the (district) judge could have arrived at the conclusion that this was a result of Karl’s ‘inability to recall if some items had ever been in his possession’, especially when some of the items were observed by the (district) judge to be ‘smaller-sized female clothing’ and wallets that ‘did not appear to be men’s wallets.”
– Justice Chan Seng Onn
There were also evident malpractices found in the handling of the evidence.
The Investigating Officer, Tang Ru Long, had allowed the “stolen” items to be kept and used by the family and only processed them as evidence five weeks after the report was made.
The price of justice
Her acquittal surprised many, due to the fact that she was initially found guilty by the District Court. If not for her resolve to fight on, she would’ve been sitting in prison by now for a crime she did not commit.
She was given due justice thanks to her lawyer who agreed to work pro-bono, and HOME for providing her food and shelter while she was stuck in Singapore as an unemployed person.
Flying in witnesses from abroad to help in her case also required a lot of money, which was provided in the form of donations. Parti’s acquittal was the result of many, charitable hands working together in bearing the financial burden, and her tireless resolve in seeking justice for herself.
The case is a stark exposure to one, hard fact—justice in Singapore comes at a price, and a hefty one at that. The amount of money it costs for Parti and her team to get the acquittal, probably means little to wealthy tycoons like Liew Mun Leong.
Parti fought a massive battle with the odds stacked against her, and won.
Questionable judgements—a recurring cause for concern
This is not the first time a judge has been questioned by the public for their judgment.
Remember the NUS peeping tom incident, where the accused was given a reduced sentence for a taking a video of a woman showering just because he was deemed to have a “higher likelihood of rehabilitation”?
Or when District Judge Jasvinder Kaur gave a light probation sentence to a promising NUS student who was arrested for molesting a woman on a train on the grounds that his academic performance showed that he had the “potential to excel in life”?
These all point to the fact that one can be at a gross disadvantage to the justice system, especially if they come from a lower position of wealth and status.
Law Minister Shanmugam responds
In a statement to the press, Law and Home Affairs Minister K. Shanmugam had said that a thorough review of the case will be conducted, implying that those responsible for allowing it to happen should be held accountable.
“In the process, we should not be defensive. It should not be a witch hunt. It’s got to be a fair process.”
– K Shanmugam
In response, many citizens have come out to say that putting the blame on individuals for the failings of a system is not constructive in the long run, and more can be done instead to improve the existing judicial framework.
“The High Court judge (bless him) was not at all ambiguous in his conclusions.
His judgment, in many ways, is the review. Parti Liyani’s description of her ordeal is the review. HOME’s experiences with the many, many migrant workers who never see justice—unlike Parti—is the review.”
– Facebook User, Kokila Annamalai
That being said, however, the case is an ode to the fact that the justice system can work, if parties are given equal access to representation and resources.
Many Changi Airport-related posts on social media platforms are aflame with angry comments, as netizens take to their keyboards in condemning the disgraced chairman.
There is certainly more that can be done when it comes to providing a fair justice system for Singaporeans. It is rather heartwarming to see, however, that despite an imperfect system, many Singaporeans have their hearts set on the side of justice.
Our hearts go out to migrant workers like Parti, and it certainly makes us wonder how many other cases like hers have gone unnoticed in the past due to lack of funds and proper representation. The case exposes a lot of underlying layers in the Singapore justice system, and proves that even in the hands of the most qualified, errors in judgment do occur.
Is there a bias in the local judicial system? Do some of us get a privileged access to justice? Is the system really fair for all? The verdict is out on this one—you decide.
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