Dr Stephanie Chok, a local academic and volunteer at the Humanitarian Organisation for Migration Economics (HOME), spoke on some of the disturbing revelations from the case of Parti Liyani in an interview with New Naratif on last Friday (2 October).
To recap, Parti Liyani is an Indonesian domestic worker who was formerly employed in the household of former Changi Airport Group chairman, Liew Mun Leong, in 2007. Her employment was terminated in October 2016 and she was sent back to Indonesia.
Two days after abruptly terminating her employment, the Liew family accused Parti of stealing over S$34,000 worth of their possessions. She was arrested at the Changi Airport in December 2016.
Parti had denied the allegations and claimed that the items had been discarded by the Liew family and were meant to be recycled or belonged to her. But she was found guilty and sentenced 26 months of imprisonment by District Judge Olivia Low on 25 March 2019.
The sentence was overturned by Justice Chan Seng Onn, who heard Parti’s appeal, on 4 September. He ruled that the district court had failed to consider several points including the credibility of the testimony of Mr Liew’s son, Karl Liew.
In his judgement, Justice Chan concluded:
“In the above circumstances, I allow Parti’s appeal against all four charges against her. I first observe that in the present case, which involved a voluminous number of items, the proper handling of the evidence by the police and recording of the allegedly stolen items is crucial in order to preserve the chain of custody of the items. Coupled with the existence of an improper motive by members of the Liew family for mounting the allegations against Parti, I find that the convictions against Parti are unsafe and accordingly acquit her of all the charges.”
Subsequently on 8 September, the Attorney General’s Chambers (AGC) withdrew its fifth charge against Parti – which is equivalent to a full acquittal – and said that it will study the judgment on her case due to Justice Chan’s comments on the case.
HOME’s volunteer, Dr Stephanie Chok, said in an interview with New Naratif on 2 October – hosted by historian Thum Ping Jin – that Parti is currently staying in Singapore on a special pass.
Dr Chok was the case manager of HOME when she first took on Parti’s case in 2016. She resigned in 2019 but continued working on the case as a volunteer.
“It is unclear exactly when she will go back to Indonesia as there are still matters to be dealt with. But we hope that she can go back soon. She’s very eager to return to see her mother which she has not seen for almost four years and her mother’s quite elderly,” she said.
Though Dr Chok noted that Parti is “really relieved and happy” about the acquittal, she noted that Parti is “a little bit uncomfortable with the publicity” as people tend to recognize her outside after the case made headlines.
During the interview with New Naratif, she shared some of the disturbing revelations from the case of Parti Liyani.
“It’s extremely baffling and aggravating to have watched this unfold over the last three years and nine months,” she remarked.
Dr Chok made it clear that her sharing is just based on the notes of evidence, and that she was not allowed to attend the trial until she was called to attend as the defence counsel’s expert witness at some point.
“What I’m sharing is from the notes of evidence. Of course, I was kept up-to-date by what was happening on a day-to-day basis, but there were a lot of things that were revealed in the court that were extremely disturbing.”
Parti was not aware of the police report until she was arrested
She recalled how Parti was arrested in Changi Airport in 2016 and ended up being housed in HOME since then.
Dr Chok said Parti was not aware of the police report filed against her until she was arrested at Changi Airport on 2 December 2016.
“The first time she was interviewed by the police is after she was arrested. She was really confused, shaken, shocked and upset, and they interviewed her without the items physically there in front of her.”
She added that Parti does not have any photographs of the items, and she was asked by the police based on the “verbal descriptions” of what the Liew family have accused her of stealing.
It was only after the arrest of Parti that the Investigating Officer (IO) realized that she didn’t have the alleged stolen items with her, and then decided to visit Mr Liew’s house.
In August 2017, Parti was issued a cautioned statement by the police.
“We knew that the decision then was to clean trial because she said that she was innocent and that she didn’t do it.”
Dr Chok, who was HOME’s case manager at the time, reached out to defence lawyer Anil Balchandani of Red Lion Circle and requested him to represent Parti. He then became her pro-bono defence counsel.
She added that Mr Anil was “on his own” in his firm Red Lion Circle, and that he needed “a lot of support” in handling the case.
“So it was really at all times a team of persons. There’s no way something like this could be done by a single person. Anil led the team with instructions from Parti, but we all work together.”
When Dr Chok was asked on whether the team felt despair when losing the first trial, or if they ever wanted to give up, Dr Chok said: “Despair, yes. Wanted to give up, no. Never.”
“Our main concern was [Parti]’s well-being and whether or not she had the emotional strength to continue, we would not have faulted her if she didn’t,” she added.
Parti Liyani was interviewed by the police without an interpreter
Dr Chok also highlighted that Parti was interviewed by the police with no interpreter present.
After the police visited the Liew family’s house on 3 December 2016, she was called for another questioning at 1.44 am on 4 December 2016. The interview lasted for four hours, in which the statement was recorded in English and read back to her in Malay.
“She was asked 108 questions just based on black and white photocopies of the photographs and these two police statements were adduced in court by the prosecutors to try and impeach her credibility,” said Dr Chok.
When the IO testified in court, he argued that Parti understands both Malay and English languages.
However, Justice Chan pointed out that this was non-compliance with the procedures stated under Section 22 of the Criminal Procedure Code (CPC) which can nevertheless diminish the weight of the statements.
Dr Chok said Parti had also claimed that Assistant Superintendent (ASP) Tang Ru Long was present during the statement taking, but his name was not listed on the statement.
“Anil asked, is it a standard procedure for somebody to be present during the statement taking and then the name not be on the statement? I believe the IO says something like, ‘it may have been a mistake, it may not have been a mistake’.”
In May 2017, the case was temporarily taken over by ASP Lim Hui Shan. Dr Chok noted that only at this time that Parti was accompanied by a Bahasa speaking interpreter and she was given colour photographs.
“But in the four-hour 15 minute interview, she was asked 70 questions and had to go through 119 photographs over 29 Pages.”
Parti said in court that the interpreter was “going so fast” and speaking in a mix of Malay and Indonesia languages during the statement taking, which made it “really confusing” for her to understand, Dr Chok added.
Crime-scene specialist drew Mr Liew’s house based on ASP Tang’s instruction
The hearing was held in an open court in 2018. Dr Chok described it was difficult to discuss the case when the trial was still ongoing as there were concerns about sub-judice.
She noted that when ASP Tang testified in the trial in April 2018, he revealed that five weeks after the police report was filed by Mr Liew, “nothing was done”.
“He already revealed in court that Liew Mun Leong filed the police report on 30 October 2016. A day after that, a warrant of arrest was issued without even visited the Liews’ house, nor secured the evidence or even spoken to Mr Liew.”
On the second day of trial, the crime-scene specialist testified that he and ASP Tang had gone to Karl Liew’s and Mr Liew’s houses.
He said that the three jumbo boxes containing the alleged stolen items have been moved from the alleged crime scene, Mr Liew’s house, to Karl Liew’s house.
However, the crime-scene specialist had included the three jumbo boxes in his sketch of Mr Liew’s house, even when the boxes were no longer there.
“So our defence lawyer asked him about this and he admitted that he drew in the three jumbo boxes not based on contemporaneous evidence,” said Dr Chok.
She continued, “My assumption is you should draw based on what you see at the crime scene, but he drew the three boxes based on ASP Tang’s instructions”.
Dr Chok hinted that there were photos taken by the police as well, though she was unclear of the reason why the authorities would still need the sketch of the scene.
Karl Liew valued the alleged stolen watch for S$25,000 based on his impression of expensive watches
Dr Chok explained that the IO visited Karl Liew’s house to seize all the alleged stolen items on 17 and 18 April 2018, which is almost 16 months after Parti was first arrested.
But Parti and her defence lawyer Anil were only able to see the alleged stolen items four days before the trial started, which was on 11 and 19 April 2018.
According to Dr Chok, all the 144 alleged stolen items were initially valued at an estimated S$50,000, until the value was reduced to S$34,000 by the district judge.
“In court, Anil had asked ASP Tang on how these values derived. ASP Tang said that it was not him that identify the value of the items on the charge sheet, but it was conveyed to him by the individual complainants,” she added.
“So basically whatever value is on the charge sheet, it was simply told to him by the Liew family.”
Dr Chok recounts when Karl Liew was asked in court on how did he came up with the value S$25,000 for the alleged stolen watch with a broken strap, he noted that it was a gift from his father Mr Liew.
He valued it at S$25,000 because his impression of famous brands was that an expensive watch must be worth more than S$20,000.
As for the alleged stolen Helix watch, Karl Liew said in the trial that the watch is maybe worth S$100. But he reduced the value to S$50 because he thinks that the watch is “so ugly”.
Horologist Eric Ong, however, claimed that the Helix watch has “a very low value”. He indicated it as a “door gift” which people can get it for free when they buy oil at Shell.
He also claimed that the “expensive watch”, that Karl Liew valued at S$25,000, is worth not more than S$500 based on its current condition.
“Throughout this [the trial], nothing was done to any of these alleged expensive items or ascertain the condition,” said Dr Chok.
The video contradicts with the Liews’ statements
On the day after Parti was terminated and sent back to Indonesia (29 Oct 2016), Mrs Liew has taken a video of them checking the boxes.
“The video was only introduced when the trial started, so Anil was like, ‘shouldn’t evidence have been submitted before?’,” said Dr Chok.
She pointed out that the video was taken when the boxes were already opened, thus it was unclear whether the boxes were actually all sealed at the time when they had taken them out.
“You see piles of things [in the video] just kind of littered all over the floor. It was like a huge mess. And then you will also see an empty dark black trash bag, which is quite significant for us at the appeal stage.”
Dr Chok went on to read out the transcript – which was transcribed by an accredited translator – in the interview, saying that “the most significant part” of the footage was when Mrs Liew asked someone to remove the boxes and Karl Liew said cannot because “it’s still her [Parti] things”.
She noted that Karl Liew was “so emotional” when he testified in court and said that the alleged stolen items contain “sentimental value” to him, while in the video, Mrs Liew had actually wanted to call someone to discard the boxes.
“The fact that the prosecutor introduced this video, and the audio is actually so contradictory to their account, is also something so baffling. And we actually produce the transcript of this video at the high quality for Justice Chan.”
However, the prosecutor had prevented the defence counsel from presenting the transcript to Justice Chan and stressed that they “cannot introduce new evidence now”.
“And then Justice Chan was like, ‘You don’t want me to read the transcript? Well, okay then just play the video and let me hear the audio’, so they play the video again,” said Dr Chok.
Karl Liew claimed he bought the alleged stolen kitchen utensils “in the season of time”
Karl Liew had also accused Parti of stealing the kitchen utensils that he bought when he was studying in Cardiff University, UK. He claimed that the kitchen utensils were shipped back to Singapore after he completed his studies in 2002.
When Mrs Liew was asked on where the kitchen utensils were kept in the house, she claimed that it was Parti who packed the utensils as it was her job to do so.
“But then Anil pointed out that this happened in 2002, Parti was not hired by the Liew family until 2007. So it would have been physically impossible for her to have been the person who packed these items in their house,” said Dr Chok.
Additionally, one of the alleged stolen kitchen utensils that stood out in the trial was the “pink knife”, she asserted.
According to Dr Chok, Karl Liew had admitted in court that the pink knife is a “modern-looking knife” that was not available for purchase in the UK in 2002.
“He, himself, admitted that it probably was impossible for him to purchase a knife like this in 2002 and yet he claimed ownership of it and explained that these were things that he bought in 2002,” she added.
Another alleged stolen item, the “black knife”, was manufactured by a Singapore-based company. The defence witness claimed that the black knife was not manufactured until 2006, which means that it would not be available for purchase in 2002.
However, Karl Liew argued in court that he bought the knife “in the season of time”.
Nevertheless, District Judge Olivia Low’s grounds of decision stated, “I found the prosecution witnesses to be largely credible and found the evidence to be clear, compelling and consistent even under lengthy cross-examination.”
Prosecutors concealed the fact that the DVD player was malfunctioning
During the trial, Parti had denied the accusation of her stealing the Pioneer DVD player, saying that it was disposed of by the Liew family because it was malfunctioning and she kept it to bring home to Indonesia for repair.
But the prosecutors seem to have concealed the fact that the DVD player was not working.
“At the state court trial, the prosecutors Tan Yanying and Tan Wei Hao did a demonstration where they had actually engaged the hard disk drive and played a clip in court and then subsequently asked Parti again, whether it was working.
“Parti said that she didn’t know because she didn’t test it and they then kind of made it seem like she lied about the fact that it wasn’t working and therefore her story about how she comes to own the DVD player was a lie,” Dr Chok noted.
At the high court appeal, Mr Anil requested to bring in the DVD player again and when it was switched to DVD player mode it showed an error message.
Dr Chok went on to read Justice Chan’s judgment:
“The prosecution conceded and agreed with the defence that during the trial below there were already difficulties with the functionality of the pioneer DVD player in playing the DVD discs, but not the recorded clip in the hard drive. This, however, was neither disclosed to the accused prior to the cross-examination of Parti on the working condition nor disclosed to the judge in the trial below.”
“Justice Chan had to actually remind everyone that someone is innocent until proven guilty,” she added.
Prosecutors blocked defence counsel from mentioning Parti’s intention to lodge complaint to MOM
Justice Chan in his judgment has branded the Liew family as having “improper motives against Parti”.
He found that there was reason to believe that the Liew family took the pre-emptive step to terminate Parti’s employment suddenly and without giving her sufficient time to pack, in the hope that she would not use the time to make a complaint to the Ministry of Manpower (MOM) about her illegal deployment to work for Karl Liew.
Dr Chok explained that during the trial, Mr Anil had attempted several times to raise the issue of Parti being illegally deployed at Karl Liew’s house and office, as well as Parti’s intention to lodge a complaint to MOM.
“But whenever he tried to bring up the MOM investigation into illegal deployment, the prosecutors would object and District Judge Olivia Low said that it was not relevant.
“So it was very difficult for him to fully flash out their argument because he kept being kind of like held back at every point he tried to raise it,” she added.
Theft can be very easily weaponised by employers
Dr Chok also highlighted that Parti was not the only domestic worker who had undergone such a situation.
She pointed out that theft accusations can be “very easily weaponized” by employers as a means to make things really difficult for domestic workers or migrant workers.
“Theft accusations are sometimes used to preempt complaints by domestic workers against employers.”
Dr Chok cited a case of a domestic worker who has not been paid of her salary for 10 years, and ended up being housed at HOME. The employer was infuriated that the worker had eaten the birds’ nest and called the police.
Before the worker was sent to the police station, the employer instructed her to sign a document saying that she has stolen the birds’ nest.
Subsequently, the worker was given a warning letter for eating the birds’ nest.
“So the employer was just safekeeping her salary for 10 years. Safekeeping? Maybe we should save MPs’ [Members of Parliament] salary for 10 years,” she added.
Dr Chok explained that domestic workers will not be allowed to work once they are issued warning letters, adding that theft accusation has a “real practical consequences” to domestic workers as it jeopardises their employments.
“For that period of time, the domestic workers just stuck in the shelter without any ability to earn a living. No employment agencies would want to place them because they’re being investigated for theft. I mean this really ruins their chances for getting employment.”