Parti Liyani case: Translation during police interview one of many factors in Justice Chan’s decision to acquit her of theft charges?

Of linguistic 'false friends' and investigation officer juggling roles of interrogator and interpreter

Former domestic worker Parti Liyani’s case continues to make ripples across Singapore after the High Court acquitted her of her theft conviction and sentencing in September, even making its way to Parliament this week.

One of the most pertinent issues raised by Justice Chan Seng Onn in overturning Ms Parti’s charges is the issue of an absence of a Bahasa Indonesia interpreter in four instances whereby the investigating officers took statements from the Indonesian national.

Two investigating officers took Ms Parti’s statements on five separate occasions in December 2016, with only the final one having involved a Bahasa Indonesia interpreter.

Ms Parti testified in court that during the second interview which took place on 4 December, she was not informed that she could ask for an interpreter.

Instead, Assistant Superintendent of Police Tang Ru Long’s colleague, Staff Sergeant Amirudin bin Nordin, recorded her statements in English and translated them to Malay.

Law and Home Affairs Minister K Shanmugam in his ministerial statement on the case highlighted in Parliament on Wednesday that SSgt Amirudin had testified that “he was able to communicate with her without any difficulties” and that Ms Parti “did not ask for an interpreter during the recording of her statements”, having chosen to “speak in Malay”.

The Minister added that the investigating officer had also asked Ms Parti in Malay whether she wished to give her statement in Malay or in Bahasa Indonesia.

The Ministry of Home Affairs has even produced a video which sought to emphasise how Ms Parti has admitted her testimony of her guilt.

Source: MHA

Ms Parti, however, repeatedly testified at trial that she was not given a Bahasa Indonesia interpreter when her statement was recorded.

She told the court that she did not have an interpreter not because she declined to have one, but because she was not informed that she could ask for one.

Ms Parti also said that she did not feel comfortable that the investigating officer did not give her “any choice”.

Mr Shanmugam also told the House that the police force acknowledges that “there are differences between Bahasa Indonesia and our Malay” and that certain words “could mean different things in the context of this case”.

However, he said, the police officers involved in the case “believed in good faith that Ms Liyani understood Malay”, particularly given Ms Parti’s working experience in Singapore of over two decades.

Addressing the assumption, an online repository dedicated to documenting her case referenced an Indonesian Studies researcher’s view that while she may have been able to adopt colloquial Malay “for very simple tasks such as shopping”, her “ability to express herself fully would have been severely limited unless she had strong friendships over time with Singaporean Malays”.

Dr Paul Thomas, who is also an accredited translator, added that “the confusion that arises from communication in Indonesian and Malay is not because they are completely different languages”, but rather from the fact that that the two “are so closely related you never really know when you have understood and when you haven’t”.

Even in her own testimony in court at trial, Ms Parti said that she only understands “a little” bit of Bahasa Melayu as there is a big gap between the Malay language and Bahasa Indonesia.

In defence counsel Anil Balchandani cross-examination of him, SSgt Amirudin himself acknowledged that he could have interpreted some of the Bahasa Indonesia words differently than they might originally mean in the language, despite stating at one point that he had no difficulties interviewing Ms Parti.

Justice Chan in his decision noted that SSgt Amirudin’s claim of having no difficulties in interviewing Ms Parti was “directly contradicted by the statement at the end of P32, which states that the statement was read back to Parti in English, which was not her native language”.

“If IO Amir’s version of events were truly the case, it is simply inexplicable that the express statement in P32 would have indicated otherwise.

“Moreover, the end of P33 states that the statement was recorded in English and read back to Parti in Bahasa Melayu,” said the judge.

In determining whether there was reasonable doubt in whether SSgt Amirudin’s translation was accurate, Justice Chan also reasoned that if the police officer himself conceded that he could have understood Ms Parti’s statements in Bahasa Indonesia differently from what she had meant, a similar likelihood could have also existed on Ms Parti’s part in understanding SSgt Amirudin’s questions to her.

Of linguistic ‘false friends’ and the accuracy of statements

Mr Shanmugam in his ministerial statement also posited that there is “no significant difference between Malay and Bahasa Indonesia” in SSgt Amirudin’s questioning in relation to the matter.

A Malay Studies researcher with a Malay language teaching postgraduate diploma from the National Institute of Education, however, observed “the disparity in outcome in the understanding of the word between a Singaporean and an Indonesian, and why context and nuance might matter greatly”.

The researcher, identified by the pseudonym “Farah” by the aforementioned repository, explained a concept in linguistics called “false friends”, in which there are “words with a similar look or sound but significantly different meanings” in different languages.

As an example, she noted that the word “belanja” in Malay — particularly colloquially — is often used in the context of treating someone or giving something for free to the person.

In Bahasa Indonesia, however, the word “belanja” refers to the act of shopping or spending money.

In Ms Parti’s case, an example of “false friends” is her explanation of where she had placed the Pioneer DVD she was accused of stealing.

She testified in court at trial that she stated that she had put the DVD player near one of the boxes that contained the alleged stolen items.

Deputy Public Prosecutor Tan Yanying, however, had put it to Ms Parti during her cross-examination that the domestic worker had placed the DVD player in the box, inferring such from Ms Parti’s second statement, which was recorded by SSgt Amirudin.

It should be noted that the investigating officer recorded her statement in English before reading it back to her in Malay.

Ms Parti was also asked over a hundred questions after being woken up for the interview at 1.44 am.

She was also only given blurry, black-and-white photocopies of the alleged stolen items instead of being allowed to examine the actual items.

The word “dekat“, as defined by the fourth edition of Kamus Dewan, a longstanding Malay dictionary, typically means “near to” in reference to location or positioning of a person or an object, or “close to” in the context of relationships between people or entities such as countries.

In Bahasa Indonesia, “dekat” carries the same meaning as stated above.

The word “di“, on the other hand, is defined in the same dictionary as a preposition that almost always denotes an exact place or location — the way the English words “in” ot “at” are used. In fact, the second definition of “di” listed in the Kamus Dewan points to “at” or “in”.

However, the above definitions point to formal Malay usage of “dekat” and “di” — in colloquial or informal Malay, “dekat” may be interpreted as “at” or “in”.

A popular example, as TOC would like to illustrate, can be seen in variations on the sentence “Where are you?” below:

Formal Malay: “Di manakah anda?”
Informal or colloquial Malay: “Awak dekat mana?”

Ms Parti, thus, may not have been well-acquainted with the presence of such subtleties in colloquial Malay, given that informal usage of the language is more prevalent in Singapore than the standard or formal one.  Standard Malay is often only found in academic material or official documents or forms.

Farah, the Malay Studies researcher cited by the repository earlier, observed that many Singaporean Malays, including police officers, have only a relatively basic command of Malay.

According to the repository, the researcher said that she has seen many police officers struggling to translate formal or legal terms even into Malay, much less into Bahasa Indonesia, given the distinct legal terminologies.

Farah also noted that mere translation, let alone interpretation, is “cognitively taxing” — SSgt Amirudin would have thus also been struggling with juggling “ASP Tang’s questions and clarifications in English, translating them into Malay for Ms Parti, listening to Parti’s responses in Bahasa Indonesia, interpreting them into Malay, and then translating them into English for ASP Tang”.

Doing so, she said, is “a recipe for disaster” and leaves “ample room for error” in the process of questioning and statement-recording.

Justice Chan’s findings on issues pertaining to the accuracy of statements

In his judgement, Justice Chan ruled that despite “some similarity between the languages of Bahasa Indonesia and Bahasa Melayu”, it cannot be assumed that such similarity in and of itself could remove “any reasonable doubt” with regards to the accuracy of the recorded statements.

Both languages, he said, “must be assumed to be sufficiently different such that it can create reasonable doubt as to the complete accuracy of the statement recording in order to avoid unfair prejudice to the accused” in the absence of an expert witness who could provide evidence on the differences.

“This is especially pertinent in the light of the voluminous quantity of items in which Parti was questioned on in specific detail,” said Justice Chan.

In relation to the issue on the placement of the Pioneer DVD player, the judge noted that “while nothing material turns on this alleged error, this is an example of how the mistranslation could have occurred in the statement recording process”.

He added that the existence of obvious errors such as missing words or letters in the related questions posed by SSgt Amirudin in the second interview “supports the likelihood that IO Amir made errors inaccurately recording P33 itself”, especially given the fact that the statement was recorded at 1.44am to 5.57am on that day.

MHA’s narrative at present appears to be that there were only two key reasons in Justice Chan’s decision to dismiss the charges against Ms Parti, namely reasonable doubt as to whether the Liews had an improper motive to make the police report against Ms Parti and the break in the chain of custody of the alleged stolen items.

Source: MHA

However, there were in fact a variety of issues — as illustrated above — that the judge had found in determining that the conviction made against her was unsafe.

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