This article contains depictions of abuse and torture that readers may find highly distressing. Readers’ discretion is advised.
A Singaporean woman who abused a domestic worker from Myanmar to death pleaded guilty on Tuesday (23 Feb) to 28 charges including culpable homicide, voluntarily causing grievous hurt by starvation and wrongful restraint.
40-year-old Gaiyathiri Murugayan admitted to starving, abusing, and chaining then-24-year-old Piang Ngaih Don, who was under her employment for 10 months.
Shocking footage of Ms Piang’s ordeal — which was played in court — was captured by CCTVs installed around the flat by Gaiyathiri and her policeman husband, Kevin Chelvam to monitor the domestic worker and their two children.
The footage captured showed Gaiyathiri pouring cold water on Ms Piang, slapping, punching, kicking, and stomping on her.
She also hit Ms Piang with various objects such as a metal ladle and plastic bottle, burnt her forehead with a hot iron, and pulled her by her hair like a ragdoll.
On the last day Ms Piang was alive, Gaiyathiri and Prema both poured water on her before leaving her tied to the window without dinner while in wet clothes.
A few hours later in the early morning, Gaiyathiri kicked and stomped on Ms Piang’s head and neck area, grabbed her by the hair and choked her repeatedly.
About two and a half hours later, when Chelvam left for work, Ms Piang was found motionless.
A doctor was called after failing to revive her. They changed her out of her wet clothes and moved her to the sofa.
The physical abuse began about five months into the employment around October 2015. This took place almost daily. Ms Piang was also forced to shower and relieve herself with the bathroom door open.
Throughout the last 12 days of her life, she was tied to a window grille at night while she slept.
Gaiyathiri’s mother, 61-year-old Prema Naraynasamy, who frequently stayed in Gaiyathiri’s flat, was also accused of assaulting Ms Piang.
Chelvam has since been suspended and is currently facing pending charges for domestic worker abuse in the State Courts. Prema is also facing multiple pending charges for assault.
At the time Ms Piang went motionless, Gaiyathiri and Prema lied to the doctor who examined the domestic worker, saying that they found her unconscious on the kitchen floor.
After examining the victim, Dr Grace Kwan insisted they called the police, but Gaiyathiri asked for time to call her husband.
The woman also denied abusing the victim when questioned by the doctor. Eventually, Dr Kwan called for an ambulance. The paramedic subsequently pronounced Ms Piang dead.
Senior Counsel Mohamed Faizal, who led the team of prosecutors in this case, said that this case is one where words like “heinous, cruel and ‘inhuman'” are not able to “fully capture the indisputable horror and monstrosity of the crimes by an accused person”.
“That one human being would treat another in this evil and utterly inhumane manner is cause for the righteous anger of the court, and the law must come down with full force to appropriately vindicate the fundamental values of society and human dignity that have been violated in this case,” he said, in arguing for life imprisonment for Gaiyathiri.
Defence lawyers Sunil Sudheesan and Diana Ngiam, however, sought a lesser sentence of 14 years’ imprisonment for their client.
Stating that “anger is for the mob, but sagacity and temperance are for the court”, Mr Sudheesan told the court that “life imprisonment is not necessary”.
“She is very sorry. She begs this court for mercy and she promises this court that she will continue with all the treatments necessary for her well-being,” he said, referencing Gaiyathiri’s major depressive disorder and obsessive-compulsive personality disorder.
The prosecution, however, argued that her psychiatric conditions had already been taken into account when the charges of murder were reduced to culpable homicide.
Justice See Kee Oon will deliver a decision on sentencing at a later date.
Netizens urge authorities to implement routine check-ins, more accessible systems for migrant domestic workers to report employers’ abuse
The case sparked a renewed sense of outrage among netizens commenting on the The Straits Times and CNA Facebook pages over the mistreatment of migrant domestic workers in Singapore, with some describing the “maid system” as “modern-day slavery”.
Others highlighted that this is the tragic reality of many migrant domestic workers in Singapore.
A couple of netizens who had worked as domestic helpers themselves in Singapore shared their personal experiences with abusive employers who treated them like “a machine” and “a slave”.
One commenter recounted a time when they witnessed a woman abusing a domestic worker in public and wondered “what abuse the maid will suffer at home too”.
Many people suggested the authorities to set up a system for either the Ministry of Manpower (MOM) or employment agencies to check in regularly with domestic workers to ensure that they are being treated well and are not being abused by their employers.
They opined that this could create an avenue for domestic workers to report abuse safely.
One person said that residents in Housing Development Board (HDB) estates should take the initiative to report any suspected abuse of domestic workers to the MOM as “this won’t be the last incident”.