How can the torture of a human being over 10 months take place under the watch of a police officer?

It has been reported by The Straits Times that the wife of an officer with the Singapore Police Force (SPF), Gaiyathiri Murugayan (Gaiyathiri) has been charged in court with abusing the family’s foreign domestic worker (FDW), Piang Ngaih Don (Piang) for a period of close to 10 months until Piang’s death.

During this period of time, Piang was physically assaulted almost daily, starved of food and rest, and made to shower and relieve herself with the toilet door open. In the last 12 days of her life, she was also tied to the window grille at night while being made to sleep on the floor.

At Piang’s death on 26 July 2016, she weighed just 24kg, having lost 38 per cent of her body weight since she started working for the family on May 28, 2015.

For this harrowing ordeal, prosecutors are seeking a term of life imprisonment for Gaiyathiri. While the court proceedings are underway, a very pertinent question must be asked – how can this have happened under the nose and in the household of an officer of the law?

Gaiyathiri’s husband is Kevin Chelvam, (Kevin) was a staff sergeant with the SPF. In fact, Kevin is himself implicated in abusing Piang while he was still serving with the SPF. According to the police, he was suspended from the force on 8 August 2016.

Three days later, Kevin was charged with four offences including voluntarily causing hurt to Piang using criminal force on her with a toy bat, and lying to the police that CCTV cameras in his flat had been removed six months before that. Court records reveal that he was later given a fifth charge of voluntarily causing serious hurt.

While Kevin is no longer with the SPF, if Piang had not died, would he still be?

There are so many FDWs in Singapore, working hard to send money home. While they are on our soil, we owe a duty of care to them to ensure that they are safe. In this case, not only have we failed but to make matters worse, this failure was under the watch of a police officer!

Having to live in the homes of their employers, FDWs are in a vulnerable position already. Piang was not only living within the grasp of her abusers, but she was also living under the roof of a police officer. How helpless she must have felt in the last months of her life is also unbearable to imagine.

While I am in no way suggesting that the SPF condoned these heinous acts of torture, this tragic incident does clearly demonstrate that members of the police force are fallible humans — just like the rest of us. In other words, just like there are good and bad people in any organisation, there are good and bad people within the SPF. It is therefore imperative that a system of accountability be always in place.

While the uniform should signify a duty of care to the public, without adequate checks and balances, will individual police officers uphold this duty of care? It would seem in this case, that Kevin has not lived up to the expectations of his uniform.

Stark reminder that Police Officers while not morally deprived, are no angels themselves

It was not so long ago that the SPF came under fire for its controversial handling of investigations where another FDW, Parti Liyani was concerned. At that time, questions were asked if Parti was treated differently by the SPF because she was an FDW and whether her former employer, Liew Mun Leong, was treated preferentially because he was a well-connected citizen.

It seemed then that the Minister for Law and Home Affairs, K Shanmugam protected the police, seemingly shielding them from the rigours of a public Committee of Inquiry and suggesting that we should not overtax the police given that they were apparently “overstretched”.

If the police are not held to public account, could they end up being a law unto themselves rather than upholding the law?

Mr Leon Perera, Member of Parliament for Aljunied GRC had earlier called for an ombudsman to be formed, given the questions of wider access to criminal justice and avenues of redress for those with lesser means arising from Parti’s case.

He said such an ombudsman will function as an independent office open to Singaporeans of all backgrounds and income levels to investigate complaints about unfair administrative decisions or actions of a public agency, including delay, negligence, inconsistency, oppressive behaviour or unlawfulness. This would extend to the conduct of all public servants, including the police and the prosecution service.

Even Mr Shanmugam called for the formation of the Ombudsman when he was a backbencher in 1994,  this is also supported by former President Tony Tan during his 2012 presidential campaign, as well as by highly regarded Singaporean diplomat and lawyer Tommy Koh.

TOC also noted from its past reports that none of the officers being complained against by members of public regardless of the evidence at hand, have been brought to task. The reply from the internal affairs had always been that the complaints have been looked into and no further actions will be taken.

As much as we are respectful and grateful towards the contributions of the civil servants in blue, unfettered power to any entity without checks and balances is just a receipt for disaster.

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