The brutal torture that led to the eventual death of a foreign domestic worker (FDW), Ms Piang Ngaih Don (Piang) has unsurprisingly shocked many Singaporeans. In the leadup to her death, Piang was repeatedly hit, punched and starved for a period of close to 10 months by her employer, Gaiyathiri Murugayan (Gaiyathiri) such that when she died, she weighed a mere 24kg.
While Piang died in 2016, the matter has only been brought to the attention of the public in the last few days as a result of court proceedings against Gaiyaithiri. Charges have also been brought against Gaiyaithiri’s husband, Kevin Chelvem, a former police officer and his mother-in-law.
Minister for Manpower, Josephine Teo (Teo) and Minister for Law, K Shanmugam (Shanmugam) both condemned the acts of abuse with Shanmugam calling Gaiyaithiri’s conduct “shocking”.
Under the current regulations, all FDWs have to attend mandatory six-monthly medical examinations. Piang attended the first of such medical examinations in Jan 2016 at the Bishan Grace Clinic. She subsequently attended the same doctor’s surgery in May of the same year for a runny nose, cough and swelling on the legs. Piang died two months later, in July. Apparently, “nothing adverse was flagged to the authorities’ attention on either occasion,” This is despite the fact that the attending physician had seen bruises around the Piang’s eye sockets and cheeks. Gaiyathiri claimed that the victim fell down frequently as she was clumsy and turned down the doctor’s suggestions for further tests on the victim’s swollen legs in case of underlying conditions.
As a result of the horrors of this matter, the Ministry of Manpower (MOM) has announced that it is reviewing the reporting system for doctors who conduct the mandatory six-monthly examinations for FDWs. While doctors currently have a duty to report signs of abuse or distress to the police or the MOM, Teo has said that this process will need to be strengthened.
Given that the attending doctor in 2016 did not press the matter despite obvious injuries, Teo’s statements on strengthening such reporting measures might well be the understatement of the year.
In addition, Teo said that MOM would also review how community and partner organisations can identify signs of abuse in FDWs more effectively, and how it can improve safeguards against errant employers.
Yet, why is the MOM only reviewing its reporting system now?
Piang died in 2016. Another widely publicised case of FDW death happened in 2017 when Myanmar national Zin-Mar-Oo jumped to her death from the 18th floor of the Interlace Condo. Police investigations in regards to her death appear to be still on-going as there has not been any closure to the case.
Before jumping, Zin-Mar-Oo handed a notebook to her friend in which she had written a note asking for help. Her notes showed that she usually ate breakfast between 9.30am and 11.30am, then a small lunch or sometimes nothing at all. For dinner at 9.30pm, she received two slices of bread and a cup of water.
Why didn’t the MOM review procedures in 2016 when Piang died? Why did it not review procedures in 2017 following Zin-Mar-Oo’s suicide?
Is the MOM only conducting such reviews now several years later because Piang’s story has hit the press and become a public interest issue? Would the MOM have reviewed anything at all if the case did not become widely publicised?
The preventable and utterly unnecessary death of Piang has certainly highlighted many ills in our society and one has to wonder if the Government would really have prioritised such investigations had the matter not been made public. After all, the wheels of our economy are being churned off the backs of cheap foreign labour such as FDWs who provide low-cost care to children and the elderly. Singapore is not a country that has state-sponsored basic health care or childcare. Perhaps we need to go further back than cursory policy reviews. We need to go back to the very genesis of the problem – why we are so reliant on such low wage workers and in such numbers in the first place>
What is the point of MOM intensifying efforts to reach out to and interview all new FDWs now when Piang is already dead? Case of too little too late?