"I never believed I was guilty": An Indonesian domestic worker's fight to clear her name
Parti Liyani, an Indonesian domestic worker, was accused of stealing S$50,000 of items from her employers in 2016, an accusation that emerged after she was suddenly fired after nine years of employment. Parti maintained her innocence and chose to claim trial. Almost four years, a State Court trial, and High Court appeal later, Parti has been acquitted. The following is an account of her protracted journey to clear her name.
Parti’s employment with the Liew family
Parti Liyani worked for the Liew family for nine years, from 2007 to 2016. While Mr Liew Mun Leong was listed as her employer, Parti was mostly liaising with Mrs Liew (or Mdm Ng, Liew Mun Leong’s wife), the matriarch of the household. During the nine years Parti worked for the Liews, there were periods where family members shifted in and out: Karl Liew (Liew’s son), Heather Lim (Karl’s wife), May Liew (Liew’s daughter), and June Liew (Liew’s daughter). Karl and Heather also got married and had children while Parti was employed. Mr Liew is the current chairman of the Changi Airport Group and the former CEO of Capitaland.
Parti’s Termination & The Three Packing Boxes
On 28 October 2016, Karl Liew arrived at the house with two men, employment agents, and informed Parti she was fired. Karl told Parti she had two hours to pack her things and leave the house. Parti was in shock, and testified in Court that she pleaded with Karl not to be sent home, but he was resolute.
After working for the Liews for nine years—and in Singapore for almost 20 years—Parti had many items to pack, and Mrs Liew agreed for one of the Liew’s drivers, Ismail, to collect three packing boxes for her. Ismail returned with the three boxes and assembled them, along with Robin (Mr Liew’s other driver). Robin and Ismail then proceed to assist Parti by filling up the boxes with items that had been strewn outside her small room. Parti was busy packing her luggage and hand carry: Parti asked Mrs Liew if she wanted to check the contents of her luggage, but Mrs Liew declined.
Parti also gave Karl a black trash bag filled with clothes that Karl had given (months earlier) to his previous domestic worker, Jane. When Jane left Singapore sometime in September or October 2016, she did not want to take these used clothes—which comprised office shirts, T-shirts, pants, suit jackets and trousers —with her, and had passed the bag to Parti. In Court, both Karl and Parti testified that this black trash bag of Karl’s used clothes was left by a pillar near the three boxes.
Parti then left with the employment agents. While she took her luggage and hand carry, the three boxes remained in the house: Karl had promised to send them back to Indonesia for her. Parti was sent to the airport and repatriated. The boxes remained at the Liew residence and were never sent to Parti.
Parti’s Return & Arrest
Parti returned to Surabaya, Indonesia, and waited for the employment agent to contact her. After about five weeks with no news, Parti decided to return to Singapore and flew back on a social visit (tourist) pass to find new work.
When Parti arrived at Changi Airport on 2 December 2016, she was arrested and taken to Tanglin police station. She was informed that her employer, Liew Mun Leong, had filed a police report against her on 30 October 2016, alleging she had stolen items from him.
The Liew family’s version of what happened after Parti left the house on 28 October 2016 emerged during the course of the trial. The day after Parti left for Indonesia, on 29 October 2016, Mrs Liew, Karl, and Heather (Karl’s wife) decided to open the three boxes. In Court, Karl mentioned his mother allegedly spotted Parti packing an item identified as Japanese “thermal wear” that possibly belonged to Mr Liew, and therefore wanted to open the boxes. Heather mentioned checking for “illegal” items, like “drugs” or “explosives”. Karl then alleged that when they opened the boxes, they found items inside that belonged to them. He and his father, Mr Liew, then filed a police report on 30 October 2016. In the police report, Mr Liew alleged that Parti had stolen a range of items which allegedly belonged to their Liew family.
Assistant Superintendent (ASP) Tang Ru Long testified in Court that upon receiving the police report on 30 Oct 2016, he put up a police gazette to issue a Warrant of Arrest for Parti Liyani. Five weeks later, Parti, who had no idea these allegations were filed against her, flew back to Singapore in order to try and seek new employment, and was arrested upon her arrival.
Claiming Trial: The Charges & The Case for the Defence
In August 2017, about nine months after her arrest, Parti had 4 charges levelled against her. She was accused of having stolen items from Liew Mun Leong, Karl Liew, Heather Lim, and Liew’s daughter, Liew Cheng May. In total, Parti was accused of stealing approximately 144 items valued at around S$50,000. These items included, among others:
120 pieces of clothing valued at S$150 each (total $18,000);
One blanket valued at S$500;
One Pioneer DVD player valued at S$1,000;
One “damaged” Gerald Genta watch, with broken strap, valued at S$25,000;
An assortment of kitchenware and utensils valued at S$300;
An assortment of fashion accessories valued at S$400;
Two white iPhone 4s with accessories valued at S$2,056.
Photographs of some of the items listed above, which were taken by the Defence, can be found below.
Item from second charge (alleged victim: Karl Liew): Used blanket valued at S$500
Item from second charge (alleged victim: Karl Liew): One “damaged” Gerald Genta watch, with broken strap, initially valued at S$25,000
Items from second charge (alleged victim: Karl Liew): Some of the kitchenware that is part of an assortment of kitchenware and utensils valued at S$300
Item from first charge (alleged victim: Liew Mun Leong): One Pioneer DVD player valued at S$1,000
Items from second charge (alleged victim: Karl Liew): Two white iPhone 4s with accessories valued at S$2,056.
There is still pending an additional fifth charge, under section 35 of the Miscellaneous Offences (Public Order & Nuisance) Act, for “fraudulently obtaining” 28 items—later reduced to 18 items, including six Ezlink cards—but this charge was stood down during the start of the trial.
Parti denied the four charges of theft and claimed trial. HOME assisted Parti with engaging a lawyer, Anil Narain Balchandani of Red Lion Circle, who acted for her pro-bono. The case made by the Defence was that Parti had not stolen any items: some had been discarded by the Liews, some were used items given to her, some were items that belonged to Parti that she had purchased, and had found in the neighbourhood after they had been discarded. Many of these items were old, used and not functional. There were also items in the charges that Parti denied packing into the three boxes at all: namely, Karl’s over 100 pieces of used clothing, and a Philips DVD player (not to be confused with the Pioneer DVD player). For each item that was allegedly stolen, the Defence made a case for how there was no dishonest intent.
The State Court Trial
The trial, which began on 23 April 2018, concluded almost a year later, on 17 January 2019: there were 20 days of trial (excluding the delivery of the verdict, and sentencing), 12 prosecution witnesses, and four defence witnesses. The prosecutors who conducted the trial at the State Courts were Mr Marcus Foo Guo Wen, Mr Tan Wee Hao and Ms Tan Yanying.
During the State Court trial, Defence challenged the valuation of the items, raised questions about crucial breaks in the chain of evidence, and highlighted problems in how the police statements with Parti had been recorded.
Crucial Breaks in the Chain of Evidence
Liew Mun Leong filed the police report on 30 Oct 2016 after he spent a “few minutes, half an hour, I don’t know”, looking through the boxes on 29 October 2016. ASP Tang Ru Long, who was in charge of investigations for Parti’s case in 2016 and for some periods in 2017, testified in court that he put up a police gazette with a warrant of arrest for Parti, also on 30 Oct 2016. ASP Tang only made his first visit to the Liew residence on 3 December 2016, after Parti was arrested and five weeks after the police report was made by the Liews. He spoke to members of the Liew family on that occasion. ASP Tang left on that occasion without taking custody of the evidence, on the basis that he did not want “re-victimising” of the Liew family. The items continued to be left in the Liew household and, at some point, at least one box was moved from Liew’s home to Karl’s residence, in a nearby area. Some items (evidence) were even used by Karl (for example, the black-handled knife), and three items were missing by the time the police went to Karl’s house on 17 and 18 April 2018 to collect all the evidence. Parti and her defence lawyer, Balchandani, were only able to view the actual physical items Parti was accused of stealing for the first time on 11 and then again on 19 April 2018, some 16 months after Parti’s arrest, and four days before the state court trial started.
Defence counsel also raised in its submissions the possibility that items could have been added to the three jumbo boxes and/or to the area around the boxes when the boxes were opened, and possibly mixed up with items that came from the boxes after they were opened. In Court, when the Prosecutor asked Mrs Liew what happened after the boxes were opened, Mrs Liew said they “put her [Parti’s] belongings back in the box” and “took out our belongings”. This indicates that not everything that was removed from the boxes was placed back within them. Conversely, it is also possible that not everything that was placed back inside reflects the original content of the boxes. As the Defence pointed out, there is essentially no way to verify, with any certainty, what was exactly inside those boxes when Parti left the house on 28 October 2016: “contemporaneous, untainted evidence is simply not available”.
Parti testified in Court that she did not pack into the boxes the 120 items of clothing Karl accused her of stealing. In fact, some of those items belonged to her, including a black dress with spaghetti straps and beads (see photo below): in Court, Karl had initially claimed it as his, until it was unveiled and shown to be a black ladies’ dress. When questioned later by the Prosecution as to why there were items of ladies clothing in the 120 items Karl alleged Parti had stolen, Karl replied: “I do wear ladies’ clothings.”
Black dress with spaghetti straps and beads, one of the 120 items of clothing Karl claimed Parti stole from him. This item was subsequently removed from the second charge by DJ Olivia Low.
The Police Statements
During the trial, the Defence raised a number of issues related to the police statements which the Prosecution was using to mount their case against Parti:
Language: for several police statements recorded, Parti was interviewed in languages other than her native tongue without an official interpreter present;
Viewing of evidence:
During the police statement-taking, Parti was not given the opportunity to view the actual physical items;
During the recording of several police statements, Parti was provided with no photographs or unclear black-and-white photocopied photographs;
Some of the police statement-taking sessions were long (stretching to four hours, without breaks), involved large numbers of photographs of similar-looking and sounding items, and conducted in a rushed manner.
The Valuation of Items
ASP Tang confirmed in Court that he did not determine the value of the items on the charge sheets—they were conveyed to him by the individual complainants i.e. members of the Liew family. No documentation was provided by the Liew family members for the prices that they cited.
ASP Tang was asked by Defence counsel how the “damaged ‘Gerald Genta’ watch”, with a broken strap and missing knob, came to be valued at S$25,000. ASP Tang verified that this value was provided by Karl Liew. In Court, the Prosecutor asked Karl about the value of the Gerald Genta watch. Karl said it was his “impression” that it was $25,000. Karl acknowledged that the strap was broken, and that there was a “fallen button knot”. When asked when he had last seen this watch, he said “a long time ago”, “a couple of years”. The Prosecutor continued to ask Karl how he arrived at the value of S$25,000. Karl replied that he believed Gerald Genta was “a famous brand”, and that his father had told him it was an expensive watch. Karl said his “idea” of an “expensive watch” is “above $20,000”. The Defence called on expert witness, horologist (watch expert) Eric Ong, the founder of specialist watch company, Bonfield. Ong concluded in Court that the Gerald Genta watch was worth no more than S$500 in its current condition, as extensive repairs were required.
There was another watch Karl claimed Parti had stolen, a “Helix” watch he valued at S$50. When the Prosecutor asked Karl how he arrived at the value of S$50, Karl replied that he estimated the price of “a really ugly looking watch” and then divided it by two, to get S$50. Defence witness, Ong, also examined the Helix watch and said it was a “door gift”, a watch that came with a purchase of Shell oil during a promotional period. Ong assessed it to be a “low quality” watch that is “cheap”, and said there is “no value in it”.
Doubts Raised & Parti’s Termination
In summary, in Defence’s closing submissions, the case was made that doubts have been raised that amount to “reasoned belief that Parti either had possession because the subject-items were discarded, Parti herself owned the subject-items, or there was no dishonest intent to gain or inflict loss on the Victims”. Essentially, Defence argued, the charges against Parti “have not been proved by the Prosecution beyond a reasonable doubt”.
Defence, in its submissions, raised the issue of Parti’s illegal deployment by the Liew family. Parti testified that she cleaned Karl’s office every week, for almost a year. In September or October 2016, when Karl’s domestic worker went back to the Philippines, Parti was tasked with cleaning Karl’s house, on top of also cleaning the Liew residence. After about a week of complying, Parti refused to continue. The following week or so, Parti was suddenly terminated, possibly because of this show of insubordination, and given two hours to pack her things and leave. While she was packing her things, Parti, who was distraught and angry, had expressed that she wished to go to the Ministry of Manpower to complain against the family. Mrs Liew testified in Court that she heard Parti say this.
Defence raised the possibility that the three boxes that were left behind, which included items the Liew family had previously given to Parti or had discarded, presented a “convenient avenue” to prevent Parti from securing future employment in Singapore, and would pre-empt any possible complaint by Parti against the Liew family for illegal deployment, a violation of Work Permit conditions and a chargeable offence under Ministry of Manpower’s Employment of Foreign Manpower (Work Passes) Regulations.
Grounds of Decision and Sentencing
On 20 March 2019, at the end of the trial, District Judge Olivia Low amended one of the charges, the second charge (involving Karl Liew). In her Grounds of Decision, DJ Low stated that she “found that there was reasonable doubt whether all 120 items of clothing belonged to or was in Karl’s possession”. DJ Low subsequently removed four items of clothing (including the black dress earlier mentioned), from the charge sheet.
DJ Low also removed one Gucci wallet and one Braun Buffel wallet from the 2nd charge. Karl had claimed that these two wallets belonged to him. Diah Kapi, Parti’s friend, flew to Singapore from Dubai to testify in Court that the wallets previously belonged to her and that she had given them to Parti. DJ Low, in her Grounds of Decision, stated that after considering the evidence, “there is some doubt raised whether these two wallets belonged to Karl”.
DJ Low also stated in her Grounds of Decision that the Gerald Genta watch was “overestimated at $25,000” and amended the value to S$10,000 in accordance to evidence submitted by the Prosecutor (which is higher than what Defence witnesses, watch expert Eric Ong, assessed it to be worth).
On 29 March 2019, DJ Low sentenced Parti Liyani to 26 months imprisonment. Parti and her Defence lawyer filed for an appeal at the High Court.
High Court Appeal and Outcome
The High Court appeal took place over three days: 1 November 2019, 17 February 2020, and 11 August 2020. The prosecutors who conducted the appeal were Mr Marcus Foo Guo Wen, Ms Tan Yanying and Ms Goh Sue Jean.
At the High Court appeal, the Honourable Justice Chan Seng Onn raised the question of Parti’s firing on 28 October 2016: what “triggered” the sudden termination? Prosecutor Marcus Foo said that the trigger was the loss of Liew Mun Leong’s “power bank”, gifted to him by a “prestigious university in France”. The Prosecutor said this was the “final straw”. Defence counsel then raised the fact of Parti being illegally deployed to clean Karl’s house, and her refusal to continue doing so as the “trigger”, as these events took place approximately two weeks before she was expelled.
Defence also raised issues the possibility that Karl’s clothing from the black trash bag—with clothes he had previously given to Jane—had been mixed up with items from inside the boxes. In Court, the Prosecutor submitted a video recording taken on Heather’s phone after the boxes had been opened. The video showed piles of items scattered around the room. At approximately 0:11 of the video, an emptied black trash bag can be seen, raising the possibility that its contents were included in what the Liews interpreted as the contents of Parti’s boxes. Justice Chan, in Court, noted the emptied out trash bag in the video and stated that it seemed “they mixed everything up”, commenting that this is a “[v]ery big problem”.
Justice Chan released his judgment on 4 September 2020, fully acquitting Yani of all four charges. In doing so, Justice Chan found that it was an undisputed fact that Parti was asked to clean premises (i.e. Karl’s house and office) outside the family home. He held that the Liew family took the pre-emptive step of terminating Yani upon realising her unhappiness over working beyond the family home, and once she made an express desire to complain to MOM upon her termination on 28 October 2016, the Liew family made the police report to ensure that she could not return and that the complaint may not be made. In the police report made by Mr Liew, he stated that he made it only “for record purposes as I’m afraid that her boyfriends might cause a nuisance or break into my apartment”. Justice Chan agreed with the Defence that there was improper motive on the part of Mr Liew and Karl Liew in lodging the police report against Yani, and that there was collusion amongst the Liew family members to fabricate the allegations of theft against Yani.
Justice Chan also agreed with the Defence that there was a break in the chain of custody. After the Liew family examined the boxes on 29 October 2016, some items were removed from the boxes for daily use, and the items were photographed by the police only 5 weeks later, on 3 December 2016, upon Parti’s arrest. This created a real possibility of a mix up of the items: there was no clarity if the items that were returned to the jumbo boxes after the Liew family used them, were the same items that had been removed earlier. Items which allegedly belonged to Heather and Karl were also removed from the Liew resident on 49 Chancery Lane and brought back to their residence. All the items which were allegedly stolen were only received onto police custody on 18 April 2018.
As regards Parti’s statements taken by the police, Justice Chan held that three of the statements should be given less weight as she was not given adequate translation in Bahasa Indonesia. He found this to be especially pertinent in the light of the voluminous quantity of items allegedly stolen. He also noted that there were inaccuracies in the statements that were not addressed at trial. Further, Parti was questioned by the police with reference to the photographs of the items, instead of the actual physical items.
As regards the individual items that were listed in the charge sheets, Justice Chan found that the evidence given by members of the Liew family were not sufficiently convincing to be believed over Parti’s defence, that some of the items may not have been placed by Parti into the jumbo boxes, or had been placed in the jumbo boxes with no intention to steal them, given the short amount of time she was given to pack her things when she was terminated.
As a result of his findings, Justice Chan held that the Prosecution had not proven its case beyond reasonable doubt, and acquitted Parti of the four charges of theft.
Parti’s Journey for Justice
It has taken three years and nine months for Parti’s case to conclude. During this time, Parti has remained resolute regarding her innocence, and stoic about her plight, choosing to fight her case as she wanted justice to prevail. For almost four years, Parti was not allowed to work, and has been staying at HOME’s shelter.
Migrant workers who face criminal charges have to deal with a range of challenges, from understanding law enforcement procedures to navigating our criminal justice system. Pro-bono legal representation is crucial, but also difficult to secure. In Parti’s case, Anil Balchandani has provided pro-bono legal representation for almost three years, through the State Court trial all the way to the High Court appeal. It is difficult to imagine that this case could have progressed this far without Balchandani’s representation and tenacity, and with the help of the many volunteers and interns who assisted in this case. HOME also provided Parti with a bailor when she was charged.
Parti has stated that she wishes to return to Indonesia, where she intends to start a food business. She has stated that she has forgiven her employers, and only wishes they do not repeat what they have done to her, to other workers.