Worst Case of Maid Abuse
in Singapore's history

LAST week, Singapore was confronted with the horrible spectacle of the worst maid abuse case in its history. Muawanatul Chasanah was for nine months regularly starved, whipped, punched, slapped, kicked, jabbed with sharp objects and scalded with hot water by her employer, Ng Hua Chye. She eventually died after a severe beating on Dec 2 last year.

At her death, the 19-year-old girl - who was 50 kg when she arrived in Singapore - weighed only 36 kg and had more than 200 injuries on her body. Ng was originally accused of murder but the charge was changed to manslaughter. Last week, he was sentenced to 18 years and six months in jail and six strokes of the cane. Has the matter ended there? Most people assume so. They can't be more wrong.

Ng has been found guilty, but he couldn't have carried out his deeds without the tacit approval, or at least inaction, of other parties.

Let's consider some facts:

Ng's wife and sister were present at many of the beatings and did nothing to stop him.

Foreign maids are required to go for six-monthly checks for pregnancy, VDRL and HIV. During her nine months of torture, Ms Chasanah had two check-ups. Though her physical condition and injuries clearly showed she was in deep distress, no alarm was raised by the doctors and nurses.

Going by a guidebook for employers produced by the Ministry of Manpower (MOM), it has assumed that heavy punishment, along with an appeal that such action will 'undermine Singapore's effort to be a gracious society', is sufficient to check abuses.

In fact, MOM doesn't seem to believe maids could actually die from abuse in Singapore. Its guidebook laid out 11 types of abuses ranging from rape to causing bodily harm to criminal intimidation to wrongful confinement. Death was not mentioned.

Ms Chasanah may not be the first to die of abuse. There have been instances of maids jumping to their death, some of which could be linked to severe physical and psychological ill-treatment by employers.

Maids seem uninformed of their basic rights as residents of Singapore, such as protection by the police. Many maids come from a background which carries with it a natural fear that the police are working for the rich, and are reluctant to seek their protection even when the opportunity presents itself.

Concerned neighbours have become the only check against abuses for some maids. It was Ms Chasanah's bad luck that Ng's neighbours either didn't know or didn't care. A Mr Neo told the Straits Times that even if he knew, he wouldn't report to the police. 'It's not my business. He (Ng) can do what he wants, that's his problem. And anyway, God can see,' he was quoted as saying.

There's a good chance Ms Chasanah's family won't get a cent from insurance. Employers are required to buy a minimum $10,000 insurance for maids, benefiting herself or her next of kin. But this is meant only for accidents in the course of work that led to death or disability. Insurance agents told BT this probably won't apply in the case of Ms Chasanah.

So, is the matter of Ms Chasanah closed?

The answer should be obvious. Two courses of action must be pursued. The first is to see whether there are other parties to be punished for helping and abetting the wrongdoing.

This would deter others who can, but do not, help the victim. The second is to remedy the system to prevent similar abuses in the future.

And if Singapore is indeed serious about being a gracious society, there's also a third course: do something for Ms Chasanah's family. Punishment is the job of the state and all eyes will be on the public prosecutor to see whether other parties involved in Ms Chasanah's abuse and death will be charged. But this could take some time.

Meanwhile, some steps could be taken immediately to protect maids. For instance, the government can make it mandatory for doctors and nurses who conduct regular check-ups to ask specifically whether they have been hit or beaten and to identify maids in distress and report the cases to the police. Agents could also be required to make regular checks on maids placed by them. Any agent whose placements show a high number of abuses should have his licence revoked.

Such measures are, of course, not foolproof. Abuses will continue, no matter what the government does. Some maids, who owe their agents vast sums (at least to them), might be too scared to complain. But at least the government would be doing something on prevention. Given the nature of Singaporeans, this very fact should go a long way to reduce maid abuse. Singapore, it has been said, is little more than groups of people tied together by economic interest. The government is trying hard to change this impres sion. Ms Chasanah's case presents a perfect chance.

To show how a gracious society should behave, the government can set up a fund - perhaps draw upon the half-a-billion dollars of maid levies it collects every year - to compensate abused maids and their families. It need not be a large sum, as abuse cases are not common. But at least victims, such as the family of Ms Chasanah, now deprived of a daughter and a breadwinner, will be able to get something out of the tragedy.

After all, Singapore has failed Ms Chasanah. Isn't it only right, now, for the country to give something back to her loved ones, over and above punishing her tormentor?

Source: Business Times, Singapore
July 27, 2002
By Lee Han Shih