Myanmar maid's death: Full force of law needed to keep evil in check, says Shanmugam

Gaiyathiri Murugayan admitted to starving, torturing and ultimately killing Piang Ngaih Don.
PHOTO: The Straits Times file

SINGAPORE - Ordinary people are capable of extreme evil, but two pillars - education and the law - can help keep it in check, Law Minister K. Shanmugam said on Thursday (Feb 25).

Speaking to the media at a virtual meeting, the minister expressed his abhorrence at the abuse of Myanmar domestic helper Piang Ngaih Don.

She was 24 when she died on July 26, 2016, weighing just 24kg after losing 15kg since she started work here on May 28, 2015.

Mr Shanmugam said: "What was done to Ms Piang, the foreign domestic worker, was terrible, completely unacceptable. In fact, none of these words describe adequately what actually happened to her."

He described how she was tied up, burned with a heated iron, denied food and hit repeatedly.

"The bestiality of the conduct is shocking," he said.

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Her employer Gaiyathiri Murugayan, 40, pleaded guilty to 28 charges on Tuesday.

She admitted that she had starved, tortured and ultimately killed Ms Piang Ngaih Don, whose ordeal suffered in the last month of her life was captured on security cameras in the home.

The prosecution is asking for life imprisonment for Gaiyathiri, while the defence is asking for a jail term of 14 years.

Another 87 charges will be considered during her sentencing at a later date.

Her husband Kevin Chelvam, 41, a police staff sergeant, was suspended from Aug 8, 2016, three days before he was charged.

He faces five charges in connection with the abuse and death of Ms Piang Ngaih Don, including a charge over removing the security cameras in an attempt to shield his wife and mother-in-law from legal punishment.

Gaiyathiri's mother, who often stayed with the couple in the flat, was also charged in 2016.

Prema S. Naraynasamy, 61, was charged previously with her daughter, and was alleged then to have murdered Ms Piang Ngaih Don.

She currently faces 50 charges.

Their cases are still before the courts.

Yesterday, Mr Shanmugam said that their cases have taken some time because it was a complex homicide case.

He said psychiatric assessments took considerable time, and that they were completed only in April last year.

He also revealed that because of the extremely egregious nature of the case, the Attorney-General had personally directed prosecutors to press for the highest possible charges for Gaiyathiri and Prema.

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"The first charge (they faced) was actually intentional murder, for which the death penalty could have been the possible punishment," he said.

"But, because of the evidence that was available, it was then brought down to culpable homicide, under Section 304A of the Penal Code."

He said, however, that even if the charge has changed, it is still "extremely serious".

The minister also mulled over the concept of evil and how it must be dealt with.

"If you go back to history, the history of people, history of countries - ordinary people are capable of extreme evil, and evil lurks in people who seem ordinary," he said. "It doesn't occur only in faraway places, and people don't walk around with clear indicators that show this person is evil."

He then said that those who break the law will face the full weight of it.

"The point I will make is that people who seem ordinary are capable of extraordinary evil, and there are two pillars in any society to keep evil in check. One, is education. Two, we need rule of law to keep such evil in check," he said. "The law has to come down with full force when the rules are broken."

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This article was first published in The Straits Times.