S'porean woman beat & starved helper till she weighed 24kg when she died, life imprisonment sought

"Words like heinous, cruel and 'inhuman' are often used in submissions like these. But rare is a case where even such hyperbole cannot fully capture the indisputable horror and monstrosity of the crimes by an accused person."

Andrew Koay | February 23, 2021, 11:01 PM

On Feb. 23, a 40-year-old Singaporean woman pleaded guilty to beating her domestic helper to death.

The case, which was dubbed "utterly inhumane" by the prosecution according to CNA, saw Myanmar national Piang Ngaih Don endure almost 10 months of physical abuse from 2015 to 2016.

The 24-year-old finally succumbed after an assault in July 2016, having been starved by her employer Gaiyathiri Murugayan.

Gaiyathiri pleaded guilty to 28 charges including culpable homicide, voluntarily causing grievous hurt by starvation, voluntarily causing hurt by a heated substance and wrongful restraint.

Another 87 charges will be considered in sentencing.

Lived under strict rules

According to court documents seen by Mothership, Piang started working for Gaiyathiri in May 2015.

The household included Gaiyathiri's husband, her mother and co-accused Prema Naraynasamy, the couple's two children, and two tenants.

It was the Myanmar national's first job overseas, and she had come to Singapore as she was poor and wanted to support her three-year-old son.

Employer and employee agreed that Piang would not have a handphone or a rest day in return for more pay and home rest.

Gaiyathiri also established a strict set of rules that Piang had to obey, after she found the helper to be eating too much, slow, and unhygienic.

Whenever these rules were broken, Gaiyathiri would shout at Piang.

By October 2015, the punishments had evolved into physical abuse.

Beaten, tied up, and starved

As detailed in the court documents, footage from security cameras showed that in the last 35 days of her life, Piang was starved.

Her meals involved sliced bread soaked in water, cold food from the fridge, or some rice.

In total, she lost 15kg during her 14 months of employment, which made up around 38 per cent of her body weight.

At the time of her death, Piang weighed only 24kg.

She was also made to live and work in horrible conditions — she had to shower with the door open, under the watch of Gaiyathiri or Prema; she was only allowed to sleep for five hours a night; she was made to wear multiple layers of face masks as Gaiyathiri found her dirty and did not want to look at her face.

The footage also showed that Piang was assaulted — slaps, pushing, punching, and kicking — almost daily, often several times a day.

Gaiyathiri was seen stamping on a downed Piang, and attacking her employee with hard objects such as a broom or a metal ladle.

Another occasion saw the 40-year-old woman lift, pull, and shake the helper violently by her hair, ripping large clumps of it out in the process.

In June 2016, Gaiyathiri also burned Piang by pressing a hot iron into her forehead and her forearm.

In the 12 days leading up to her death, the Myanmar national had her hands tied by string to a window grille.

CNA reported that in clips of the abuse that was showed in court, Piang did not retaliate.

Ignoring the doctor's recommendations

Piang was last seen by a doctor in May 2016 for a runny nose, cough, and swelling on her legs. She was accompanied by Gaiyathiri according to court documents.

The doctor noticed bruising around both of Piang's eye sockets and cheeks after asking her to remove her mask and sunglasses.

However, Gaiyathiri told the doctor the injuries had been sustained from a fall as Piang was clumsy.

Despite, the doctor recommending that the helper undergo further tests for the swelling in her legs, Gaiyathiri refused.

The fatal assault

Piang was eventually killed after an assault lasting from the night of Jul. 25, 2016, to the morning of Jul. 26.

The attack started at 11:40pm when Gaiyathiri felt that Piang's washing of the household's laundry was too slow.

Court documents detailed how employer struck employee with a clenched fist in the neck and pulled her hair while telling Piang to move faster.

When the blows caused the malnourished Piang to sway at the entrance of the kitchen toilet, Gaiyathiri demanded she "stop dancing" and hit her over the head with a detergent bottle.

Piang fell backwards and in her disorientated state, experienced trouble standing.

After her orders for the helper to get up the floor yielded no results, Gaiyathiri and her mother, Prema, doused Piang with water and dragged her to the bedroom.

There, Gaiyathiri and Prema continued their attack, kicking her body, punching her neck, and strangling Piang.

The helper then asked for food, but was told that as she did not eat earlier, she would have to go to bed without dinner.

She was then tied to the window grille, given another kick, and left to sleep on the floor in her wet clothes.

Less than 15 minutes later, Gaiyathiri returned with yet another kick and warned Piang that she would have to get up when her alarm rang.

In the morning, around 5am, Gaiyathiri entered the bedroom and tried to wake Piang up.

When she didn't respond, the mother of two reacted by kicking and stomping on the helper's head and neck and pulling Piang's hair.

Together with Prema, Gaiyathiri then doused Piang with water.

She remained motionless.

Doctor visits and calls the police

They later called the doctor that Piang had earlier visited and requested a house call, despite the doctor recommending they call the ambulance.

They told the doctor that they suspected Piang had fallen, and was moving in and out of consciousness.

The pair then changed Piang out of her wet clothes, before the doctor arrived at about 10:50am.

According to court documents, the doctor observed Piang's discoloured skin, gaping mouth, cold touch, lack of pulse, and fixed and dilated pupils.

The helper was dead, she told Gaiyathiri and Prema.

She informed the pair — who expressed their shock at Piang's death — that they should call the police, insisting they do so when they suggested calling an ambulance instead.

The doctor then questioned Gaiyathiri on her treatment of Piang, though the 40-year-old denied beating her helper and claimed that she ate a lot.

Eventually, the doctor called the police herself.

The autopsy

An autopsy found 31 recent scars and 47 external injuries on Piang's body.

Her cause of death was determined to be a brain injury from oxygen deprivation and severe blunt trauma to the neck.

The hyoid bone — a part of the neck — was found to be fractured, most likely caused by the violent hair pulling and shaking.

A psychiatric report on Gaiyathiri found that she suffered from a major depressive disorder and obsessive compulsive personality disorder.

The court documents stated this would qualify her for an abnormality of mind for the purposes of diminished responsibility.

"Indisputable horror"

In the prosecution's sentencing submissions, Senior Counsel Mohamed Faizal asked for Gaiyathiri to receive a sentence of life imprisonment.

With regard to her mental health, the prosecution noted her diminished responsibility had resulted in the charge being lowered from murder to culpable homicide.

"The offences took place over an extended period of time in a manner that would shock the conscience of any person," wrote Faizal.

"Words like heinous, cruel and 'inhuman' are often used in submissions like these. But rare is a case where even such hyperbole cannot fully capture the indisputable horror and monstrosity of the crimes by an accused person. This is a case where, simply put, words fail us."

"That one human being would treat another in this evil and utterly inhumane manner is cause for the righteous anger of the court," he added.

CNA reported that Gaiyathiri's defence asked for her to receive 14 years in prison instead, arguing that "anger is for the mob".

The defence described their client's remorse, saying that she was begging for mercy.

Parties will return at a later date for sentencing.

The penalties for culpable homicide not amounting to murder are life imprisonment and caning, or up to 20 years' jail, a fine and caning. Women cannot be caned.

Prema's case is pending, while Gaiyathiri's husband also faces pending charges for maid abuse according to CNA.

Top image from Straits Times' YouTube Channel and via Helping Hands for Migrant Workers, Singapore's Facebook page