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Web-only Exclusives
November 30, 2000

From Our Correspondent: Hirohito and the War
A conversation with biographer Herbert Bix

From Our Correspondent: A Rough Road Ahead
Bad news for the Philippines - and some others

From Our Correspondent: Making Enemies
Indonesia needs friends. So why is it picking fights?

Asiaweek Time Asia Now Asiaweek story

A Death in the Family

The hanging in Singapore of Philippine domestic helper Flor Contemplacion set the two ASEAN nations on a collision course


SHE WENT TO THE gallows dressed all in white. Not virginal white, but, for hundreds of thousands of Filipinos, the white of innocence. For them, domestic helper Flor Contemplacion never committed the two murders she confessed to. Her execution - against a howl of protest in the Philippines and elsewhere - in Singapore's Changi Prison brought relations between the two countries to their nadir. It also affected the outcome of Philippine senatorial elections and blighted the careers of two cabinet members and two ambassadors.

In her home country, the execution of the 42-year-old Catholic mother of four also pointed up a growing sense of outrage at the Philippine Diaspora, in which up to 4 million Pinoys and Pinays have scattered across the globe to do largely menial work. Added to this was a repugnance at a Sing-apore justice system that, seen from the Philippines, was so haughty it was not prepared to admit a mistake had been made.

A former washerwoman, Contemplacion arrived in Sin-gapore in 1988. Her working hours were from dawn to midnight, keeping two households clean and looking after her employer's child. Singapore police say she snapped. On May 4, 1991, after getting up at 6 o'clock and mopping the floors and washing the car, she was allowed to take some time off to visit another helper, 34-year-old Delia Maga. Accord-ing to her confession to the police, she wanted Maga to take a number of items back to the Philippines. Maga refused, saying the bag was too heavy. Enraged, Contemplacion killed her and then drowned Maga's four-year-old ward, Nicholas, in a red plastic pail. At her trial, she admitted the killings on the advice of her court-appointed lawyer. The plea was apparently part of a plan to win clemency when the case ultimately reached the Supreme Court. If so, it was a fateful blunder.

During the four years Contemplacion was in jail, she was visited nine times by Philippine embassy representatives. The mission said its 15 staff members were overstretched trying to meet the needs of the 65,000-strong Philippine community in Singapore. Maybe, but back home the perception was that the diplomats had abandoned this little-educated woman in a country where she barely understood the way of life.

As the execution date neared, Filipinos became increasingly angry. One late appeal said Contemplacion had suffered bouts of insanity as a child. A traditional doctor was said to have claimed she was possessed by the devil. Both claims were denied by her mother. In Singapore, this mounting indignation was greeted at first with disbelief and then with resentment at what was seen as an attempt to derail justice.

Philippine President Fidel Ramos, his party caught in senatorial and local elections, played to the voting masses. He appealed - in vain - to Singapore President Ong Teng Cheong for a reprieve. New witnesses came forward with conflicting testimony. Some newspaper articles in the Philippines spoke of Contemplacion having being stripped by her interrogators and tortured into making a confession. But, amid these accusations and recriminations, no one could prove her not guilty. And she never denied she committed the murders. She was hanged, on schedule, on March 17, at 6.45 in the morning - a little less than an hour after the time she used to start her 18-hour working day.

Still the debate raged. Maga's remains were exhumed for fresh examination by international experts. It changed no-thing. All the time, the drama was being played out against a backdrop of increasingly strident street demonstrations, flag-burning, recalled ambassadors and canceled state visits.

Ramos sacked the previous ambassador to Singapore, Fran-cisco Benedicto, and suspended the then-current ambassador, Alicia Ramos. Philippine Foreign Secretary Roberto Romulo resigned, taking responsibility for what the public viewed as a failure to safeguard Contemplacion's interests. His resignation was soon followed by that of Labor Secretary Nieves Confessor.

Three "quickie" movies appeared in the Philippines, each purporting to tell the "real story." They didn't. If there is a real story of Flor Contemplacion, it is not that she did or did not kill two people in Singapore. It is that, in her death, she came to symbolize the millions of Filipinos driven by poverty to leave their families and take their chances abroad. Some are looked down on as little more than modern-day serfs; others are treated with dignity. But all are where they are because they have yet to benefit from Asia's growing wealth.

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