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Kleptomania: When the mind refuses to let you think straight

SINGAPORE (THE NEW PAPER) - I do not know Goh Lee Yin.

I have never met her, nor have I had the chance to speak with her.

But her name stuck with me from the early years of my journalism career till now because it is a moving and very tragic story.

Back in 2005, just a few years into my job as a crime reporter, Ms Goh was sentenced to jail for the first time for shoplifting.

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But she was no ordinary thief.

She was 24 then, with a good job as a computer programmer with Singapore Airlines.

Yet, she stole toiletries worth $480 - a sum she was very likely able to afford.

Her lawyer said she was a kleptomaniac, someone with an uncontrollable urge to steal, and had been shoplifting since the age of nine.

The district judge threw her into jail for 2½ months, citing a similar case in 1995 where the then Chief Justice Yong Pung How said people cannot be allowed to deal with their personal problems by "giving vent to their kleptomaniac tendencies with abandon".

Shockingly, Ms Goh had the gall to appeal the sentence.

I say that not because I think she deserved to be behind bars, but because everyone then knew of the reputation of CJ Yong.

The no-nonsense judge had developed a reputation for increasing sentences substantially if he thought the offender was wasting the court's time with frivolous appeals.

Few would have expected it, but CJ Yong spared Ms Goh by putting her on a 24-month probation and community service. This despite Ms Goh having shoplifted again while out on bail pending her appeal.

CJ Yong questioned if Ms Goh's case should even have come before the courts. "It was clear to me that bundling the appellant off to prison, while an apparently convenient and instant panacea, was no solution to her problem... It would destroy the very last hope for her recovery."

His judgment was a significant shift from how judges traditionally viewed cases involving suspects with mental or psychiatric problems.

Soon after, the Community Court was set up which gave judges more sentencing options for offenders like Ms Goh.

Then, in 2010, the Mandatory Treatment Order was implemented as a community sentencing option for offenders who committed offences due to their mental conditions.

I remember thinking back then that Ms Goh's story would be the perfect turn-around tale, if she could stay the course.

Sadly, Ms Goh did not use the reprieve CJ Yong gave her to turn her life around.

Within a year, she was back in court for shoplifting. And over the next 10 years, her name would come up in court papers every now and again for similar offences - stealing or even cheating women of their Hermes bags.

Subsequent judges she came before tried to give her more chances but eventually could not overlook her history of offences and sentenced her to jail.

On Monday (May 15), Ms Goh apparently threw herself off a block of flats in Sengkang.

She was to have attended court a day later over her latest shoplifting spree, where she faced nine charges of stealing more than $30,000 worth of branded items in 2015.

I got strangely emotional knowing Ms Goh was dead. Here was a person who, despite her psychiatric issues, had seemingly the perfect conditions to get her life back in order.

Back in 2005, CJ Yong noted she had an "exceptional support system" from people closest to her.

Ms Goh's elder sister would walk with her every morning from their home to the MRT station where she would take the train to work.

By then, Ms Goh had lost her job. But the psychiatrist she was seeing felt for her so much that he gave her a job at his clinic, paying her an allowance of $350 a month.

Her boyfriend's father, himself a doctor, would take her home every evening after work. Her boyfriend was studying overseas at that time.

When she re-offended, Ms Goh's family, her boyfriend and his parents came up with another 24-hour supervision plan to ensure she was always accompanied by someone when she was out or just stay home as much as possible.

Unfortunately, Ms Goh continued to steal, and as one prosecutor pointed out, appears to have upgraded her repertoire by targeting branded items.

Despite her repeated offences, her boyfriend married her and she gave birth to a baby girl in January last year.

But even the unconditional love shown to her by her family and extended family over all these years could not stop Ms Goh's wandering hands, or more accurately, her compulsive mind.

One of Ms Goh's probation officers once commented that the support plan devised by her family members had one major weak link - "The weak link is Lee Yin herself."

And that, really, is the saddest part of this tale.