There are too many sad days to count, from tragic accidents which shattered families, to aeroplane crashes, SARS and the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami which was unimaginable in scale and immeasurable in the depth of grief and extent of loss across so many countries.
But if you ask me which story made me leave my desk to have a good cry, I’ll tell you about Lim Siew Ten, a 42-year-old mother of two who was in the news ever so briefly in 1995.
Lim had married bakery owner Goh Ngoh Song and they had a son, Chin Keong, and a daughter, Geok Kuan, born a year apart. It was a troubled marriage. The children were teenagers when their parents divorced in July 1994, although the father continued to live in the family home above the shop in Bedok North Avenue 1.
Then, on May 10 1995, Goh tried to kill himself and his family by setting fire to the flat using petrol he splashed and lit while his ex-wife and children slept. Lim woke up and, seeing the fire, roused her son and daughter and they tried to escape. All three and Goh were injured badly, but only the parents survived.
Geok Kuan, a 19-year-old junior college student, died 10 days after the fire. Two days later, Chin Keong, 20, a fulltime national serviceman, also died. He had a place in the medical faculty of the National University of Singapore, and was due to start training to be a doctor in 1996.
Goh was charged with culpable homicide for causing the deaths of his children and for attempted manslaughter of his ex-wife. On December 8 1995, Goh was sentenced to a total of 10 years’ jail – concurrent terms of nine years each for causing the deaths of his children, and another year for trying to kill his ex-wife.
The Straits Times reported that the judge did not think life imprisonment was called for, given Goh’s history and that he was unlikely to try killing his ex-wife again. The judge told Goh his actions were likely to haunt him for the rest of his life.
Before the sentencing, Goh’s lawyer made an impassioned plea for leniency, saying the man had been suffering severe depression when he set fire to the flat. He said this was a tragic case of a man who had worked hard and lived for his family, but felt “totally demolished” by the behaviour of his ex-wife. Even his children had turned against him.
The marriage ran into trouble when Goh had ideas to improve the business but Lim objected, the lawyer said. She abused and insulted her husband, and controlled the family’s purse strings.
Then, the lawyer said, Goh was shocked to learn that Lim had taken steps to transfer to herself a Housing Board flat bought with his Central Provident Fund savings. The last straw came when she wanted to take over the bakery as well and had asked him to name his price. Goh refused, but he was convinced he had lost everything, his lawyer said. He “believed that death was the only way to escape the pain of ‘living in hell’ and the indescribable mental torture”. Goh decided it was best to die with his children and the ex-wife whom he still loved, the lawyer said.
Goh wept in the dock as his lawyer spoke.
The story received prominent play in the Home section of The Straits Times, with an accompanying report devoted to what the lawyer said.
All of that was sad enough. How tragic that two young siblings had perished. How awful that they had died as a result of their father’s actions. How terrible that Lim and Goh had lost both their children and everything that might have been.
Usually, the sentencing would be the last we’d hear of a court story like this, unless a reporter decided to do more by interviewing the people concerned for a retelling of the crime and tragedy.
Lim was nowhere to be found after her ex-husband’s trial ended. But something extraordinary happened a week later.
On December 16 1995, a Saturday, Lim called The Straits Times and the Chinese language newspapers. She asked to meet reporters because she had something to say.
At the meeting that followed, she told reporters that she wished to present her side of the story because Goh’s lawyer had been unfair to her, portraying her more harshly than she deserved.
She said Goh had made their family life a misery and she had tolerated his drinking, failed business ventures and bad debts for more than 10 years. Although he had inherited the bakery, she was the one who managed the shop.
He wanted to start his own businesses, but his ventures flopped, he borrowed from illegal moneylenders and his debts piled up. The family was constantly harassed by loan sharks and the children often had to lie about their father’s whereabouts when the loan sharks’ runners came to their home.
“As they grew older, they began to understand things and grew resentful of their father,” she said. He would also go to their schools and ask them for money.
In 1993 Goh began drinking and would make a scene when he returned home drunk at night. That was when Lim began sleeping with her children in their room. The couple divorced the following year, but Lim said she let Goh remain with the family as he had nowhere to go.
Sobbing, she said: “I will forever mourn the loss of my two wonderful children. They were innocent victims.”
The Sunday Times of December 17 1995 reported the unusual turn of events prominently with the headline ‘Man jailed for burning family: Ex-wife speaks up’ and subsidiary headlines ‘He made our home life a misery’ and ‘He drank, failed in business and had bad debts’.
But the worst wasn’t over.
Monday December 18 1995 was the saddest day of my life as a newspaper editor. I was at the Newsdesk when the crime reporters returned from the daily police media briefing with news that Lim Siew Ten was dead.
The evening before, after the newspapers reported her version of life with Goh Ngoh Song, Lim went to the 16th floor of a block in Serangoon North Avenue 3 and jumped to her death.
She’d had so little to live for after her children’s deaths. One could only imagine what she felt when she found out how she had been portrayed in court as a horror of a woman who had all but driven her ex-husband to kill their children.
I was overwhelmed by the enormous tragedy of Lim’s final act, more affected than I’d been by anything else that had happened in this sad saga. I left my desk, locked myself in a cubicle of the men’s toilet, and wept.
Lim’s death made us reflect hard on what we’d done in covering the court case. We had reported the lawyer’s portrayal of Lim as the villain in the marriage, whose actions drove a devoted family man to committing the most horrendous of acts. It was all said in court, and fit to be reported.
The case demonstrated to us that while defence counsel will cast their clients in the kindest light as they urge against stiff sentences sought by prosecutors, their accounts may not be entirely accurate and are unlikely to present the full picture.
It is left to judges to assess the facts before them, and decide what weight to give to leniency pleas.
The Straits Times reported Lim Siew Ten’s death 21 years ago today. I never forgot this woman, and I’ve recalled her story countless times over the years.
Her tragedy taught us to be more circumspect with the speeches lawyers make when seeking a lighter sentence for their clients, no matter how interesting the details might be.
Sometimes we learn the hard way.