When he was seven, Low Ji Qing, the youngest of six children, would sniff his eldest sister’s wallets, handbags and undergarments.
They reminded him of her and gave him comfort.
The sister, 10 years his senior, was the only sibling he felt close to, as she played with him and tutored him.
As he grew older, he had recurrent sexual urges and fantasies involving his sister’s wallet. And so began his life-long obsession with women’s wallets.
Low, now 47, began stealing the wallets of other women to satisfy his sexual urges.
His thefts landed him in jail for a total of 16 years. In all those years, he kept his fetish a secret because he was ashamed.
His thefts and subsequent convictions reached a point where Low gave up hope and resigned himself to dying in prison.
Low told The New Paper yesterday that he had sought treatment at Institute of Mental Health (IMH) in 1996 after getting out of jail for the third time. But he wasn’t ready to reveal the sexual nature of his behaviour.
“I was afraid of the shame. I didn’t know how to tell them (IMH) because I didn’t know if there was anyone else in the world who has the same problem as me,” hesaid.
“I was likely going in for 20 years this time and there was probably no chance for me at all, so I gave up all hope.” he said after being caught again in June 2010 for stealing.
This is the first time Low has spoken to the media about his condition.
He did research before stealing
He did 'research' before stealing
Low's sexual obsession with wallets continued even after he had a string of girlfriends since he was 14, the court was told.
During his national service days, he would visit a library at the National University of Singapore, where he would take female students’ wallets, look at their photographs and fantasise about them.
As an undergraduate in Australia, he would also take the wallets of his housemates or schoolmates without their knowledge to feed his daily compulsion.
In 1988, on one of his visits back home, he came up with what would become his modus operandi – stealing wallets from unsuspecting women in supermarkets. He was grocery shopping with his family then.
Low did his own “research” into which supermarkets were less secure and shortlisted a few, targeting victims who were attractive.
When he started working, he stole wallets on the weekends,keeping up to 10 wallets each time.
While he kept the cash from the wallets out of greed, he denied stealing for financial gain.
His eldest sister found out about his disorder when she saw his IMH psychiatrist in 2010.
“She was dumbfounded. She felt very sad for me, that for the past years the family had misjudged me,” Low said.
While she wanted the family to forgive him, she didn’t know how to explain his condition to them as she couldn’t understand it herself at first. But his siblings were supportive once they learnt about it.
His relationship with his eldest sister has “never been stronger”, he said.
“This time around I thought it was a gone case when I did it again, but I had unwavering support from her and testimonials from my other siblings. They said even though I had relapsed, I have shown the heart to change.”
He hopes to encourage others with psychiatric conditions to seek treatment early, unlike him.
It was only after his arrest in June 2010 that he finally opened up to an IMH psychiatrist about his sexual obsession with women’s wallets.
The psychiatrist diagnosed him as suffering from fetishism – recurrent, intense, sexually arousing fantasies and behaviours involving the use of a non-living object.
In Low’s case, the smell of women’s leather wallets caused him to become sexually aroused.
Last May, he was given 36 months of supervised probation in view of his medical condition. He was ordered to undergo offence-specific treatment programmes.
This despite his having served 10 years of preventive detention until February 2010.
Preventive detention, which is meted out to hardened criminals, ranges from seven to 20 years in prison, with no early release for good behaviour.
Four months into his probation, Low re-offended again by stealing wallets from two women last September and October.
On Monday, District Judge Soh Tze Bian ordered that Low continue his probation. He had pleaded guilty last month to two charges of theft.
The judge said it was the second time Low was appearing before him and he would sentence Low to a jail term if he turns up in his courtroom again.
He added: “It’s very rare for a person who’s gone through PD (preventive detention) before to be given probation, but because of your medical condition, I’m giving you another chance.”
Low’s lawyer, Mr Ravinderpal Singh, had said in his mitigation that his probation officer viewed that his rehabilitation was working well, but that it was at an early stage and it would take time for further progress.
Low had been attending a sexuality programme run by the Ministry of Community Development, Youth and Sports (MCYS), working with a psychologist from We Care Community Services – a charity that treats people with addictions – and was being followed up at the IMH.
He has to continue with these weekly programmes at least until the end of his probation period.
Low told TNP he is determined to succeed this time, unlike in 1996, when he stopped going for treatment and started stealing again.
After his arrest in 2010, he thought it was all over for him.
“I was likely going in for 20 years this time and there was probably no chance for me at all, so I gave up all hope,” he said.
Fortunately for him, others didn’t. The investigating officer for his case, sensing that Low needed help, recommended that he be assessed at IMH. This was despite Low’s objections.
“I didn’t want that because I had already prepared myself to die inside prison,” he said.
The IMH staff succeeded in convincing him to open up.
“I told myself if I’m not even afraid of going in for the next 20 years and dying inside, what am I afraid of?” Low said.
Two weeks later, he was diagnosed with fetishism. Before this revelation, he was a lost soul with no family or friends.
Not one family member visited him during his 10 years of preventive detention and he could not summon up the courage to write to them to ask for their forgiveness.
They had forgiven him for his earlier convictions and he knew this was one too many.
His adoptive mother had never missed a visit the first three times he was in jail, but this time, she didn’t turn up.
His adoptive parents, who had adopted him and his siblings when their biological parents divorced, forgave him when he offended the first three times.
“When they asked me why, I kept quiet. I didn’t know what to say. They assumed I needed money,” he said.
He told his eldest sister he couldn’t control himself as he didn’t understand what was going on.
When he was caught in 1999 and sentenced to preventive detention, his family had no idea until they received a letter from the prison authorities.
He had just returned from Cambodia, where his family had invested in a business for him to run in the hope of curing him of his compulsion to steal. But he re-offended at a shopping centre in town before he could even step foot into his family home.
“They didn’t even know I was arrested. They couldn’t contact me and even went to Cambodia to look for me,” he said.
After his release, he did odd jobs. For someone with an economics degree from the University of Western Australia and who had only done white-collar jobs, it was the first time he had to do manual labour.
He missed his family deeply, but did not dare search for them as he wanted to make something of himself first. Instead, he would visit the condo where his family lived and imagine them inside. Then, he would leave.
He also called his sister’s office once just to hear her voice, but she was overseas. He called his father, but didn’t say a word.
“He said ‘hello, hello’ and put down the phone. I just wanted to hear his voice to know that he was still alive,” he said.
“The person I missed the most was my mother. I wanted to ask for her, but dared not.”
Then, one night in September 2010, he bumped into his eldest sister. The reunion was emotional.
He found out his adoptive mother had died two months after his release and that his family had tried to find him through newspaper advertisements.
His adoptive mother had been bedridden, suffering from advanced dementia and could not recognise anyone, but kept asking to see him.
“I was too sad to feel anything. I just stood there because I was numb,” he said.
When he met his adoptive father, the elderly man was suffering from Alzheimer’s disease and couldn’t recognise him.
“That was when I broke down. I had already lost my mother and now my father didn’t recognise me,” he said.
He deeply regrets not seeking treatment earlier and allowing his disorder to develop, causing suffering to himself and his family.
“Yesterday, I visited my mother’s grave and made a vow to her. I want her to rest in peace, so I asked her to help me to change and not allow myself to be derailed by anything,” he said.
This article was first published in The New Paper.