Exclusive interview with ‘Gangster Lawyer’ Josephus Tan

(photo courtesy of Josephus Tan)

Josephus Tan Joon Liang is a prominent criminal lawyer in Singapore well known for his pro-bono work. In 2015, Tan received the Singapore Youth Award, the highest accolade for young Singaporeans who have made significant contributions to the society, given out by the National Youth Council (NYC). He is well-known for how he turned his life around from a delinquent and alcoholic to hipster lawyer, who now spends a third of his time doing pro bono work. He has recently been appointed by the President of Singapore to serve as a Panel Advisor to the Youth Court for a 2-year term.

After having a bad year in 2017, where he was down and out, beaten to the ground, it also saw him being divorced, hospitalised, and having to work as a pest controller and dish-washer to make ends meet. Now, he is in the midst of self-discovery and recovery and he is coming back stronger as a better man.

Digital Senior is honoured to hear from Josephus Tan how his dramatic life experiences turned him around for the better.

1) Share with us the inspiration behind why you wanted to pursue law. What was your passion behind law?

I’ve always been stronger in the languages. At that critical turning point in deciding what discipline to go into, law at that juncture of my life appealed to me because I could see that the law is in everything. I thought that when you possess such a powerful knowledge, you should use it to help a lot of people. It was as simple as that.

2) What school activities did you take part in while studying law?

Back in those days, I was part of the old system, where overseas law graduates with a law degree, (provided you get a second upper honours) come back to do a “Graduate Diploma in Singapore Law” (DipSing) in order to practice in Singapore. It was for a duration of one year, but nine months to be exact after taking away the holidays. So, it was pretty much studying the same thing but in the Singapore context and cases. That period of my life was the most enjoyable where I got to know more about my batch mates as everyone came from different universities in England, and we all got together for this course. There was about 70 of us.

Prior to NUS, I was studying in England where I spent three years at the University of Southampton from 2004 to 2007.The first year was the toughest, as it is never easy adapting to a foreign country—it is not just about studying but also about living independently. I borrowed heavily from the bank to go overseas and borrowed just enough for accommodation and school fees.

During the holidays, I had to find some part time work and that really didn’t give me a lot of time to travel around Europe unlike my peers. Most students saw this opportunity as a gateway to Europe; a lot of my friends were travelling and having the time of their life. I was pretty much “mugging” and working part time.

The social activities I engaged in were potluck get-togethers over the weekend over a simple meal. The first year I was in for a culture shock, where there was severe racism. It was tough to the extent that I got reminded to know how lucky I was to be born in Singapore and the things that were taken for granted when I was in Singapore. When I looked at their healthcare system, social culture, and policies, I knew I got it good in Singapore.

I missed home and Singapore a lot in my first year and in the subsequent two years, I focused on my education and tried to understand why certain policies were created there, whether it was beneficial or not. If anything, the whole experience of spending three years in England really shaped my aspiration for the Singapore legal fraternity and for Singaporeans.

In my first year, I was the international student representative for my law school and also the university representative for the UK Singapore Law Students Society (“UKSLSS”). In my final year, I was elected as the president for the UKSLSS. As the president, I corporatized the entire society, created its logo and website, and started the “Singapore Legal Forum” together with my council members which still carries on today. Currently, I serve on its Board of Advisors.

3) Who nominated you for the Singapore Youth Award? How did you feel after learning that you were nominated and eventually won the award?

I was nominated by the Ministry of Law in 2015 and won the award. It was memorable to say the least as it was the 40th anniversary of the award and SG50.

I am flattered but I told everyone that I am collecting this award on behalf of everyone, especially the youth during my award ceremony speech. I can only wish that whatever that I can do now will inspire others to do the same and one day they may also come up and receive the award and to pass it on to the next generation. So that’s really my mission. Two years earlier in 2013, I was conferred the Pro Bono Ambassador of the Year award by the Law Society of Singapore and am the youngest recipient to date.

It is a means to an end, the awards that I won are used to inspire other people and not so much to celebrate myself as I am just a messenger, more so of the message that I carry rather than the personality.

4) What was the inspiration behind Invictus Law Corporation?

Invictus is a Latinword which means “unconquerable”.

I see Invictus as a vehicle to do social good. As long as you can help people, do not stop.

5) Did you have any role model that you looked up to while growing up?

Lee Kuan Yew, Gandhi and Nelson Mandela. All three were lawyers, who used law in different ways to change the world.

6) What is one quote you live by?

In life you need to have conviction, courage and compassion. That has always been my personal quote. In everything, conviction, courage and compassion must prevail.

7) Where do you see yourself ten years down the road?

I am a very simple man with very simple needs. I would like to see myself having a family, having a roof over my head and continue to use Invictus as a platform to help people, to help society.

8) What is one advice you have for young undergraduates who are still looking for their purpose in life?

Keep looking and don’t stop for anything. Keep forging ahead. Whatever obstacles you encounter in your life, be it the good or the bad, just keep moving, do not stop for anything.




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