SINGAPORE: Josephus Tan has worn the label of "gangster lawyer" like a badge of honour. Among the things that make him stand out are his long hair, a physical manifestation of his delinquent past, and the tattoos on his arms, a tribute to his father.
For years, he has been a darling of the local media.
The story of his dramatic turnaround from delinquent to a prominent lawyer who’s handled some high-profile criminal cases, including the recent case of Annie Ee, the intellectually disabled waitress who was tortured to death by a husband and wife, also inspired a Channel U drama, Second Chance.
In the lead-up to the 2015 General Election, there was even talk that he might be fielded as a political candidate for the People’s Action Party (PAP).
His candidacy was never confirmed.
Before the election, he had often been seen participating in grassroots activities in Chong Pang and Chua Chu Kang constituencies. He had said then that he was helping out at the Meet-the-People Sessions, giving pro bono legal advice to residents.
When talk of him running for elections became more widespread on the ground, he even debunked it publicly.
But during our interview last week the 39-year-old said that there was a plan for him to run and while he had been telling some people he ultimately wasn’t fielded because he “pulled out due to personal reasons”, it wasn’t entirely true.
“I don’t deny the fact that I was a potential candidate for the ruling party. Make no mistake about it. I was approached to join politics.
“I never once thought that a person like me deserved a chance in the grand scheme of things. I just wanted to use whatever legal knowledge I possess to help people, but the fact remains that I was first approached. I was told, ‘Why not join politics?’ and effect changes at the highest level and I thought, ‘Yes, why not. If I can save millions through a good policy, why not?’ So I got involved, got interested, went to interview after interview, tea session after tea session. In the end, I was deployed. I was working the ground hard and it all came to nothing.”
It clearly came as a shock when he realised in 2015 that his silky long hair, which is the stuff of shampoo commercials, and his tattoos could be working against him.
Concerns on the ground about his public image crushed his political ambitions.
He claims this was one of the reasons he was ultimately not fielded in 2015.
His public image, in fact, seemed like a selling point up till then. He’s probably the only lawyer in Singapore who looks the way he does. It made him stand out.
He reveals that in addition to ground concerns about his image, there were concerns about his “mannerisms, how I’m very straight with my words, even my financial status or my past records, my admission to the fact that I was prone to criminality, maybe during National Service as well.”
He has admitted in previous interviews that he had gone AWOL several times. His financial status was unstable because he had been doing mostly pro bono legal work and didn’t have a steady income stream.
However, it looked as if he was connecting well with people on the ground in spite of this.
His well-publicised and compelling personal story certainly helped.
He grew up in a rough neighbourhood, joined a gang and lived an aimless life of vice and violence. At 22, a big quarrel with his girlfriend catalysed a dramatic change in his life.
He was drunk and rage caused him to abuse her physically and subsequently threaten to throw her off the balcony of his 23rd-storey flat.
His father wrestled him to the floor and slapped him twice.
He often relates this story with a sense of pride saying that his life was changed by “two tight slaps”.
He slogged hard to get his law degree with the help of his parents and relatives who had helped fund part of his education.
IS REDEMPTION A MYTH?
He admits the rejection in 2015 “baffled” him.
“I thought a lot of people by now would have accepted me for who I am and the way I look. I really didn’t see an issue, but I don’t know. I might just be living in my own world. Maybe the big conservative group out there expressed a different view even though maybe on the surface, they seemed to be in agreement with what I am or who I am.”
It seems even the fact that he had turned his life around after facing numerous obstacles couldn’t overpower these concerns.
After all this time, he still looks visibly dejected as he tells this story.
So is redemption a myth?
“I have reconciled with my past but I cannot expect others to do the same. Everyone loves reading a good redemption story but who can truly live and believe in one? It’s disappointing to say the least but it doesn’t stop me in continuing to advocate for second chances for others especially the underprivileged.”
While he seems more at peace with it today, in 2015, he says there was anger mixed with his disappointment.
I ask him if he feels the PAP should have stood up for him.
“I think people on the ground are all that matter. They are the electorate. I think it’s very important to have the mandate of the people. If there’s really a concern from the ground as to my candidancy, then I should just take it upon myself to better my chances if I ever contemplate stepping into politics again. I wouldn’t want to second-guess the party. I think that perhaps maybe there were better candidates and there were for sure."
STILL HAS POLITICAL INCLINATIONS
The party told him “perhaps, another time then", he says.
“So hopefully the time comes.”
This surprises me. Considering he was judged in this way, why would he still want to join politics?
“I think what is inspirational about my story is I didn’t stop for anything. I just kept forging ahead regardless of how many crises I met and it’s the same for politics. To say that I don’t have any political inclination is a lie.
“To me, politics is important. I’ve been serving the people in my line of work. So I have a consistent track record and I feel that if I can do this at a policy level, it would have been great because I really understand what’s happening on the ground because I’m on the ground every day with the people.”
But why serve a public that could not appreciate his contributions enough to support his candidacy?
“Put all these rejections aside, I think the mission itself is of paramount importance. There were certain reasons why I was rejected and it’s legitimate. I take responsibility. The fact is that there are actually problems in these few areas and I just need to work myself out. So the day that I solve all these problems, when I’m truly free and that is where I would know whether this stands true.”
WON’T CHANGE HIS PUBLIC IMAGE
He’s referring to the financial problems he's faced which we discuss in-depth later, but I’m curious about whether he would get rid of his tattoos or cut his hair to placate the electorate.
“I wouldn’t,” he says categorically.
“I’ve expressed this before to the powers that be. I’ve been looking this way because there’s a need for me to embrace my past. It’s also a daily reminder of where I came from. If I’m going to remove my tattoos, change my hairstyle just because I want to get into politics, there’s an element of hypocrisy to it. The electorate will think, ‘Ok, this guy is bending backwards. He used to be so upright, he’s fighting for the underclass but right now because he wants to join politics, go into the ruling party, he’s changing.’ I feel that such a message doesn’t go down well not just with the people, but even with myself.”
Hair and tattoos might seem like superficial things, but to him they hold immense meaning.
“At the height of my teenage rebellion, I was growing out my hair long. So over the years, it has become very, very comfortable and I like the way I look and I think there’s no issue. I go to court, I observe the decorum, I tie my hair and I think it shouldn’t be an issue. Why must I remove the tattoos which remind me of my father?”
In 2013, his father died of cancer. Shortly after, as he worked on overcoming his grief, he was inspired.
“I took a soul-searching trip to Phuket. I was listening to this song, an Italian opera. It’s called Nella Fantasia, which means 'In My Fantasy'.”
The tattoo on his arm translated into English would read: I dream of souls that are always free, Like the clouds that fly, Full of humanity in the depths of the soul.
“At that time the song had a very calming effect on me and it speaks out what I feel inside. I believe that every soul including myself and my dad, we should all be free, we should all be happy.”
TOO MUCH PRO BONO WORK AND A DESPERATE ATTEMPT AT PIETY
He’s currently working on fixing his financial troubles and recently opened his own firm Invictus Law Corporation with a personal loan from a few close friends.
He's keeping his firm's operations lean with a small office space and leveraging technology in order to minimise manpower reliance.
While taking on more and more pro bono work was fulfilling, he concedes it hurt his pocket.
He’s working on striking a better 50-50 balance between paid and pro bono work, but at last count, 70 per cent of his cases have been done on a pro bono basis.
This was exacerbated by the fact that he had started spending more time on grassroots work and giving motivational talks instead of taking on cases.
In the lead up to his father’s death, he had also borrowed heavily in a “desperate attempt at piety".
“I felt that I had failed as a son. I didn’t provide the necessary financial stability, not only to myself but also to my parents and that’s the reason why in his dying months, I borrowed heavily from the bank to rent a nice colonial terrace house, to engage a foreign domestic worker, to buy a second hand Mercedes.
“He used to drive a white Mercedes before he went bankrupt. When he was lying in the hospital, I told him 'Dad, look, if you can muster the courage and the strength and the will to live, I promise you I’m going to bring a Mercedes to drive you back home.’ I couldn’t get a white one because the only one I could afford was second hand and it only came in red.”
His father, by that time, was too ill to appreciate any of it though.
“I saw the sadness in his eyes and he couldn’t really speak anymore. He was so skinny.”
“That remains my biggest and my only regret. That I couldn’t provide for him while he was well.”
His father too had a chequered history.
He had a security business which went bust. He then started working as a security officer and moonlighted as a dough and bread-maker at a factory.
“Since the early part of my childhood, until today I hate eating bread and it’s because my father would always bring the factory rejects home. Loads and loads of bread. I thought that was my father’s way of showing his love - literally bringing bread to the table and that was what he did. But I got sick of eating bread.”
His father also had gang connections.
“When I was very young, I saw how my father got beaten up at the market by a group of thugs. His head was bloodied and of course he was rushed to the hospital and was stitched up. He said it was a mistaken identity, but that’s when he told me about how different parts of the market or hawker centres were ruled by different gangs.”
However, he maintains his dad’s background played no part in turning him wayward.
“I actually had a wonderful childhood. We were poor but we were always loved and in a very, very basic way. I mean basic shelter, basic food, basic care and attention. My mother even helped borrow money from relatives to help finance my law education.”
It was more a result of the neighbourhood he grew up in and teenage angst, he claims.
Last year was a particularly tough year for him.
His financial problems came to a head as his debt and interest on debt accumulated. It almost hit six figures, but he still wanted to complete his pro bono cases.
At one point, to earn additional income, he worked as a pest controller on international tankers – a job that a friend helped him get. He even worked as a dishwasher at private events.
As he continues to work on solving his financial problems as a result of his desperate attempts at piety and a lack of balance between paid and pro bono in his law practice, he is convinced he’s headed towards stability.
“It’s really right down to the last bank loan and then finally I will be free.”
HIS MARITAL BREAKDOWN
But his health and personal life have suffered too.
He came very close to having a stroke and went through a divorce last year.
Because of the divorce, he is currently renting a room near his office to minimise his costs.
His ex-wife is actually the same girl he threatened to fling off the balcony of his flat when he was 22.
She stuck by him even after that and was married to him for 14 years.
“I’m still very grateful for the fact that actually she stood by me from that time till now.”
So what ended the relationship?
“I was just so focused on rehabilitating myself, on turning my life around, on recovery. When I found my purpose or what I call my 'mission', I got lost in it.”
He neglected her and claims the damage had been done over the years.
“I was the one who actually suggested the divorce. It’s much better to put an end to something in the hope for something better for the both of us.”
She is in a happy relationship, he says. He, on the other hand, isn’t seeing anyone.
“I just started my own law firm so I’m all geared up to really restart and recharge myself and right now the focus is on the aspirations ahead. I’ve got to get the basics right and I know that the next person that comes along, I’ll make sure she will be in a much better place.”
DEFENDING THE WORST CRIMINALS
We turn to discussing his career which he is eager to talk about.
He himself was lucky enough not to be incarcerated in spite of his delinquent past, but he seems to be able to empathise with even those who commit heinous crimes.
Naturally, we talk about the case of Annie Ee. He made headlines last year for defending her abusers and was himself criticised and harassed by some members of the public for doing so. He maintains now as he did then that every one deserves fair legal representation no matter how heinous their crime – something that his mentor, the late prominent lawyer, Subhas Anandan asserted many times.
“As as long as you know you are doing the right thing, have no fear at all. I thought about it that way when I saw people were getting angry.”
He’s often said that criminal lawyers have to be able to suspend judgment.
“You’re human first, then a lawyer,” he says to explain his empathy for those he defends.
While he uses this as a justification to defend even the worst criminals, one could say by that same token, shouldn’t he have an adverse reaction to those suspected of conducting heinous crimes. It’s only human, isn’t it?
“Very good question, but really I think the good thing about our profession is that we will usually have the so called 'inner' story. Right from the get-go when we take on a case like Annie Ee’s case, the lady who abused her was herself diagnosed to be emotionally complex. She had mental issues and this was actually brought up by the expert psychiatrist. So who are we to say?
“Often, there are reasons for their behaviour. Out of the hundreds of cases I’ve handled, only maybe one or two involve perpetrators who have are born evil. They are psychopathic or sociopathic and have no remorse for their actions.”
For others, there will be a form of explanation for what they did and mostly it’s a circumstantial factor. They are either lowly educated or in a financially difficult position, or they have medical or mental illnesses, or they come from a broken family nucleus, all sorts of problems. It’s almost like a social problem and the legal problem is just one part of it.”
He feels that Annie Ee’s case in fact brings up other urgent issues for society.
“Why did she fall through the cracks? That’s why the stakeholders need to look into this issue.”
“FIGHT LIKE A TIGER”
His future in pro bono criminal law is something he’s excited about even though he plans to scale it down to achieve a better financial balance.
Under the Criminal Legal Aid Scheme, nowadays pro bono lawyers actually receive a S$500 honorarium per case. This was not the case when he started out 10 years ago.
He thinks the money should be channeled into the community to fund needs such as bursaries for the poor and other services.
“I understand that some lawyers use it as a form or survival which is not wrong. But if you have the right balance of paid and pro bono work, why not channel the S$500 to Voluntary Welfare Organisations or foundations to see whether we can do a dollar-to-dollar matching to help others.”
He also feels that generally, Singaporeans lack legal literacy and aims to help with legal education.
“Singapore has never been a very litigious society so we lack knowledge compared to our peers in other countries. I think most Singaporeans engage in what we call 'kopitiam laws'. They believe more in vigilante justice or they have this lynch mob mentality.
“Every lawyer should be doing their part to help in the education effort.”
What does he say to those who think lawyers don’t put as much effort into pro bono cases?
“It’s still a person’s life and you shouldn’t be working any harder for the person who pays you and less for the person who doesn’t pay. I think those who do that are shooting themselves in the foot because clients will start to know.
"Clients will look at how hard I fought for my pro bono clients and then in turn they will actually go and reprimand the lawyers that they’re paying money for and say that look, 'You’re not doing much. This guy is doing it for free and he fought like a tiger.' If you’re doing it for free and you fight like a tiger, it helps you get paid clients too. If you do a bad job, even those who can pay may not come to you.”
His hardships, he claims have not discouraged him and many young lawyers he has observed are still keen on pro bono work.
He sees the work as his “baby” and is intent on “moving the pro bono movement to the next level".
Today, it's clear Josephus Tan is intent on "fighting like a tiger" to reclaim his life after his crisis last year, not just in the law but he hopes, in the near future, in politics as well.
On the Record with Josephus Tan is available here.