He is a seasoned criminal lawyer who has taken on multiple homicide cases and defended numerous clients who have committed horrible crimes.
Yet, for the first time in his decade-long law career, Josephus Tan found himself rattled following his defence of Tan Hui Zhen, who along with her husband Pua Hak Chuan, caused the death of their intellectually-disabled flatmate, Annie Ee, after repeatedly beating her for eight months.
Hui Zhen was eventually sentenced to 16.5 years’ jail, while Hak Chuan was given 14 years’ jail and 14 strokes of the cane. Josephus and fellow criminal lawyer Cory Wong had acted as the defence counsel for the duo.
However, it was not the nature of Hui Zhen and Hak Chuan’s heinous crime that fazed Josephus, who took up the case on a pro bono basis.
Rather, it was the severity of the ensuing public backlash and criticism he received from taking on their case that left the 38-year-old wondering if he had made the right choice to do so.
“In previous cases I handled, there was also public outrage – after all, it’s the taking of another person’s life, so there were always criticisms, both online and offline,” Josephus, who runs Invictus Law Corporation, told The Pride.
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“But it wasn’t ever as bad as what I experienced from this case. In the past, people would usually just question why I would take up a certain case, and express their unhappiness over the fact that there’s a lawyer willing to defend the accused.
“This time however, the criticisms are more personal. People on the streets would come up to me and cast aspersions on my character, and accuse me of having no conscience and no sense of justice.
“So, of course I felt a little upset, and I began thinking, for the first time in my professional career, about whether I did the right thing in taking up this case.”
Josephus was especially upset to read a comment from someone – who he did not name but described the person as “not just a random man on the street” – who told him that he should “give up his law licence” as he was “not fit to be called a lawyer”.
“That (comment) pricked me, because the person making the statement obviously did not do due diligence on me as a lawyer and a person,” explained Josephus. “My personal story is well-documented – about how I transformed my life and why I dedicated my life to this pro bono mission.
“So, for someone (of that stature) to come out and make a statement like this is unnecessary, because the person called into question not just my professionalism, but my morality as well.”
But Josephus was not the only one affected by the backlash from the case. His close friends and family too, were also drawn into the storm.
“Some of my mother’s friends and colleagues questioned her as to why I took up this case, and after a while she got a bit worried for my safety,” Josephus revealed. “My good friends also got approached by others. They, in turn, asked me why I decided to defend Hui Zhen and Hak Chuan, which I found unusual, because they know exactly what I do.
“But I don’t think their questioning me comes from a point of personal anger and judgment. Rather, I think it’s because something must have happened or someone said something to them. For example, the families of some of my close friends have insinuated that they should not continue hanging out with me.”
Josephus’ biggest fear, however, is that young, aspiring criminal lawyers might choose to forgo this aspect of law after witnessing his public vilification.
“The worry now is that aspiring young criminal defence lawyers will avoid this career path at all costs (after seeing what happened),” he said. “They’ll think it’s not worth it. We already know that the criminal bar is lacking young lawyers.
“Everyone wants to go into corporate, commercial, litigation, and now, with something like this, if it’s not well-articulated (to young lawyers), I feel that it’ll set the whole pro bono movement back.”
Josephus however, is not alone in facing his critics.
Recently, Singapore’s Home Affairs and Law Minister K. Shanmugam, defended him with a Facebook post: “A lawyer has the duty to put forward the strongest possible arguments, on behalf of his client, in court. It will be a sad day for Singapore if lawyers are going to be hounded in public, for standing up in court to argue on behalf of their clients.”
The President of the Law Society of Singapore, Gregory Vijayendran, also addressed the barrage of criticisms aimed at Josephus in a letter to The Straits Times.
“The duty of criminal defence lawyers (is) to give a voice to their clients on extenuating circumstances,” wrote Mr Vijayendran. “That voice needs to be articulated professionally, responsibly and fairly. Lawyers are officers of the court.
“To hold such criminal defence lawyers in contempt of the court of public opinion blithely ignores the golden principle of access to justice. We should not shoot the messenger because we neither like the message nor the client he represents.”
The Attorney-General’s Chambers (AGC) also issued a statement to highlight the need for both Hui Zhen and Hak Chuan to be treated “fairly”.
“We understand why the public was shocked and moved by Annie’s suffering and the nature and circumstances of her tragic death,” it said. “However, the integrity of the legal system requires that all parties, including the accused, are treated fairly and that cases are prosecuted and decided strictly in accordance with the law and the evidence.”
Despite having had to deal with such intense backlash, Josephus insisted he will continue to stand up for the underprivileged and those who need help, as he believes that everyone, regardless of their crime, deserves their day in court.
He credited his former mentor, the late Subhas Anandan, a prominent criminal lawyer in Singapore, for teaching him how to handle public criticism.
“Subhas was famous for handling such high-profile tragic cases of a similar nature, if not worse,” said Josephus.
“When I asked him how he felt about being criticised and condemned, to the point that he sometimes receives death threats, his advice was simple. He said, ‘just ignore it, because we’re doing the right thing’. I remember that lesson very well… he told me that we must be professionals. We are obliged to give our clients the best defence, but it doesn’t mean that we agree with what they did.
“It’s the same principle as being a doctor. Their first duty of a doctor is to preserve life, so they’ll do all they can to save your life, or provide you with treatment, regardless of your morals, your job, or your background.
“For us as well, our duty is to help our client, no matter who they are or what they did, to the best of our abilities. We’re not here to make a judgment call, morally or professionally, against my client or against people. That’s for the judges to do.”
Ironically, Josephus said he is encouraged to know that so many Singaporeans were outraged after learning about the details of the case.
He reasoned that this means Singaporeans here generally have “good hearts”, and that made them feel “righteous anger” over what happened.
“If nobody feels anything, then you we have reached a point of emotionless stagnancy, where nobody feels anything about a life that’s lost,” mused Josephus. “So, there is a silver lining to all this backlash, because I do feel heartened knowing that Singaporeans are a good bunch of people, and that our society is moving in the right direction.
“However, they must draw a distinction between righteous anger and blinded anger. It’s fine to be outraged, but express it in the right way.”