Criminal lawyer Josephus Tan is probably as well known for his pro-bono work and other philanthropic endeavours as he is for his famous flowing locks and facial hair.
The legal rockstar believes in using his knowledge of the law to help others, and to date, his outreach projects in schools and various organisations have seen him reaching an audience of more than 100,000 and taken him to Jakarta and Brunei. But try not to call him an influencer, like I did.
“Influencer?” he winced. “ I can’t get my head around that word,” he said, frowning magnificently. He thinks one shouldn’t call oneself an influencer if one has not shown or done anything to show that one has reached the level of changing lives. Going by that, Josephus would make a “legit” influencer, but he wouldn’t wear the tag comfortably.
“It’s not about me. It’s not about my ego. It is about my mission and I am really just a messenger,” explained the 38-year-old lawyer.
His appearance, in a way, has helped him connect with youngsters, but it is perhaps his attitude that strengthens this bond.
“When I talk to these students, I don’t go there to talk down to them,” said Josephus. “I tell them, I am just like you, just a little older.”
That rockstar image of his is a relic of his wayward youth – he admitted to being a hell-raiser when he was younger. Heavily influenced by rock music and taking it to the extreme with drugs and alcohol, he described his life then as purposeless. Then came the turning point.
“One night when I was heavily intoxicated, I wanted to throw my then girlfriend off the balcony on the 23rd storey, and then throw myself over,” he said. That was when his father stepped in to administer the two prodigious slaps to his face.
“He pulled me from the balcony and gave me two tight slaps,” said Josephus. That got his attention. And what his father told him has stayed with him over the years.
“He said, ‘Do something kind. Don’t do it for anyone. Don’t do it for your family. Do it for yourself. Be kind to yourself. And if you think that doesn’t work, then go back to your ways. Spend the rest of your life in prison. Or go kill yourself’,” said Josephus.
His dad was a former gangster with tattoos all over his body. He was uneducated and worked as a security officer.
“We communicated in Hokkien, bad Mandarin and broken English, but on that night, he spoke from a different source. We communicated at a different level,” said Josephus.
Those poignant words of his father led to a journey of recovery and self-discovery.
“I told myself, let’s give this a shot.”
He stopped stealing his parents’ money, stopped his alcohol abuse and began his quest for a purpose in life.
“I felt like a prodigal son, and I wanted to live my life like a normal person, to start all over again.”
So at the age of 22, Josephus created a regimen for himself: He woke up in the mornings, brushed his teeth, washed up and read the papers. These were ordinary things that normal people did, but he needed the sense of order in his chaotic life.
“Most of the time I was drunk; there was no sense of time. No sense of urgency or purpose. So I created some order in my life by means of a routine and faithfully kept at it,” he explained.
Which led us to what Josephus described as “the magic question”: How did an Ah Beng who had done badly in school end up becoming a lawyer?
“Even though I was so wayward in my youth, I somehow developed the habit of reading at a young age. I would read all sorts of things, and newspapers.”
And while reading the papers one day, he came across what he thought was an interesting ad: It was from a private school offering a diploma in law from the University of London.
“I considered going back to school, but another part of me told me that I was just kidding myself,” said Josephus. So he tried to dismiss the thought and resumed his life of washing toilets, driving people around and doing office renovations. But the thought wouldn’t go away.
“I finally plucked up the courage and told my parents that I wanted to pursue this diploma course.”
But money was a problem. The fees for the year-long course would set him back $8,000, and he had no means of paying it with the jobs he was doing. Also, his parents lacked the savings to finance him. So his mother took a loan from his aunt, who was, at first, unwilling to part with the cash.
“She told my parents to write me off. I was the second of three sons, and my aunt said to my parents that it was good enough that they had two good sons,” said Josephus. But something his mother told his aunt changed her mind.
“My mom said that they had nothing much to leave for their children when they passed on, and the best thing they could leave them was education.” That touched his aunt’s heart, she released the necessary funds, and Josephus got his diploma.
“I didn’t do very well, but my calling and my ambition became stronger when I got the diploma. I felt I could take this further. I thought I had a shot at being a lawyer.”
He told his parents. And they laughed.
“I laughed, too, because come to think about it, it was quite funny,” he conceded. ‘I remember my parents saying that such a dream is beyond people like us. I asked them what they meant.”
His parents said that poor people will never dream a dream like this – of becoming a lawyer.
“They told me, you have your diploma, get on with your life. Get a normal office job, Get a good wife. Apply for HDB flat. And be just like any ordinary Singaporean. Be a decent guy. Don’t think beyond what you can do,” he said.
Those words awakened the rebel in him and made him even more determined to pursue the unattainable dream.
“Having that rebellious nature, I recognised a challenge when I saw it.”
His parents saw that he was serious and advised him to approach the banks for a student loan, and he managed to secure one that let him pay off after he graduated. With the loan as well as more money borrowed from his aunt and all of his parents’ savings, “including their coffin money, so to speak”, Josephus enrolled for a law degree at the University of Southampton.
The loans covered tuition fees and accommodation, but he still had to work for his living expenses.
“I worked as a university tour guide on open house days, sold food and emptied the trash. They were humble jobs, but I was driven to get that degree,” said Josephus.
Such was his time in England. In the final year, he was filled with anxiety and worry.
He feared he would not graduate. He even considered killing himself if he didn’t. Then one night, while taking a walk on a quiet street, he chanced upon a church. Its doors were open. He entered, sat at the altar, and pondered.
“At that time I was godless. I did not know what God was. But I made a promise: I said, if there’s a God, whoever is hearing this, let me pass the exam. Let me get a degree and I will dedicate my life to doing your work for the good of mankind,” he said.
“That might sound like something straight out of a Hollywood movie but it rings true for me till today,” he said.
At that time, he needed to graduate with a second upper in order to practise in Singapore, and he knew that he had done badly in one subject, which would relegate his degree to a second lower.
“I still remember the director for international student affairs calling me into her office on the day I collected my results. I did not even have the guts to look at the results. But she actually took the slip and opened it in front of me and said, congratulations, Joe, you made it. And gave me a hug.”
He had indeed failed by just a few marks in one subject, but was told that the board of examiners had deliberated and upon their discretion, decided not to penalise him because he had done well in the other subjects. He had graduated with a second upper, and was on his way to becoming a lawyer in Singapore.
“All these things happening in my life made it hard for me to believe that these things were pure coincidence. It made me believe my life was meant for something else,” said Josephus.
He went on to obtain a graduate diploma at the National University of Singapore and had a stint as a pupil with the late Subhas Anandan.
Two years after returning from England, he was called to the bar on May 18, 2009 at the age of 30.
Now, after completing more than a million dollars worth of pro-bono work and forgoing his chance to own a Lamborghini, helping more than 200 people (I’ve lost count of exactly how many, he said), giving regular talks at schools on matters of the law as well as motivating them in life, Josephus says he is getting poorer, even as his fame increases.
“The percentage of pro-bono work I did started at 30 per cent, but has since risen to 70 per cent, which is why I am getting poorer,” he explained.
He has even joined the People’s Action Party, in the view that if he became a politician, he could help many more people than what he is doing now.
“As a politician, you formulate policy, and with one good policy you can affect millions as opposed to what I am doing now, which is one at a time,” he explained. Which is still good work, he insisted.
He was close to being fielded as a candidate in the last general election but had to pull out just two months before due to personal reasons, he said. During interviews where his candidacy for the election was being considered, he was asked if he would remove his tattoos.
“No,” he said. Among his tattoos are a pair on his arms which he had done in Phuket shortly after his father passed away four years ago.
“I was looking up to the sky, thinking that I had not earned enough to give my father a comfortable life, telling God that I wanted to end my pro-bono work, when I saw two rainbows arching over the sky and descending into the sea. I had been listening to the Italian song Nella Fantasia, and I had some of the lyrics tattooed on my arms in memory of my father. When translated, they read, I dream of souls that are always free, like clouds they soar, full of humanity in the depths of the soul,” he explained.
Those tattoos are a reminder for him of his late father, and what he had done, so removing them was out of the question.
“My father gave me two slaps that saved my life, so that I can help save the lives of others now.”