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An ex-rebel with a cause

Andrea Oh
Andrea Oh

Published: 14 July 2015, 1:07 PM

We had a chat with lawyer Josephus Tan about empowering youths, moving on from one’s past, and the value of second chances.

TV shows often depict lawyers as jet-setters with six-figure salaries (think Harvey Specter from Suits). However, rather than chasing high status or money, Josephus Tan is on a mission to give back to society.

His journey to becoming a lawyer was an unusual one. Having struggled with a drinking problem in his youth, the ex-delinquent is now one of Singapore’s most prominent lawyers.

Josephus has never forgotten the lessons learnt from his past mistakes, and dedicates much of his time to pro bono cases.

His generosity and fervour have not gone unnoticed. Josephus, a recipient of this year’s Singapore Youth Award (SYA) that acknowledges youth excellence in all forms, also chairs many community projects that provide legal and financial support to underprivileged youths.

A charismatic speaker, his straightforward personality was plain to see during his acceptance speech at the SYA Presentation Ceremony last Sunday.


“First of all, let me just say that I have not actually prepared a speech,” Josephus stated candidly, which got a few chuckles from the audience.

“I never learned to write an acceptance speech,” he continued. “I never thought that such an occasion would be within my reach.”

The SYA recipient then shared about an incident which he credits as the turning point in his life. “I was drunk and tried to throw my girlfriend off a balcony, but luckily, my father wrestled me to the ground,” the 35-year-old recounted. “He said to me: boy, you have always been so bad. Have you ever tried to be good?”

From then, Josephus vowed to turn his life around. His personal history has inspired him to provide second chances for youths in need of a fresh start.

We met with Josephus at the SYA Presentation Ceremony last Sunday to learn about his experiences working with youths.

“I grew up with a checkered past, and it shapes the way I interact with young people; the way I fight my cases in court,” Josephus said.

“Many of these people that I defend and reach out to are boys and girls from my kind of ‘hood’, to use a colloquial description,” he continued. “So I inject a lot of heart and passion into defending them because I know what it is like when you have nobody to turn to, or no purpose in life.”

His passion for nurturing youths was apparent throughout our chat. Josephus cited the rewarding nature of his work as his main motivation.

“Whenever I give a talk and they roar with laughter, or when they giggle as you ask them a question – you can see the innocence of youth in their eyes; that immense potential,” he said with obvious pride. “That spark in their eyes is enough to keep me going.”


Josephus also shared his secret to understanding and reaching out to youths. “The most important thing is to be real,” he advised, staying true to his plain-speaking demeanour. “Young people are smart and know when to call your bluff. When you approach them, never talk down to them; speak to them as peers.”

Helming so many projects and commitments is no mean feat. However, the thought of taking a break has never crossed Josephus’s mind. In fact, he aims to reach out to even more youths with each passing year.

When asked if he ever gets overwhelmed by his work, Josephus answered without hesitation.

“I’ve been asked this question many times, and I always say no, because my job is no longer a job – it is a mission,” said Josephus. “With missions, there is no end point.”

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