Mr Darren Tan with his proud parents - Mr Tan Chon Kiat and Madam Ong Ai Hock. The new lawyer changed the course of his life while he was behind bars. -- PHOTO: EDWARD TEO FOR THE SUNDAY TIMES
10 years in jail, now a lawyer
Darren Tan, 35, is finally a full-fledged lawyer.
He reached that milestone yesterday when he was called to the Bar during a mass ceremony at Nanyang Technological University.
It was a far cry from his shaky start in life when drugs and gang activities led to over 10 years behind bars and 19 strokes of the cane.
"This is the culmination of what I've been working towards for the last 10 years," he told The Sunday Times. "It's like waking up from a dream and finding out your dream has become reality."
His life of crime began at the age of 14, and he was in and out of prison for offences that included robbery and drug trafficking.
It was only when he was 25 and behind bars for the third time that his transformation took place. He found God, and decided to make something of himself.
He resumed his studies with help from the prisons programme, re-learnt English, a language he had forgotten, and aced his A levels, scoring four As and a B, including an A1 for General Paper. He was still in prison when he applied for law school, and became the first student with a criminal past to be admitted to the National University of Singapore law school.
Now, he has a job waiting for him. He did so well during his six-month practice training at TSMP Law Corporation that the firm has given him a permanent position as a commercial litigation and dispute resolution lawyer.
The firm's joint managing director, Mr Thio Shen Yi, said that while he had initially decided to take a chance on Mr Tan, it had only been a six-month risk.
"He still had to earn his job. And he has," said Mr Thio. "He is sincere; he has street smarts, maturity and EQ. You can see his transformation through his actions, and this resonated with us because we're very much a firm that believes in giving back to the community.
"If I had ever thought there was any risk of the firm's reputation being besmirched, I would not have taken him on."
Said Mr Tan: "This is my first real job. I enjoy what I'm doing and the bonus is I get paid for it. I'm learning new things every day."
He spends long hours at work, but tries to leave early every Monday. He and former inmate Kim Whye Kee, an artist, have set up an outreach initiative, Beacon of Life, based in Taman Jurong, to help at-risk boys and youths. On Monday and Saturday nights, they play football.
Mr Tan dined with Britain's Prince Edward in a 16th-century castle earlier this year, when he was invited there to speak about the National Youth Achievement Award which he has received, and how its programmes could benefit others.
Mr Thio is hoping to rope in Mr Tan to work on the Yellow Ribbon Project to help former prisoners, a scheme which his firm supports.
"He will be able to give us direct insight into where the need is greatest," he said.
The Singapore Academy of Law, which has supported the Yellow Ribbon Fund since 2011, is in talks with Mr Tan to be part of its upcoming corporate social responsibility programme, which aims to get more in the legal fraternity to join forces to help former offenders.
An only child, Mr Tan has a girlfriend and lives with his parents in a four-room flat in Jurong West.
With a steady pay cheque, he can finally help with family expenses and has promised to take his parents and godfather on a cruise.
His father, Mr Tan Chon Kiat, 67, who does not work, and mother, Madam Ong Ai Hock, 62, a production operator, could not be prouder.
Said Madam Ong: "I didn't think he would have these opportunities but he has changed his own future. I used to be very worried for him, but now I'm very happy.
"It goes to show that if you work hard, the past is the past."
Looking forward, her son said: "I have a mantra of sorts - 'Be good in what I do and do good with what I do'. I used to take drugs because there was a void in my heart and my life. Now, I have something to get hooked on apart from drugs. My life is a good enough substitute."
By Chang Ai-lien Straits Times/Asia News Network Sun Aug 24 2014
Once in jail, but he's now a law grad
For the first three years in law school, Mr Darren Tan kept to himself.
Now he wishes he hadn't.
The 35-year-old, one of over 10,000 to graduate from the National University of Singapore this year, was afraid that he would not be accepted because of the more than 10 years he spent in jail for drug and gang-related offences.
But last July, he told his story to the media. "After I went public, I received messages of support from my classmates," said Mr Tan, who will receive his law degree on Thursday.
He has secured a practice training contract with TSMP Law Corporation, but hopes to continue helping lawyers with pro bono work.
Fellow graduand Chua Koon Ting, the first polytechnic student to enter the Faculty of Dentistry, also said that he was not treated differently by fellow students.
"What I learnt is that in university, no one cares where you came from, it's in the past," said the former Singapore Polytechnic student, 27, who is now practising at the National Healthcare Group Polyclinics.
This year, 10,282 will be graduating from NUS. They will include the first graduates from five programmes, including the master of Social Work and Public Health doctorate.
President Tony Tan Keng Yam presided over the main commencement ceremony yesterday, in which 160 students from the University Scholars Programme received their scrolls.
One of them was valedictorian Ow Yeong Wai Kit, 25, who received first class honours in English literature.
He will be heading to University College London to do a masters in literature on a Ministry of Education scholarship.
"It's not so much about whether one has a degree. What's more important is that we have certain intangible skills that can be used regardless of one's vocation, such as a sense of curiosity," he told reporters.
The ceremony was also attended by Education Minister Heng Swee Keat. During his address yesterday, NUS President Tan Chorh Chuan spoke about former Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew, who last month received an honorary Doctor of Laws from NUS.
Said Prof Tan: "The qualities and values he exemplifies, and in particular, his deep sense of purpose, these serve as a powerful beacon not just for all of us in NUS, but for the broader community in Singapore and beyond."
By Stacey Chia, Debbie Lee The Straits Times/Asia News Network, Friday, Jul 12, 2013
CJ advises new lawyers to do criminal, family law
SINGAPORE - Singapore's newest lawyers have been urged to begin their careers in family and criminal law to hone their skills, instead of heading straight for corporate law, which is getting more competitive than ever.
The legal community yesterday welcomed 430 newly appointed advocates and solicitors at this year's mass call to the Bar, up from 411 last year and 363 the year before.
The expansion in the number of lawyers means the newcomers will enter a market where the generous salary packages and multiple job offers their predecessors enjoyed will be harder to come by, said Chief Justice Sundaresh Menon.
This is also because other major legal centres around the world, such as New York and London, are cutting back in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis, he added.
A week ago, Law Minister K. Shanmugam highlighted how Singapore could face a glut in supply of lawyers in the next three years as more aspiring lawyers pursue a law degree here and overseas.
During yesterday's ceremony at Nanyang Technological University, the Chief Justice said the legal industry is adjusting from one of "undersupply" - when there were more jobs than law graduates - to one where supply and demand are more balanced now, especially in commercial law.
"This means that you will not be running with the wind to your back," he told the new lawyers hoping to enter corporate and commercial practice. Instead, they can expect "more competition, fewer guarantees and less room for negotiation". This is a trend that is happening not only in Singapore.
After a period of sustained growth in New York and London "in the later decades of the 20th century", the pace of recruitment there has slowed down.
Singapore, which benchmarks lawyers' salaries with those paid by New York and London firms, is no exception to these market forces, especially given how "we also compete in a South-east Asian market where starting salaries are generally lower". Instead the Chief Justice challenged the new lawyers to take the plunge into family and criminal law - where there is a shortage - and cut their teeth there.
While he admitted that there may be a "good deal less glamour" in these areas of the law, there is no better place than community law for young lawyers to get into the thick of the action, said the Chief Justice.
New lawyers The Sunday Times spoke to said while the market may be getting tighter now, it is their juniors who will feel the pinch. Mr Asik Ali Sadayan, 26, a Singapore Management University graduate, said: "My juniors have told me that it has become a lot harder to get training contracts.
It was easier for my batch and we did not feel the competition as much." Every year, about 400 local law graduates, along with a growing number of foreign-educated ones, apply for about 500 training contracts offered by law firms.
The six-month contract gives would-be lawyers the real world training they are required to complete before they are called to the Bar. In his speech yesterday, Law Society of Singapore president Lok Vi Ming said his organisation is considering various initiatives to ensure that every graduate eligible for a training contract will get it.
Other new lawyers told The Sunday Times that they had their hearts set on corporate law, and would prefer to give back to society through pro-bono work - something the Chief Justice said was important for lawyers to be involved in.
Not only does such work keep lawyers connected to the community, it also helps them to avoid thinking that their worth is reflected by how much they bill and little else.
Sources: The Straits Times/Asia News Network Sun Aug 24 2014