If you judged him by his appearance, you might never guess Josephus Tan’s actual profession. You might think him a model for hair products with his long silky locks (he is now trying out Shiseido), or a creative, art director archetype who rules with his hipster tumbler from Starbucks.
But no, the man is a lawyer, and one who is no stranger to all the attention being heaped on him as the legal professional who committed himself to more pro bono cases than any other practising lawyer in Singapore—in his second year as a lawyer, he clocked over 1700 hours, which dwarfs the typical annual output of 10 annual hours of his contemporaries!
Over the years, Josephus Tan has gone in deep to help defend those whom many would deem as indefensible—from murderers to youth delinquents—and often at a great financial and social cost to himself.
Yet despite all the accolades and the pats on the back, the 39-year-old constantly downplays his role in making the law accessible to the poor, the everyman and the condemned.
When I spoke to him, he repeatedly credited God for his current position, which he sees as a privilege and an opportunity to share his own testimony—and what a testimony it is of God who, like the widow who lost her coin, relentlessly and unceasingly searched for what belongs to Him.
Encountering Christ and the days of being wild
Josephus was a real-life prodigal son who made off with a part of his inheritance and lived the high life to return to his home, penniless and disgraced, but met halfway by an ecstatic father who proclaimed a dead son revived, a lost child found.
Josephus first encountered God at the age of 12 when he was introduced to the Singapore Youth for Christ (SYFC) by one Wilson Tan, who went on to be a mentor-figure for the young boy. Under Wilson’s guidance, Josephus was involved in the various evangelistic activities of SYFC that included going out to the people on the streets to proclaim the Gospel to them.
Wilson played an important role in getting young Josephus to attend Fairfield Methodist Church (a church that Josephus still attends to this day) and him being baptised at the age of 16. At the time, everything seemed to be smooth-sailing for the young Josephus where his walk with the Lord was concerned.
However, things took a dramatic 180-degree turn one day after Josephus had a random conversation with a friend who just returned from a church camp. The friend, having felt the presence of the Holy Spirit during the camp, excitedly asked Josephus if he had ever felt the same.
The question would propel Josephus into one of his darkest periods in his life. He looked deep into himself and realised that, unlike that friend, he had never felt that sort of spiritual connection with the Lord even having been involved in church all those years. If this was not what he was called for, then what else could it be? What was he to do with his life? What was he actually good for? He felt a sense of abject meaninglessness and a loss of purpose.
For about four years after that, Josephus, revelled in all manners of destructive behaviour, indulging in drugs, booze, gang activities and sex in order to find an answer to his existential crisis and as a desperate attempt to connect to something, anything. He found pride in being fearless and godless, and his identity in Christ was slowly eroding away.
Josephus admitted during the interview that, unbeknownst to even himself at the time, he was crying out to God in a very illogical manner.
Things came to head when he found himself almost throwing his girlfriend off the balcony of his flat in an inebriated rage—a common occurrence whenever Josephus took to the bottles or his numerous dalliances with substances. In an attempt to stop his son, Josephus’ father gave him two tight slaps.
After Josephus’ head had cleared, his dad sat him down and asked him, in Hokkien, if he had considered doing anything meaningful for himself. Since Josephus had gone on over to the deep and dark end over the years, had he ever thought to try the other side?
“If you knew my dad, you would understand that this was entirely out of his character,” recounted Josephus. “He was lowly educated and a former gangster himself. He had never talked with me like that. Looking back, I believe God was using him to reach out to me.”
Ashamed and aghast that he had allowed himself to become an alcoholic and a substance abuser, Josephus remembered his previous relationship with God and called out a short but heartfelt prayer to Him a few days after the talk he had had with his father. This was the first time in almost half a decade he prayed since he had walked away from church.
“Before this, God was not real to me. I mean, I had not been touched by Him in the way my church friends had been back then. That was why I spiralled downwards—I couldn’t feel God in my life. At that moment, however, I simply told Him that if He were real, then He could take away my pain and let me start afresh,” recalled Josephus.
Immediately after the prayer, Josephus felt much lighter, as if a load had been lifted from his shoulders and chest. In the following days and weeks, Josephus made himself adhere to a strict daily routine where he would rise early, wash up and read the newspapers—everyday activities that most take for granted. He also began to seek work, busying himself with various odd jobs.
But God had a bigger plan for Josephus.
One day, a University of London ad about a Diploma in Law course caught Josephus’ eye. However, he figured that such an education would be impossible for an individual like himself, who had never done very well in school. However, he kept thinking about the ad over the next few days. Convinced that this was a path that was laid before him, by God, Josephus approached his parents for help.
At first, his parents laughed him off but Josephus managed to convince them that he was serious about pursuing the diploma. After some initial resistance from an aunt, a former teacher who thought very little of Josephus’ chances in school, Josephus’ mother managed to secure a loan of $8,000 from her.
“My mother asked my aunt to give me a chance, as a proper education was the only way for a person from a poor family like mine to break out of our rut,” said Josephus. “After a year, I managed to minimally pass the diploma course, which to us was a fantastic result! Back when I was in school, I was consistently failing and had not touched a book until the diploma course!”
Encouraged by this success and feeling a prompting in his heart, Josephus decided to pursue a law degree. Once again, his family was incredulous. Josephus, then 24, called up the local university to try for a placement in their law faculty, but they did not recognise his diploma.
Unperturbed, Josephus knew that the way he could become a lawyer was by obtaining his degree overseas. He secured a study loan and, in 2004, began reading Law at the University of Southampton in the UK.
The Lord’s favour in the UK
It was not an easy life for the young aspiring lawyer in a foreign environment. Many times, while his classmates (most of whom were from privileged backgrounds) were out partying or going on holidays during term breaks, Josephus would either be studying or working numerous part-time jobs in order to cover his living expenses. He could afford to go home only once a year.
During the third and final year of his university education, Josephus hit a wall in one of his modules—Family Law, which would constantly be a thorn at his side. Try as he might, he just could not pass the subject.
In the early 2000s, graduates from foreign universities needed to possess at least a Second Class (Upper Division) Honours degree in order to be called to the Bar in Singapore. It was the university’s policy that final year undergraduates had to pass all subjects in order to be awarded a Second Upper. For Josephus, the dream of becoming a lawyer back home hinged on his passing of Family Law, a subject he had constantly found difficult, and he would not be allowed to retake it if he failed. It was, in Josephus’ words, “a ‘do or die’ mission”.
On the day he had to sit for the Family Law examination, he was walking along the streets when he chanced upon a small old church located ironically next to a lottery centre. Feeling that he needed God’s peace, he entered the church to pray.
“I told God, ‘Look, You’ve brought me this far. You have to help me pass this subject or the journey ends here,’” recalled Josephus. “I made a promise to God at that moment that if He helped me through this trial, I would spend the rest of my life being His testimony.”
Josephus still failed the paper. But what happened afterwards went beyond even his wildest expectations.
“I was called in by the Director of Student Affairs soon after the result slips were distributed. I didn’t dare open it because I knew for sure I had failed Family Law,” said Josephus.
“When I came to see [the Director], she gave me a hug. […] She then said matter-of-factly, ‘You failed [Family Law], but you will still get your Second Upper.’”
As it turned out, before the results were announced, the Board of Examiners had decided, despite his final year results, to award Josephus the Second Class Upper Honours degree because of his positive consistent academic performance!
God had clearly given Josephus no room to doubt that this was an outcome that was influenced by His Hand. Should He have granted Josephus his prayer directly and let him pass his Family Law paper, he could have reason to think that he had done so of his own ability.
Jason Woo is Methodist Message’s Editorial Executive. When not working on the latest articles, he enjoys long jogs and cuddling up with his cats along with a good book.
Photos courtesy of Josephus Tan