I made it to NUS law school after spending 10 years behind bars. I was 31, but not too late.

Darren Tan, now 42, reflects on his life in university straight out of prison.

Mothership | June 05, 2021, 09:19 AM

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Darren Tan, 42, believes he is the first student with such a long string of criminal convictions to be admitted to NUS law school.

He spent 10 years behind bars, studied for his A-Levels in prison and eventually enrolled in the National University of Singapore’s Faculty of Law at the age of 31 straight out of prison. He is now a civil litigation lawyer and also takes on pro-bono cases.

During his time in NUS, he co-founded several social initiatives, which he continues to oversee through his directorship in Tasek Jurong Limited, a charity with IPC status.

You can read Mothership’s interview with Darren Tan here, and listen to the podcast episode here.

As told to Mothership

When I was offered a place to read law in NUS, a lot of well-meaning people actually dissuaded me from doing it. They said things like, why set yourself up for disappointment? Even a lawyer who was a volunteer in one of the religious groups told me that it was impossible, writ the legal profession act.

Surprisingly it was my fellow inmates who were really rooting for me, saying I should do it, no matter what.

By the time you started school, I’m sure you realised that the world out there was very different from the world you left behind 10 years ago. How'd it feel being a 30 year old in school, with people who were much younger than you and with far less life experience?

I was much older than my peers, on a different wavelength, probably with a different upbringing and social status. Even simple things, like the songs they listen to and how they dress, were just different.

A large part of it is also my own issue — I set up a barrier around myself. I didn't want to interact a lot with my peers because I didn't want them to question me about my age and my background, I also didn't want to put myself in a position where I had to lie to them.

I wanted people to know me first before they prejudged me.

And for the first few months in school, for my breaks, I would go to the Botanic Gardens, which is just beside my school. I will sit alone, waiting for my class. I didn't really make friends until some months later.

I didn't have a laptop, or textbooks. I was using pen and paper.

I just didn't fit in that kind of environment. I never never had an email address or used email, prior to law school. Suddenly, [for me] it became the primary mode of communication. That created a lot of uncertainty for me as well.

And how did you deal with all these differences?

I just continued to go at it. I used to have a mantra in prison: I just need to be better today than yesterday. And I always had this idea that things will always get better. That actually got me through a lot of things, whether it was law school, or my first few years of practice.

People can be open-minded but if you don’t even give yourself a chance, then you will never know. It can be a hi-bye thing initially, or a lunch. Over time, you just forge bonds with your peers.

Not that I was the most sociable person in law school. But we all have to start somewhere!

Eventually, I forged a lot of long-term friendships in law school. I still stay in close contact with them, even up to today.

Did you also work part-time while studying?

Yeah, I was a writer and a computer programmer. (Computer programming) was something that I picked up in prison actually, which really equipped me to be able to earn a living while studying, and it pays well! Coding probably pays better than tuition.

So yes, a part of my time in law school was actually spent on work.

I was very fortunate — there was a donor who paid for my tuition fees. They are so kind and big hearted. I just want to show my appreciation to them.

How did it feel when you finally graduated?

Relief! But my biggest fear was whether I would be eventually called to the Singapore Bar. Because graduating with a law degree does not necessarily mean I would be called to the Bar. I was very relieved that I graduated but as always, this sense of uncertainty.

Unlike my peers, it’s not a matter of course for me. Even a few weeks before the call date, we were supposed to file certain papers. I was asked to file a supplementary affidavit detailing my criminal convictions, which didn’t happen to any other applicants.

There was a commissioner, who was a very senior lawyer, who said that that was the first time he was reading something like that. He asked me to be prepared that I might not be called to the Bar. Coming from a very senior lawyer, that made me feel even more uneasy.

In Letters Of The Law, a collection of letters written by authors in the legal industry, Tan wrote a letter addressed to his younger self in the first month of law school.

We have reproduced his letter here. To read the other letters, you can purchase a copy of the anthology here.

By Darren Tan

Dear Darren,

You are feeling very lost now, and understandably so. You wrestle daily with your thoughts and they are many.

You wish you had not missed the Orientation. You see your peers neatly categorised into their orientation groups or old schools' clubs and you wish you could also find something in common with your peers.

You sit at the first row of the lecture theatre, as you cannot muster enough confidence to walk any further than that; you pick the least conspicuous spot in the seminar room, far away from the crowd.

You are conscious that someone will question why you do not have a laptop or textbooks. What will you say then – that you cannot afford them just yet? Will that make you appear even weirder than you already are?

Worse still, will they ever find out that you are an ex-convict? You imagine the mockery that awaits: a law-breaker studying law!

So many well-meaning people had forewarned you about embarking on this path: “you are setting yourself up for disappointment”, “you can never be a lawyer”, “go study something else”, “society is not ready” – you remember their warnings as clear as day.

I wish I can reveal to you now what the future holds for you – how I wished someone could have told me the same!

You probably can’t imagine this now, but in a few years' time you will make more friends in school than you could expect, and many of these friendships will last beyond Law School. Your peers are not unfriendly – they are just as lost as you are and merely putting up a front as they fight their own battles every day. So stop making the Botanic Gardens your refuge during break times.

You will be pleasantly surprised to learn that your journey could be an inspiration to others like you in time to come. So stop being ashamed of your past: embrace it and employ it for the benefit of others.

You will be disappointed with your first-year grades and you will blame it on juggling work and studies at the same time. What you may not appreciate now is that a robust spirit goes a longer way than grades in law practice. So continue to do what you need to do to survive – the payoff comes much later.

Oh. And you may just want to know that your being called to the Bar would be rather uneventful.


Yourself with plenty of hindsight

Top photo courtesy of Darren Tan.