Inspiration to us all: Ex-gangster wants to inspire the young

While in jail, Mr Darren Tan decided to turn his life around and study hard to realise his childhood dream of becoming a lawyer.
While in jail, Mr Darren Tan decided to turn his life around and study hard to realise his childhood dream of becoming a lawyer.ST PHOTO: KEVIN LIM

Growing up, Mr Darren Tan wanted to be a gangster or a lawyer.

The Hong Kong TV dramas he grew up on usually revolved around one or the other. "I chose the easier way out," the one-time gangster recalled ruefully.

Involved in gang activities since he was 13, he took to drugs and violence, which earned him 10 years in jail and 19 strokes of the cane.

An epiphany in prison inspired him to pursue his other childhood dream, which saw him called to the Bar last August. Now 36, he has been a fully fledged lawyer for almost a year at TSMP Law Corp.

While in prison, at 23, he was locked up in a maximum-security cell after having fought with another inmate, and he began to question the point of his existence.


He describes the cell: "The walls are black, and there is a lone yellow light shining very strongly, bouncing off the walls. You feel very stunned all the time, and you have no concept of day or night."

"All my friends were in prison, on the run, or dead. I told myself that, even if I died there, nobody would care."


For the first time, he prayed to God for a chance to turn his life around. He took up his studies once more through the prisons programme, and aced his A levels.

"I enjoyed studying, which became something of an obsession," he said. The lack of distractions in prison helped him focus.

While in jail, he became the first student with a criminal past to be admitted to the National University of Singapore law school.

He now works 14 to 16 hours a day handling commercial litigation and dispute-resolution cases, but he still makes time for others.

He makes it a point to take on pro bono cases, and answers calls from strangers seeking legal advice. They can range from former offenders to bankrupts to people trying to get divorces.

Said Mr Tan: "I always call them back. I know what it's like to feel helpless and need someone to talk to. Even if there is no case, they just want to tell their stories."

He works with at-risk youth and former offenders as a volunteer for initiatives such as Beacon of Life, which he co-founded, as well as the Yellow Ribbon Project.

He recently became director of Tasek Jurong, a new non-profit group that provides seed money for social enterprises employing marginalised communities and funds education for needy kids.

He hopes to be a role model for the youngsters he works with. He wants to give them hope, showing them that "someone like them" was able to follow his dream.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 13, 2015, with the headline 'Ex-gangster wants to inspire the young'. Print Edition | Subscribe