23 September 2017
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From behind bars to being called to the bar

14 Sep 2017
Rebecca Liew

The ex-convict who became one of the leading young lights on the local legal scene

From drug trafficking and consumption, sniffing glue and selling pirated VCDs to collecting protection money and illegal gambling, 38-year-old Darren Tan Tho Eng has had his run-ins with the law. But you wouldn’t guess it now: In 2016, Mr Tan was named one of Singapore’s 70 most influential lawyers under the age of 40 by the Singapore Business Review.


Mr Tan’s teen years were largely marked by drug abuse. These recurring offences would see him receive over 10 years’ imprisonment and 19 strokes of the cane over three occasions, starting with two years in the Reformative Training Centre when he was 18.

It was only after his third conviction – at the age of 23 – that he had an epiphany.

“While in solitary confinement in a punishment cell in a maximum-security prison, I came to the realisation that my life had, up to that point, been devoid of purpose. I saw no hope and meaning in leading the same life,” he shared.

“Then came the anger with my current state that cemented my desire and motivation to turn my life around. Once that decision was made, I became almost fanatical about changing my habits to pursue my goal.”


Fuelled by that resolve, Mr Tan resumed his studies while behind bars to work towards his childhood dream of practising law. Shortly after scoring 4 As and a B for his A Levels, he applied to the National University of Singapore (NUS) Law School against the advice of family and friends. As serendipity would have it, he impressed the two law dons who interviewed him and became the first student with a criminal past to read law at NUS.

But upon his release from prison, he first had to grapple with integrating back into society.

“The biggest challenge was dealing with the acute sense of loneliness from giving up things that were familiar and reassuring to me, as well as the fear of uncertainty from having to embrace a new order.”

He said: “I had to adapt quickly to the new environment – Law School, in this case – by making new friends, learning to [send] emails and adopting English as my chief mode of communication, since I spoke in mainly Malay or dialects like Hokkien and Teochew while in prison. At the same time, I was anxious about my new beginning and what it had in store for me.”


"Adversity is a great teacher. It’s usually at our lowest points that we find meaning and hope, which affords us the strength to climb back up." – Mr Darren Tan, commercial litigator at TSMP Law Corporation

Today, Mr Tan is a commercial litigator at TSMP Law Corporation. Giving back to those in need remains his priority: He volunteers as a defence counsel in Criminal Legal Aid Scheme-assigned cases and undertakes pro bono civil cases from the Pro Bono Services Office of the Law Society of Singapore – such as representing destitute foreign workers in wage claims against their employers.

He also sits on the board of the charity, Tasek Jurong, which supplements seed money to social enterprises that employ marginalised communities, such as at-risk youth and single parents.

Having sat on the CSR Sub-Committee of the Singapore Academy of Law since 2015 to raise awareness – and funds – for the YRF SAL-STAR Bursary, of which he was a former recipient, Mr Tan also works with at-risk youth and ex-inmates through the Yellow Ribbon Community Project. Then, there’s Beacon of Life, a self-help group under Tasek Jurong. Co-founded by Mr Tan and a fellow ex-offender, it offers transitional support services to ex-inmates following their release from prisons.

From life behind bars to being called to the bar, Mr Tan pushed boundaries despite his seemingly inescapable predicament – an embodiment of the 'Made of More' spirit that Guinness celebrates.

“Adversity is a great teacher,” he maintained. “It’s usually at our lowest points that we find meaning and hope, which affords us the strength to climb back up.”

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