After four years in maximum-security prison, Darren Tan spoke so much Malay and Hokkien to fellow inmates that he lost his facility to speak English.
Now 34, he admits that no one he knew could possibly have guessed that almost a decade on, he would be studying to be a lawyer at the National University of Singapore (NUS).
An only child, Tan showed potential success in Singapore’s education system when he scored three As and one A* in his Primary School Leaving Examination.
He describes himself as a “latchkey kid”, however, saying he experienced a lonely childhood as both his parents had jobs.
“I spent my time on the streets a lot,” he tells Yahoo! Singapore in a candid interview. “I think the culture then was such that it’s like a natural progression — in secondary school, you get involved in gang-related activity. I don’t think it’s the case now, but I think that’s how it was back then.”
He said the gang of friends he hung out with was a large group of more than 10 people, all of whom he grew up with living in the western part of Singapore, where he still stays today.
A wayward youth
Gang life for Tan was everything your tattoo-ridden, beer-drinking uncle could have told you about in the past — fighting, extortion, dabbling in an array of drugs — you name it.
His first experience with drugs was a sneak of marijuana when he was 14, stolen from the drawer of his friend’s brother. Tan and his friends then moved on to sniffing glue and popping sleeping pills, which he says were both very easily obtainable — in particular glue because it was cheaper, and at the time one did not need to register when buying it.
“(We did it) to get high, and to outdo each other — I think to show who was more daring,” he said. “(Drugs were) actually quite prevalent,” he added, explaining that one simply had to ask around, find out who was selling it or if anyone had a contact, in order to get some.
He was also first arrested at that age, on charges of rioting, but those were dropped and he was released after one night because the police lacked sufficient evidence.
“After my first police lockup, my mother was very concerned so she tried to impose some restrictions on my freedom… and then I think it just got worse from there,” he said.
To his principal’s surprise, Tan scraped through his ‘O’ Levels with a respectable 20 points for his best six subjects even though he “didn’t go to school much”, and secured a spot in the electronics, computer and communications engineering course at Singapore Polytechnic.
He soon stopped going home, however, and lived the proverbial nomadic life with his friends, staying either in hotels in Geylang and Joo Chiat, or at other people’s houses.
They paid their way dealing in drugs, extortion and robbery. “We didn’t really share it; we just used it up. It’s a very communitarian lifestyle,” he added.
Naturally, school had once again fallen by the wayside for Tan, and he dropped out from his polytechnic course after skipping too many classes.
Tan says he can’t remember how many times he was arrested in all, but he was detained three times — amounting to some 10 years and eight months of prison time altogether. The first two of these were spent in a reformative training centre, a sort of “middle ground” between Boys’ Home and prison, as he was 18 years old at the time.
By the time he was put behind bars in 2000 for his second sentence, Tan was 21, and he had in his words “graduated” to Ice, after taking and dealing in a host of other drugs including ecstasy and erimin, a tranquiliser.
“It (Ice) was killing me,” he admitted. “I was very thin and malnourished (by then), and would have probably died if I wasn’t caught.”
Tan’s second sentence was his longest, spanning eight years, and though he was eventually released early, he had only been out of reformatory for 11 months when he was caught for trafficking, possession and consumption of various drugs.
Tan’s jail sentences came with caning as well — and he was given a total of 19 strokes throughout his time there.
It was during his second sentence that he experienced what he describes as a “breakthrough” with himself.
“I was very disillusioned with my past, and by then I had seen enough of this circle to really want to disassociate myself from it,” he said.
When faced with four walls in his maximum security prison cell, Tan said he started to think more deeply about himself, his thoughts and his faith. It was then that he decided to make a change, and to work toward becoming a lawyer.
“I felt like God was asking me what I wanted to be, and I said ‘If you really are so great, you would make me a lawyer’, because back at that time if I had told anyone I wanted to be a lawyer I would've just been laughed at because I had nothing, I couldn't even speak English. And I felt peace after that. It was Him telling me he accepted my challenge and one day I would be a lawyer,” he recalled.
To regain his English-speaking ability, Tan put himself through a strict regime of reading English and Chinese newspapers every day, alongside books on topics ranging from food recipes to quantum mechanics.
He said he kept a dictionary beside him to check and remember the meanings of words he did not understand, and studied nuances in writing, as well as sentence and paragraph structures, but the use of the language became much clearer to him after he borrowed a book on grammar from the prison library.
Tan also joined the weekly toastmasters programme while in prison school, and became the president of the toastmasters chapter in prison, and practiced his spoken English further during a stint as a newscaster on an inmate-produced television news programme called News Behind Bars.
From there on out, Tan’s life unfolded in ways that one can only describe as amazing — taking the ‘A’ Levels after just nine months of intensive studying, scoring A, A, B, A1 in General Paper and A2 in Chinese, sitting for the NUS Law admission test and being interviewed in prison and gaining acceptance into the course in 2009.
The onset of more setbacks
All this, of course, did not come with its own set of challenges and setbacks. In the wake of his revelation of his new goal in life, Tan initially applied at least three times to go to prison school, in order to take the ‘A’ levels but was rejected partly because he was too early into his jail sentence to be shifted to prison school, which is located elsewhere, and partly for committing offences while in prison.
Tan explained that while in his first years in maximum security, he ran into a friend who had more or less told on him to the police, and ended up getting into a fight with him. That encounter delayed his entry into prison school, and even when he was finally approved for a transfer, Tan was placed into a two-year NITEC course in electronics, which further slowed him down.
Although Tan received his ‘A’ level results outside prison, he was arrested again about six months after his release when he got into trouble trying to help a friend who was in debt. This time, his jail sentence — for possession of erimin, as well as long-term imprisonment for being caught the third time for drug consumption — lasted five years, putting the brakes yet again on his entry to law school, although in his last year in the lockup, Tan was able to take his NUS Law admission test and interview.
From prison to the deep end
Even when he did start out in school, Tan said he felt like he was thrown into the deep end — lessons had started two weeks before he was released from prison, and he suspects he was the only student in his class who started classes sans a laptop and textbooks.
“I felt so lost in school. I was this guy sporting a weird hairstyle and wearing clothes from a long-forgotten era,” he said, adding that he was even asked on several occasions whether he was an exchange student from China.
He shared that during his first semester, he would make trips to the Botanic Gardens between classes and sit alone in the park, not making friends as he was conscious of his background, even relating an incident where he was not aware of a change in classroom venue (due to his limited access to email) and had to scour all the classrooms in the building to find it.
Things got better for Tan, though. His studies at NUS are currently being sponsored by the Yellow Ribbon Fund Star Bursary Programme, allowing him to take on less jobs on the side and focus on his schoolwork. He also found friends who reached out to him to sponsor his textbooks, his stationery, and guarantee his laptop loan, among other things he needed for school.
More challenges ahead
Now on the cusp of his final year, Tan has secured his practice training contract with one of Singapore’s top 15 law firms, in the field of commercial litigation.
His last hurdle in his journey toward becoming a full-fledged lawyer here is, apart from graduating, in being called to the bar.
To do that, Tan says Singapore’s Supreme Court has to approve his being called to be an officer to it. While Law Minister K Shanmugam, whom he met once, had been very encouraging of Tan’s endeavour, Tan says things still remain uncertain for him.
“(Mine) could be a test case as I am not aware of any precedents,” he said. This means that Tan could potentially be the first convict-turned-lawyer in Singapore who has “such a long string of convictions”, provided he is called to the bar.
Despite the challenges he continues to face, Tan gives back to the society that provided the help he needed before.
Since two years ago, Tan has been volunteering with Beacon of Life, a self-help group that reaches out to wayward youth. Initiated by Deputy Prime Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam’s wife, the group is now working with inmates at the Singapore Boys’ Home.
Separately, Tan is also involved in Jurong GRC’s community outreach programme, which helps newly-convicted prison inmates and their families. When authorised by inmates, Tan and his fellow volunteers, who are made up of former convicts or veteran prison officers, visit families to see how they are holding up.
“We are suitable (for this) because we can advise the parents (of inmates) and tell them that prison isn’t bad, we went through it, and to answer some of their queries and allay their fears,” he said.
At the same time, Tan helps out with Architects of Life and Movementor Consultancy, groups involved in mentoring youth at risk, although his involvement here is on an ad-hoc basis, where projects come up.
“I think it’s mostly that I’ve been helped that much that I want to give back to society as well,” he says. “I’ve been given a lot of chances, some of which shouldn’t have been given to me at all, and I’m really thankful.”
Darren Tan is one of the “heroes” of the Jurong Lake Run, which will take place on Sunday, 8 July, between Jurong Lake Park, Japanese Garden and Chinese Gardens. Click here for more information.