Lewis Tan, Justices’ Law Clerk

Lewis graduated from the School of Law, Singapore Management University (SMU) in 2018. He started his legal career as a Deputy Public Prosecutor at the Attorney-General’s Chambers, and recently moved into his role as a Justices’ Law Clerk at the Supreme Court of Singapore. During his time in SMU, Lewis pursued many extra-curricular activities, and served both as Vice-President of the SMU Law Athletes and as Captain of the SMU Law Football team. Lewis is also extremely afraid of birds, and his biggest nightmare is that a pigeon will one day fly into his face.

This Letter is addressed to his 18-year-old self, freshly out of Junior College and about to enlist, reflecting on the lessons he learned in 2012, a year that was undoubtedly testing for him.

Dear Lewis,

It is the 1st of January 2012. You have been vomiting incessantly since 3 am after taking up your friend’s wise advice to mix Whiskey and Vodka. It is now noon time. You no longer have any food left to vomit, and your gastric juices are now flooding your empty stomach. There is so much pain that you beg your mother to bring you to the hospital.

“No. It is bad luck to go to the hospital on the first day of the year.”

“Please. I beg you.”

Repeat that conversation five times and your mother will finally bring you to be admitted for alcohol poisoning. When you are discharged the next day, you are finally ready to take on the new year. “Superstitions…” you think to yourself, “what a load of bull.”

But before you know it, this will happen in your 2012: you will be told that you need heart surgery to correct a defect you thought had long disappeared; you did not get the 3 H2 ‘A’s you proudly thought you would get (but did not deserve); and just so 2012 is consistent to you, you end your year by spending Christmas and Boxing Day in another hospital — this time for food poisoning, because you thought it was wise to have chicken rice on the streets of Krabi.

Let’s rewind a little: because of your last-minute heart surgery, you had a deferred enlistment, and ended up being posted to serve as a “Charge clerk”. Basically, your job will require you to help your officers charge people who have committed military offences. This appointment sounds trivial, but it will truly open your eyes to the world you have thus far been sheltered from.

Listen to people when they explain to you why they decided to go Absent Without Official Leave; listen to people when they tell you of the struggles they are facing back home; listen to people when they plead for your help. Because when people turn to a 19-year-old Recruit with barely any hair, they might have no one left to speak to, and sometimes a listening ear, however inadequate it may feel, may be the best gift you can give. Because some of these people have faced the brunt of society – they have been neglected, they have been rejected, and they live in unfortunate resignation of their place in life. Do not help society lament them – be there for them, be there with them. Do not sympathise with them, empathise with them. That means putting yourselves in their shoes, believing without prejudging.

Use your experiences to learn about just how fortunate (read: privileged) you are. Learn that while some of your achievements in life can be credited to your hard work, many of them were made possible because of the opportunities that flowed from your privilege; opportunities that were not available to your friend who grew up with parents who had abused drugs; opportunities that were not available to another friend who shared a one-bedroom flat with 7 other family members; opportunities you never even saw as opportunities.

On your first day of law school, our Minister for Law will announce that there is a glut of lawyers. Despite the impulse to protect yourself given the realities of the workplace, know that your grades, however important they may seem in the present, do not define you.

Learn and practise the goodness you observe around you. Remember the lessons you learned in army, and continue developing empathy, for it will not be your mastery of the cases or the books that will be crucial for your first job. Instead, you will have to try to place yourself in the shoes of the persons you will be tasked to prosecute. But if you are not able to see them as one of you, if you view them as other, how can you exercise your powers impartially and fairly? How will you be able to separate the crime from the individual, or believe in the powers of rehabilitation and the important second chance it affords?

Dear Lewis, 2012 will be a tough year, but it will form the bedrock of the person you will grow to be. But for now, happy new year and enjoy that Whiskey/Vodka mix gurgling inside you. Don’t do it again, I am begging you.


Still-surprisingly-childish Lewis

Helen Chia-Thomas, senior lecturer and family law practitioner

Zen Chang, in-house counsel