SMU alumnus Joshua Lim (LLB & BBM 2011) has always seen himself as “an accidental law student”. His fortuitous entry into the law has paid off for him; in his first year, he won the David Marshall Prize for Top Student in Criminal Law, and in his final year, the DBS Bank School Valedictorian Award in Law. Since then, he has seen the practice of law from multiple perspectives, having been a Justices’ Law Clerk, an associate in private practice, and a Deputy Public Prosecutor. In 2015, he became a student again, obtaining his Masters of Law from Harvard Law School. Joshua is currently in the Policy Development Division at the Ministry of Home Affairs where he reviews criminal justice policy. Read on to discover more about his SMU experience, being in the pioneering cohort of SMU Law School, how he is inspired by the words of John F Kennedy, Joe Biden, Michael Lewis, and James Comey, and how they resonate with his own life experiences.
Hi Joshua! Please share a little about yourself – specifically, what have you embarked on, upon graduation from Law School?
I still remember interviewing for SMU at the Bukit Timah campus in 2004! I entered SMU in 2006, and graduated in 2011, after spending five years in the Business and Law schools.
I joined the Supreme Court as a Justices’ Law Clerk, and spent 1.5 happy years there. It was amazing to spend time with the country’s top legal minds; it was even better to learn that they are wonderful people as well. It is testament to their kindness that they still make time to meet up today, and make time to attend their former clerks’ weddings.
After my stint at the Courts, I got called to the Bar while working for a leading arbitrator (Mr Michael Hwang SC). I spent most of my time there being a tribunal assistant, and got to interact with some of the top international arbitrators who were co-arbitrators with Michael. Getting to meet some of these international lawyers also provided the perspective that a legal career was not the be-all-and-end-all of life; many of them protected their personal, non-law time and managed to get away to hike or read or travel.
But I missed public service work, so in 2014, I joined the Attorney-General’s Chambers as a prosecutor, where I remained until mid-2015. I thoroughly enjoyed this first stint as a prosecutor, where I had the chance to deal with cases involving drug offences, hurt and homicide offences, and sexual offences. I learnt first-hand the immense responsibilities that prosecutors have. Deciding whether to charge a person must be one of the weightiest decisions one has to make, as it can drastically change a person's and his family’s life. With good and patient mentors, and under the leadership of the then-AGs Steven Chong SC and VK Rajah SC, I learnt a great deal in a short time about what the ethos of a prosecutor should be, and I look forward to returning to Chambers to play that role in the criminal justice system.
In 2015, thanks to financing from the Legal Service, I went to Harvard Law School to pursue my Master of Laws. Amazing new experiences, new friends, new learning. I finished with the degree and spent some time in Washington DC as a visiting fellow at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies, and returned to Singapore to join the Ministry of Home Affairs where, since 2016, I have been reviewing criminal justice policy.
How was your SMU experience? How did SMU contribute to where you are today?
I enjoyed my SMU life, both in the law and business schools.
I majored in communications in the business school, and fondly remember classes under Profs Ong Siow Heng, and Mark Chong. I remember watching movies in Siow Heng and Mark’s classes to learn about concepts in communications – it was Joy Luck Club in Siow Heng’s Intercultural Communications class and Glengary Glen Ross in Mark’s Comm 101 class. I’m glad that we still keep in touch and meet up from time to time.
When I began classes in law school, I recall very patient educators like Profs Rathna (criminal law), David Smith (tort law and ethics), Tham Chee Ho (contracts), Eugene Tan (constitutional law) trying their best to deal with us in the pioneer batch.
SMU gave me the chance to study overseas during exchange; I would have never had the chance to do so otherwise. I got to study at Bucerius Law School in Hamburg, which had a dedicated programme teaching students aspects of German law in English. This was my first time away from home for an extended period of time, and I am grateful to SMU for the opportunity to learn life lessons that come with being alone and in a foreign land.
The assessment style in SMU was also helpful. Generally, I don’t think assessing a person’s aptitude for a subject should be based solely on an exam at the end of the term (although I do recognise I might be biased because I’m not great with exams). The style in most SMU classes – term papers, class participation, project work, presentations, exams – is, in my view, a better way of assessment.
SMU also contributed to my knowledge of the legal industry. The Office of Career Services was very helpful. I didn’t have any close family or friends who were in the legal industry, so it was during internships facilitated by the school that I got to be in law firms, be in contact with lawyers, and see what life would be like being a lawyer. Without that experience, it would have been difficult to know what to expect from a career in the law.
So I’m happy to come back to SMU whenever I am asked to do so, to speak to current or prospective students. When you’ve been the beneficiary of help, you know how much it mattered, and so you know how much it might matter to someone else.
(Joshua at his Commencement ceremony)
(Photo courtesy of Assoc Prof Chen Siyuan of SMU School of Law)
You won the David Marshall Prize for Top Student in Criminal Law in the first year of Law School. Did you ever think you would be a prosecutor or that you might be involved in criminal justice policy a decade on?
Life has a funny way of telling you that grades and prizes aren’t everything. Theoretical knowledge isn’t everything, and the practical realities of criminal justice means dealing with policing policy, social policy, education policy. It’s much more complex, and more fascinating, than just what’s in the criminal law books. In each job that I’ve taken up, I learn new things every day.
(Joshua at the Essex Court Chambers – Singapore Academy Law Mooting Competition)
What was it like being in the pioneer batch of law students?
Entering the new law school in 2007 meant dealing with constant references or comparisons to NUS. “SMU has a law school? Can SMU law students practice? Do they issue degrees or just part-time certificates? All the law firm partners are NUS graduates; will they hire?” These were natural questions given that NUS had been there for the last 50 years, and have been so successful in producing excellent law graduates.
I can’t speak for others, but I didn’t have an issue with these questions or the perceptions that lay behind the questions. Yes, the law school was new. Yes, there was no building of our own. Yes, we had no alumni to speak of. Those are facts. But we were in a new venture, and it was fun. Many of my classmates were motivated. There wasn’t the weight of legacy, and the baggage of living up to illustrious alumni. I doubted that law firm partners would be parochial and only choose graduates from their university.
I have been asked on more than one occasion whether there was rivalry between the schools. I certainly didn’t feel it, and when I started my first job, and had the chance to work with NUS law graduates, I don’t think they felt it as well.
Now we see SMU law graduates in all areas of legal work – public service, private practice, in-house – and it is almost unimaginable that there were once concerns that we couldn’t get a job with our degrees. This is testament to the work the board of advisors, the professors, the Office of Career Services, the graduates, and the students have put in.
To me, law school was a gift. I’m an accidental law student. I was happy being in business school. Then the creation of a second law school was announced, and there was this new opportunity to join the new law school. If I were born a year earlier, I would’ve been too far along my business degree programme to also take up a law degree. If I were born a year later, it’s very unlikely I would’ve been selected for the interview because of my A-level grades. So it was a case of being at the right place and right time. I don’t think anyone in my position can be anything but grateful.
What challenges did you face? Were your parents comfortable with your decision?
Thankfully, I’ve always been able to count on my parents’ support. In primary school, no talk of “must get into EM1 or GEP”. In secondary school, no talk of “must get into triple science” or “must study bio to keep options open”. In JC, no talk of “science stream better” or “what’re you going to do with a history, lit, econ combi”. They just said, “Do the best you can”, and “Do what you love”. No challenges on the parental front.
The first job I had was a public service job that was really a dream job. And since, then I’ve been blessed with fantastic bosses and colleagues in AGC, and in MHA.
(Joshua delivering his valedictorian speech at Commencement in 2011)
What advice do you have for your juniors who might be keen to follow in your footsteps?
The different roles I have had in the public service have given me much satisfaction. Joe Biden once shared an expression his dad used: “It’s a lucky man or woman gets up in the morning, puts both feet on the floor, knows what they’re about to do, and thinks it still matters.” I’m fortunate to have found fulfilment in my work, and it would be my wish for my juniors that they can find it, whether in public service or in private practice.
The other pieces of advice I might have are all culled from the life experiences of persons much wiser than myself:
1. “One person can make a difference, and everyone should try.” – John F Kennedy
Appreciate your talents and appreciate your contributions. I have seen how well-thought through individual interventions have made for better policy, better prosecutorial decisions, better judgments that have a practical impact on our criminal justice system.
2. “All this will not be finished in the first one hundred days. Nor will it be finished in the first one thousand days, nor in the life of this Administration, nor even perhaps in our lifetime on this planet. But let us begin.” – John F Kennedy
Have a sense of perspective when you begin work. We all want to get things done and get them done now. And when we don’t see results, we get frustrated, impatient. I’ve come to realise that, yes, there can be times where change is tangible and immediate. But most of the time, it’s incremental, iterative, and even with a lot of effort put in, glacial. But it is a change for the better, no matter how small.
3. “… many of the things we think are valuable have no value. Whenever I speak to young people, I suggest they do something that might seem a little odd. Close your eyes, I say. Sit there. And imagine you’re at the end of your life. From that vantage point the smoke of striving for recognition and wealth is cleared. Houses, cars, awards on the wall – who cares? You’re about to die. Who do you want to have been? I tell them that I hope some of them decide to have been people who use their abilities to help those who needed it. The weak, the struggling, the frightened, the bullied. Standing for something, making a difference. That is true wealth.“ – James Comey
If you haven’t done the exercise Mr Comey suggests, do it. Have a sense of purpose. It really helps with those long days at work where solutions seem to elude you. At that point, recalling exactly why you do what you do will help you persevere and press on.
4. “It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you in trouble. It’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so.” – frequently (and apparently wrongly) attributed to Mark Twain.
Don’t confuse your own, and others’, strength of conviction with what is correct, and what is right. Be prepared to receive candid advice, and be prepared to provide the same.
5. “Regardless of their academic or social backgrounds, those who had the most success and who were most respected and therefore able to get the most done were the ones who never confused academic credentials and societal sophistication with gravitas and judgment. Don’t forget what doesn’t come from this prestigious diploma – the heart to know what’s meaningful and what’s ephemeral; and the head to know the difference between knowledge and judgment.” – Joe Biden
6. “People really don’t like to hear success explained away as luck – especially successful people. As they age, and succeed, people feel their success was somehow inevitable. They don’t want to acknowledge the role played by accident in their lives… don’t be deceived by life’s outcomes. Life’s outcomes, while not entirely random, have a huge amount of luck baked into them. Above all, recognise that if you have had success, you have also had luck – and with luck comes obligation. You owe a debt, and not just to your Gods. You owe a debt to the unlucky.” – Michael Lewis
The Michael Lewis quote was from a speech delivered to Princeton graduates some years ago. He spoke about an experiment. Teams of three were put in a room. One in the team was arbitrarily assigned to be leader. The researchers then gave each team a complicated moral problem to solve. 30 minutes in, the researchers interrupted each group, and placed 4 cookies in the room. Every team member got one cookie, but there was one left.
What happened? Consistently, the fourth cookie was taken by the person arbitrarily appointed leader of the group. The leader performed no special task, had no special virtue, and was chosen at random 30 minutes before. His status was nothing but luck but it left him with the sense that he was entitled to the cookie.
Lewis closed with the statement that the graduates were the lucky few, and all of them were faced with the extra cookie and would be faced with many more of them. His parting advice was this: “In time you will find it easy to assume that you deserve the extra cookie. For all I know, you may. But you’ll be happier, and the world will be better off, if you at least pretend that you don’t.”
I don’t think I can improve on any of the lessons provided by these wise persons. So let me end with this.
Be humble, especially intellectually. You’ve been endowed with a university education that’s not available to everyone. It’s a privilege and a gift. Resist the temptation to buy into the myth that self-determination got you here. It might have played a part, but there will be others more self-determined than yourselves that missed out, due to myriad circumstances.
I know this for a fact. My mom and dad worked as a nurse, and as a technician, for decades. Physically, they had much more exhausting jobs. At times, they were subject to the unkind things people say to persons in those jobs.
For no other reason than having a better education (thanks to them), I am treated in a much kinder fashion. My parents are kinder, more patient, more personable than I am, but I have been given the cookie (or cookies). People don’t speak condescendingly to me, and people listen to what I have to contribute in a conversation. These aspects of life are frequently taken for granted by us, but know that others aren’t immune to being patronised or disdained and aren’t heard for no good reason.
Use the gift you have been given to make a difference in society. Give those who are voiceless a voice, create policies – economic, social, legal – to help those in society who are vulnerable. These are immediately available in public service and it is why I encourage every who has the chance to work in public service to do so.
Last updated on 23 Oct 2018 .