Sunday, April 21, 2019

Team UM of Malaysia Rises (Jessup 2019)

Our Jessup journey began at the library of the Faculty of Law, University of Malaya (UM) in the fall of September 2018. It ended at Washington DC, US in the spring of April 2019.

How do you unpack 8 months' worth of joy and suffering?

Let's start with joy - the happy, positive stuff.

At Jessup International, UM hit several milestones:

On all three counts, Team UM attained the best Malaysian record in the last decade since 2010.

All rise, all smiles

* * *

As always, to fully appreciate the magnitude of the challenge lying await in Washington DC, historical context is critical.

In 2005, Malaysia hit its Jessup peak when the International Islamic University finished runners-up. It was also the very first year that more than 100 teams participated in the Jessup International Rounds. Since then, the competition has grown steadily.

And yet, the Pareto principle holds - the axis of power centres in the native-English speaking powerhouses. Australia dominates with 8 championship titles (University of Sydney: 4, University of Queensland: 3, Australian National University: 1). USA and UK typically play bridesmaid (2 championships, 6 runners-up). Former English colonies like India, Singapore and even Jamaica has threatened to usurp their throne (1 championship, 4 runners-up).

So how has Malaysia fared in the modern era?

Good, but not great. Since 2010, Malaysian teams have struggled to make their mark. Here are the facts and figures:
  • We never broke in the Top 20 teams of the Preliminary Rounds (closest was 29th in 2014 and 27th in 2015 by Team UM)
  • We never advanced past the Round of 32 in the Advanced Rounds (we fell at the Round of 32 in 2014 and 2015 - again by Team UM)
  • We seldom ranked high in the Top 100 Oralists (2014: 42nd, 2016: 95th, 2018: 47th and 96th)

Don't get me wrong. This is not meant to depreciate the successes and efforts of past Malaysian teams. If anything, it's to show how much tougher the competition has grown in recent years, and how much gap we have to bridge to reach the top of the world.

* * *

So why has Malaysian mooting teams struggled lately?

Tough question. But as they say, the proof is in the pudding. The reasons can be found both in empirical data, and anecdotal evidence.

Teams from countries that speak English as a second language (ESL) are no longer pushovers and underdogs. That Eötvös Loránd University (Hungary) triumphed over Columbia University (USA) in the recent Jessup finals bears testament to our prowess.

Even our bigger neighbour Indonesia has been on a hot streak. This April, two teams broke into the Octo-Finals. Most amazingly, University of Airlangga took down the mighty defending champions, University of Queensland!

And as I had observed first-hand as an arbitrator not too long ago during the Malaysian Vis Pre-Moot: It could well be that other countries are catching up fast, whilst our we have rested on our laurels and stagnated - if not even regressed."

For far too long, we have been living in the past. 

Yes, we may have once been a championship contender in Jessup during 1980-1990s (back then, only 50+ or less teams competed in the International Rounds). But the reputation is fast fading. We now dwell in the shadows of our South East Asian neighbours like Singapore, Philippines, and Indonesia. More often than not, telling other teams where we're from merely returns polite blank looks.

But perhaps, with our 2019 breakthrough, the world will start taking notice of our awakening...

Malaysia, Truly Asia

* * *

And now, the painful part - how our Jessup journey was cut short.

Having coached UM mooting teams for some time, I say this with the most objective of perspective without untoward bias or exaggeration: when Team UM bows out in the advanced round of a moot competition, we tend to lose in heartbreaking, dramatic and controversial fashion.

Jessup 2019 was no exception.

In the Octo-Final, we faced off against one of our fiercest rivals, the National University of Singapore (NUS).

NUS, as Applicant, started strongly. We, as Respondent, countered their points sharply. At the end of submissions, the mooters, coaches and supporters left the room, faces etched with tense disquiet. The match was close, and could go either way. It must have been a tough call for the judges, too. The deliberations took longer than usual.

True enough, drama enfolded when teams returned to the room for the announcement of results. As per protocol, the judges would first take turns in giving feedback, in a neutral manner so not to spoil the results.

But to everyone's surprise, the first judge ended his feedback on a rather curt note, dripping with disdain: "I gave my two points to the Applicant". The other two judges were taken aback as well. Strictly, according to the competition rules, each judge should keep their vote a secret. The second judge quickly delivered some feedback, and then it was the President's turn.

Keeping a straight face, the President commended both teams on their performance. And then, he delivered the result: the Applicant won by 5-4 points due to memorials. Sighs of relief rolled over NUS. Our heads slumped in daze and defeat.

The President swiftly came to our side, echoing his congratulations on our performance once again. As the cat was out of the bag, he revealed that he and the second judge had actually ruled in our favour (4 points). However, since we lost 3 points from 3 memorial judges and 2 points from the disgruntled dissenting judge, we lost the match.

* * *

What makes the defeat even harder to swallow is another critical piece of information we got from the organisers later on.

In the Advanced Rounds (except the Finals), a fresh panel of memorial judges will score the memorials of every match. And since the Octo-Final was held merely 2 hours after the match-ups were confirmed, this meant that 3 judges were sifting through the Applicant memorial of NUS and the Respondent memorial of UM (which each runs to 9,500 words long) in that tight span of time. And due to the secrecy rule, we don't even know who these 3 judges are, and how they actually scored our respective memorials.

Does this all sound rather technical and confusing?

Well, I'm sure it does, so let me break it down in simpler terms: UM lost to NUS in the Octo-Finals despite 2 out of the 3 judges who actually heard our oral submissions for 90 minutes voting for UM because 3 unknown judges favoured the written submission of NUS instead.

Yes, we are well aware that's how the rules work, and NUS won fair and square according to such rules.

But that doesn't negate the fact that we lost by a whisker despite our superior advocacy skills.

Also, luck was not on our side. We were ranked 12th in the Preliminary Rounds. The power seeding format was theoretically supposed to match us with 'weaker' teams in the Advanced Rounds. And yet, we had to face University of Sydney and NUS in the Round of 32 and Octo-Finals back-to-back on the same day (incidentally, they're the first and second most successful team respectively in Jessup history)

Whilst we may not be good enough to win the championship, we genuinely felt that we had a good shot at advancing to the Quarter-Finals, if not even the Semi-Finals.

"Time to kick ass and take names... but first, let us take a selfie"

* * *

Still, despite our dramatic and disappointing exit, there's much to toast to our Jessup journey of 2018/2019.

We are in the Top 16 out of 124 teams.

We advanced further than any other Malaysian team in the last decade.

We can take down the mooting powerhouses of the world.

The spring of 2019 - which marks the 60th Anniversary of Jessup - has certainly been an epic spectacle. There's been an awakening among ESL countries worldwide - Hungary, Indonesia, Zimbabwe, Pakistan, etc. The fight for the Jessup throne is bound to get fiercer in the coming years...

And now, with Team UM of Malaysia on the rise, this is where the real fight and fun begins...

Thursday, April 11, 2019

Hooray Hungary (Jessup 2019)

And the champion of the Philip C. Jessup International Law Moot Court Competition is...

Eötvös Loránd University

Congratulations, Team Hungary!

For winning your very first Jessup, defeating perennial favourites Columbia University (Team USA), and inspiring underdogs worldwide with your miracle run...

143 teams, 1 champion

* * *

The world of mooting can roughly divided into two groups.

Native English speakers (NES) - those who grew up speaking and learning in English since childhood.

'English as secondary language' speakers (ESL) - those who grew up speaking and learning in their mother tongue, and only picked up English as a second or even third language.

Since law is inextricably linked to language, mastery over 'legal language' is essential to lawyering. For instance, Jessup mooters should be expected to understand the difference between 'jurisdiction' and 'territory'. Those who can't should rightfully be scorned, no matter which country they come from.

But where ESL mooters fall short is grasping the full spectrum of conversational English. And often times, that's where we lose out to our NES counterparts - not because of law, but language.

For as much as we binge on Netflix, we're not fully attuned to the typical American breakneck speed of speech, nor fully familiar with their colloquial expressions and loaded sentences. Our occasional difficulty to engage with judges has nothing to do with our lack of legal understanding, but linguistic limitations.

And yet, time and time again, I see judges getting visibly annoyed when mooters struggle to comprehend and cope with their questions - often times, in garbled and cryptic terms that only a true-blood NES expert can discern.

* * *

The facts and figures don't lie.

A quick look at history indicate that the Jessup is dominated by teams from NES countries - United States, Australia, Singapore and Canada.

Of course, there are some plausible reasons for their success, totally unrelated to linguistics. NES countries tend to be common law countries as well, hence more adept at courtroom advocacy. NES countries are also more developed, hence their educational infrastructure is more advanced.

That said, their early exposure to English definitely gives them a head start as well. Not just in learning the law (legal materials for international law are predominantly in English), but also in social skills.

And having being around in international moots long enough - and not just in Jessup - you can trust me when I say this: the gap between NES and ESL teams in terms of substance has narrowed in recent years, perhaps to the point of non-existence.

Also, ESL teams do not lack in passion and preparation.

Why then is the gap of results still so large?

If you apply Sherlock Holmes' logic in eliminating impossible causes with the empirical and anecdotal evidence at hand, the conclusion is that language - rightly or wrongly - still plays a primary factor in the determination of winners in Jessup or any international moot.

ESL Rocks!

* * *

Don't get me wrong. This is not a rant. It's merely an observation.

ESL mooters are disadvantaged by their cultural upbringing. When we face up against a NES teams in a moot, we're already a few points down before opening our mouths.

In fact, to stay on par with the NES teams, we have to put in more extra effort and hours to overcome our linguistic deficiencies. Simply put, both sides of the divide do not start on an equal playing field. With all other things like substance being equal, ESL mooters have to work harder to earn their win.

Some may think it's a problem that needs fixing, some may not. Some may even deny there's even a problem to begin with, as language is part of mooting as much as shooting hoops is part of basketball (pardon my insipid attempt at American colloquialism).

This is not a call for affirmative action. If there's anything that needs changing, it's our own human nature, not the rules of the game.

* * *

And yet, against all odds, Team Hungary defeated Team USA in the Finals.

True enough, in the Finals, the Hungarian agents struggled to understand some of the American judges' fiery questioning. Despite their superiority in legal argumentation, their delivery lacked the smoothness displayed by the US agents. It was the classic clash between substance versus style.

By a narrow 2-1 vote by the bench, substance ultimately prevailed. Justice was indeed served.

This year, Hungary has joined the illustrious ranks of ESL teams to win the Jessup. It's a rare and handful bunch. Together with Team Colombia, Team Russia and Team Argentina, they have shown the rest of the world that language is no barrier to success in mooting.

Hip hip hooray!
* * *

Ultimately, as much as we are a 'disadvantaged' lot, ESL mooters should accept the cold hard truth that life simply isn't fair, and that we should take responsibility for the life choices that we make.

But perhaps - just perhaps - we could be given some margin of error for not speaking Americano as smoothly as natural-born speakers.

After all, Jessup is the Olympics of mooting. Jessup unites the cultures and nations of the world under one umbrella.

And that spirit of unity should be the love of the law, and not language.

Monday, April 1, 2019

Malaysia Blown Away (3rd AIAC-ICC Pre-Moot 2019)

Dato' Mary Lim (Court of Appeal Judge) sums up the recent Malaysian Vis Pre-Moot 2019 best: "Malaysian lawyers, beware!"

Such was her frank qualitative assessment of the Final Round fought fiercely between two teams from India in which she co-arbitrated.

And had she known what transpired during the rounds prior to the climax, she would've reached to a similar quantitative conclusion - with perhaps even more caustic, critical words.

The facts and figures don't lie:
  • 90+ teams from 30+ countries participated in the Pre-Moot
  • Out of 37 Malaysian teams, only 5 teams finished in the Top 32 of the Preliminary Rounds
  • No Malaysian team entered the Top 16 (11 teams from India, 1 team each from Romania, Brazil, Saudi Arabia, Hong Kong, the Netherlands)

Utter decimation. Epic failure. Crushing defeat.

Malaysia Boleh?

More like Malaysia Blown Away...


* * *

I was an arbitrator for 6 Preliminary Rounds.

So I had ample opportunity to witness the foreign teams in action - India, Cambodia, Kyrgyzstan, New Zealand, Japan and Hong Kong.

And they were truly impressive. In fact, I actually scored most of them higher than their Malaysian opponents.

Their law was solid. Their arguments were sharper.

The only aspect where Malaysian mooters were on par with - or at times, slightly edged over - the foreign teams was in style. We had bombast. We kept calm and composed. We were full of flair.

Otherwise, all things considered, we were inferior to the top foreign teams.

The typical survival rate of Malaysians in international moots

* * *

Looking deeper, such underwhelming results is understandable.

Malaysian teams have historically not been active participants of the Vis Moot, whether at Vienna or Hong Kong. The stronger teams lean towards Jessup, LAWASIA or IHL.

Most of the foreign teams in the Pre-Moot are actually warming up before they go to Vienna or Hong Kong. In contrast, majority of the Malaysian teams consist of novices trying out the Pre-Moot simply for experience.

Still, being blown away on our home soil is quite a blow to our national pride.

And whilst the Indian teams are truly a level above all others, we were also struggling against our other Asian neighbours. It could well be that other countries are catching up fast, whilst our we have rested on our laurels and stagnated - if not even regressed.

Whatever the reason, let this decimation be a wake-up call to Malaysian mooters.

Does Malaysia even have an end-game?

* * *

There's immense potential in the Malaysian mooters of whom I witnessed. And they truly have the drive to improve their skills, compete with the best in the world, and truly kick ass.

Sadly, most of them lack the proper training, guidance and direction.

It is rather ironic - if not prescient - that barely a week ago in my last post, I had urged Malaysian judges, lawyers and lecturers to change our old habits.

Or to put it bluntly: we need to focus more on substance over style in mooting and legal practice.

The facts and figures don't lie.

No Malaysian team in the Top 16 of the Malaysian Vis Pre-Moot 2019.

Malaysia got blown away.

Malaysian lawyers, beware!