Tuesday, July 11, 2017

Chasing The Endless Horizon (The IMLAM Voyage)

They were not superstars. They lacked experience. They barely knew each other. And yet, they stuck together, dug deep, and exceeded expectations.

Here's a story of a group of students doing just that. It's all true, because it just happened, and I was there to witness their improbable but wonderful journey.

Here's a story about how seemingly ordinary people can do extraordinary feats.

Reporting for duty, captain

* * *

Black-suited students walked into the room, one after another. Their smiles were bright but brittle, cracking slightly when assailed by probing questions. Some went out with a swagger, pleased of a job well done. Most, however, trail away with heads bowed, betraying their disappointment.

Moot auditions can be brutal. So many applicants, so few spots.

This time, the panel had to choose a team to represent University of Malaya for the International Maritime Law Arbitration Moot (IMLAM) due to be held in NUS, Singapore on July 2017.

The pool of applicants were shorn of the 'usual suspects'. The issue was bad timing. Firstly, IMLAM was held right at the end of the semester, and training would overlap with final exams. Secondly, the audition was held late in the first semester, so most of the promising students had already applied and gotten a spot for other moot competitions.

In short, the pool wasn't great. It was tough to choose the team. Few tested and proven mooters, many borderline cases.

A few minutes of audition just wasn't enough for anyone - including even an experienced hand on the deck like myself - to make a full objective assessment of who's good enough, and who's not.

In the end, I chose based on potential. That is, based not on how good the students currently were, but how good I thought they could be with months of training.

Some of my picks raised eyebrows from my fellow assessors. When pressed, I simply shrugged, "I just have a feeling that X will do well."

Some decisions can't be properly rationalised. Some decisions just requires a quantum of faith.

* * *

They were really quite a motley crew.

Out of the five, only one had prior international mooting experience. Three had never mooted competitively before (one being only a freshman). The fifth had a rather turbulent experience last year in a novice competition, and still had mixed feelings on mooting.

Some had less-than-stellar CGPA. Some weren't natural English speakers.

It didn't help that the moot was on maritime law, which none of them (including myself) had any inkling about.

It was rough sailing as soon as they left port. They spent weeks agonising over the unfamiliar terms in the voluminous set of documents (bill of lading, bunkering, bbb, etc.). They were like a bunch of landlubbers flailing all over the deck, occasionally throwing up over the side, lost at sea.

It was painful to watch. Guilt weighed on my mind. What if they just weren't good enough? What if I made a terrible mistake?

But as days go by, they slowly steadied themselves. The looks of despair were gone, overtaken by determination. Doubts ebbed away. They forged into unchartered waters, unafraid. I floated around like a watchful parrot, squawking out alerts and directions whenever they got too close to an iceberg.

* * *

I have trained many mooting teams before, and each team is different in their own special way.

Even then, the IMLAM crew was quite different by normal mooting standards.

They were, by and large, introverts. Their 'meetings' were impregnated with long stretches of introspective silences.

They were deeply insecure. Even the slightest of mistakes rattled their confidence, and spurred them into corrective action.

They weren't satisfied with simple textbook answers. They would cast their nets far into the furthest and deepest ocean, in the endless pursuit of research.

They were adaptive. I would put them in different roles (first to second, Claimant to Respondent), and they were ever able and willing to give it a shot.

Most of all, they were constantly learning and improving. Even during the competition itself, they would refine their submissions. They could ditch points they had been practising for days without a second thought, and come up with new ones.

Originally, they had this habit that annoyed me a lot - they would cancel scheduled training sessions, citing that they needed more time to prepare.

But slowly, I understood the logic behind their methodology.

Every training session felt different. They were incorporating bits of useful advice from the previous session, trying out new arguments, repackaging old arguments, rearranging the structure, and so on.

It was beautiful to watch. They were metamorphosing from caterpillars to butterflies, from butterflies to even prettier butterflies.

They weren't just rehearsing their lines. They were always striving to put on a better show than the last.

University of Malaya v University of Hong Kong (QF)

* * *

And in the competition, they performed magnificently.

They ranked 6th in the preliminary rounds (out of 26 teams from Asia-Pacific and Europe), beating the University of Sydney on the way.

Sadly, they lost in the quarter-finals to the University of Hong Kong by a close 2-1 margin.

It's the first time a Malaysian team has ever gotten this deep into the competition. They punched above their weight, fearlessly taking on teams packed with older, mature students (Masters, Double Degree, Final Years).

Did they do their best? No. Definitely not.

And that's the magic about them. I don't know what their 'best' is, because they constantly do better round after round, defying my expectations.

I'm quite sure I've not seen their best. I'm quite sure they can do better.

(I know that this doesn't sound like a big deal, but it is. Many of the teams I've trained and observed - both the good ones and bad ones - would reach a peak where they would stop, relax and think: "Okay, this is as far as I can go, all we can do is hope and pray". Some do this because they lack confidence of their own ability, some because of over-confidence. And that's where they go wrong, and why they fail. If you feel that you've done your 'best', it then means you've given up trying to do better.)

* * *

The IMLAM voyage taught me some important lessons about education.

That we should tell students not to do their best, but keep doing better and better.

Never settle. Never stay still. Never stop pushing.

Our 'best' is not a flat ceiling, but an endless horizon.

That we should see students for not who they are at present, but who they can be in future.

They're young. They're growing. They can only get better in time.

All they need is a fair chance, a little faith, and a gentle push.

That we should train students not as crew on the deck, but captains of their own destiny.

Pass them the wheel, let them take over.

And they will take you to faraway places beyond your expectations.

Just bunkering up, more voyages to come...

* * *

This post is inspired by, and dedicated to, Team UM of IMLAM 2017: Khoo Sher Ryn (captain), Lee Suan Cui, Syafinas Ibrahim, Gabrielle Rohan and Amanda Lee. Though the voyage has ended, their spirits still soar high. In time, they will set sail once again, to chase the endless horizon. 

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