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 Malaysia's best record in Jessup for more than a decade.

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). 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. For more than 10 years, Malaysian teams have struggled to make their mark:
  • 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 our fierce rival, 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?

Let me break it down in simpler terms: UM lost to NUS in the Octo-Final 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-Final 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 becoming Quarter-Finalist, if not Semi-Finalist...

"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...

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