Saturday, May 11, 2019

From Sparks To Stars (Jessup 2019)

Are stars born or made? What keeps them burning brightly when all others fade into darkness? Why can't more of us blaze the skies like them?

One year ago, we were in crisis. For the second year running, University of Malaya (UM) lost in the National Rounds of Jessup. We needed a fix. To bounce back. To reclaim our former glory.

And so, our administration turned towards our current generation of mooters in hope. For volunteers. For answers. For even the slightest show of courage. Few dared raised their hands. No-one stepped up. The gathering ended with more cause for concern than comfort.

One year ago, I didn't know who to turn to. The stakes were high. The students were stressed. None were ready, none fancied the pressure. And who could blame them? Failure breeds fear, failure blunts faith.

But even without a solution in sight, I was at peace. One moot at a time, I told myself. There's no point staring at the night sky trying to spot a shooting star. Stars are formed, not found. All stars grow from a single spark.

One year ago, no-one could've seen them as future 'Jessupers'. And even after their breakthrough performance in the LAWASIA National Rounds last August, doubts still remain. Too raw, they got lucky, Jessup's a different level altogether, yada yada.

Spot the stars (clue: dude with yellow kicks is just photobombing)

* * *

But that was one year ago.

Today, they're Jessup stars.

Three of them were part of that dismal gathering, but barely spoke a word. Two hadn't even joined a moot competition before (outside of UM). None had any experience in Jessup nor public international law.

I still remember watching them 'moot' for the very first moot. There was a flicker of spark in them, but not much more than many others that I've watched as well.

I still remember watching them grow stronger and wiser, one moot at a time. Some bloomed late. Some sprinted ahead, but only to stumble halfway, got up, and learnt to pace themselves. But ultimately, they made it - farther than any of their peers and seniors have gone before.

One year ago, they would have never seen themselves as Jessup stars as well. Humble. Grounded. Greatly self-conscious of their own limitations. They don't think too highly of themselves. They don't nurse a fragile ego.

And perhaps, that's what makes them stand tall when everyone else is losing their head and step.

The best of us are often not the stars that shine the brightest, but the stars that glow the longest.

* * *

The first time I met Aliya at a mooting event (or maybe even first time ever) was an internal workshop I was conducting leading up to UM's Internal Mooting Competition (IMC) back in 2017.

Her team stayed back after the workshop to ask further questions. I don't quite remember what she asked, and what I answered (if at all). But what I do remember was that she seemed genuinely attentive to what I was painstakingly - some complex self-made half-baked theory hypothesis about how to make moot judges fall in love with you.

Her team lost in the Semi-Final of IMC - a round which I judged, and cast the the dissenting vote in their favour. But she wasn't the one speaking, so i didn't see much of her mooting skills.

The next time I saw her was an internal audition few months later. She impressed the panel enough to win a spot in a regional moot competition - Tun Suffian (TSMC) in 2017. This time, she spoke her way into the Final, where she survived Gopal Sri Ram unscathed.

To my surprise, she joined IMC again in 2018. Even more surprisingly, she formed a team with two first-year novices (whereas most others were teaming up with their BFFs and senior mooters). Is she crazy? Taking such a step down, risking her reputation in the process? And not surprisingly, her new team failed to even advance past the Preliminary Rounds.

But as it turned out, her move was brilliant. She was brave enough to take on a new challenge - anchoring a team, juggling dual roles. And she proved herself worthy to be selected for LAWASIA.

The rest of her LAWASIA journey is well-documented history - and nothing short of spectacular...

Spot Aliya (clue: shortest tallest trophy)

* * *

In contrast, Gabrielle made an early splash in mooting - perhaps one of the earliest in UM mooting history.

In 2016, during the very first semester of his first year, he joined Novice Mooting Competition (just like IMC, but for novices only). His team had strong speakers, and seen as the favourites. I judged him in a Preliminary Round. Surprisingly, his team crashed out at that stage (but bright sparks always find a way - today, his two other teammates have become international mooters).

Nevertheless, such defeat didn't dent his confidence and ambitions one bit. He tried out for the IMLAM 2017 audition - quite a bold move. First-year novices just don't jump straight into an international competition, you know? It's not, um, proper... and not, um, in accordance with the order of things...

And yet, he was selected for IMLAM.

I was part of the selection panel, and strongly supportive of his inclusion. First-year - so what? Age is just a number. Meritocracy over seniority.

But at first, he did struggle to keep up with the complexities of maritime law - after all, he has not even completed Contracts at that point! And doubts started to creep up. Had I made a mistake? Had I just threw a newly-born babe into the deep end of the ocean?

And just like Aliya, upon realising his shortcoming, he made a brilliant move - joining IMC 2017 (right in the middle of preparation for IMLAM). Naturally, this stirred apprehension among his teammates. They asked me what I thought. Essentially, I replied: "Let him join, as IMC will give him a boost of experience and confidence that he needs right now". He went on to win IMC single-handedly (like literally - his co-counsel dropped out last-minutely, so he actually spoke for two roles).

Leveled up, he stayed the course in our epic IMLAM voyage that year, then joined Aliya in TSMC...

Spot Gabrielle (clue: rose among the thorns)

* * *

The origins story of Caysseny is another unconventional one.

She just entered UM in 2017. She seemed enthusiastic and excellent in mooting, as reflected by her strong individual results for the mini-moot exercises in two novice mooting workshops.

But whilst most of her other peers rushed to the auditions of novice mooting competitions (NAMCO and UM-NUS), she strangely held back. Instead, for reasons I have not fully fathom until today, she settled with a non-speaking researcher role in one of our many teams in AIAC's Malaysian Vis Pre-Moot (which is more of a 'warm-up' competition for the real Vis in Vienna and Hong Kong). Strange because her other peers in NAMCO and UM-NUS would have stolen a march over her in building up precious experience.

Then again, who am I to question her? Maybe she was confident enough with her own speaking abilities, hence content with observing and learning from the sidelines. Maybe she wanted to check out the mooting scene slowly without diving in too deep. Maybe she's already a well-made star who knows how to choose her battle...

Indeed, as it turned out, her slow start didn't hinder her progress at all. After Vis Pre-Moot, she joined IMC 2018 - and hasn't looked back since. Her team finished runners-up, only losing to the dynamic duo of Lily and Suan Cui. She won the Best Novice Oralist award, and ranked higher than many notable senior mooters and ex-Jessupers.

At LAWASIA 2018, her team finished runners-up again, losing to the same dynamic duo plus Aliya (yes, in a UM vs UM final!). And she had the highest average score in the competition.

In Jessup 2019, she spoke and won the Best Oralist Award in the Final of the National Rounds. In the International Rounds at Washington DC, she finished as the 69th-ranked oralist.

Did I mention that she's only in her second year (and got a special band indicating that she's underage each time she entered a bar in DC)?

Spot Caysseny (clue: best cheese) 

* * *

Sharing a closely identical origins story and timeline is Amiratu. She only started mooting competitively in IMC 2018, in the same team as Caysseny. Both were reunited again in LAWASIA, followed by Jessup. 

Essentially, they've been teammates in all the three competitions they have ever participated. And this has less to do with coincidence, but rather intent and design. They both kept mooting back-to-back from IMC onward. They both shared the same goals. And above all, they both were top-tier mooters.

The only major difference is their age - Amiratu is in her final-year, and close to graduation. So how come they still can share the same mooting trajectory?

The answer is simple - Amiratu was a very late bloomer. She wasn't present in the mooting scene at all in her two and a half years of law school. She wasn't even that keen on continuing mooting after IMC - it took some cajoling from her BFF, Lily, to sign up for LAWASIA.

The reluctant hero. The unlikely savior. The mooting champion who nearly never was.

Of all five of them, she escaped my radar all these years. The first time I saw her in full action was when I was judging her Semi Final round in IMC. And to be frank, I had mixed feelings on her self-assured, devil-may-care YOLO style - which is definitely a good trait for an advocate to have in real practice, but perhaps not so much in mooting as she may come across as too brash and abrasive (especially for Malaysian conservative standards).

But over time, she has mellowed down whilst still maintaining her razor sharpness. And ultimately, in Jessup, she became our anchor and spoke in the most rounds.

Not bad for someone who only mooted for a year, eh?

Spot Amiratu (clue: "this mooting game very easy peasy, yes?")

* * *

And for the final of five, we have none other than the reigning Moot Queen, Lily.

No, it wasn't me or anyone from UM who came up with that title, okay? One of our supportive external moot trainers did. And he's not even Malaysian. He's as impartial of a judge as you can get.

She has many other names, of course. Dragon-slayer - she has slayed the National University of Singapore and University of Sydney. Baby-faced assassin - she's ruthless and relentless in methodically tearing down her opponent's arguments between her smiles.

And yet, she is no prodigy. Her timeline is a messy cross between that of Aliya and Amiratu. She joined IMC in 2017 and 2018. Her first mooting competition was TSMC, together with Aliya and Gabrielle, in her third year. She followed up with IMLAM. She reached her pinnacle in the final year, with back-to-back triumphs in LAWASIA and Jessup.

Ironically enough, she's probably the most insecure out of everyone. Despite her strong results, she's easily rattled and haunted by missteps, rare as they come. But that's both her strength as much as weakness. Her insecurities pushes her to improve and improvise. She does not rest on her laurels. Unlike most typical stars, her flames don't burn out quickly after a single burst. She stays strong until the end-game.

And above all, she's graceful enough to acknowledge others overtaking and surpassing her (like Amiratu being the anchor). Her ego, if any, is way beneath the team's interest. She's unafraid to step up to take on new roles, and also to take the backseat if new blood in better form shows up (like Caysseny).

It's rather ironic that she doesn't behave like a queen for a Moot Queen. No drama, no sense of superiority. And perhaps, that's what makes her even more deserving of that title.

Spot Lily (clue "so boring zzz... BRING ME SYDNEY!")

* * *

Every star starts from a spark.

No star is ever born. Or rather, no star can stay shining brightly like a star without being made and re-made over time.

I saw five small sparks grow into shining stars.

And even if one day their light dims and flickers, I know that they have enough spark left in their spirits to shine again, brighter than before.

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