Tuesday, October 1, 2019

Closing The Gap, Raising The Bar (UM-NUS 2019)

Finally, after 15 long years of hurt, University of Malaya (UM) triumphed over National University of Singapore (NUS) in the annual UM-NUS Friendly Moot Competition.

It's a 'friendly' competition between two neighbours who once shared a common origin until Singapore broke up and 'consciously decoupled' with Malaysia.

It's a 'friendly' rivalry intended to mimic the spirit of the Oxford-Cambridge rowing tradition.

It's been a rather lopsided battle that has seen Team UM getting its ass kicked over and over again...

Has it really been 15 years? Honestly, I don't know. That's the number I hear from people. We've lost so many times over the years that it's easy to lose count (and conveniently forget). There were a few years in which the competition didn't take place, so I'm uncertain as to the actual number of losses...

Anyway, what's certain is that this is the first time ever in 15 years that we defeated NUS. That's how historic the victory means to Team UM. Makes us feel embarrassed and proud in equal measure...

Malaysia Boleh!

* * *

Why we did finally win after so long? What changed this time? Have we found a winning formula?

There's much to reflect and dissect. Some things come to mind on why we faltered in the past. I've been spectating some of the matches, off and on, for the past 15 years (even the first match in 2004 or 2005, if I recall correctly). So that makes me qualified somewhat to make an objective assessment.

Generally, our failings can be broken into three phases, in roughly chronological order through the years:

First, we were unprepared. Our mooters made rookie mistakes. We tripped over questions posed by the judges. We fell apart in the face of pressure. It's not that we were bad. We just weren't good enough. We were untrained.

Second, we lacked self-belief. We saw ourselves as inferior to NUS. The poorer neighbour. The weaker sibling. Consciously or unconsciously, we didn't think we could win. We went into the match mainly looking to 'gain experience' and 'for the fun of it'.

Third, we had a narrow tribal mindset. We tend to slip into this "us" against "them" mentality. We were fond of 'stereotyping' NUS mooters - robots, academic, legalistic (none of which are true, of course). We insisted on mooting the 'Malaysian' or 'UM' way (whatever that means). We treated the moot as a clash of contrasting cultures, not a contest between two closely-connected neighbours (as it should be).

* * *

This time round, our team managed to overcome the mental block. They didn't see NUS mooter as the 'enemy'. In fact, they even applied some of NUS' good habits picked up from our previous duels. They kept an open mind, trying out different styles and strokes.

Ultimately, as much as they desired to win, they were focused more on giving a good performance.

They didn't let the pressure get into their heads. But they also didn't take their foot off the gas. Even until the eve of the competition, they kept improvising and improving.

And when I say 'they', I mean all four members of the team, both oralists and researchers. 

Kai Sheng and Jia Shen, the oralists, were definitely the stars of the show. Their submissions were the best that I've seen from them compared to any of their previous practice sessions - which is quite an amazing feat, considering how mooters typically under-perform during the competition day itself rather than 'peaking' as they did. Kai Sheng won the Best Oralist award too!

Jacqueline and Saradha, sitting in the sidelines, were more than just mere 'researchers'. They helped to refine the team's arguments. They were really good cheerleaders - boosting the morale, lightening the mood. And above all, they took their 'backstage' role seriously, hardly ever missing a session, without any hint of envy and dissatisfaction.

The Fabulous Four (l-r): Saradha, Jia Shen, Kai Sheng, Saradha

* * *

Yes, we have turned a corner.

But the turn started long ago, when we defeated NUS last year in LAWASIA 2018, and most recently in NAMCO 2019. In Jessup 2019, we lost in controversial and heartbreaking fashion - by memorial points, despite winning the majority vote from the oral judges.

And let's not read too much into the results. Taking a match or two off from NUS does not make us better than NUS. Nor even on equal terms. We're closing the gap, but the gap remains.

Their trophy cabinet is more laden than ours. Their international reputation far exceeds ours. If there was a world ranking of law schools based on all-time mooting achievements, NUS should be firmly in the Top 3 (whilst UM is somewhere in the Top 50 at most).

Of course, we're not quite up to the level of NUS yet. But we're catching up fast. Our victory in UM-NUS marks yet another incredible milestone in our meteoric rise.

No doubt, NUS will be reeling from this defeat. But I'm sure they will take it positively, as an opportunity to reflect and learn. They'll come back stronger, and so we will. Perhaps this will mark a start of a more symbiotic relationship between our law schools.

That our constant duels will strengthen both our mooting ranks.

That our friendly rivalry will push each other to even greater heights.

That our combined successes will make South-East Asia the best mooting region of the world.

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