Sunday, December 1, 2019

Law, Mooting, And Ikigai (Interview with UMLR)

Last month, I had the honour of being interviewed by University of Malaya Law Review (UMLR) as their 'November Alumnus of the Month'.

The article, beautifully written by Ms. Azureen Ibrahim, captures my brief journey through law (so far). You can read the best parts at UMLR's website (as linked above).

Some of my candid answers didn't make the final cut - and perhaps censored for good reason! Some were rather inane, some possibly irreverent. I'm not one to mince my words.

So for the benefit of those curious to know more about me (and also not let good content go to waste), here's the juicier parts of the interview transcript...

(Disclaimer: Viewer discretion is advised... Crude and controversial content ahead!)

UM Boleh, Malaysia Boleh!

* * *

On my schooling days

Q: Why did you choose to study law?

"Truth be told, law was never my childhood ambition. As a kid, I was mesmerized by dinosaurs and stars. I aspired to be an archaeologist and astronaut. But after being told off gently by my parents and teachers that the career prospects in Malaysia is close to nil, I gave up. I have a diverse array of interests – history, politics, technology, journalism, etc. Since I couldn’t make up my mind, I settled on the multidisciplinary subject called ‘law’.

After SPM, I changed stream from Science to Arts (which took about 2 months for the Department of Education to clear, during which I was stuck in Biology class). My older brother and three cousins had gotten into UM – I would be a total loser in the family if I didn’t as well. Thankfully, for STPM, I scored straight As. In my UPU form, I was determined not to settle for anything less. So for my top four choices, I filled in ‘Faculty of Law, University of Malaya’ – which basically screamed: “BRING ME UM!”"

Q: Were you active in academic or co-curricular activities during your time in the Faculty?

"UM left me with a lot of fond memories. I served in the Law Society EXCO for two terms. I got into the university debate team (finally!) and joined mooting – both which enabled me to travel far and wide, such as the US, South Korea and Kenya (where we went on a safari, and came within touching distance of lions!). I barely went home during semester breaks. Thanks to my over-active campus life, my CGPA wasn’t great. My attendance record… ah, let’s not go there… Follow Uncle Raphael at your peril, kids!"

* * *

On changing jobs

Q: In 2013, you decided to quit your job as a litigation lawyer and ventured into the corporate legal world. However, after 2 years later, you chose to become a tutor and mooting coach in UM. Can you elaborate more on the changing of lanes?

"Again, I’m not big on making detailed life plans. During my pupillage at Lee Hishammuddin Allen & Gledhill (LHAG), I kept doing work for different partners to gain as much experience as I could, contrary to conventional advice that one should fully commit to their master with the aim of retention. At about my 5th month, a senior founding partner offered to retain me. I stayed on in LHAG for 3+ years. Going in-house was far from my mind. But one day, an opposing counsel on one of my cases forwarded me a job advertisement (pro tip: be nice to everyone). More out of curiosity and to test myself, I applied for the job despite being clearly under-qualified (the PQE requirement was +10 years). Four rounds of interview later, I was hired by Shell Malaysia.

So how did I end up back in UM? Again, the opportunity came knocking at my door. A former lecturer invited me to tutor part-time. Then, students approached me to coach their mooting teams. And gradually, I got more involved in the faculty’s mooting program.

Ultimately, my habit of changing lanes is down to my life philosophy. Life is a process of exploration, education and enlightenment. I’m somewhere between the first and two stages. I’m still learning and growing.

But of course, that’s just my positive spin of things. To some, I’m like the Joker: an agent of chaos, a man without a plan, a dog chasing cars. I totally understand why my devil-may-care YOLO attitude raises eyebrows. My life lacks stability and security. It takes a special type of boldness – and perhaps insanity – to strike down the many different pathways as I have.

Q: You were also awarded as the In-House Lawyer of The Year by ASEAN Legal Business in 2014. That’s an incredible achievement! Brief me about your rise to prominence in the legal world.

"Winning the award was a surprise, honestly. My lawyer friends were kind and adamant enough to nominate me, of which I initially dismissed as a prank. Then I got shortlisted alongside others with many more years – if not decades – of experience. In the end, the award was shared between the Head of Legal of a multinational bank (now a High Court judge) and myself (a fresh-faced in-house counsel who just hit 30).

I don’t think much of the award, honestly. It’s no different from winning the best mooter award – there’s always an element of subjectivity and luck. The best person doesn’t always win, the winner isn’t always the best person. I’m sure there are many people out there more deserving of the award.

But if there’s any lesson to be drawn, it’s about how we should focus more on our performance, rather than obsessing over results. It is our resilience to perform at our highest level for every given task, regardless of results, that ultimately makes us a winner – maybe not tomorrow or next year, but one day. To me, being crowned as the Best In-House Lawyer of the Year serves as a validation not so much of my efforts in that particular year, but all the good work I’ve put in since Day One of practice."

"Hi guys, I don't know what to say, as I totally did not expect to win and prepare any acceptance speech..."

* * *

On mooting

Q: You are renowned for bringing the UM mooting team to achieve world class success, be it Jessup or LAWASIA. Can you share your source of inspiration in accomplishing this astonishing success?

"I wasn’t a very good mooter myself. If I was a student now, I may not even get into any of our mooting teams! Standards are increasing, year by year. The world doesn’t stand still. Other universities and countries are constantly improving.

When I started coaching, UM was stuck in a rut. We weren’t achieving the level of success we ought to be achieving given our pool of talent and facilities. In short, we hit a plateau – and stagnated. It took a lot of failures, soul-searching, and innovation to break through the next level. We learnt from our rivals. We re-built our training system from ground zero. We instilled a renewed sense of collective spirit.

Most of all, I am immensely grateful to our Dean, Dato’ Associate Professor Johan Shamsuddin Sabaruddin, for being patient and keeping faith with me. We had a terrible run of defeats when I first came on board. I can’t blame the students thinking the faculty got the wrong person on the job! But sometimes, we have to take a step backwards to move two steps forward."

Q: What would your advice be for law students wanting to embark on their mooting journey?

"To quote from the late Steve Jobs: “Stay hungry, stay foolish”. Never think you’re good enough, always keep pushing yourself. Never think you’ve hit your peak, always look out for more mountains to conquer. The common weakness of most mooters – seniors and juniors alike – is ego. Ego makes them complacent. Ego blinds them to their flaws. Ego scares them from taking on new challenges. Great mooters aren’t afraid of failure, quick to correct their mistakes, and always come back stronger after a hard fall.

So start mooting as early as you can. Don’t lose spirit if you struggle to keep up with your more talented peers. Mooting – as in all journeys in life – is a marathon, not a sprint. Keep running, no matter how far behind or ahead you are in the race. The hardest part is taking the first few steps. As a wise butler once said to Bruce Wayne: “It’s always darkest before dawn”."

Thankfully, no acceptance speech required

* * *

On future plans

Q: What are your plans for the future?

"As you can tell by now, I’m not much of a planner – at least not by normal standards. As John Lennon once said: “Life is what happens while you’re busy making plans”. Conventional wisdom tells us to make concrete goals: get into the Dean’s List every semester, work through the weekends to fast-track to partnership within 5 years, etc. It’s good to be goal-oriented, except that we shouldn’t rigidly stick to our plans. The inescapable reality –whether we like it or not – is that our lives are largely shaped by externalities beyond our control. It’s equally important to adjust your goals and plans, as much as to make them. Some goals may lose relevance over time, or better goals may emerge from new unexpected opportunities. To paraphrase from a wise Jedi master: “We should always be mindful of the future, but not at the expense of the moment.”

My paramount ‘purpose’ in life is to make the world a better place. For now, my immediate focus – my goal – is education. What I’ll be doing in the next five or ten years – I honestly can’t say, because I don’t know myself. Who knows? I may still have time to be a space pilot!"

Q: Describe your life motto in a single word.

"Ikigai". It’s a Japanese word with no direct English equivalent. Loosely translated, the word means “the reason of being”, or more poignantly: “the reason for which you wake up every morning”. How do you feel first thing in the morning? Joyful or miserable? Do you look forward or dread the rest of the day? Do you jump out of bed or bury deeper in the blankets? To have ikigai is to have a burning purpose in life so fiery that you reawaken every morning full of energy

Our ikigai is not static, and can change over time. Our ikigai shapes our life goals and plans. Our ikigai can manifest in many forms – fighting your clients’ case in court, spending quality time with your family, or even tending to your Bonsai garden. Whether you’re rich or poor, young or old, everyone can discover their ikigai. All it takes is honesty, and the courage not to succumb to societal pressure to chase vacuous materialistic goals like money, fame and power.

Every morning, I unfailingly wake up before 9am. Without an alarm. No matter how late I slept last night. Even on weekends. That’s how excited I am to start a brand new day. That’s how passionate I feel about life. Ikigai is the secret to my happiness - as well as yours..."

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