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Interview with Prof Simon Chesterman Dean at Faculty of Law, National University of Singapore
Interviews

Interview with Prof Simon Chesterman Dean at Faculty of Law, National University of Singapore

Bar & Bench

We speak with Simon Chesterman, Dean of Faculty of Law at the National University of Singapore. In this short conversation, Chesterman speaks about possible changes at NUS, offers advice on those interested in studying at NUS and also laments on the decline of investigative journalism in new media.

Bar & Bench: Congratulations on being appointed Dean at NUS, Faculty of Law. Are there any particular projects that you wish to implement during your tenure?

Prof. Simon Chesterman: Thank you!

A change of dean offers a chance for renewal but also reflection. I’m in the process now of reaching out to all stakeholders — including my colleagues on the faculty, members of the government and the judiciary, representatives of the profession both in Singapore and internationally, as well as students past and present. I know that this includes many alumni in India and would be delighted to hear from them. They may also want to “like” our new Facebook page.

In terms of projects, the first is to rethink our curricular and extra-curricular offerings.

Our undergraduate curriculum last underwent a major overhaul in 2002. The world has changed since then — among other things, Facebook didn’t exist and a tweet was still a sound made primarily by birds! — and the study of law must change also. We need to prepare graduates for a truly globalized world, in which they are comfortable operating across jurisdictions, but also leveraging on the important role that Singapore plays in a rising Asia.

NUS Law has a great tradition of legal training. But the lawyers of the future need more than just good doctrinal skills. They need to be creative thinkers, to be able to cross literal and metaphorical boundaries in their work. Training students to do this requires pushing them outside their comfort zone. I want to ensure that their time at NUS Law is intellectually challenging, but also as enriching and transformative. And they should have fun!

Addressing these issues will entail a major review of our curriculum. In addition, I have created the new position of Vice Dean of Student Affairs, held by Prof Joel Lee, with a mandate to enrich and enhance the student experience at NUS Law outside the classroom and the library.

Secondly, we need to sharpen our research, cultivating and promoting scholarship in areas of comparative advantage for — or of strategic interest to — Singapore. We have a comparative advantage in areas like Asian Legal Studies and Maritime Law. Our strategic interest is in topics like International Law, Law & Business, and Environmental Law. A key area for expansion is in International Arbitration, which was the topic of our inaugural Kwa Geok Choo Distinguished Visitors Lecture by Gary Born, one of the world’s preeminent authorities on international commercial arbitration and international litigation.

The third area on which we need to focus is re-engaging our stakeholders. Our Singapore-based alumni now hold the highest legal offices in the land, both in government, the judiciary, and in the profession. But we also have graduates in positions of leadership around the world. NUS Law is uniquely positioned to contribute to Singapore’s aspirations to be a global legal hub, centred in Asia, in significant part because our faculty, our students, and our alumni bridge East and West. We need to do more to involve them in the life of the Law School.

Bar & Bench: You studied in Amsterdam and China apart from Australia and England. Looking back, do you think that there dramatic difference between the teaching methodologies adopted in these countries? Have you consciously tried to incorporate these differences at NUS?

Prof. Simon ChestermanI think you learn an enormous amount by moving outside your comfort zone. When I spent a year in China, for example, I learned about China of course. But I also learned a great deal about Australia (where I grew up) by not being there. Having studied in many different places and with many different professors, one of the key things I discovered is that there are many ways to learn. At NUS Law we try to incorporate this by allowing professors to develop their own teaching styles and bringing in top visitors from around the world. That way, students can experience classes taught in diverse ways and determine which method is best for them.

It’s all part of being a global law school: apart from learning the substance, you also need to learn how to interact with people from different backgrounds.

Bar & Bench: You have been associated with NUS for a while now. In your opinion, what sets NUS Law apart from other law schools in the region?

Prof. Simon Chesterman: NUS Law calls itself Asia’s Global Law School, but that global outlook is more than a mere tagline: it infuses every aspect of our work. We see ourselves as part of a global conversation about the study and practice of law. Our Graduate Studies programme, for example, is integral to that vision, bringing lawyers from dozens of countries to Singapore — one of the most dynamic and open economies in the world, and the gateway for many multinational corporations to Asia.

Bar & Bench: As one of the key forces behind the NYU@NUS program, what were some of the challenges you faced while setting it up? Do you think that such a model is easy to replicate in other parts of the world?

Prof. Simon ChestermanThe NYU@NUS model is very hard to replicate. There are many joint programmes around the world, but few real partnerships. NYU@NUS brings together two global law schools to offer the best of both worlds: the rigours of an American LL.M. combined with serious exposure to Asia through one of its best law schools.

Bar & Bench: Your welcome address states that you want to create “leaders” and not necessarily lawyers. Do you think the concept that law is a good “base” degree to have is one which is only slowly catching up in the Asian world?

Prof. Simon Chesterman: The study of law is, of course, a professional training for lawyers. But it should also be more than that. Apart from anything else, no one can know for sure that they will remain a lawyer for the rest of their working life. Law school should also provide you with critical and analytical skills that will serve you well in many other careers, ranging from business and politics to academia. I think there is growing recognition of this around the world.

Bar & Bench: What is your general perception about students who come from India? Have you observed any particular characteristics about students who graduate from Indian law schools? 

Prof. Simon ChestermanNUS Law has had a very good record with our Indian alumni. Their oral and written skills tend to be strong, and many are very vocal in class. One of the many positive traits is real respect for the academic enterprise and for the role of intellectuals. At the same time, India now has almost a thousand law schools of very variable quality. Many confront resource constraints and faculty are not always well-paid. That makes it hard to generalize about Indian students, but I’m confident that we will continue to have a good cohort in our graduate programme. I am already exploring the possibility of organizing alumni receptions in the coming years in major Indian cities, as well as gathering our Indian alumni who have gone on to work in New York, London and around the world. And of course many stay on after their degree to work in Singapore.

Bar & Bench: Is there any advice that you would give to students who may be interested in applying to NUS? What are the things that you look for in student applications?

Prof. Simon Chesterman: The Master of Laws degree (LL.M.) offers an opportunity to upgrade qualifications, to develop new skills, and to form professional and personal connections that will last a lifetime.

In terms of selection, academic and language credentials are, of course, extremely important. We also look carefully at extra-curricular activities like mooting and publications — and references and a strong personal statement add to the picture we form of an individual. The bottom line is that we’re looking for someone who will benefit from our academic programme but also add to the intellectual life on campus.

More information is available online here 

Bar & Bench: Lastly, on a completely unrelated note, at a round table conducted by the Law School Magazine at NYU, you said that quality investigative journalism is something that is missing in most parts of the world. Do you think this is more to do with repressive regimes or does the problem lie in a culture of silent acceptance? Any thoughts?

Prof. Simon Chesterman: That’s a good question from an online publication!

The problems are of course exacerbated when there is active repression of journalists. Many countries lack the tradition of investigative journalism epitomized by exposés like Watergate or, more recently, revelations of warrantless electronic surveillance and torture in the U.S.

But there’s also a more general problem that the economic model of quality newspapers has disappeared. In the Internet age, the pressure to publish quickly and widely often makes it hard to devote time to just one story.

The positive side of new media, of course, is that it is now vastly easier for me to reach out to Indian lawyers and law students through platforms like Bar & Bench!

(This interview was conducted by NUS student Shruti Hiremath for Bar & Bench. Hiremath is currently pursuing the NYU@NUS program)