Fondly known as Jo to her loved ones, Jowena John was born and raised in the scenic capital city of Sarawak, Kuching. She fondly reminisced on her childhood as she was lovingly cared for and supported by her parents to become the bright and admirable lady she is today. As a final-year student at the Faculty of Law, Universiti Malaya (‘UM’), Jowena has proven herself to be no average ‘Jo’ in collecting her string of impressive achievements along the way. Courtesy of her flair in academic and legal writing, her latest triumph was the Best Conference Paper Award in the Hong Kong International Youth Legal Exchange Conference 2021. With that as the tip of the iceberg, it is evident that her verbal eloquence left lasting impressions in multiple prominent mooting competitions — leaving the International Rounds of the Monroe E. Price Media Law Moot Court Competition (‘Price Media’) 2021 as her ‘mootment’ to remember.
Her plethora of accomplishments is nothing short of awe-inspiring. Still, Jowena humbly expressed that the driving factor was her benevolent parents who encouraged her to reach her full potential in anything and everything she does. With her goal to be a better version of herself in every step she takes, Jowena has graciously shared her raison d'être and the invaluable pointers one should endeavour to make law school life a more fulfilling one.
What sparked your interest to pursue a legal degree?
'As cliché as it sounds, my passion for law started when I was little.'
The world of law was not foreign to Jowena. Instead of fairy tales and bedtime stories, her father, a contract law specialist, would share real-life narratives of his work in the legal field to an eager Jowena. Skimming through her father’s books and tracing the pages heavy with words of justice also eventually became one of her favourite pastimes. It was precisely happenings like these that stoked the flames of her passion to follow after her father’s footsteps — by pursuing an undergraduate law degree at UM law school. The early exposure coupled with her Foundation in Law at Universiti Teknologi MARA (‘UiTM’) gave her an early head start in bracing herself for impact upon landing on university grounds. Despite her imagination and expectation of how law school life would be, Jowena admitted that it could never beat the reality of stepping into the hallowed halls of the faculty, as it is ‘really, really different from what you see on TV’.
Little did Jowena know that from there, her years in UM law school would be a constant rollercoaster of adventure
You are currently a scholar under Yayasan Sarawak. What makes this scholarship unique?
‘I highly recommend applying for the Yayasan Sarawak scholarship because it provides us with not only welfare fees but also our flight tickets back to Sarawak.’
The renowned George Bernard Shaw once quoted, ‘don’t wait for the right opportunity: create it’, which was precisely what Jowena did. She pursued one of the most coveted financial aids for Sarawakians — the Yayasan Sarawak scholarship. Upon discovering the scholarship in her second year, she immediately applied for it and sedulously went through the necessary paperwork before finally securing a spot. Being a scholar naturally comes with additional responsibilities. For Jowena, it was the maintenance of her grades throughout law school. She encouraged juniors to also try their hand at it, as scholars with Sarawak connections studying out-of-state would have the luxury of jetting home to Sarawak free of charge! Jowena also pointed out that most scholarships create a safety net of employment opportunities, as they usually come with bonds — providing job security and upscaling the inherent value of scholarships!
What inspired you to be involved in legal and academic writing?
Among her many interests in law school, Jowena was particularly drawn to legal and academic writing. When asked about the ins and outs of the two, Jowena said:
‘Academic writing, in my definition, focuses more on research and substance, while legal writing is more on how you frame your words in a legalistic manner.’
In her words, academic writing is distinguishable from legal writing as they are unique in their respective ways. An academic writer, whose audience is the general public, will be adapting their expressions to a more simplified and layperson manner. In this case, it is the laws. On the other hand, legal writers lace their words with more elements of professionalism as they aim to catch the eyes of those within the legal fraternity.
Jowena assured that law students who struggle to write need not be too worried. In her calm reassurance, she revealed that writing was not within her purview of interests before entering law school. Her first step was only when she attempted to prepare memorials for mooting competitions. Akin to how Rome was not built in a day, writing is also not a skill that can be mastered overnight. Indulging in writing, though stifling at first, soon catalysed into one of her passions.
To write an impactful piece, Jowena learnt that an author must delve into extensive research — going beyond dissecting definitions and their synonyms. Only by cross-checking available materials, would the final product be a piece worthy of study and reference. In pouring her heart into every page of articles and memorials produced, she soon began to see the beauty of weaving words to form a succinct piece powerful enough to convince others. As she grew, the differences between academic and legal writing slowly emerged — sharpening her ability to cater to each target audience.
Jowena’s talent in the realm of writing had further led to her admirable feat during the Hong Kong International Youth Legal Exchange Conference 2021. Her team, the sole Malaysian Delegation in the conference, took home the Best Conference Paper Award. With her partners, Geoffrey Mosiol and Lim San Shien, they braved the unknown by diving headfirst into this conference themed: ‘Access to Justice: The Key to Inclusive Society and Sustainable Development’. She admitted that the days leading up to the presentation day were not smooth sailing, as miscommunications and time constraints constantly rocked the boat. Another obstacle was introducing the international panellists to Malaysia’s unique dual legal system — consisting of Civil Law and Syariah Law. As a result, the team had to make multiple amendments to their conference paper and slides, even having to start from scratch at one point. Thankfully, the valiant decision to rewrite it as an academic paper instead of peppering the paper with complicated legal jargon bore fruition, as this led to them successfully beating participants from 11 other countries — proudly placing Malaysia on the world map!
Jowena with her team members, Mr Geoffrey Mosiol and Mr Lim San Shien,
during the International Youth Legal Exchange Conference 2021
What piqued your interest to step up as the leader for Ecolawgy UM? How did you bridge reading law with the importance of caring for the environment through it?
‘Ecolawgy left quite a big impact on me, and coupled with the encouragement I received from the founding members, it made me consider — why not?’
Aside from academics and literary composition, Jowena’s passion for the environment shines through her role as the Director for Ecolawgy UM for the 2020/2021 tenure. When she first joined Ecolawgy as the Head of Bureau for Activities, the club mainly focused on hands-on environmentalism, such as planting trees. Albeit beneficial, she saw much more potential in Ecolawgy. This unearthed her resolve to help the club grow and extend its roots beyond what it was initially known for. As such, when Ecolawgy celebrated its second anniversary, Jowena stepped in to be the new Director — taking matters into her own hands. Directing the club to a fresher and newer direction, Jowena decided to utilise Ecolawgy as a medium to spread awareness on current environmental issues in Malaysia. This power move can be felt to this day, as Ecolawgy continues to stand out in the faculty for its warm and welcoming wholesomeness in advocating for their causes!
To illustrate the changes enacted during her tenure, the Ecolawgy committee had — in light of the exacerbated climate crisis — taken the initiative to circulate weekly social media postings regarding climate change locally and internationally. Jowena had also represented the club in a prestigious programme entitled ‘Directors’ Duties and Climate Change’, hosted by the Climate Governance Malaysia. In that event, she was given the platform to amplify the youth’s concerns to protect the environment and explain how such matters would affect future generations.
‘We had also elaborated on a few Federal Court cases, which seemingly only protects victims of environmental pollution in the present, but not future victims who may potentially suffer from the same. This leaves the worrying impression that future generations will not be protected from current day environmental pollution.’
A vivid memory imprinted in her mind when the keynote speaker, The Right Honorable Tan Sri Datuk Seri Panglima Richard Malanjum, the former Chief Justice of Malaysia — admitted that the current local legislation on the environment pales in archaism in light of foreign jurisdictions. The dearth of governmental action was also criticised, translating to mere meager fines and inadequate enforcement. Ms Karina Litvack, an environmental specialist who was also a speaker at the event, made Jowena realise that Europe has already waged its war against climate change through stricter penalties. It was moments like these that made Jowena appreciate her opportunity and capability to shed light on critical environmental issues through the platform paved by Ecolawgy. From there, she remains optimistic that they have done their part to encourage youths to step up their game for a better and greener future.
Jowena and her Ecolawgy UM board of the 2020/2021 tenure
Was mooting also an all-time passion of yours?
‘You just have to be really strong mentally, physically, and emotionally.’
As an avid mooter with a stunning repertoire of achievements, Jowena first became acquainted with mooting during the Route to Moot event during her first year. From there, she was given the opportunity to represent the faculty in the Novice Arbitration Moot Competition (‘NAMCO’) 2019, the Regional Rounds of Price Media 2019, and finally, leaving her mark in the International Rounds of the same competition. Mooting was initially not an all-time passion, but Jowena was hooked soon after as she eventually craved the rush of adrenaline and joy that came with it.
For aspiring mooters, Jowena expressed that research and constant practise are the keys to success. In acknowledging that mooting is a time-consuming activity, it should be expected that time management is an inevitable struggle for most. On the flip side, she pointed out that her time spent on memorial writing was not for nought, for it sharpened her skills to write fluidly in exams. The structure adopted in moots has also helped her lay out her thoughts clearly, thus elevating the quality of her answers.
From her three years of mooting, Jowena acknowledged the fact that many mooters would find themselves stretched too thin. She urges mooters not to give up and instead be confident, equipping oneself with enough optimism to take each critique in stride. She further suggested that judges would favour the adoption of a clear and systematic fashion of presentation.
‘There will be times when you feel that you are not doing good enough, which would eventually tempt you to quit — if not managed strategically. That is why, ideally, every criticism should be received as constructive advice, as it would assist you in improving yourself.’
Jowena together with her team members during the Monroe E. Price Media Law Moot Court Competition 2021: Ms Harsha Kaur, Ms Carmel Grace Philip, Ms Leezzie John, and Mr Muhammad Akhmal Amaluddin
As a member of the disciplinary bureau of the 2019/2020 Lex Ordinem, what does it take to oversee the disciplinary matters during the programme?
‘Our only goal is to make sure that you are being respectful to your peers, the lecturers, and the members in the faculty. It has nothing to do with asserting our authorities as seniors onto juniors.’
Aside from her affiliation with Ecolawgy and mooting, it is indeed intriguing to know that Jowena was also involved in Lex Ordinem, where she was appointed as one of the much-feared disciplinary officers. In this interview, Jowena broke the misconception that the student-run orientation program is overburdening on law school newbies. She clarified that during the sessions, the stern façade of the seniors was only meant to instil the essential values of courtesy, discipline, and, most importantly, respect into the freshmen. Although juniors often dismiss these fundamental values, Jowena held firm to the notion that it was important to reinstate these traits in oneself, especially in lieu of the highly competitive nature of law school.
Being in the disciplinary bureau was an enriching experience for Jowena. Besides the friendships forged, she also learned that the previous disciplinary officers adopted stricter demeanours throughout Lex Ordinem to prepare juniors for their future interactions with lecturers. Upon witnessing its effectiveness in polishing the freshmen’s mannerisms, Jowena was adamant in maintaining this tradition by paying it forward. She takes pride in the fact that, together with her colleagues, they had done so for the next generation of UM law students during that fateful session in 2019.
Jowena and the entire body of Lex Ordinem 2019/2020 were in high spirits following the success of the programme
How would you describe your experience being in such a dynamic student body as the Universiti Malaya Students’ Union (‘UMSU’)?
‘The initial job scope was fairly simple, but we decided to go beyond that.’
Reading thus far, it is undeniable that Jowena is an active face within the faculty, but she did not stop there, choosing to continue tracing all possible paths available in UM. One of them eventually led her to become the Academic and Intellectual Unit Secretariat of UMSU 2020. She was first tasked to collect and distribute articles or materials for students in need, but once again, she noticed how her role was brimming with more potential than expected.
Soon after, Jowena and her friend came up with an initiative to manifest a gazette, which would alert all relevant parties in UM on the current happenings in the university. This proved critical, especially during the shift to Open and Distance Learning (‘ODL’) — leaving students, especially freshmen, fumbling in the dark. With students left stranded without the luxury of enjoying the university’s database due to technical difficulties, Jowena and her team went to work — collecting statistics and responses from the students via an online survey. They eventually founded the UMSU Gazette 2020, which housed the article entitled ‘The Hindrance of E-learning’, written to spread awareness to the relevant authorities and public on the unspoken difficulties students face in online learning.
Jowena’s altruistic spirit has also been demonstrated through another cause that she holds dear to her heart, i.e. volunteering. Stemming from this, it is safe to note that her generosity and readiness to give a helping hand are qualities long cultivated within herself. This sense of responsibility played a pivotal role in influencing her choice to pursue law. It was in law school where she realised — or rather, was inspired by her good friend Jacqueline Hannah — that volunteering was the perfect platform for her to actively help others in need. Never did she expect that casually tagging along to Jacqueline’s work at Small Changes would become a long-term gig for her, working alongside other big-hearted volunteers to give refugee children lessons on English and Bahasa Malaysia. Their interactions provided her with the opportunity of connecting with these young students on a more personal basis. For every time they welcome her with their bright eyes and eager ears, she returns home with her passion strengthened by tenfold.
‘I find joy in helping others in any way possible. However, as a student, I am financially restricted. As such, instead of donating money, I choose the next best route — physically helping others in need.’
Aside from the teaching program, Jowena also volunteered to join the Podcast Team in HAKAM Youth, which focuses on human rights issues. In her first podcast series on human rights in Malaysia, she creatively utilised the knowledge obtained from her constitutional law lessons to share the current legal position in Malaysia with the audience — even discussing relevant case laws to substantiate her points further. She agreed that law and volunteerism mix harmoniously, for legal knowledge can also prove useful if one were to attempt pro bono legal counselling for the marginalised. All her volunteering experiences thus far were unforgettable ones, and she expressed her enthusiasm to continue reaching out, engaging, and spreading much-needed love among our community.
Jowena and her friend, Ms Jacqualine Hannah volunteering to help the flood victims
How would you advise students when it comes to choosing their commitments and balancing them out with studies?
‘I still remember the hectic days when I had to divide my time between preparing for Price Media, assisting the UM Moot Club in organising the Internal Environ-moot Competition, managing my directorship in Ecolawgy, and my studies all at once. Here, prioritising helps to keep track of your goals.’
It requires heightened resilience and self-discipline to manage both studies and extra-curricular activities. Apart from planning her tasks, Jowena further expressed that she was fortunate to have her Vice Director in Ecolawgy step in from time to time and her friends acting as her support system in her journey of surviving law school.
‘Friends are very important to support your goals, and I am blessed to have really good ones.’
Jowena and her support system in law school – Mr Geoffrey, Ms Elsha,
Ms Clara, and Ms Faith
When asked about her goals, Jowena mentioned that it is to stay disciplined and to have a clear vision for the future. She believes that these goals would push her forward and eventually assist her in achieving success in law school and beyond.
So, what does Jowena hope to achieve in her final few months at the faculty? Well, with her days as a final-year student trickling to a close end, she has decided to slow her previously hectic pace down to focus on her studies and smell the roses. However, in five years’ time, she sees herself as a litigator passionate about human rights law and fervently hopes to fulfil her long-time dream of pursuing her master’s degree in Scotland. With its picturesque landscapes and University of Aberdeen’s amazing human rights program, she yearns for a visit to the land of the Scots. Born in a native family, she is indeed familiar with injustice before her own eyes, primarily for issues related to land dealings. Thus, she wishes that when equipped with more profound knowledge in human rights law, she would be more prepared to join the good fight of protecting the rights of vulnerable communities.
As an ending note — with the best interests of the faculty members at heart — she endearingly addressed the reality that many law students face, herself included.
‘Receive criticism as a lesson for you to do better, and not as a ticking time bomb that can destroy you at any time.’
Despite encountering various criticisms — ranging from her demeanour to decisions — Jowena remains clear-headed, opining that these verbal attackers have no place in her life. Instead, she chooses to focus on herself and do what is necessary to mould herself into the person she aims to be.
Jowena is grateful for her ‘Gwoop’ of friends for they have always been with her through it all
‘At the end of the day, it is all about your success,’ Jowena added. She further emphasised the importance of a strong mindset in achieving one’s goals, as she had witnessed many of her peers falling victim to mental stress, depression, and anxiety after constantly being pressured to conform to certain perceptions. Instead of using our words as weapons, Jowena expresses her heartfelt sentiments to the readers that a little kindness and respect can go a long way.
Jowena with her dear friends, Ms Elisa and Ms Izzati, whose friendship has spanned over five years
Written by Cheng Xin Miao.
Edited by Sirhan Sidqi, Ashley Khor, and Ee Jie.