Tan Jia Shen is a final-year student of the Faculty of Law, University of Malaya (UM). A friendly face in the Faculty known to most as Jia Shen, his burning passion and brilliance in the mooting courts have preceded his reputation amongst students as one of the prominent mooters the Faculty has to offer. Fuelled by his multidisciplinary approach in understanding the inequalities that plague marginalised communities, Jia Shen also resolved himself in exploring different platforms to fully maximise his voice as a law student. However, perhaps the most remarkable qualities that Jia Shen has are his modesty and altruistic spirit. His repute of kindness extends to sharing advice and company with peers and juniors alike, showcasing his ability to remain grounded amidst his accolades.
Being the middle child of a humble family hailing from Rawang, Jia Shen never expected that the trajectory of his life would take the shape it took today. He describes his life growing up to be as ordinary as one would expect of any other small-town boy. That was, of course, until one not-so-ordinary day gave him a glimpse of what his future could hold. Passing his Sijil Pelajaran Malaysia (SPM) with flying colours was a crucial stepping stone that enrolled him into Pahang Matriculation College, which in turn, opened the doors of opportunity to study at UM.
‘My background made me very grateful for the opportunity to study at UM as a law student. For someone like me, coming from a humble family and an ordinary secondary school, everything had to go perfectly right at every step of the way to get to where I am today.’
‘I would like to thank my family for their endless support and love.’
Perceptiveness has always been a key asset of Jia Shen’s character, for he seldom viewed his circumstances as a heavy burden to overcome. Instead, he is deeply appreciative of the role it played in shaping how he perceives the world and his responsibility to society. He candidly admits that law school was never really in his cards during his teenage days. Looking back, he pinpoints his experience in Chinese debate during secondary school — and more specifically, his debate coach — as the endorsing factors that inspired him to explore law as a future prospect.
‘The experience I gained from debate enlightened me as it made me much less ignorant than how I used to be at the disparities in the world. That really pushed forward my interest in educating myself about the daily struggles of upholding human rights and why all the terrible things in the world were happening.’
Drawing inspiration from prominent human rights lawyers, alongside his wits to be verbally argumentative and analytical, Jia Shen eventually decided to pursue law as a profession. That decision did not come easy to him as he was caught in a dilemma of choosing between studying law and economics, another field that interested him. His passion for economics stemmed from his awareness of the substantial and technical impact it gave on constructing the hierarchy of our society. Ultimately, his decision was set in stone during his interview with the Law Faculty when he stood by his first choice of studying law. ‘My fate was decided in one minute where I had to think about my future. I dived head-first into law, and that turned out to be a pretty good choice,’ he added playfully.
To say that it was merely a good choice on his part would be a colossal understatement. Upon receiving his offer letter and delving into books touching upon law like ‘To be or Not to Be … a Lawyer’ by Mariette Peters, Jia Shen was brimming with excitement and confidence to embark his journey as a future lawyer in his own distinctive manner.
Soon after his arrival at the Faculty, Jia Shen began forging his path towards his ambitions. He found himself immersed in the art of mooting in his first year. He tried his hand at mooting during the annual Route to Moot competition held by the UM Moot Club — an event aimed to introduce the fundamental aspects of mooting to curious students of the Faculty. In spite of the inevitable nerves and worries felt by most first-time mooters, Jia Shen managed to demonstrate his untapped potential as a mooter, both to himself and the judges. With an encouraging push in confidence from a student judge, Ms Dayana Najwa — who was also his senior at that time — Jia Shen took a leap of faith and dived into uncharted waters in pursuit of this new passion which later proved to aid his holistic development as a law student.
The first testament to his mooting aptitude came in the form of his performance in the Novice Arbitration Moot Competition (NAMCO) 2018 — with his team crowned as the First Runner-up, alongside his feat in being awarded the Fourth Best Speaker Award in the general rounds. The countless hours spent researching and preparing for the competition as first-timers are not memories he gazes upon with weariness but rather with impish fondness. He passionately engaged in navigating these exciting voyages with his team and was immensely grateful for the awards they received as a sign of recognition for their hard work. Learning a niche area of the law regarding foreign investments was also a plus in expanding his knowledge bank.
Jia Shen with his teammates — Mr Anson Liow, Ms Florence Yeap, Ms Esther Hong — and their coach, Ms Dayana Najwa during NAMCO 2018
Upon securing another impressive First Runner-up win at the national rounds of LAWASIA International Moot Competition 2018, Jia Shen ventured into one final competition to round up his astounding performance as a freshman in the mooting circuit. Whilst he initially auditioned for the Philip C. Jessup International Law Moot Court Competition 2018, he was instead placed in the Tun Suffian Moot Court Competition 2018 team. Unbeknownst to him at that time, this unexpected turn of events eventually lead him to materialise one of the most endeared highlights of his mooting journey.
Jia Shen with his team consisting of Ms Caysseny Tean Boonsiri and Ms Amiratu Al Amirat at the national rounds of LAWASIA International Moot Competition 2018
The arduous task at hand was to prepare for the moot problem — which highlighted a complex but engaging question on abusive constitutionalism drafted by the late Mr James Low Hong Ping, who served the Faculty as an academician. Jia Shen saw this as a rare opportunity to further nurture and strengthen his roots in constitutional law — a branch of legal knowledge he holds dear to his heart until today. Months of meticulous preparation led to one final ascent before reaching the mountain’s peak when Jia Shen had to submit in the finals before a highly prominent bench of judges. Amongst these high calibre judges were the likes of Dato’ Seri Mohd Hishamudin Yunus and Datuk Seri Gopal Sri Ram, two trailblazing figures in Malaysia’s very own judicial system. Despite the hard-hitting questions propped to him that would surely cause a lump in anyone’s throat, Jia Shen resiliently prevailed. Reaching the mountaintop with his teammates was a liberating feeling as they took home the championship and the Best Memorial Award. On top of that, Jia Shen was awarded the Best Oralist Award by none other than Datuk Seri Gopal Sri Ram.
‘At the end, it turned out to be a blessing in disguise as Tun Suffian was an enjoyable experience, in terms of the competition itself and the law at question. For me, the feeling of going into such a difficult situation, and to be able to come out of it quite gracefully, will always be one of my fondest memories of mooting.’
Jia Shen and his teammates during their sweeping victory at Tun Suffian Moot Court Competition 2018
Jia Shen’s achievements in the world of mooting were not limited to the domestic level; he courageously paraded into the heights of the international stage as well. In 2018, he was selected to compete in the International Maritime Law Arbitration Moot (IMLAM). IMLAM ignited a spark in him as he unearthed a sense of fulfilment in tackling the complexity of maritime law. That spark, coupled with the dedication portrayed by him and his teammates, piloted them into finishing as octo-finalists. They emerged as one of the top 16 teams out of the 40 international teams battling it out in the Netherlands.
Jia Shen with his IMLAM teammates and coach — Mr Raphael Kok, Ms Soh Lip Shan, Ms Khoo Shen Rynn and Ms Peh Qi Hui — in Rotterdam, Netherlands
Another lasting imprint he left on the Faculty’s extensive track record in mooting was when he and his team — consisting of Mr Neoh Kai Sheng, Ms Jacqueline Hannah and Ms Saradha Lakshmi — banded together to march into the battlefield to take on the Faculty’s long-time rival at the 15th UM-NUS Friendly Moot Competition 2019.
High expectations and mountainous pressure to finally bring home the trophy for the first time in 15 years since the inception of the competition weighed heavily on their minds. Although UM students triumphed in the hybrid competition organised in 2018 where both schools shared the top prize, UM teams were hungry for victory. As such, the team devoted themselves wholeheartedly to accomplish this high-stakes mission. Propped up by the confidence everyone entrusted in them, Jia Shen and his team indulged in their autonomy to perfect their submissions to the bone. This ranged from digging up little nuggets of ‘treasure’ from their extensive legal research to craft stronger arguments, to injecting humour and charm into their script to truly make it one for the books.
One of the clever gimmicks that the team cooked up was to go empty-handed when presenting their submissions. This risky double-edged sword could have sealed their victory or destroyed their chances of winning. With adjudicators noticing the absence of documents at hand, one particular judge decided to put Jia Shen to the test. In a nail-biting moment, he was asked to not only explain the principle of a specific case, but also to quote the paragraph in which the principle was laid down. It was nothing short of a miracle that he managed to pull off reproducing the paragraph word for word. His thorough attentiveness and laborious efforts whisked with a sprinkle of good luck assisted him in his venture to make the Faculty proud. In the end, they proved the phrase ‘no guts, no glory’ to be true. Their bold and calculated choices paid off and manifested in their championship as well as winning the Best Memorial Award. This momentous achievement further elevated Jia Shen’s mooting prowess and solidified the upstanding mooting stature of the Faculty.
Jia Shen and his UM-NUS teammates with the Dean of the Law Faculty, Dato’ Associate Professor Dr Johan Shamsuddin bin Hj Sabaruddin
Aside from all his personal endeavours, Jia Shen generously lent a helping hand to other teams preparing for their competitions. He firmly believes that senior mooters should extend their experience and acquired skills by supporting juniors who are still struggling to find their way through the vast thicket of mooting. Jia Shen also helped adjudicate training sessions and offered valuable advice that benefited his juniors tremendously. His caring and supportive charismas are definitely among many reasons why junior mooters look up to him as a mentor and friend that propel them forward.
‘When I was a beginner, tons of seniors selflessly helped us when we needed it. Now, I get to give back, which is something I find real joy in doing. Through this cycle, that is how we can sustain the mooting culture in UM and build a healthy ecosystem within the Faculty.’
Jia Shen assisted the coach, Ms Amiratu Al Amirat in the Cyber Law Moot Competition 2019
Within a span of three years, Jia Shen’s commitment to make use of that first spark he felt during Route to Moot flourished into a steady flame that lit the path for his congruous development as a law student. He accredits the personal satisfaction he felt from years of mooting to be rooted in the bare concept of mooting. Simply put, he describes mooting to be ‘a treasure hunt injected with the sport of argumentation.’
This repetitive and challenging cycle of thinking, discussing and arguing might sound tiresome to most, but Jia Shen felt differently. He saw mooting as a platform for him to hone his skills of strategically packaging an idea that echoes clarity and persuasiveness in front of an audience. While he admits that the art of conveying impactful messages to the masses is not always his forte, he finds it fascinating as the experience help refines advocacy skills required of any future litigator.
With mooting competitions transitioning to virtual settings due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, Jia Shen undertook it as a sign to step aside from his mooting journey for the time being. While the trophies he keeps will always serve as a physical commemoration of his triumphs in mooting, emotionally, he treasures the wonderful camaraderie forged during those competitions as his teammates are now his close friends. The mutual respect and dedication they afforded to one another are testaments to the highs and lows they sailed as a team. He nostalgically reminisces on the long and intense days spent together holed up in the library or the student lounge, followed by laughter and a sense of community during shared dinners after a hard day’s work. Their joint hopes and aspirations proved to be very fertile soil in planting and nurturing friendships that grew into sturdy trees of friendship.
For ambitious students looking to try out their hand in mooting, he enthusiastically encourages them to dip their feet into the pool — at least once. He equates mooting to the likes of any skill-based sport; while the first few months will be brutal and intertwined with self-doubt, months of perseverance will be trailed by improvement and natural intuition. Years of mooting have also taught Jia Shen to tread lightly in navigating the commonly blurred lines between self-fulfilment and victory.
‘The result is definitely important but will not be a 100% accurate reflection of your submission as there are so many other factors in play during a competition. Winning or losing is often fleeting, but what truly matters is your performance and the time and effort you have invested in the process of honing your own craft.’
Another impressive stunt Jia Shen pulled off in his first year was when he, alongside two of his batchmates, challenged the competitive KPUM Law Reform Competition 2018. He recalls the uncertainty that danced along with their fresh legal minds at the thought of going against law students from renowned universities in the United Kingdom. That evidently did not deter them and instead motivated them to step up their game. They proposed innovative reforms on the rights of domestic migrants workers, such as implementing a statutory provision to impose joint-liability on both recruitment agencies and employers in the event of exploitative and misleading recruitment. Their insightful law reform proposal eventually delivered them the win.
This prestigious recognition was not only a personal testament to their abilities but a commend to the overall quality of education in Malaysian public universities that run parallel to the academic vigour of law schools overseas. ‘The grass is not always greener on the other side,’ Jia Shen says with faith in the bright minds of our local education system.
Jia Shen alongside his teammates, Ms Florence Yeap and Mr Carson Lim at the KPUM Law Reform Competition 2018
Aside from his outstanding mooting career and involvement in the KPUM Law Reform Competition 2018, Jia Shen also took on the role of a committee member in the UM chapter of the Asian Law Students’ Association (ALSA) as a TED Officer. During his time in ALSA, he cultivated organisational skills to go hand in hand with newfound levels of bureaucracy and interpersonal communication. The committee’s combined efforts were awarded in multitudes with the successful execution of ALSA National Conference 2018 and ALSA Student Exchange Programme — the latter being a highly-anticipated inbound programme which welcomes student delegates from all around the world to experience the life of a UM law student.
During his second year, Jia Shen embarked upon yet another aspect of law school he wished to improve on — legal writing through the careful eyes of an editor in the University of Malaya Law Review (UMLR). The idea of being a member of the Editorial Board appealed to him due to the independence and remoteness editors enjoy in completing assigned tasks at their own pace — as long as it adhered to the final deadline. The seamless to and fro between mooting and editing was not too burdensome as his teammates and colleagues fully supported his endeavours. Jia Shen was thankful for their constant understanding and patience while he juggled his multiple responsibilities.
Rising from the ranks of an Online Editor all the way up to shouldering the role of Managing Editor was not an easy feat. Throughout his tenure, he learnt to respond instantaneously to every notification that rang through his phone. Each alert was a potential legal or news update to keep the Law Review’s avid readers in the loop. Jia Shen found this task to be taxing yet rewarding, as it pushed him to educate himself on recent developments in every corner of the globe. This knowledge and self-awareness were something he had been pursuing since his early debate days.
As the Managing Editor, Jia Shen was tasked with the hefty responsibility of reviewing articles alongside his other colleagues. He meticulously reviewed articles late into the night and weave them into remarkable pieces to the best of his abilities. Jia Shen’s love for editing stems from his appreciation of the interactive collaboration between the original writer and editor, working together to find the right approach to forming a coherent body of work.
Furthermore, his task as the second-in-command to the Editor-in-Chief in overseeing his junior editors meant something much more profound than just a job of critique and instruction. To most, Jia Shen was a strict man of principles but a gentle mentor. He placed high expectations on his editors and was there to help them whenever they needed him. His encouraging guidance to his editors reflects his fervent belief in the cycle of learning from seniors and then imparting that knowledge to the less experienced. ‘You cannot always repay the people who have done you a favour, but what you can always do is extend that favour to others.’
Jia Shen with the Dean of the Law Faculty, Dato’ Associate Professor Dr Johan Shamsuddin bin Hj Sabaruddin and the University of Malaya Law Review Editorial Board of 2019/2020
While Jia Shen managed to curate a robust extracurricular profile, his academics have not been neglected. In fact, he was recently awarded the prestigious honour of being on the Dean’s List during his sixth semester. Jia Shen humbles himself by stating that he is not the most academically inclined person in his batch. Nevertheless, he shares the importance of reading the entirety of case reports as it will be extremely helpful in framing legal arguments during examinations. In addition, for courses that genuinely intrigued him, like administrative law and constitutional law, he found himself reading beyond the required syllabus. ‘Follow where your passion brings you in your studies,’ he advised.
He is also grateful for his close friends who have always been generous in sharing their academic resources. As per any other sane student, he does not yearn for the anguish of facing exams but instead misses the time he spent with his friends, munching on the mountain of snacks in the days leading up to an examination.
‘I would like to thank all my friends for helping me emotionally and academically throughout this journey’ — Jia Shen and his closest friends after completing their examinations
Recently, Jia Shen was granted the opportunity to complete his internship at two very prominent firms in the legal fraternity, Thomas Philip Advocates & Solicitors and GS Nijar Advocates — each with its unique takeaways enhanced Jia Shen’s aptitude.
Practicality, presentation of research and a newfound respect for practicing lawyers and lecturers were just some of the many things he picked up from his time at Thomas Philip Advocates & Solicitors. Although he received strict criticisms from his mentors on the formatting and presentation of his research, it only drove him to elevate those skills to a professional capacity. Striding into his final year of law school, he is undoubtedly more mindful and appreciative of the education his lecturers bestowed, implicit in the knowledge that learning no longer comes on a silver plate once one steps into the real world. Beyond the ivory towel, every lesson is to be earned rather than taught.
During his time in GS Nijar Advocates — a firm he chose due to their prominence on public interest litigation — Jia Shen was incredibly motivated when researching pro bono cases that were brought forward to challenge the constitutionality of certain acts and provisions. Above all, Jia Shen primarily credits the positive experience he had interning in the firm due to enlightening philosophies imparted by Professor Gurdial Singh Nijar, a partner at the firm and former lecturer of the Faculty. Under the tutelage of Professor Gurdial, Jia Shen was regularly exposed to diverse and refreshing approaches towards life. An excellent example of its alignment with his personal beliefs is his utmost agreement with the emphasis of his mentor on the intellectual debt university students owe to the betterment of society.
‘Society is structured in a way that it spearheads a surplus of resources to educate and create a middle-class that will lead the society forward. Unfortunately, what most public university students fail to realise is that their success in obtaining high-paying jobs after graduating is premised on the prosperity of the society, which is sustained by people who work their entire lives laboriously only to find themselves float above the minimum wage.'
That ideology directed him to develop a personal aspiration to fully utilise his final year at law school to be more vocal and involved in issues pertaining to the social welfare of society. Believing that education and awareness are key in improving constitutional literacy and democracy of our motherland, he hopes to influence and inspire other students to take accountability for their social responsibility.
‘Not everyone’s path will lead them to student activism, but at the very least, we owe it to our community to be informed and mindful towards the developments taking shape in our nation. Oftentimes, we forget that knowledge in itself is a powerful tool.’
Jia Shen will continue to draw inspiration from other human rights lawyers he adores to push him further in discovering his own footing in the legal fraternity. His recent idol in the legal fraternity is Geoffrey Robertson QC. By reading his memoir — titled ‘Rather His Own Man’ — Jia Shen found himself fascinated at the zealous commitment portrayed by a singular man in the struggle for human rights throughout the world. From shaping the way constitutional and human rights law is perceived in the United Kingdom and Commonwealth countries to fighting for lives on the death row in the Caribbean countries, Robertson’s countless contributions gave Jia Shen the courage to dream greater.
Jia Shen extrapolated three notions of wisdom from this inspiring figure. First, to enact proper change in the world, one can only ‘fight their fight as a lawyer’ if they are armed with the right tools. Indeed, the idealism and selfless intention correlated with the advocacy for human rights cannot be manifested without technical legal knowledge.
Secondly, he realised how a legal system without legal aid would naturally be skewered towards lawyers that earn a hefty sum in providing legal counsel. Robertson’s suggestion that lawyers should feel the moral imperative to dedicate at least 10 per cent of their time on pro bono public work aligns with Jia Shen’s view that law students should commit their time to study the inequities of the world, although that knowledge may not necessarily be advantageous in their pursuit of future financial gain.
Lastly, although Jia Shen is aware of the bumpy obstacles laid before him, Robertson’s journey proved improving society through the advocacy skills of lawyers possible. ‘One must dare to dream and imagine,’ he says with resolution.
Gearing up to make his final year in the university to be as cathartic as it can be, Jia Shen is reminded of his family — specifically his mother, who never fails to console him or remind him to hold onto his passion. He extends that gratitude to his amazing group of friends who supported and encouraged his growth as a student and a person. They have never failed in providing him emotional support by ranting along with him at the injustices of the world. Personally, during well-earned breaks to unwind, he enjoys immersing himself in books revolving around economics and history or indulging in an episode or two of the comedy series ‘Community’ to take his mind off the turmoil and stress.
‘With lockdowns and the hardships that have arisen from this year, I am very fortunate to have been able to go through it with my family. My mum single-handedly raised the four of us, which is amazing and mind-boggling at the same time. To be able to keep her company has just been a wonderful feeling, I am very proud of her and she is my main strength to carry on.’
Jia Shen is ready and eager to embrace what the future holds for him
Jia Shen looks forward to his future to hopefully persevere in his passion for litigation in constitutional law. In retrospect of his past three years in the Faculty, Jia Shen offers a piece of advice.
‘Law school is competitive and cutthroat only if you see it from that point of view. However, it can also be extremely collaborative and fun if you embody the perspective of uplifting one another. Once you abandon this singular idea of success, you will find that there are close to an infinite amount of choices in university for you to explore and develop yourself. At the end of the day, there really is no clear yardstick of success, so whatever you choose to do — as long as you can derive love and joy from it whilst improving your skills, then that is the uniqueness that you can offer up to the diverse world waiting for you outside of law school.’
Written by Ashley Khor.
Edited by Azra Athirah, Luc Choong Guong Sang and Celin Khoo Roong Teng.