It is easy to see why Professor Simon Chesterman was selected out of 60 candidates to succeed Professor Tan Cheng Han as Dean. A quick google and some stalking on the school website later, we learnt of his impressive first class honours from Melbourne University in Arts and Law, and then a doctorate from Oxford as a Rhodes Scholar.

True, we have been spoilt silly with a faculty full of similar credentials, but perhaps what sets Prof Chesterman apart is his vast experience working in the field of international law. Recalling how I naively waxed lyrical on my law admissions essays about how the work of the UN has inspired me, those ideals became so feeble and insignificant upon learning about Prof Chesterman’s research and field work with the UN. He did an internship at the International Criminal Tribunal in Rwanda and was later based in Belgrade, working at the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs in Yugoslavia during the dying days of the Milosevic regime.

This route is not something most of us will take after graduation, but it is undoubtedly something that many of us have considered. And perhaps it also takes a level insurmountable courage, to enter into a conflict zone and be part of the rebuilding process.

Law Annual: You’ve worked for various international organizations, such as the UN in Yugoslavia and International Criminal Tribunal in Rwanda. Can you tell us more about these experiences, as well as any others you might like to share?

Prof Chesterman:

Before I started studying law I lived in China for a year, studying Mandarin in Beijing and then returning to Australia.

So once I started doing law I already had this international perspective – I was interested in the way different countries do things, and the choices that are available, and immediately gravitated towards international law.

I then finished my undergraduate degree on exchange in Amsterdam. Given that it was the 1990s, this was a pretty international experience to have studied in 3 continents. And then I went on to England for graduate studies in Oxford, working on the issue of humanitarian intervention.

After World War 2, the UN Charter prohibits war but for 2 exceptions: (1) Self defence or (2) when force is authorized by Security Council. So war as defence against aggression, or a situation like Libya, where there is a political agreement to use force.

Humanitarian intervention is the 3rd possibility — whether in the event of massive violations of human rights, someone else can go in and rescue the people at risk.

I went to the Rwandan war crimes tribunal on an internship to get a sense of what happened on the ground in situations like that. I spent 3 months there working in chambers, looking at questions like what it means to accuse someone of conspiracy to commit genocide. This was interesting because international law is always a mix of civil and common law. Rwanda applies civil law, but conspiracy stems from the anglo-saxon tradition.

I was looking at what happens when people don’t intervene, which included visiting the mass graves in Rwanda and understanding the stakes of what I was working on.

My next job with the UN came after I finished my doctorate, and my work at the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs in Yugoslavia was in some ways a good counterpart to Rwanda: now I was looking at what happens if you do intervene, helping rebuild after the Kosovo incident of 1999, towards the end of the Milosevic regime

Law Annual: So how did that lead you to become an academic?

Prof Chesterman:
The work with the UN was interesting in helping me understand more about the subjects that I was researching, but also helpful in realizing I didn’t want to go into field operations and be a full time UN employee.

So I went to work at a think-tank, the International Peace Academy, which was across the road from the UN Headquarters in New York. I was able to get involved in all sorts of policy debates on issues like economic sanctions and post-conflict reconstruction. This was a big issue around 2000-2001: whether the UN in a situation like Kosovo or Timor-Leste and now Libya should play a trustee-type role post-conflict in helping a country rebuild, and I ended up doing a book on that.

As I was working there, I realized that I had to make a choice between being either a policy person (working for the UN or the Department of Foreign Affairs in Australia, for example) or full time academic. And it was clear that my passion lay in academia – in research and teaching.

In 2004, I moved to New York University. Then, there was the possibility of NYU setting up a partnership with NUS, and a chance to build a program that was new, intending to offer a global legal education, in close proximity to China and Australia. Coincidentally, my wife was Singaporean and raising a 2 year old child in New York was tricky at the best of times and we could be near family — so all these things worked to a great benefit. I came and visited NUS and found out that it had these great colleagues and students, and so I was happy to make a commitment to move from New York to Singapore.

Law Annual: What do you think about the role of academics — should there be more recognition or immediate practical application of their recommendations?

Prof Chesterman:
NUS Law has being going through an interesting transformation. There is a growing realization that in addition to our responsibility to train lawyers, we must also produce cutting edge research. But it does not necessarily need to have an immediate practical application. Think of how work in Jurisprudence takes a long time to realize changes in the way we think about liberty or the way we think about what “the rule of law” means.

I’m not sure we should always be coming up with recommendations that can be immediately implemented. But nor should we be living in an ivory tower. There is a role for theory and pure research. There are interesting examples of this today outside academia. Google, for example, is now a major source of funding for pure research. Often we don’t know what the practical applications of such research will be. Much of pure mathematics has never had a “real world” application, but then we discovered years later that it is the basis of, say, cryptology.

At the same time, we do have a role to play as the national law school to address problems that confront Singapore and international law. In Singapore, 2 examples spring to mind on law reform issues: (1) company law is being reformed and our faculty is deeply involved in recommendations, and (2) data protection as the government would like to introduce legislation. The faculty (including myself) have written submissions and meet with organizations, and we’ll see how many of those recommendations are accepted.
But the job of the academic is to recognize that there are people appointed through a political process, and there is a legislative process in coming up with laws. The job of academic is, to the best of your conscience, to push the limits of knowledge and make recommendations — and then care less about whether they are followed.

I have no legitimacy in terms of law reform, no role in the government. I simply make the best case – and if it is accepted, then I cannot agree with myself more! But if it is not accepted, and if they have considered it and have reasons for doing so, then I can just keep writing about how I think the law should be changed. So academics have a certain freedom to argue a point because of its inherent value rather than because of the context in which a decision is being made.

But that freedom comes with responsibility to accept that my voice is just my voice. We sometimes see people get very passionate about the issues since their passion is what drives their ideas – rather than being part of some political entity or governmental committee. That said, many of our faculty do actually serve in government entities or are called on by the media to comment, which is something I encourage my colleagues to do in order to explain legal issues and raise the level of public understanding of legal issues.

Law Annual: You’ve taught in US, Australian and English universities as well as in NUS — in your opinion, how do your teaching experiences compare across countries?

Prof Chesterman:
One thing that really strikes me is that lawyers and law students are increasingly similar, the places I have taught in are all part of the “elite” level (that I count NUS Law to be part of), and part of a globalised legal community, speaking the same language.

The main differences lie in culture and tradition of education in these places, and Singapore is in an interesting stage at the moment. By caricature, I feel Australia is the most informal. Whenever I go back and teach, and the first person raises their hand and goes “Simon, I disagree with you!” I have to remember that I’m back in Australia and that is the norm. And that informality has certain benefit in facilitating a real exchange of ideas.

England has a great tradition of scholarship, particularly when I was teaching in Oxford. The students are extremely bright, and tutoring is in a class of 2 or 1, it is a very different dynamic, and more of a conversation.

In the United States, I taught a more multicultural and multinational class, and Americans especially on a graduate level tend to have more fully formed views that can be defended, if you like, too strongly or sometimes too boldly.

Singapore has been interesting. The elective classes will have a pretty diverse range of students – half Singaporean and half international. What I noticed in the 5 yrs being here is that Singaporeans appear to be coming out of their shell a bit more. When I initially arrived people were more deferential, and that seems to be the caricature of Asian students — they will find out exactly what the professor wants and give it to him or her. People were very bright but would not necessarily put their hand up in class, and they would have to be drawn them out.

But this has been changing over the last few years, and is consistent with the Singapore society generally being more vocal – which is a good thing. Being more outspoken is something I want to encourage in my classes and as Dean, to provide opportunity for people to form their own views of what the law is and what the law should be.

This raises an important issue, and a point on which we at the Law School are often challenged by lawyers in the profession: can’t we do more to ensure that students are ready to practice law on day one?

There is an argument for that and people should be aware of what the practice of law entails. But there really isn’t much point teaching what the law is – it will be useless a week from now. Instead, in 4 years of legal education, we want to provide tools for student to work out what the law is, understand why the law is, and how it can change. This should make you a more effective lawyer and effective person – in whatever career path that you choose

Law Annual: How did you decide on your field of specialisation? Was it purely by accident, like what many lawyers would say, or was it a case of love at first sight?

Prof Chesterman:
I got interested partly because I lived in China, and also from doing a concurrent degree in law and arts in Australia. My Arts degree was in International Relations and Chinese. The International Relations part obviously fits into international law. There was also an underlying philosophical interest in the nature of law and the competing theories of law, and I was interested in understanding law as a means of regulating political power.

In international legal terms it becomes more apparent because international law has to struggle to defend its own legitimacy. I was always very interested in those questions and the way different regimes intersected — what it means to restrain power at an international level, where states have the option of going to war. That seems at the outset to be different from domestic legal regimes but it’s not really, because when a domestic legal regime is under stress, people can quickly go back to brute force to achieve their interests.

This theme links the various areas of research that I’ve pursued: the traditional public international law work on humanitarian intervention, post conflict intervention that looks at how public authority is exercised after a crisis, and more recently intelligence law — how established liberal democracies react when they’re under stress.

The underlying theory for all this is: what legitimizes public authority and what restrains public authority? And it’s a question I will probably spend my life working on.

At this point, neither of us could possibly picture Prof Chesterman before his work; his passion for what he does is so apparent, as if he sprung, like Athena, fully grown and ready for battle (which is a rather fitting image, for she is the goddess of law and justice). But every great Dean was once a law student too:

Law Annual: You graduated with First-Class Honours in arts and law at the U of Melbourne — what was the study strategy you used?

Prof Chesterman:
You can read it for yourself! At Melbourne Law School I worked with the Learning Skills Unit and the Aboriginal Tutorial Assistance Scheme to produce a book called Studying Law At University — Everything You Need to Know. It’s in the library and they have 2 copies. Or you can get a copy of it online.

Law Annual: What was your overall law school experience like?

Prof Chesterman:
I was a pretty diligent student. My notes became fairly well known at Melbourne Law School in the 1990s — I was studying in 1992 and was one of the early batches of students who brought laptops into class. I do ban laptops in some classes now, but not because I’m afraid my students are playing World of Warcraft, (if they’re distracted they can just look out the window). I ban them in part to stop some of the very diligent students taking notes verbatim when the class is meant to be discussion based. When you take away that barrier, you can cultivate more of a discussion.

My own strategy was to take notes before class, go in with them and edit the notes as the class progressed, and I ended up with very good notes. Unfortunately I was not at all entrepreneurial, so I just gave my notes to anyone who wanted them, and they ended up getting circulated. I visited Melbourne 10 years later and a friend of mine who teaches Torts told me he would occasionally start his class by saying “Does anyone have Chesterman’s notes? Throw them out, the law has changed!”

I did a lot of debating and was quite involved with the debating society. I cycled and ran a lot, and I still jog – that’s my main way of de-stressing. And I read a bit of fiction.

Law Annual: Seems like your notes were part of our Muggers handover tradition! Do you approve of students using Muggers?

Prof Chesterman:
Of course I approve of muggers, I don’t see a problem – provided people understand that this is not a substitute to reading. The whole point of notes is not to encapsulate knowledge, but to have a relatively shorthand way of remembering things and to put them in context. It only works if you have a larger perspective. I know at least one case of someone who complained to me that he had my notes but still failed the exam!

It’s fine to have access to all sorts of information, but the problem is if you don’t do the additional work and think there is a shortcut.

The brilliant lawyer and passionate academic aside, Prof Chesterman is married to Patricia Tan, the daughter Dr Tony Tan. They met at Oxford while completing their PhDs and had a “transnational relationship” for nearly two years before tying the knot. But a long distance relationship is something he “wouldn’t recommend”.

Law Annual: What do you think about finding a soul mate in university, especially in law school? Like lawyers dating lawyers?

Prof Chesterman:
I think university is and should be a transformational experience in all sorts of ways. And the role of NUS Law is to provide educational and extra-curricular experiences. It’s also natural that people are both of an age and in an environment that enables them to develop more as an independent person. A lot of relationships therefore form at university.

At the NYU@NUS program I used to direct, we have had at least 4 marriages within the 200 students that have passed through, and there are significant numbers of long-term personal relationships that form among our undergrad population. Its natural a lot of couples meet in uni. If you don’t meet there, you might meet your soul mate at the office – which introduces all sorts of new problems.

It is easy to forget that our professors are human too, so we probed a little further on personal questions…

Law Annual: What sort of music do you listen to? What’s on your iPod?

Prof Chesterman:
I run with an iPod, and I have around 12 different playlists that I try to vary, depending on how I’m feeling. If I need more energy to run I listen to some Eminem or Chemical Brothers. And if I’m feeling more reflective I listen to some Gustav Mahler – a long dead composer. Somewhere in the middle is some U2 and some other guy whose name I can’t remember but I’m not going to sing it for you because I know you’re recording this.

Law Annual: What about fiction?

Prof Chesterman:
I’ve read the first book of the Millennium Trilogy (Stieg Larsson’s Girl with the Dragon Tattoo), I haven’t seen the movie though, so I’m curious how the film version of Lisbeth Salander compares to the image formed in one’s head. Right now I’m also halfway through Umberto Eco’s The Prague Cemetery – it’s a fictionalized version of the drafting of the notorious anti-Semitic forgery the Protocols of the Elders of Zion.

I suppose my son and I share an interest in Star Wars and I’ve been reliving my youth by watching the movies again with him. Episodes 2 and 3 are a bit too dark for a kid but numbers 4, 5, 6 and 1 are okay.
As a child I was really interested in finding out how they made these films – all the behind the scenes details. In some way it was far more interesting seeing the mechanics behind Jabba the Hut and the laser blast sound effects (which I recall was a high tension wire that was hit it with a stick). Now it’s all computer generated and there isn’t such an interesting back story to it.

I watch virtually no free to air television because I don’t really have the time to follow a network’s schedule. One programme I do enjoy is 30 Rock (which I have on DVD). And the only television news I get is the 9:30pm news here when I can, as well as programmes like the Daily Show or Colbert Report, which you can watch online.

Maybe Prof Chesterman is not so different from us after all — he has a Facebook account (though he puts up “virtually no personal information which kinda isn’t the point of Facebook”), and eats at the Summit whenever he does not have a work lunch scheduled (and particularly enjoys the meepok stall).

We finished the interview with one last pressing question:

Law Annual: Will you be continuing Prof Tan Cheng Han’s tradition of writing to the students?

Prof Chesterman:
I didn’t actually know what the tradition is, and I’m certainly open to doing that. One thing I would like to do more is reach out to the students, and I think emails are definitely one way of doing it. But also in particular, because we’re going to do a curriculum review, I would like to engage students through the law club and also “town hall” meetings where everyone who wants to can give feedback on the curriculum. I can’t promise we’ll do everything that is suggested but I certainly want to find out more views of the students and provide more opportunities for students to get their views up directly to me.

And I shall make a note to send emails to students during the exams because I don’t want them failing and then blaming it on me!


Article contributed by: Heidi Tan (Law 2)

*Law Annual would like to thank Prof Simon Chesterman for agreeing to be featured.

Credits to Joyce Ng (Law 2) for helping out with the interview.

Share this post