From Micronesia through Calcutta to an English Law School
Professor Robert C “Bob” Beckman has been a Law School institution for almost four decades now. In view of his long history with Law School, who better than one of his Jessup protégés, Ho Seng Chee ’93, to get the story behind the legend?
HSC: How did you come to specialise in International Law?
RB: When I completed my law studies at the University of Wisconsin Law School in 1968, I volunteered to serve for two years as a Peace Corps volunteer in Micronesia, which was then a US Trust Territory administered by the United States under a Trusteeship Agreement with the United Nations. I served as a legal advisor to the Congress of Micronesia, which was based on the island of Saipan, in the Mariana Islands. One of my duties was to serve as a legal advisor to the Future Political Status Commission of the Congress of Micronesia. As a result of this work, I became very interested in International Law.
HSC: When did you first travel to Asia?
RB: After completing my stint as a Peace Corps Volunteer I worked for several months as a legal advisor for the Congress of Micronesia. This enabled me to save enough money to travel through Asia before returning to the United States.
I back-packed through East and Southeast Asia for nine months in 1971. I started in Japan and Taiwan, then came down to Southeast Asia. I traveled the cheapest way possible, deck-class on freighters, third class trains, and local buses, and stayed in hostels or the lowest-end small hotels. I even hitch-hiked from Singapore to Penang.
I used the Peace Corps connection to stay with Peace Corps Volunteers in villages in Thailand, the Philippines and Malaysia. I rode deck class on freighters through the Philippines, and went down as far as Mindanao and Jolo, where there was a Muslim insurgency even then. I was fortunate enough to be in Bangkok when they opened up Myanmar (then Burma) for travel for periods of two weeks, so I got to see Mandalay and Pagan when they were really undeveloped.
I passed through Singapore three times en route to East Malaysia (deck class on the Straits Steamship Lines) and to Indonesia (deck class on Pelni Lines). In Singapore I stayed in a small Chinese hotel on Lavender Street. When I first went to Bali there was only one tourist hotel (the Bali Beach), and Kuta and Ubud only had home stays. There were no guidebooks in those days, but there was a network of hostels and cheap hotels where back-packers exchanged information.
I then flew from Bangkok to India, landing in Calcutta shortly after the separation of East Pakistan, when Calcutta was teaming with refugees. I quickly decided that India was much more overwhelming and complex than East and Southeast Asia, so I decided to limit my visit to just a few places. I traveled by third class train across northern India, visiting cities like Benares, Delhi and Agra (Taj Mahal). I then headed by land to Europe to meet my younger brother, who was traveling in Germany that summer. I traveled by third class train and local bus across Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iran and Turkey, before heading into Greece. The overland trip to Europe was not only very inexpensive (US $45), it was also an unforgettable experience. I then spent two months in Europe, but I found it much less exciting than Asia.
HSC: What brought you to Singapore, and in particular to NUS Law School?
RB: When I was studying at Harvard Law School I decided I would like to return to Asia to teach. I knew that the only two law schools which taught in English and which paid a living wage were the University of Hong Kong and the University of Singapore, so I applied to them. Fortunately, Singapore had positions available, and the Dean, Prof Jayakumar ’63, invited me to come down from Boston to New York for an interview when he was in New York to attend a meeting of the United Nations Conference on the Law of the Sea. After a luncheon meeting with Prof Jaya, I met Prof Tommy Koh ’61, who was then Singapore’s Permanent Representative to the United Nations.
A couple of months later the University offered me a job. I accepted, thinking I would be in Singapore for 3 years before moving on to somewhere else in Asia. But I met my wife and of course, my plans changed. Here I am, 35 years later.
HSC: What was the first week of your teaching career at NUS Law School like? How did the students react to you?
When I first arrived in 1977, I stayed in university quarters (Wolverton Mess) at the corner of Dalvey Road and Nassim Road. I could walk past Raffles Hall to the Faculty of Law, which was located on the second level in what was then the Administration Building, and which is now the main building of the LKY School of Public Policy. The teaching staff at the Faculty of Law totaled about 18, and it included Prof Jayakumar, Tan Sook Yee, Chin Tet Yung, Valentine Winslow, Poh Chu Chai, Leong Wai Kum, Lye Lin Heng, as well as Judges Philip Pillai and Tan Lee Meng. There were two Englishmen on the staff, and another American joined the same week I did.
I was not the first foreign lecturer who had taught in the Faculty of Law, so there was no terrible culture shock. What was different was that they were accustomed to straight lectures, and I tried to introduce interactive teaching techniques. But I did not try this the first week. I introduced it gradually. Tutorial groups for the first year course in Legal Method had only about 10 students and I made it clear that they were expected to be prepared and to respond to questions.
HSC: Having taught four decades of Law students, how has the demographic and/or personality types of Law students changed over the years? Has this been a change for the better, or for worse?
RB: One major difference was that in the 1980s there were fewer law students and tutorials were smaller. Therefore, many members of the teaching staff got to know the students very well.
Most of the old guard at the Law School will agree that the class of 1982 stands out as exceptional. Although the class had less than 100 students, it contained a small group of students who were truly outstanding, and who were a joy to teach. As I expected, this class has gone on to make a major mark on the legal profession in Singapore, as it includes Judges Andrew Phang ’82, V K Rajah ’82 and Steven Chong ’82; as well as Davinder Singh SC ’82 and Jimmy Yim SC ’82.
Today, a higher percentage of the students are more willing to engage in discussions in class, especially in larger classes. Also, students are now much more self-confident, and more of them are willing to challenge their professors. This is a very good development. On the other hand, we also have cases where the students are perhaps more self-confident than they should be.
Another interesting change is that in the old days most of the top students saw only two career options – the top Singapore law firms or the Singapore Legal Service (or for the very top students, the NUS Faculty of Law.) Today, students have many more opportunities, and they often set their sights higher. Also, many students today are more interested in using their legal talents to make the world a better place. They are more interested in joining international organisations or NGOs, or in joining a law firm which allows them to do pro bono work. This is a very positive change.
HSC: Describe one memorable culture shock experienced by you or your students.
RB: I recall making a suggestion on teaching methodology during a departmental meeting shortly after I arrived.
One of my senior colleagues told me after the meeting that I should understand that I was now in an English law school, not an American law school. I was a bit shocked, as I thought I was in Singapore, not England. In any case, I did get the message that wild American ideas might not be welcomed with open arms.
HSC: What do you think of the "competition" that NUS Law School now has from SMU, both academically and in relation to our participation in international mooting competitions?
I believe that the decision to have a law school at SMU was a wise decision. It is good for the NUS Law School, good for SMU and good for Singapore. New schools tend to challenge established ways of doing things and they often break new ground. This is good for both the new school and the traditional school.
It is also good that NUS will have competition from SMU in some of the international mooting competitions, including the Jessup International Law Moot Court Competition, which I was involved in for many years. All you need to win a moot is 4-5 bright, articulate and highly motivated students. If some of the brightest students from SMU decide to do the Jessup Moot, it is inevitable that they will rise to the standard of the NUS teams. In fact, the national round of the Jessup Competition has already become a healthy rivalry to see which school represents Singapore at the international rounds in Washington DC.
HSC: For the benefit of all alumni out there, please share with us how you managed to keep all your kids away from the legal profession?
RB: My wife and I wanted our three children to discover their talents and interests and to pursue them. We were not concerned about guiding them into any specific profession. We attempted to raise children who are intellectually curious and self-confident and who care about the less fortunate and the environment. We encouraged them to travel and to try to understand people from other cultures. They all studied at US universities and majored in History & Communications, Neuroscience & Physiology, and Theatre respectively. We also tried to instill in them a strong sense of family values and to be very supportive of each other. Therefore, we are really pleased that the birth of our first grandchild in August 2011 has been an incredible experience for the whole family. We are hopeful that each of them will make meaningful contributions to society in their own way.