There has been some discussion of late regarding the lack of diversity among students at the NUS Faculty of Law. The new dean is leading a review of admission procedures that aims to broaden the range of backgrounds of future law students. While still in its early stages, the review has sparked off a debate in the Straits Times Forum between two general camps: the strict results-based meritocracy camp (see here) and the opposing diversity camp which argues that results are influenced by wealth and do not reflect true merit (see here, here, here, here and here). I count myself part of the latter school of thought. In this post I will explore the possible reasons for the law school student profile and look at possible ways forward.
There can be little doubt that NUS law students mostly studied at the same JCs, and as Mr Subhas Anandan has observed, that we mostly come from similar socio-economic backgrounds. After almost four years at the school, a few clear observations can be made. I hope no one finds them offensive; I think these observations are abundantly obvious, and I do not make any value judgment about these facts. First, law students generally have wealthier backgrounds than average Singaporeans. This can easily be assumed based on the type of housing most of my peers (and I) live in. Secondly, mother tongue fluency and mastery is doubtful among a fairly large number. This is worrying when we consider the important role of representation lawyers play. There are further observations about the over- and under-representation of certain races and religions, but I will play safe and avoid them here.
This profile is a direct result of the fact that the Singapore legal system operates almost entirely in English - statutes, cases, hearings, pleadings, affidavits are all only in English, along with the vast majority of contracts and commercial work. This, in turn, is due partly to Singapore’s colonial legacy and partly to Singapore’s political choice to use English as the language of government, administration and education.
There is therefore a gap that arises between Singapore law and the social context in which it operates: while Singapore society is a diverse multilingual and multicultural fabric, the law is a monolingual monolith that stretches and bends to accommodate the variety of traditions and customs (e.g., the Administration of Muslim Law Act, MPs can debate in any of the four official languages) but is not sufficiently plural to acknowledge the richness of our society.
This is reflected in the NUS law student profile: students who want to and can study law are naturally drawn, due to parental encouragement, admissions requirements and personal preferences, from a particular English-speaking milieu. These families tend to be wealthier than mother tongue-speaking families, whether due to inherited wealth from the colonial era when English-speaking locals worked for the colonial administration and dominated business or due to the economic gap created by the shutting down of vernacular schools and the merger/closure of Nantah, denying a generation of Chinese-educated students a university education in their own language.
So this is how things are now. And as they stand, I do not see any long term structural solution. The best people to negotiate an English legal system are people who are familiar and expert with the English language. These people will continue to hail from the same backgrounds. For now, I think the review of admission criteria is a good step to accelerate the diversification of law students and the legal profession. Some will argue that the proposed changes will undermine meritocracy. First, true meritocracy is an impossible dream: John who is shuttled to and from school and tuition and enrichment and gets homework help from his doctor/lawyer parents has a far better chance at A Levels or any “meritocratic” examination, through no merit of his own, than Jane who wakes up at 5 to drag her tired self to school and has no tuition and has to help with domestic chores and her brother’s homework. Nonetheless, I agree that any changes should simply change the type of recognized “merit” to benefit underrepresented student segments, without completely ignoring merit. I do not believe students should be blatantly favoured or disfavoured simply because they come from particular schools. Instead, I suggest emphasizing worthy academic criteria that are currently ignored.
One such criterium could be mother tongue proficiency. The job of a lawyer is essentially representative and communicative and it is important that lawyers are able to relate to and communicate with those they represent. In this regard I am particularly concerned about the poor mother tongue abilities of most law students, including myself. I would suggest that mother tongue results play a greater role in the admissions process, perhaps as a bonus trump card. Another way of diversifying the student profile without overt discrimination is to prioritise students of science and mathematics, who are under-represented in law school. This is partly because top science students tend towards medicine and science courses, and partly because of the heavy emphasis on GP/KI for law school admission, essay subjects at which science students are less trained.
With increased English literacy and proficiency, I think the narrow law student profile will gradually diversify. No doubt the academic requirements will mean that wealthier students who stay in wealthy areas with good schools and have parents who can afford the time and money to nurture their children academically will still have an edge. But once the language barriers erode and more and more Singaporean families converse in English at home and Singapore becomes a properly English-speaking country, we should see a broader range of students from different backgrounds who want to study law and meet the language requirements.
One ideal structural solution would be a genuinely multilingual legal system, if Singapore is truly sincere about multilingualism. In such a system (Canada, Ireland and the European Union are examples), laws would be promulgated in all official languages, having either equal authority or with one language having final authority, as is the case in Ireland. Court submissions and hearings can be made and conducted in any official language and all official documents are available with translations, at least upon request. The costs of such a system would of course be considerable, and it is probably too late and pointless for Singapore to embark on such a project now that most of the population is fairly comfortable with English. For now, the review is worth applauding.