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Vietnamese law graduate who used to work for the Supreme Court of Singapore

Having graduated from the law faculty of Singapore Management University as the valedictorian, and having finished a stint at the Supreme Court of Singapore, Nguyen Sinh Vuong told Vietnam that 

he wanted to know how to use the law as a ticket to prosperity

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What motivated you to pursue Law at the SMU?

As to why I read law, I mentioned that I have a passion in politics, philosophy and economics – and when you do law, you will also acquire a good working knowledge of all three disciplines aforementioned. That is the intellectual aspect. Additionally, my grandfather, a senior civil servant, also taught me that a prosperous country demands a “good” legal system. I want to know what makes a “good” legal system, and how I can help shape Vietnam’s legal system towards that ideal of good. And that is the inspirational aspect.

And as to why I pursued Law in SMU in particular, well, I don’t think I can say that I chose SMU. Rather, SMU has decided to take a chance on me! I applied to SMU without any expectations of getting an offer because, in Singapore, Law was a difficult subject of which very few foreign students managed to get in. I did not expect SMU to graciously offer me a place, and even less so that the Singapore government would also bless me with another scholarship (ie, the ASEAN Scholarship) to pursue my undergraduate studies here.

You said that you had to “balance the three billion things that law school threw at” in another interview. In this regard, what were the challenges that you face in reading law, a notoriously difficult subject?

I must say that the most difficult thing about reading Law in Singapore is that Singapore law is a completely alien system. I remember, not very fondly, my first time learning about trust law in my Property Law module in the second year. The idea of dual ownership of an asset (i.e., legal and equitable) was something I could not wrap my head around. And that is also not my last time coming across a legal concept or idea that I could not comprehend. Think of it as a legal “culture shock”, one that extends over four years of law school.

And the materials were not just difficult and alien, but there were also a lot of them. A part-and-parcel of the law school experience is reading cases – and depending on the area of law, you have to read a lot of cases. I once took part in the Price Media Law Moot, which dealt with human rights and involved a lot of jurisprudence from the European Courts and various international tribunals. I think I had to read a few hundred cases to prepare for the competition! 

And how did you overcome these challenges?

I think you need to have some genuine interest in the subject matter you are studying, and you also need a lot of appetite for pain. I wish I had some magic formula to give you, but I am afraid it is just good old-fashioned hard work and grit. Thankfully, law is not like, say, math or science – law is 100% man-made, which means that it’s theoretically possible to read all the law there is to read.

But of course, no man is an island. Don’t be afraid to reach out for help if you need to. I have been blessed with the company of people far more hardworking, and far more selfless, than I am. They have graciously provided me with a lot of help (and a lot of lecture notes) over the years, and I am most thankful for them.

As the valedictorian of SMU law school, as well as the top student for various subjects such as contract and public international law, on top of obtaining distinctions in many moot competitions, what studying tips do you have to offer?

I don’t think my answer for this question differs very much for the answer for the previous question: you just need a lot of grit and a lot of good company. And possibly a very liberal helping of good luck.

What is your most memorable failure in your time studying and working in Singapore?

It is quite a difficult question, because I’ve had so many failures and regrets over my past decade in Singapore that it’s hard to keep track of! I guess I have to say my most memorable failure, or failures, concern my mooting track record. I have done four moots in my four years of law school, one per year, and I did not win a single one of them. Sometimes I lose at the semifinals, and sometimes I lose at the finals.

The worst defeat, I think, was the Jessup national rounds in 2019. I took that defeat very personally because I was the team leader – I thought everyone in the team performed excellently, so from my perspective, the only reason why we failed was that I was not a good enough leader.

As for regret, I think I regret not taking the time to pursue philosophy in university a bit more seriously. Philosophy is a pet interest of mine, and SMU does offer some philosophy courses – but the timings were rather inconvenient, so I decided not to do them. I’m sure I would have learned a lot if I did! 

As a former student of one of Hanoi’s most famous schools (Hanoi-Amsterdam High School), what knowledge or skill learned in Vietnam was useful for you in acclimatizing yourself with a new learning environment in Singapore?

I think Hanoi-Amsterdam High School taught me to get used to being around people who are smarter, more disciplined, and more ambitious than I am. I think when you are always around people who are better than you, there is a tendency for you to feel demoralized. The good thing for me is that I learnt that if you surround yourself with people better than you, then you would only get better by osmosis – and that was the case in SMU! While I may be selected as the best student overall, I think I’m definitely not the best in individual subjects – there are many others who are better than me at mooting, or at commercial law, or at public law, etc. Always a good experience to learn from them.

Another good thing Hanoi-Amsterdam gave me was some good foundations in English. When I first arrived in Singapore, I was afraid that my English would be atrocious – but thanks to the training I got from Hanoi-Amsterdam, my English was merely inadequate!

You said in your SMU interview that if you could turn back time, you would read more books. Why is reading such an important activity to you?

 

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Sinh Vuong and his family.

 

Reading is very important to me because it is my favourite way to learn. Don’t get me wrong, reading is not the only way for you to learn – but I find reading to be the most effective way for me, and of course there are things you generally can only learn from reading. I have to thank my grandfather for inculcating in me a habit of reading – every time I visit him, he would be reading something, whether a book or a newspaper. He also had a massive home library (he was really a very avid reader!), many books in which piqued my interest.

How did you end up at your current position, as a Justices’ Law Clerk at the Supreme Court of Singapore?

You know the phrase, “behind every successful man is a woman”? I think it’s somewhat relevant here, because I would not be a JLC if not for my girlfriend’s encouragement.

I never expected to be able to work at the Supreme Court. The job was highly coveted, and to my knowledge, very few foreigners (if any) were ever selected. It was my girlfriend who insisted – pestered (?) – me to apply. Her logic was that there was nothing to lose, and everything to gain, in me applying. Because of her motivation, I approached my professors in law school for advice – and their feedback was very encouraging! This motivated me to try my luck for the JLC program, and, well, the rest is history.

Would you be able to elaborate on the work that you do? What do you find to be most exciting in your work?

As a Justices’ Law Clerk, I assist the Judges of the High Court and the Court of Appeal with the matters that are heard by the courts. The work I do is quite varied, and it depends in large part on what my bosses – the Judges of the Singapore Supreme Court – require me to. Generally, the bulk of my work focuses on conducting legal research,

The most exciting aspect of my work is undoubtedly the opportunity to learn from Singapore’s brightest legal minds. I think I mentioned earlier that Hanoi-Amsterdam taught me to be comfortable around people more intelligent than I am – and I really needed that for my stint as a JLC. My peers are all top students from leading law schools, not just from Singapore but also the US and the UK! And no introductions are needed about my bosses. Every day I spend at the Supreme Court is a day I learn something new, for which I am most grateful.

You said that you want to apply your knowledge towards the benefit of Singapore and Vietnam. What are your plans for your future?

I think my future aspirations find inspiration, in large part, from the teachings of my grandfather. My grandfather taught me that two of the most important qualities a person can have are loyalty and patriotism – which means that I must love Vietnam, my home, and Singapore, my home away from home, which has treated me with indescribable kindness the past decade.

In this regard, it is again my grandfather who taught me that all prosperous countries are supported by robust legal systems. I thus wanted to learn more about the law, to see how I can harness the law as a ticket to prosperity. To that end, I think no legal system can ever call itself perfect, and I believe that there is room for improvement for both Vietnam and Singapore’s legal systems.

At some stage in the future, I want to join private practice – I have had the fortune of experience the law from the perspective of the bench, and I now want to see the law from the perspective of the bar. I’m not sure about my plans in the long run – I think I would like very much to be able to return home and play a part, however small, in strengthening Vietnam’s legal system, and to enhance cooperation and interaction between Vietnam and Singapore in the legal area – I believe that there are many things that the two different systems can learn from each other.  

Lan Anh

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