Sisyphus’ Lament

Students not ready for Asean integration

/ 07:13 AM December 29, 2014

Our law students are not ready for Southeast Asia’s integration. Filipinos have all the potential to stand out, with facility in English, flexible thinking and agreeable dispositions serving one well in any international service profession. They are hamstrung, however, by a bar-oriented law school curriculum that is decades behind 2015.

Judging the essay writing contest initiated by the Philippine Association of Law Schools (PALS) on how a Filipino law student should prepare for globalization was a shocking revelation to a lawyer who had worked on large cross-border transactions from Nigeria to Bangladesh. After reviewing 53 750-word essays by handpicked representatives of schools from across the country, I could only conclude that most have absolutely no idea what a cross-border practice of law demands.


I poured myself a generous shot of whisky and began dividing the essays into three piles. Into the first pile went those that took the theme much too literally. There is no such thing as an “international law” because there is no global authority such as a world congress that could enact it. Thus, “international law” typically refers to rules that govern the relationships among countries, the likes of the United Nations Charter, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the Geneva Conventions and the laws of the sea governing our maritime dispute with China. Only in the highest, whitest ivory tower could law professors think that training the majority of students to be diplomats and war crimes prosecutors would push our country into prosperity.

An astonishing 30 percent of the essays fell into this first pile.


Sixty-four percent fell into the second pile, those that made the expected exhortations for Filipino lawyers to become attuned to differences in the laws of various countries and called for law schools to consciously offer modern subjects on cross-border intellectual property and infrastructure finance, open exchange programs with foreign universities and increase support for international moot court teams. I remained dissatisfied, however, because none of these concretely demonstrated how law crosses borders. They ranged from flowery but vague descriptions of a borderless new environment to extremely general references to international trade and investment.

The 6 percent in the third pile were more vivid. Winner Aaron Marc Dimaano from Aquinas University mentioned how liberalization now allows foreign groups to own Philippine banks and runner-up Vincent Joseph Cesista from the University of San Carlos described how lawyers with conflicting criminal law training had to grapple with command responsibility as a basis for punishment in the Nuremberg trials. (I was happy to see a strong Visayan showing in the PALS contest, and Cesista is an Inquirer “Youngblood” contributor and was voted “Best Speaker” in the championship round of last year’s ANC “Square Off” debates, which his team won.)

Students will necessarily have difficulty writing about Southeast Asian integration if they do not have a clear idea of Southeast Asia in the first place. Too few of the essays I judged highlighted the importance of culture, for example, beyond law.

One of my first clients while practicing from Singapore was Indonesia’s Ministry of Finance. I was fortunate to be working under an Iranian senior lawyer, who was visibly a much bigger hit with our Muslim clients than the American Jew on the other side of the boardroom. For example, he strategically scheduled a large meeting during Ramadan at

8 p.m., after a buffet dinner. He slipped, however, when he insisted that I address every female by the polite honorific “Ibu.” The following meeting, when the juniors were left to more routine work, one girl tactfully explained that “Ibu” means “mother” in Bahasa Indonesia and suggested that I stop offending everyone below 35. Later, with the Chinese New Year approaching, I unthinkingly gave her a packet of smoked meat popularly eaten in Singapore. She immediately dropped it and screamed, “Is this pork?”

I eventually improved, learning the poetic explanation why Islam prohibits interest, having their senior statistician tell me, “You are Filipino? Good, so you understand how poor we are,” and now keep up with President Jokowi news straight from their Facebook updates. Handling an issue of Indonesian government bonds in the Japanese market, I had to reconcile Indonesian and Japanese tax rules and eventually schedule a conference call with the two legal teams after the matter curiously dragged for weeks. My Philippine education immediately diagnosed the problem: They were too shy to admit that they could not understand each other even though they were all speaking in English. As overseas Filipinos unconsciously do, I began repeating everything the Japanese lawyer said in an Indonesian accent and vice-versa, and the tax problems somehow disappeared after half an hour without anyone embarrassed.

Sampling sup buntut (oxtail soup) and dangdut (folk or “country” music) is just as important as knowing that Indonesia requires certain financial contracts to be written in Bahasa Indonesia, the nuances of its notarization rules or how to review a formal Indonesian legal opinion. Aside from modernizing the curriculum to ensure students know how to deal with an Indonesian corporation doing business in the Philippines, employing Filipinos and sourcing funds from Indonesia, and vice-versa, the law dean of 2015 would do well to start sending students on exchange to “The Big Durian,” or simply exhort them to backpack to Yogyakarta and watch the sun rise from the top of the Borobudur temple complex.


* * *

React on Twitter (@oscarfbtan) and

Subscribe to Inquirer Opinion Newsletter
Read Next
Don't miss out on the latest news and information.

Subscribe to INQUIRER PLUS to get access to The Philippine Daily Inquirer & other 70+ titles, share up to 5 gadgets, listen to the news, download as early as 4am & share articles on social media. Call 896 6000.

TAGS: Asean integration, Association of Southeast Asian Nations, International law, law students, legal curriculum, Southeast Asia
For feedback, complaints, or inquiries, contact us.

© Copyright 1997-2020 | All Rights Reserved

We use cookies to ensure you get the best experience on our website. By continuing, you are agreeing to our use of cookies. To find out more, please click this link.