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Taylor’s Case Study: How Giving Back to Society Empowers These Youths

Maintaining good mental well-being may help empower students and the community at large.

How can we equip lawyers with outstanding professional skills and high ethical value enabling them to bring meaningful contributions to society? Is it possible to inject the human element of ‘life and soul’ into the black letter of the law? For Dr. Sia Chin Chin, Senior Lecturer at Taylor’s Law School, it's possible when we give future lawyers the experience to grow while taking care of their well-being.

With over 10 years of being appointed and practising as a legal advisor in different corners of the world, including Malaysia, Saudi Arabia, and Italy, Dr. Sia Chin Chin, is no stranger to the law industry. She shares how research can help to mould future lawyers by giving back to society and the importance of one’s emotional well-being.

Dr. Sia Chin Chin is a Senior Lecturer from Taylor's Law School.

Dr. Sia’s Youth Legal Empowerment Using Participatory Research

Q: I heard that one of your research involves empowering youths through participatory research. Could you share with us more about that?

A: During the pandemic, many vulnerable communities are deprived of employment, and suffered domestic violence, food insecurity, and cyberbullying. Unfortunately, many are unable to seek legal recourse or have inadequate legal knowledge due to limited means of access to legal assistance or language barrier, especially laws related to the Movement Control Order. 

My students, who were in their final year and were about to graduate at that time, came to me seeking advice on what they can do for the community given that they weren’t able to go out anywhere. So, I suggested that they make full use of what they’ve learnt during their years in law school and serve this community that can’t usually afford these services. 

To overcome this social injustice and to enhance legal empowerment to the youth, these law students participated actively in legal clinics to become agents of change in legal empowerment by providing pro bono legal information and opinions to different vulnerable communities, of their choosing, through virtual legal clinics. These legal clinics were aimed at empowering vulnerable communities to proactively access legal information and knowledge provided through social media. 

Currently, there are more than 20,000 members of the vulnerable community who have benefited from this project in the form of legal empowerment via the participation of youth learners in virtual legal clinics.

Want to give back to the community through law? Find out how you can get started at Taylor’s Law School here.

Q: What are some of the goals you wish to obtain or have already obtained from this project?

A: Aside from empowerment, the project also aims to address the UNSDGs, particularly Goal 4 which ensures inclusive and equitable quality education and promotes lifelong learning opportunities for all, as well as Goal 16, which promotes peaceful and inclusive societies for sustainable development, provide access to justice for all, and build effective, accountable and inclusive institutions at all levels.

Currently, we’ve gone through the first phase of this research and have published a book chapter revolving around the social impact of these pro bono virtual legal clinics. The next phase is to expand this research project to other potential collaborating partners in other jurisdictions, including ASEAN and Europe countries. Right now, I’m collecting more data using qualitative analysis of the learners' reflections and impact on the targeted communities.

I do hope that this project could be showcased to the global audience for the enhancement of legal empowerment among our youths as agents of social change.

Q: Is there a particular memory that touched you throughout this project?

A: Because this was virtual, not all of them have computers or access to the internet.

So it involved a lot of coordination with the NGOs and commitments from the student learners. There was a student, in fact, who travelled from Kuala Lumpur to Johor Bahru for a case during the partial lockdown because the client was unable to access these workshops through any means of communication. 

To study here and to go all the way down there for just one case, it’s a huge effort that I feel is useful for her own self-development but also for the victim who we found through AWAM — the All Women’s Action Society Malaysia.

One of the legal clinics which were ran by the Taylor's Law school students via social media.

It’s heartening to see that despite the pandemic, the impact created has been immensely felt by both the youth learners and the vulnerable communities. Yet, these students were very supportive and they put in 200% of their time and commitment, going far and beyond to help these communities. I really believe legal empowerment can trigger the flame in them to do better.

Q: Were there any setbacks throughout the project and how did you overcome them?

A: During the execution phase of this project, which was in March 2020 when the first MCO started, the students faced many uncertainties, especially because they’re final-year undergraduate students and a lot was riding on this project. As such, many were demotivated and were unable to carry out the given tasks in the virtual legal clinics due to tremendous changes during the MCO period. 

However, with constant trust and consultation, their confidence level increased, and eventually, they successfully participated in this action research of virtual legal clinics and created a meaningful impact in the vulnerable communities. As I also mentioned earlier, I was very touched because I know that as full-time students, they’re not only doing their own assignments, but they’re also dealing with a lot of personal family issues as well. So the students really powered through. 

At Taylor’s Law School, you’ll build strong connections with NGOs as well as those in the legal profession. Check out the list here.

Dr. Sia’s Research on the Well-being of Law Students and Legal Professionals during COVID-19

Q: Indeed the pandemic has caused much concern over our mental well-being. Speaking of, you’re also conducting research regarding the well-being of law students. Could you share more about that?

A:  As a legal practitioner myself, I’ve firsthand experience of the importance of mental resilience in the highly competitive and adversarial nature of the legal profession. It’s common for legal practitioners to feel lonely and depressed due to the inherent characteristics expected from this profession. However, in Asia especially, this is often openly ignored, until recently during the pandemic.

I really wanted to focus on mental well-being during the pandemic. Though the research itself started earlier in 2019 the pandemic really spotlighted and amplified this whole area even further. Fewer people feel embarrassed and more people are willing to talk about the state of their mental health, not thinking that it’s a weak link. The pandemic really brought out a lot of courage for whoever is having these issues to speak up.

Currently, in Asia, there’s inadequate empirical data as well as legal analysis pertaining to well-being and loneliness issues involving law students and legal professionals. I’m hoping to shed more light on the practical reality of mental health issues by focusing on loneliness and depression resulting from the pandemic.

A depressed looking girl with her hand on her head thinking about her well-being.

Q: How do you see this particular research being helpful to students, practitioners, and the public?

A: If there’s a clearer understanding of the mental health of law students and legal practitioners, this could help them to better serve the communities and the public in legal empowerment. This project has enabled law students and legal practitioners to participate in the questionnaire to measure the magnitude of the loneliness phenomenon and ways to overcome mental issues. 

While it addresses the UNSDGs Goal 3 on ensuring healthy lives and promoting well-being for all at all ages, as well Goal 16, similar to the other project, I hope it also prioritises and recognises the well-being and health of the legal profession, especially in the Asian region which is the largest and most populous continent on our planet.

You too can make an impact on society through research projects. Learn more here.

Q: What’s one memory you’d take away from this research on well-being?

A: It was actually at the beginning. Some students approached me about their problems and I told myself that I had to do something about it. I started by collecting data through a simple survey completed by the students themselves who trusted me with keeping their identity and issues safe. 

As the academic integrity office, many do approach me with some of the struggles they’re going through, which is to be expected. But that’s all the more reason why we need to recognise this area and act upon it as an opportunity to build more resilience. Before we build resilience we first need to recognise our weaknesses. Ultimately, it’s important to seek help and have the guts to admit our weaknesses. That’s how I came about this area after having perspective on both academic and practitioner.

Q: What advice would you give students who are facing this problem?

A: Share it with someone you can trust. Help is there but you need to reach out. None of us are superman/woman, we’re just human beings. We can be both strong and weak at times. It’s human nature. We make mistakes but always remember to reach out for help. 

If you’re able to regulate your own well-being, that would make you a stronger person. Without health — be it physically or mentally, we cannot do things for others. If you’re able to take care of yourself well, you can then contribute to others. So remember to take care of yourself.

How Dr. Sia’s Research Empowers Her Law Students

We got in touch with two Taylor’s Law School graduates for the year 2020, Amitaesh Thevananthan and Diong Tze Li Jannie, that took part in Dr. Sia’s research on youth legal empowerment using participatory research. Read on to learn more about their experience regarding it.

Q: Which community did you end up working with and how was it executed?

Jannie: We elected the working community because we noticed employee rights were greatly affected by the pandemic. We decided to operate a virtual legal clinic on Instagram and Facebook on a public and private scale. 

We disseminated legal information about employees' rights at the workplace through posts and polls, among other initiatives, weekly. We also covered various issues such as termination, pay reduction, and forced unpaid leave. On a private scale, we responded to individual inquiries about legal problems faced at work. We researched the issue before drafting and sending them advice letters via e-mail.

 

Amitaesh: We identified the community of underprivileged individuals and families in Malaysia to work with — inherently this included a majority of the B40 group. The reason is that we’d be able to give back and serve these underprivileged individuals by offering them access to pro bono legal information and help (where necessary) in dealing with their issues.

We’re fortunate that social media allowed us to bridge the physical gap caused by the pandemic, engage with this particular community, and eventually assist them in whatever legal-related issue they may have been facing.

Q: What were some of the setbacks faced and how did you manage to go through them?

Jannie: The major setback faced was definitely the lack of time. We struggled a fair bit since we had to juggle between academics and our project all at once. Fortunately, we were all very adamant about adhering to proper time management and that helped us pull through.

Dr. Sia was our source of encouragement. She motivated us to do our best in the midst of the uncertainties we had. She also gave us her input when we presented our ideas which helped us  to fine-tune our project. 

 

Amitaesh: We faced several setbacks including reaching out to our target audience as well as communicating effectively with some of our online clients. In time and through the usage of various social media tools, we finally managed to launch a Facebook page that accumulated thousands of views and interactions. In relation to communication, my team consisted of a diverse group of individuals. Therefore, we were able to produce informative materials in multiple languages including English, Malay, Chinese, and Tami

Dr. Sia was also material in ensuring our project was a success. She advised and guided us every step of the way. She was influential in ensuring that we prioritised producing material in multiple languages. As students, with a lack of real-world experience, Dr. Sia was also key in advising us on various legal-related matters when dealing with our clients. She consistently reminded us of our duty — that the purpose of our project was to benefit the community in the best way possible.

Q: What’s one particular memory you’ll never forget that happened while doing the research?

Jannie: I recall a particular incident where I couldn’t find solutions to some legal questions. My project mates immediately offered to help once I voiced my frustration by chipping in to help in researching. It was just so beautiful to see how eight minds can still work together despite being physically apart due to the pandemic. 


Amitaesh: Some of the best memories are linked to the people we were able to reach out to and help. Many of our audience were individuals who had no other choice and used us as their last resort. I recall one of our clients being able to overcome her issues and move forward after being aware of her rights. Pro bono work will always be a cornerstone of the legal industry.

Q: Now that you've graduated, what are your hopes for the future of this research and how do you think it will help you in your future career as a lawyer?

Jannie: I hope that in the future others will be inspired by this research to undertake their own and make good use of the benefit of having technology and information so readily accessible to every one of us these days. This research, in particular, exposed me to more practical and procedural aspects of employment laws, which I’m certain will help me when I eventually enter legal practice.


Amitaesh: In my personal opinion, I think our legal clinic has educated me in a way that has been very beneficial to my career and myself as a person and human being. It was a wake-up call that we should never take things for granted in life and always strive to help others where we can. It has also given me a practical insight into dealing with clients and understanding their problems before seeking out a legal solution for them.

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