Law is about learning to live with your neighbours: NUS Law Professor Mindy Chen-Wishart on life lessons and nurturing legal minds in Asia

One could say that it was an early string of fortuitous events that led NUS Law Provost’s Chair Professor Mindy Chen-Wishart to become a trailblazer in international law academia.

The former law don at the University of Oxford initially studied science as a young undergraduate at New Zealand’s Otago University, driven by her desire to fulfil her parents’ aspirations for her to become a doctor. But she found herself gravitating elsewhere, first towards history and then to law, which was “so much fun and so much easier than history”, she recalls.

A successful application for the Rhodes Visiting Research Fellowship led her to Oxford. In 1994, she became the first tenured female fellow in the 770-year history of Oxford’s Merton College and the first Asian member of the Law Faculty. She would later make history again as the first Asian Dean of Oxford Law, a position she held from 2020 to 2023.

Passionate about legal education in Asia, Prof Chen-Wishart joined NUS Law full-time last September after many years of holding a fractional appointment. She is currently teaching contract law, conducting critical research in Asian contract law and spearheading initiatives for the capacity-building and mentoring of budding law academics in the region.

The prolific academic boasts a long list of academic accomplishments. For her outstanding contributions to legal education and research, she was recently made Honorary Doctor of Laws by her alma mater, Otago University. This July, she will also be receiving the Lifetime Achievement Award at KCON – the largest annual international academic conference dedicated to contract and commercial law.

In an interview with NUS News, the inspirational professor shared with refreshing candour how her upbringing and Oxford experience have moulded her as a person and educator.

Allowing your environment to realise your potential

Prof Chen-Wishart recounts feeling like a fish out of water when she first joined Oxford as a Rhodes Research Fellow back in 1992. That appointment would have been a brief one had she not been accepted as a Law Fellow at Merton College in 1994. She recounts: “I applied for a post I didn’t think I’d get on purpose so I could tell my husband who wanted to stay on that I tried and, when I didn’t get it, tell him it was time to go home to New Zealand. The plan went wrong badly and I actually got the job!”

Revealing how the “cachet from the Oxford name” meant that a lot more attention was paid to her work, Prof Chen-Wishart came to realise that she had to stop thinking she wasn’t good enough and put her best foot forward.

This mental reframing has made her more confident in her abilities and more ambitious in her career – something she tries to imbue in her female students or academics she mentors. “If you have a growth mindset, you can change the way you see your environment” she emphasises. “Actually, most people can do it if they are given the right environment and support.”

Finding joy as an educator

The experience she gained as a youth leader at church greatly influenced Prof Chen-Wishart’s choice to become an academic rather than to pursue a life in legal practice.

Keen on connecting with her students and empowering them in their learning, she invented “walking tutorials” at Oxford. Designed as masterclasses, she walked the Oxford meadows with students to discuss questions they wished to discuss or clarify. The intent was not only to inject fun during the sessions but also for students to take charge of their own learning.

The payoffs for her from these teaching approaches are immeasurable, as they have allowed her to forge lifelong friendships with students, who often involve her in milestone events long after their graduation, such as weddings and baby showers – and even an appointment as King’s Counsel and High Court judge!

“It is a huge privilege to speak into the lives of students at such an impressionable age because you are dealing with people who are going to be influential one way or another in the future,” she reflects.

On her role as an educator, she adds, “My sister also started in law academia, went into practice and became very successful in New Zealand. I love the life that I have and would still choose the same thing. [Being an educator] is a different way of shaping society.”

Empowering students to drive their own learning

One of Prof Chen-Wishart’s best-kept secrets when teaching students to deal with hypothetical scenarios as part of their legal case studies is to avoid using third-party arbitrary terms such as “A and B” or “Peter and Paul”, and instead, use “you and I” to engage and encourage them to own the problem. Her approach is to give students the role of the aggrieved party and ask them what they should do in a given situation so that they learn to solve the problem themselves.

This underscores Prof Chen-Wishart’s goal to empower her students to be independent thinkers. She elaborates: “I want to get across the message, which I think is the most important pedagogical thing you can do as a teacher, that learning is a student’s responsibility. I’m your friend to bounce off ideas and make mistakes with, but I can’t care more than you care.”

This helps bring the topic to life and allows her students to understand “that law, particularly contract law, is actually all about how you live with your neighbours, how you should treat them, and how you should transact with them.”

On the importance of giving back to education and research

As an Asian academic who’d spent more than three decades at Oxford, NUS was the result of Prof Chen-Wishart’s twin desires to return to her Asian roots and contribute her talent to the region. “I’m Asian and coming back to Asia is sort of a pinnacle really, of my career. I think I have something unique to contribute to NUS Law, having strong connections with some of the best universities.”

One thing she has been busy with is the capacity building initiatives she is leading to mentor young law academics in the region. She believes there is still a gap in academic research on Asian laws, as some Asian academics shy away from focusing on this domain, choosing instead to emulate what Western academics are doing.

She hopes to change this and will be co-organising an international forum on Asian laws with the Oxford Law Faculty to bring senior and junior Asian academics together for mentorship opportunities. “I’m trying to encourage them to be proud of Asia and proud of Asian laws and write about what they know because there’s a huge gap in that learning.”

Indeed, this idea of giving back in education or research is a recurrent theme in Prof Chen-Wishart’s works and projects.

She reflects, “Legal education and scholarship have made up the bulk of my professional life. I’ve been privileged to have done so in the East and the West, in the New World and the Old. I come from Asia. I want to bring the knowledge, experience, skill, and profile that I’ve accumulated, back to Asia, for the benefit of Asia. For me, being at NUS is a fitting closing of the circle.”