Tackling complex social problems through rigorous research

MLS Associate Professor Joo-Cheong Tham is interested in the complex relationship that the law has with justice and democracy. For Tham, key to the role of an academic is harnessing research to contribute to the betterment of society.

“I strongly believe that it is the duty of legal academics to highlight not just the potential of the law to advance justice and democracy but also to highlight the limits of the law in achieving those goals,” Tham says.

Tham researches principally in the areas of political finance law and the regulation of precarious work. His research has a particular focus on those on the margins of our society – including poorer sections of the community who struggle to secure an equal political voice and migrant workers who face a heightened risk of exploitation.

“It’s very sobering,” Tham says. “You really see the complexity of legal processes, in particular, the injustice and the unfairness with which many of our societal institutions operate.”

“The law can of course be a tool for justice, but it can also be a tool for injustice. It can serve the many, but in practice it often serves the few.”

By cultivating a passion for critical study of the law among his students, Tham hopes that they will similarly harness their understanding to tackle the complex questions in society. But he is careful to offset this with a sense of fun.

A highlight of Tham’s time at MLS came early on in his teaching career, when he managed to persuade students in his JD constitutional law class to perform the Macarena in the foyer.

“Somebody came in with a laptop and one of the students was the music leader and choreographer,” Tham says. “I think we had around half of the class dancing in the foyer.”

“I wanted the students to understand that learning should be attended with seriousness but that it’s also a whole lot of fun.”

Tham understands first-hand the importance that guidance from good teachers can have.

He recalls a “turning point” in his first year of law as an international student came in a class led by Professor Ian Malkin. Tham had been asked to resubmit an early assignment, and his confidence was shaken.

“If I’d had a teacher that wasn’t as encouraging or inspirational as Ian Malkin was, then things could have taken a different turn,” Tham says.

“I would have just said: ‘this is not for me, my language is not strong enough.’”

Instead, Tham worked hard, resubmitted the assignment and passed.

“I gradually grew to really love undertaking critical enquiry into law and its role in society,” he says.

The persistence that Tham showed as a student is one he now brings to his life in academia.

“Progress, whether in justice or democracy, is invariably a slow – and contested – process,” Tham says.

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