HY2257 Law, Crime, and Punishment in History – Interrogating laws and legal systems

In this interview, Dr Nurfadzilah Yahaya chats with us about her module, HY2257 Law, Crime, and Punishment in History, which will be offered to undergraduates in AY2021/2022 Semester 1.

We noticed that the module hasn’t been offered in the past academic years. Could you give us an overview of the module and your plans for the upcoming semester?

The module explores law, crime and punishment in global history. In the module, we read a small set of significant problems in legal history and these readings provide an opportunity to understand these problems more deeply. We will also examine newspaper articles, historical fiction, letters, and law reports on the subject. Questions that we will explore in this module are: what constitutes a crime? What is law, exactly? How did people historically come up with law? How was punishment decided and meted out historically? How does one read law reports as a historical source?

With regards to learning outcomes, by the end of the module, students should be able to think more critically about the role of law in society, analyse how law relates to politics and economy, describe how different legal systems coexist and compete with each other. 

I concentrate more on Asia. I try to cover the entire world and the different regions, like Europe, Australia, Asia and Africa, but it will be more focused on Asia – because that’s what students are interested in. Every week, I will try to relate it to Singapore to make it more accessible. The Singapore law cases are the ones that might be most familiar to students, so I will try to relate the topic to Singapore in each lecture. Aside from that, there will definitely be a film screening or two – that, I can promise, but I’ve yet to decide which ones to show students. 

How did you chance upon this research interest in legal history?

I encountered legal history through my sources. In my first book, I looked at the Arab community in Southeast Asia. They had a lot of property, were very wealthy, and therefore often went to legal courts to settle their property dealings. They were also very litigious, and sued each other – even people in their own families – and made use of the courts a lot throughout Southeast Asia. That’s how I came to law – because my historical actors were actively challenging each other in court. Because of that, I delved deeper into legal history and started to ask larger questions about law. 

What can students glean from studying the module? How might that relate to their understanding of current affairs and/or the way the world is headed?

I want students to take away the idea that law is not just about institutions, courts, government, or rules. Laws were historically constructed by people; laws become laws when people say so. It’s not something primordial or natural. We can change laws all the time; it’s man-made, and constructed, as are many things in life. Students should know that laws should be contextualised. Context is important!

I think that it’s important for us to know that laws can be changed according to the needs of society at any point in time. A lot of people say – and not just in Singapore, but the rest of the world – that we can’t do things because it’s the law. At the same time, though, laws are historically constructed. We should question why laws that came up during the colonial period remain in our law books today. A lot of our laws, in Malaysia and Singapore, still retain many colonial-era laws. We should ask ourselves why, now that we have gained independence, these laws remain in effect today. The module will be a journey from past to present, so by the end of the module we will definitely confront this question head-on.

Film still of Rashomon (1950) by Akira Kurosawa

What are some memorable moments you had while teaching the module?

I made the class do a podcast, splitting them into groups of 4 or 5. My instructions to them was to create a ‘true crime’ podcast, along the lines of Serial. They can choose to open up a cold case, and if they found something off about the investigation, they could do their own investigative reporting as journalists. So, the podcast will be about them bringing us on their journey of investigating the case. For instance, they might say that they interviewed the mother of the victim yesterday, and she offered us some details, but strangely the police didn’t follow up. 

I asked them to do just one episode of the podcast and present it in the style of investigative journalism. I really enjoyed it, and when I asked my students, they really enjoyed it too. I’m planning to revive this assignment for the upcoming semester.

Another thing that I did was to invite the playwright, Alfian Sa’at, to give a talk as part of the class for one week. He wrote this play, Tiger of Malaya, and it’s about a Japanese man who was in Kelantan or Terengganu, and he lived as a Malay person – was born there, converted to Islam, and passed as a Malay individual by wearing a songkok and all that. But he was actually a spy for the Japanese in Malaya. At the end of the play, Alfian staged a mock trial of him – it didn’t happen in real life – to trial the man and decide if he was guilty of being a spy, or simply a victim of circumstances. After all, some might say he was simply a Japanese man who happened to live in Malaya during the Second World War. It was really nice, because the play coincided with the theme of my class, and a big question was: should he be punished? There was no proof that he was a spy, and he might have been racially profiled as a Japanese. 

One of the themes I wanted Alfian to address was the idea of trial as theatre. After World War II, there were many war trials in Europe, Japan and Indonesia where they brought World War II soldiers and collaborators to trial. Some might argue these trials were more of a show – not quite a real effort to redress anything – but to show people that they should not be spying, or even to placate people that the Japanese soldiers were being punished. There is a lot of theatre involved in any courtroom trial; there are fixed places for the judge, lawyer, witness… In Singapore, you’re not supposed to be snarky, sarcastic, and you should keep a straight face… It’s almost like acting, a performance. 

Finally, do you have any advice for students who might be interested in your module?

I would say that students should not be intimidated by the word ‘law’ because you will see in class that ‘law’ is something that is quite accessible. Students should also be open-minded about what constitutes ‘law’ – it’s definitely not just tied to the government, or institutions.

This interview is a part of the Humans of History series, which spotlights the stories of the people that make up the NUS History community.

Published by hissocnus

The National University of Singapore (NUS) History Society is a student-run organization that aims to encourage an interest for history among NUS students and members of the public. Its members include all History majors and other NUS students interested in history. Regular projects that aim to engage NUS students include writing and editorial opportunities at the Society’s publication Mnemozine, career development programmes as well as welfare activities. NUS History Society is a student society under the Office of Student Affairs, National University of Singapore.

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