Jason Chin / Environmental Lawyer turned Nature Guide in Malaysia


Let’s start with the basics. Did you always imagine yourself going to law school?

Imagine myself going to law school? Heck no… I never even imagined myself going to college… After high school, I worked for a bit and together with some friends, started a small guesthouse business in the Cameron Highlands. It was nothing serious. We bummed around a lot, partying, drinking, and having a whole lot of fun, while taking time off occasionally to travel around South East Asia.

My sister finished high school a couple of years later and I thought to myself that if there was anyone who would do well academically, it would be her. However, she decided that she wanted to get married and settle down so my parents turned their attention to me. I have to admit that I was enjoying the life I was living - free and easy, and not a care in the world; but being the elder child in the family, it was probably time to show some responsibility, so I enrolled into college.

That however, was not the beginning of an interest in law. In fact, some of the things I did back in college were pretty much illegal :D I dropped out of college just before my finals; making an excuse that it was just too stressful. In truth, it was the daily binge drinking that did me in. I returned to the Cameron Highlands where by friends had established the guesthouse into a thriving business so I took on a loose partnership with them and continued my binge drinking and partying. My family considered me a lost cause.

It was in my mid-20s when something clicked in my mostly-intoxicated mind. ‘What am I doing here? Is this right?’ I began to take a more philosophical approach to life and started reading works by Plato, Aristotle, Descarte, etc., but it was the novel Sophie’s World by Jostein Gaarder that got me hooked on all things philosophical. After having read it not once, but twice within the same week, I made my decision. I was going to enrol into… Nope… Wrong again… Not law school, but the Catholic missionary…

I applied for the Jesuit and Franciscan missionaries and received a reply as well as a visit from the Franciscan missionary a couple of weeks later. The priest was a friend of my dad’s and the aim of the visit was to deter rather than to convince me to commit myself fully to the order. I spent a couple of hours chatting with the priest, and to be honest, it was confusing rather than enlightening. ‘Why is the world so complex? Why is it that we have to bow to parental or peer pressure, or receive advice when none was sought in the first place? What is wrong with our social environment that even personal decisions are questioned?’

I took a couple of months to chew on the questions and finally decided that priesthood was too high a physical and emotional restraint on someone who still enjoyed drinking, partying, and company of the fairer sex. I guess this was the message that the priest wanted to convey to me during our conversation, but being a man of the cloth, he was probably a tad too subtle.

So, what was I to do now that my path to sainthood had been pulled from under my feet?:P Well, my curiosity as to how society functioned, as well as how our rules and regulations bound individuals within such a society was still at a peak, so it was off to law school.

[Urrgh… Now that is a long answer, and I’m only on the first question…]

Jason talking to plants.

Jason talking to plants.

What makes your current career "lawfully uncommon"? At what moment did you realize that you wanted to switch gears, away from "traditional" legal work?

Modern society seems to have this idea that if a person studies and qualifies as a lawyer, he or she will end up practising law (as an advocate, solicitors, barrister, etc), make tons of money, and drive around in a flashy car. Such a stereotype is not only reserved for lawyers, but any profession requiring a higher education and qualifications, e.g. doctors, engineers, accountants, economists, etc.

In my final year of law school, I did actually consider a career in corporate law. However, a part me of me just couldn’t get enough of analysing the different legal systems and how they work, or better yet, why they might or might not work within a given society. I guess this was my bane when I started my professional career as a legal advisor on environmental matters. I spent 5 years working within a legal system that was rife with loopholes, corrupt officials, and corporate leaders who used mafia-like tactics to get their way. The stress and frustrations finally took a toll on me so I decided to quit, and move on to something closer to my heart. Maybe, just maybe, I should have closed my eyes to some of the issues and carried on; but I guess that would give a totally new meaning to the idiom justice is blind.

Anyway, I spent a few years in France after giving up on the legal profession and returned to Malaysia in 2009 where I attended a training course and qualified as a licensed nature guide under the Ministry of Tourism and Culture of Malaysia. In terms of what our modern society perceives, my new career path would seem ‘lawfully uncommon’, but taken from an academic point of view; the study, understanding, and appreciation of our natural environment has a lot in common with how we live within a modern society. More so now that the world is facing a drastic change due to heavy industrialisation, globalisation, and the problems of climate change. Isn’t that how jurisprudence began in the first place? A study of people and their environs, people within a society, and people from different cultures and backgrounds. So, some might actually consider my switch to be a return to traditional legal work…

How much has this shift in gears changed your life?

Life is so much more meaningful and so much more relaxing these days. Being with nature is a wonder, and the experience can only be shared physically rather than in words. I can walk the same trail every day and nature will surprise me with a beautiful bloom, a skipping insect, a fluttering butterfly, the call of gibbons, the songs of birds, the whispers of the wind through the trees, or a cold shower, just to show me how alive and wonderful the world truly is. And best of all, I get to share it with my guests.

What got your juices flowing or tickled your fancy while at law school? Any good stories come to mind?

Hmmm… Was probably the little redhead Irish girl sitting next to me during group discussions…:P

Seriously though, my Jurisprudence lecturer popped into the Student Union Bar one evening and caught me passed out at the bar. ‘Looks like you passed the Bar before even finishing law school…’ he quipped. It became a joke among my friends, as I would spend time working on my assignments and papers at the bar where I could actually smoke and down a few pints. The library was just too clean and quiet…

What made your blood boil or made you snooze while at law school? Any hidden gems worth telling?

Boring lectures and lecturers, annoying first year students who thought you were a law compendium just because you could churn out an assignment in a few hours while downing pints of lager and playing pool at the bar, and of course… Exams! Who doesn’t hate exams!?! I guess we’ve all been through more or less the same things…

Jason with some guests... finally some people to talk to, he says!

Jason with some guests... finally some people to talk to, he says!

Do you still see law all around you? Or is that a thing of the past?

I guess it’s difficult to avoid the legal system as it has become a large part of our everyday lives. Kind of creeps me out sometimes to see the things that are regulated these days. From time to time, I still take a piece of legislation and run it through my mind. It’s more academic than for practical reasons. As I mentioned before, I tend to take a more philosophical approach to the system and how it affects the people. It keeps the brain active for when I’m in need of something deep and thoughtful.

You are at a coffee house (a weekly McGill cocktail hour) speaking to a first-year law student. What advice would you give them? Please provide your answer in a tweet. Yes, that means 140 characters and hashtags. (We are millenials, so keep in mind that this will make it to the world wide web.)

Haha… Though it would be nice to be a decade or so younger, I’m Gen X; more so in my thoughts and philosophies on life, so hashtags and Facebook are things that I have yet to subscribe to…

However, as a piece of advice for young budding lawyers, I would like to say that though the practise and application of laws is a major part one’s future career, one should not forget the importance of the theoretical nature of laws and the legal system. We should always question the validity as well as significance of laws and their consequences, or lack of, on society. Laws are supposedly created to safeguard the virtues of humanity as well as do good for society and the natural world, but what is legally right might not be morally correct, and vice versa; e.g. case of #cecilthelion

Times change, so must laws, and with that, so must the people… I guess I should learn to hashtag and Facebook…lol

What does the day in the life of Jason look like? Give us the rundown.

As I mentioned above, there is less stress and frustration in my life and I have more time to reflect on my past, present, and future. I guess most people who’ve joined me on a hike would probably say that I have one of the best jobs in the world. Surrounded by nature, even if it is for a few hours each day, is a truly zen experience, and I hope to be able to share the experience with some of you one of these day. Like I said, it’s hard to find the words to describe my current job… You’ll have to live it :D

Jason at his office des, lost in thoughts.

Jason at his office des, lost in thoughts.

If you were given the blessing and curse of an extra hour every day to do whatever you wanted, what would it be?

Wait… A whole additional hour just for me and no one else in the world? Like time would stand still for a whole hour for the rest of the world, and I could do anything I wanted!!!

Wow… I’d be able to get away with daylight robbery or even murder! Coooooool…

Seriously though, I’m getting a little too old to have such wild and crazy ideas. Am I able to at least share it with someone? Would love to spend more time with my wife. She’s the beacon that has helped me through some truly bad times in my life. A true angel, and a loving companion. She makes my life whole but sadly, all life comes to an end, so an extra hour a day would be wonderful if we could share it together.

Any regrets? (Yeah, we are retrospective and deep like that).

I tend not to delve on my past too much these days. Life is too short to think about what might have been. Quitting the legal profession might seem like I have turned my back and surrendered the fate of the world to greed and corruption. But where the world in general is concerned, we’re no heroes, much as we’d like to be. The world is shared by all humans and it is up to each and every one of us to do our part. No single person, no single organisation, no single country, can save us unless we all decide to sacrifice a little something for the good of the planet and its people. As to what that little sacrifice is, I guess it’s up to each individual person. I’ll try to do my part to make life a wonderful experience for my loved ones as well as the people around me; and in the process, hopefully not to do too much harm to the world.