Leading lawyer Lucien Wong says Singapore’s rise as a dispute resolution hub is no accident
It is widely accepted that Singapore is a hub for international business disputes. The city-state’s reputation as an international dispute resolution center has grown steadily, particularly in the last 20 years.
Today most businesses know that when they choose Singapore, they will get a fair trial, or a quick, even-handed private arbitration.
We didn’t get here by accident. It was an achievement born of a deliberate, critical strategy involving the reform of laws and regulations, the development of infrastructure, the cultivation of legal talent and a dedicated effort to inform the world’s businesses.
Singapore is one of the world’s leading ports. It sits at an important juncture for trade and shipping to China, East Asia and the West. Geography worked to our advantage; Singapore developed as London did, offering all the services around shipping, international trade and finance.
Today in Singapore you find everything that London has to offer – for example, companies involved in shipping, trading and insurance, banks, brokers and agents, and international law firms. We built that up piece by piece. Singapore grew to become a regional trade and finance center. As more foreign investments came to the region, Singapore also became a regional business center. But previously if there was a regional business dispute, the parties would go to London, engage high-cost lawyers and pay for facilities there. So we asked, why do they need to do that? If it’s an Asian dispute it can be resolved in Asia. We set about making that high quality of services available in Singapore.
Regionally, our advantages are that we are common-law based; we are English speaking; we are independent politically; and our rule of law – including an independent judiciary – is held in high regard.
Singapore is adaptable, nimble, flexible and accustomed to actively designing its future. We recognized our natural strengths, set up a deliberate plan and implemented important changes. First we adopted a worldwide standard for law practice to serve as our template for international litigation and arbitration. Then we made it easier and more attractive for legal talent to come here. And we established or developed courts and institutions to handle the work.
At every step, we looked at our goal and asked, what are the missing pieces? What do we still need to do to become the dispute resolution hub for the region? And we worked to plug those gaps.
One important move was the establishment of the Singapore International Arbitration Centre (SIAC), which recently celebrated its 25th anniversary. It has grown tremendously, particularly in the last five or six years. In the first year we had fewer than 10 cases. By 2005 we were doing 74 new cases a year and that number has climbed since then. In 2015 it was 271, a 22 percent jump over the previous year, with parties coming from 55 jurisdictions.
By early 2015, both the Singapore International Commercial Court (SICC) and Singapore International Mediation Centre (SIMC) had been set up. SIMC already has had more cases than SIAC had in its first year. The aim for SICC is to create international panels with foreign judges to hear cross-border disputes – not just in accordance with Singapore law, but also English law, French law, Swiss law, whatever is applicable.
To promote those institutions, we participate in conferences, and organize seminars and roadshows at both regional and international levels. For SICC, for instance, we presented at The Balestier Series for AmCham in Singapore; the International Business Association’s Annual Litigation Forum in San Francisco; and the St. Petersburg International Legal Forum in Russia. We’ve sent representatives to India, Moscow, Tokyo and Seoul, arranging client roundtables and direct meetings with major law firms. The SICC also hosts foreign delegations in governmental, judicial and academic communities. TV, print news and websites naturally play an important part.
The next area is corporate restructuring. The first committee meetings are being held to discuss what needs to be done. What laws need to be changed? What kind of infrastructure and judicial expertise do we need? If we have the appropriate reforms and effort from all stakeholders, we are confident there will be considerable growth. Perhaps we can see the same level of growth as with the SIAC.
For the future, we’re considering third-party arbitration funding, where an investor might fund a case on behalf of a client and expect to take some of the award. This is a controversial practice, but other dispute centers have rules that permit it. Singapore is considering a review of some of its laws to allow certain types of dispute funding.
That’s the future we want: whatever any other city can offer that is relevant and material, Singapore can offer.
The Chairman and Senior Partner of Allen & Gledhill, Lucien Wong is also Chairman of the Maritime and Port Authority of Singapore and the Chairman of the Board of Directors of the Singapore International Arbitration Centre.
Allen & Gledhill was founded in Singapore in 1902 and is one of the nation’s largest law firms.
Commercial Litigation: The world tour
In any conversation about international dispute resolution, certain locations are always mentioned as preferred venues. London has long been considered the world’s leading commercial litigation hub. Its court rulings are widely enforceable and its judiciary is seen as strictly impartial.
Paris is popular for similar reasons and its French-speaking courts and close relations with countries around the Mediterranean add appeal for some businesses. In Northern Europe, Geneva and Stockholm are favorite venues.
In Asia, Hong Kong serves as a thriving gateway for China and operates under common law. Reforms in 2011 have improved its arbitration practices. Meanwhile, Singapore has emerged as a leader not just regionally, but globally. In 2015, Singapore’s International Arbitration Centre reported it had 271 new cases; that same year, the London Court of International Arbitration opened 326.
In the US, New York is recognized as the nation’s leading dispute resolution seat, but cities such as Miami and Houston have taken steps to build their own credentials. All this activity points to the fact that, increasingly, companies have no shortage of options as to where they settle their cases – and cities are vying for this valuable business.
Lucien Wong spoke to Will Carnwath, a Partner in Brunswick’s Singapore office.
Illustration: Jean-François Martin