We speak to Lim Seok Hui about her first two years running the Singapore International Arbitration Centre, the prospects for Singapore’s new mediation centre and her views on emergency arbitrator measures.
01 | How has your role changed during your two years as chief executive of the Singapore International Arbitration Centre?
SIAC has a Board of Directors to oversees its operations and a separate Court of Arbitration which supervises case administration by the Secretariat and deals with appointments and challenges of arbitrators. I joined the management team in 2013, at the same time as Tan Ai Leen, SIAC’s Registrar. Since then, and working closely with the Board and the Court, SIAC’s management team has reviewed all the internal controls, policies and processes and we have introduced measures to streamline workflow, tighten controls and enhance the efficiency and quality of our services.
I have also spent a lot of time raising awareness of arbitration and the benefits of conducting arbitrations in Singapore with SIAC. That has involved a lot of travel throughout the region; I have spoken in India, China, Indonesia, Korea, Japan, Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam. Further afield, I have also covered the US, UK, Germany, Russia and Australia and have plans to visit South America, which is an important market for businesses in Asia. We have also held workshops in Mongolia and Myanmar. We are keen to reach out beyond the capital cities to the smaller cities. Speaking at universities is an important part of this, as well as making contact with businesses and law firms.
02 | Can you tell us about the SIAC training video?
The idea behind the video is to raise awareness of SIAC arbitration. It takes the viewer through all the key stages of an international commercial arbitration administered under the SIAC Rules. We were lucky to be able to work with the awardwinning Singaporean film director Eric Khoo and his team, so the production quality is really high. Making the video was enormous fun. It features an international cast of eminent arbitration experts from civil and common law jurisdictions (including Norton Rose Fulbright partner KC Lye). The video has been well received by law firms and universities from all over the world and has had positive feedback from in-house counsel users. Online sales have been higher than expected, because of its usefulness as a training tool.
03 | What is the SIAC doing to ensure that awards are delivered expeditiously?
Arbitrators are required to sign an undertaking to devote sufficient time to the case throughout the process. A close eye is kept on the progress of awards; the President writes to the arbitrator upon acceptance of their appointment, setting out SIAC’s expectation that each arbitrator will conduct the arbitration expeditiously. The Secretariat and the Court of Arbitration also monitor the conduct of the arbitration and address promptly any delays that may arise. The Registrar also monitors the issuance of awards and can sanction a slow tribunal by reducing their fees. The Secretariat generally scrutinises draft awards within two to three weeks. So, you see, we pride ourselves on quality and efficiency.
04 | SIAC has more experience than most arbitration institutions with emergency arbitrator appointments. What learning is available from that?
SIAC introduced emergency arbitrator provisions in 2010; since then, 45 emergency arbitrators have been appointed [as at July 31, 2015]. An emergency arbitrator can be valuable where the parties do not have confidence in seeking interim measures from the local courts or where the parties value confidentiality. Emergency arbitrator awards are effective with a high rate of voluntary compliance. In most cases, the tribunals subsequently constituted have affirmed the orders and awards issued by the emergency arbitrator. Speed is of the essence and most appointments are made within one business day or on the same day. The Secretariat prides itself on moving quickly – the current record is 5.5 hours for an appointment of an arbitrator in regular (i.e. not emergency arbitrator) proceedings. The average time for an interim order from receipt of the emergency arbitrator application is 2.5 days. For an award after having heard the parties, the average time is 8.5 days but has been as short as one day.
05 | Why has there been such a growth in the number of arbitrations before SIAC?
The number of new cases filed has more than doubled since 2008 and we now have an active caseload of more than 600 cases. There are many reasons for this but the economic growth in the region is a key factor. High trade flows in Asia have led to an increase in the number and complexity of crossborder commercial disputes. Judicial support for arbitration is also important with a high support/minimum intervention approach. The Singapore courts are known to be free of corruption and to have high-calibre judges.
Geography plays its part, with Singapore acting as a natural hub for trade. The infrastructure and connectivity is excellent. The government has actively supported the development of arbitration. There are no restrictions on the use of foreign counsel, and income tax exemptions and tax incentives are in place for arbitrators and law firms. The facilities for arbitration hearings at Maxwell Chambers are world class.
06 | What are the key features that distinguish SIAC’s approach to arbitration?
I would say that efficiency, transparency, flexibility and cost are the key things that attract users to SIAC. We are defined by the service we offer and we are always striving to improve. For example, our rules require us to seek to appoint an emergency arbitrator within one business day. We always try our best to meet this deadline – even on the eve of Chinese New Year! We are transparent about what we do and publish detailed statistics in our annual report. Our appointments process is clear; under our rules, all appointments are made by the President to ensure quality.
And we are mindful of costs. Our fee caps for tribunals are lower than those of most other major institutions. In a typical case, fees will be 75–85 per cent of the fee cap and there is often a refund of the balance at the conclusion of the proceedings. When a case settles early, the refunds are higher.
Our expedited procedure, introduced in 2010, has proved very popular: more than 130 cases have been dealt with this way [as at July 31, 2015]. This route is available for cases where the sum in dispute does not exceed SG$5 million or the parties agree or there is exceptional urgency. Cases are dealt with by a sole arbitrator and awards are made within six months of the constitution of the tribunal.
07 | SIAC recently opened an office in India. Why did you choose India?
There are strong cultural links between India and Singapore and its close geographic location makes Singapore a natural choice of seat for Indian parties. In terms of the nationalities of parties referring disputes to SIAC, India has ranked (alternately with China) as either our number one or two foreign user in the last few years. India has seen tremendous economic growth and foreign investment recently and this trend is set to continue, so we anticipate an even greater number of international disputes involving Indian parties in the years to come. Opening an office in India has been an important demonstration of our commitment to India and has enabled us to raise SIAC’s profile in India.
For similar reasons, we also opened a representative office in Seoul, South Korea, in 2013.
08 | How does your work with the Singapore International Mediation Centre relate to your work with SIAC?
The two institutions are closely linked and are run from the same building. This enables us to serve clients who commence arbitration but then wish to explore a settlement through mediation. The Arb-Med-Arb service gives parties this opportunity. If the mediation is successful, parties may request that their mediated settlement agreement be converted into a consent arbitral award, giving the mediated settlement agreement the advantage of enforceability under the 1958 New York Convention. If the mediation is not successful then the parties can continue with the arbitration.
The SIMC opened in November 2014 and was founded by SIAC, the Singapore Academy of Law and the Singapore Business Federation. The SIMC’s panel of mediators is completely international and includes leading mediators from many different countries. Mediation is still a new method of dispute resolution in this part of the world and is regarded with some suspicion so there is a lot of work to do to explain its benefits to businesses.
09 | You are the first woman to be appointed to the role of CEO at SIAC. Do you think that there are now more opportunities now for women as arbitrators?
I see a lot of good women working in this area with the drive to succeed, and their time will come. Our Secretariat is mostly made up of women. Recently, a number of women have been appointed to lead arbitration institutions. Teresa Cheng chairs HKIAC, Chiann Bao is Secretary General of HKIAC and Dr Jacomijn van Haersolte-van Hof is LCIA’s director general. I think there is also a growing awareness of the importance of diversity. But you don’t want to be appointed because you’re a woman. You want to be appointed because you’re good.