S'pore to be Asian centre for dispute resolution

Singapore is aiming to become the "premier destination" in Asia for legal services and dispute resolution, Law Minister K. Shanmugam said on Thursday.

Sharing plans to set up an independent mediation centre, and further details on a previously-announced Singapore International Commercial Court (SICC), he said the Republic can meet a growing demand for legal services in a region that has grown in economic importance.

"Singapore is a focal point in Asia for many international transactions, be it trade, investment or financial and other services," he said.

"Our dispute resolution sector supports those services. We seek to serve the region and expand the work that Asia is attracting, by the provision of a neutral venue for every kind of dispute resolution."

He was speaking to delegates from more than 25 countries at the 26th LawAsia Conference at the Suntec convention centre.

Asia is expected to more than triple its gross domestic product to US$34 trillion (S$42 trillion) between 2010 and 2020, Mr Shanmugam noted.

Foreign direct investment in the region stood at about US$400 billion last year - or 30 of per cent of global flows.

With the increasing number of complex cross-border commercial transactions and investment, disputes will "inevitably" increase, he said.

The plans follow strong growth in the arbitration sector here, which the Government will continue to focus on. The fields of international commercial mediation and litigation, in particular, will be targeted.

An independent mediation centre with an international board of mediation experts is being looked into, along with an independent professional body to ensure high standards. A working group on international commercial mediation will make recommendations on how to create the "right environment", replicating what has been achieved in the international arbitration sector, the minister said. Work to this end is being carried out with the Singapore Mediation Centre and other industry stakeholders.

The Singapore International Arbitration Centre handled a record 235 new cases involving multinational businesses last year, up from 188 in 2011. The total sum in dispute for new cases also hit a new high of $3.61 billion - almost tripling from 2011.

Meanwhile, the SICC, announced in January by Chief Justice Sundaresh Menon at the opening of the legal year, will address international commercial disputes where other methods of resolution may not be suitable.

Expected to be Asia's first such court, it is being looked into by a committee chaired by Senior Minister of State for Law Indranee Rajah and Judge of Appeal V. K. Rajah.

"Litigation in an international court is a necessary product that I think people are going to need in Asia," said Mr Shanmugam. "... these cases would in the first place not naturally have been litigated here."

Citing the Dubai International Financial Centre Courts, which witnessed a 40 per cent rise in its caseload last year, he said a similar court structure in Asia would fill a "huge lacuna" if it can be set up properly.

Lawyers here see the plans as an opportunity for them to get more exposure and gain an edge over the competition. "This is a game-changing move," said litigator Adrian Tan.

Senior Counsel Francis Xavier, head of dispute practices at law firm Rajah & Tann, said: "The two initiatives will further enhance Singapore's ability to serve as the dispute resolution and mediation capital for the region and beyond."

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