Changes in our use of mediation are essential

Singapore is a small island which packs a disproportionate punch in South East Asia. Picture: Getty
Singapore is a small island which packs a disproportionate punch in South East Asia. Picture: Getty
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Singapore has a lesson or two to teach us, says John Sturrock

A country of approximately 5.5 million people. Well-placed strategically for transport links between other nations. In close proximity to a number of much larger neighbours. A reputation for honesty, fair-dealing, hospitality and good manners. Carefully non-aligned to any major power bloc. A hub for commercial activity.

Singapore is a small island which packs a disproportionate punch in South East Asia. I recently took part in the launch of the Singapore International Mediation Centre – and I was privileged to be invited, along with my good friend and colleague, New Zealand’s leading commercial mediator, Geoff Sharp, to deliver the keynote workshop. We are both fortunate to have been appointed as members of the centre’s international panel of mediators which includes such luminaries as William Ury of Getting to Yes fame.

The audience was composed of more than 100 government officials, academics, company representatives, legal advisers and mediators from all over South East Asia and they were enthusiastic participants in our interactive conversation, which posed a number of provocative questions about the practice of mediation and how we can continue to improve it. We took as our theme: “Mediation as a Continuum: from Preparation through to the Aftermath – why sticking at it really matters”, something to which Geoff and I are committed.

The new centre builds on a domestic primary dispute resolution centre, where Singaporean courts refer cases for mediation, and the community mediation centre. It is another example of Singapore’s ambition to play a key role in the commercial world and, in this instance, in the resolution of international commercial disputes. There is already an international arbitration centre and the mediation project has been developed with the specific encouragement of the chief justice and the Singaporean legislature, which has passed measures to enable international mediators to conduct mediation in Singapore.

At the launch, both the chief justice and the senior minister of state for law were enthusiastic speakers. They recognise the potential to attract major disputes from China and India in their period of exponential commercial growth. Singapore aspires to compete with London and Dubai for international business.

Are there similar opportunities for Scotland? Our location and positioning at the north western edge of Europe is in some respects not dissimilar to that of Singapore in the south east of Asia. However, we are not the international commercial “hub” which has been Singapore’s raison d’être since its establishment as a trading post by Stamford Raffles nearly 200 years ago. Location is one aspect. Another is our close proximity to another major hub, namely London. Realistically, we are unlikely to see a significant shift of commercial focus from there.

That said, what might Scotland offer? Well, a reputation for honesty, fair-dealing, hospitality and good manners should be a good start. We may be perceived, notwithstanding the outcome of the referendum, as less aligned to major power blocs than, say, London. That may help in some cases. The key, however, would seem to be competence and capacity – and not just in international matters. We need to be able to demonstrate, domestically, our enthusiasm for, experience of and commitment to delivering the kind of dispute resolution facilities which international commercial users want. We need skilled exponents and modern processes. Civil court reform is a good start. But step changes in our use of mediation in commercial and business matters are also essential.

While arbitration has seen some growth and much government support in recent years, mediation remains under-utilised and probably still misunderstood. At another international conference in London, the key to unlocking greater use was identified as greater familiarity and experience with mediation, combined with more willingness to recommend mediation among legal advisers (in-house and external) whose perceived reluctance to do so, it was suggested, could be at odds with the needs of their clients.

Illustrating the point, in the annual Singapore Mediation Lecture, Bradford Berenson, vice president and senior counsel for litigation and legal policy of General Electric, said: “Mediation is a critical tool as we face the dual challenges of expanding our business in a global environment, and on keeping risks and costs under control.”

Finally, the international perception of our domestic justice system could matter. It is still not clear, for example, just how profoundly the continuing uncertainty over the Lockerbie verdict affects international confidence in Scotland’s capability to hold itself out as a reputable centre for solving international problems. An interesting issue to wrestle with.

John Sturrock is chief executive of Core Solutions