Edwin Tong urges Japan to be early signatory of new Singapore Convention on Mediation

Senior Minister of State for Law Edwin Tong is on a three-day official visit to Japan to strengthen bilateral legal ties.
Senior Minister of State for Law Edwin Tong is on a three-day official visit to Japan to strengthen bilateral legal ties.PHOTO: ST FILE

TOKYO - The Japanese principle of wa (harmony) is a key premise in mediation as a means to resolve disputes, Singapore's Senior Minister of State for Law Edwin Tong said here on Monday (March 11), noting the country's long history with mediation.

And in this regard, he urged Japan to be among the first signatories to a new United Nations treaty on mediation - known as the Singapore Convention on Mediation - that will be inked at a ceremony on Aug 7 in the Republic.

The pact aims to make it easier to enforce mediated settlement agreements for high-value, complex, cross-border commercial disputes, which in turn will give businesses and investors greater assurance, he told the Japan Association of Arbitrators (JAA) in an hour-long lecture that was also streamed to lawyers in Osaka and Nagoya.

"Mediation is highly compatible with Japanese culture and has seen active use within Japan for many years," he said, citing the first article in Prince Shotoku's Constitution, written in the year 604, that read "harmony should be valued, and quarrels should be avoided".

JAA president Akira Kawamura said that international mediation “may be more important than arbitration” as a means to solve cross-border disputes in years to come, adding that Japan sees Singapore as a leader in the area of dispute resolution.

Mr Tong is on a three-day official visit to Japan to strengthen bilateral legal ties, during which he will hold roundtable discussions with Japanese businesses and law firms. 

On Monday, he met Japan’s State Minister of Justice Hiroshi Hiraguchi, with whom he discussed ways to further cooperate in both legal and business sectors.

“Japan and Singapore have some commonalities – the ‘Asia’ way of doing business and the way in which we see rule of law as a pillar of our legal and business industries,” Mr Tong told The Straits Times in an interview before the lecture. “Mediation is a face-saving, time-saving and overall relationship-building way of solving disputes.”

He said in the JAA lecture that the Singapore Convention will greatly benefit Japan as the world’s third largest economy, given the size of its trade volumes and foreign direct investments, and boost its reputation as a leader in global trade.

Under the Convention, the two countries can take the lead in shaping the direction of legal services in the Asia-Pacific, where legal services are expected to grow by 5.5 per annually between 2014 and 2019, Mr Tong said. This far outpaces the expected global growth rate of 3.3 per cent per annum.

 
 

Singapore has been a world leader in the mediation sector. In 2014, it was the first in the world to set up a dedicated centre for international commercial mediation.

The Singapore International Mediation Centre (SIMC) today has more than 70 mediators covering over 15 jurisdictions, as well as a panel of more than 70 independent experts.

It has handled about 70 cases with a settlement rate of more than 80 per cent, Mr Tong said. Its highest-value dispute was worth over S$600 million, he added, and none of these agreements have been breached.

He cited the example of how the SIMC not only helped to resolve a years-long commercial dispute over the sales of goods between an Indian and an Indonesian company within one day, but also led them to find a win-win solution.

In another anecdote, he said that the SIMC mediated a dispute between an Indonesian and a Chinese company worth US$20 million within three days of filing, thus saving them legal costs and the time needed for senior management to attend protracted court hearings.

Were Japan an early signatory of the Singapore Convention, Mr Tong said, it will signal the country's commitment to global trade, commerce and investment, and boost its attractiveness as a business hub.

The Singapore Convention, he said, was the "last piece of the puzzle" that is the lack of a common framework for cross-border enforcement of mediated settlement agreements. But he added that it will lack teeth if countries do not adopt it.

“While the signing of the Convention is a significant milestone, it is only the start of a longer journey,” he said, noting that the New York Convention on Arbitration started in June 1958 with 10 countries, but today has 159 nations on board. 

“It will take time for the Singapore Convention, like in New York, to gain traction, acceptance and familiarity,” he said. “It is not just about who does it in August but how many thereafter follow as well, because it takes some time for parties to be aware of it, to understand how it applies to them, see how it works and then come on board.”

On Tuesday (March 12), Mr Tong will deliver a keynote speech at the Japan-Singapore International Legal and Dispute Resolution Conference - the first such high-level legal forum between the two countries.

He will also visit the Japan International Cooperation Agency to discuss how bilateral cooperation on infrastructure projects can be deepened.

He will leave on Wednesday for Kyoto, where he will visit the Japan International Mediation Centre, the first such dispute resolution centre in the country. It was set up last year, under an agreement between the SIMC and the JAA.