S'pore urged to take lead in ethics code for arbitration

This will help country as it has become Asia's top venue for dispute resolution: Former A-G

Former attorney-general V. K. Rajah wants Singapore to take the lead in forging an international ethics code for arbitration practice.

He said such a move would help the country at a time when it has become the top venue in Asia for dispute resolution.

He told the Singapore Institute of Arbitrators recently that Singapore has already taken the lead in various discrete areas such as witness coaching.

This refers to court rules here that forbid lawyers from rehearsing lines with witnesses.

"We in Singapore must assume thought leadership in this field and act in our enlightened self-interest," he said in the address on Nov 1.

Mr Rajah's call for Singapore to raise its game comes at a time when the country has entered the "premier league" of litigation and arbitration centres worldwide.

But standards for unethical conduct in international arbitration hearings vary across different jurisdictions, lawyers say.

Stakes get higher in international arbitration as it is seen by many, in the words of Chief Justice Sundaresh Menon, as the "new El Dorado for the modern commercial disputes lawyer", said Mr Rajah.

"There has, in recent times, been much hand wringing within the international arbitral community about the difficulties of reaching a consensus on ethical standards and ever reaching the Holy Grail of convergence," said Mr Rajah.

"Singapore should take the lead and provide the certainty that users are aching for," he added, noting that the "wait and see" attitude is not the Singapore way.

Mr Rajah suggested, for example, that Singapore practitioners could draft an ethical checklist at the start of an arbitral proceeding, dealing with thorny issues for parties to consider.

"Singapore counsel and arbitrators who exercise such ethical initiative will only enhance their international reputation before clients, opposing counsel and tribunals."

Mr Rajah suggested that all stakeholders devise opt-in ethical codes for arbitrators in Singapore that should be updated and eventually converted into a mandatory code.

He added that Singapore should work to build an international consensus on this.

Mr Rajah pointed to the initiative by Chief Justice Menon and the Chartered Institute of Arbitrators to set up an international disciplinary body for arbitrators as one example.

Legal luminaries like Senior Counsel Chan Leng Sun endorsed Mr Rajah's call. Singapore Management University (SMU) law professor Locknie Hsu praised the idea as "an excellent and natural extension of building Singapore's strong reputation in arbitration, efficiency and professionalism".

Drew & Napier's chief executive, Senior Counsel Cavinder Bull, added: "Having blazed a trail in international arbitration, Singapore is uniquely placed to help foster the much-needed discussion about how the international community should entrench ethical standards across the board, especially as this effort will involve lawyers from a range of legal traditions, many of whom use Singapore and the Singapore International Arbitration Centre for their arbitrations."

Nominated MP and SMU law assistant professor Mahdev Mohan said Mr Rajah has "thrown down the gauntlet for the international arbitration community to ask not only what should be reformed through ethics codes, but also why and how Singapore could take the lead in proposing reforms".

"Widely recognised arbitration conventions are named after the cities they are concluded in, such as New York, Washington and, recently, Mauritius.

"I look forward to the day we have a Singapore Model Law or Convention for ethics in arbitration."

He added: "Mr Rajah's proposal is also timely, given Singapore's position as a top arbitration centre, but also given its chairmanship of Asean next year and its aim to facilitate the Asean Economic Community 2025 plan. Certainty through uniform standards in commercial and investment arbitration is crucial to Asean's economic integration agenda from 2017 to 2025."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 14, 2017, with the headline 'S'pore urged to take lead in ethics code for arbitration'. Subscribe