Upbeat about S'pore as a global arbitration powerhouse but challenges ahead

The arbitrator had heard the case under SIAC Rules and ruled in favour of Betamax, awarding over US$150 million in damages.
The arbitrator had heard the case under SIAC Rules and ruled in favour of Betamax, awarding over US$150 million in damages.PHOTO: ST FILE

SINGAPORE - Earlier this month, the London-based Judicial Committee of the Privy Council (JCPC) backed a US$150 million (S$201 million) decision by an arbitrator in a dispute filed with the Singapore International Arbitration Centre (SIAC) in 2015.

In doing so, the JCPC overruled the Mauritius Supreme Court, which had set aside the arbitrator's decision in the dispute about a breach of contract between Mauritian company Betamax Ltd and the Mauritian government-linked State Trading Corporation.

The arbitrator, Dr Michael Pryles, had heard the case under SIAC Rules in Mauritius and ruled in favour of Betamax, awarding over US$150 million in damages. STC then appealed, successfully, to the Mauritius Supreme Court, leading Betamax to pursue the appeal further to the five-member JCPC, which restored the award.

In a separate SIAC-registered case, a three-member tribunal is due to meet next month to decide on a dispute pitting US e-commerce giant Amazon against a company led by Indian billionaire Mukesh Ambani over a US$3.4 billion deal, according to a recent Indian media report.

Amazon had brought the case to the SIAC, which facilitated an emergency arbitration hearing last October, putting the sale on hold pending the full hearing next month.

Industry players say such high-stake instances illustrate Singapore's standing as an arbitration powerhouse and SIAC's pole position in the Asia-Pacific region, as further shown in a global study released last month.

In the 2021 International Arbitration Survey by Queen Mary University of London and law firm White & Case, Singapore was ranked for the first time as the top seat of arbitration in the world, together with London. It was also rated the most preferred arbitral institution in the Asia-Pacific.

The Law Ministry noted that SIAC was not even in the top three just a decade ago. "The Survey is one of the most comprehensive empirical studies conducted on international arbitration, and is well-regarded internationally, and Singapore has done well," said MinLaw.

While MinLaw is upbeat about continued growth based on arbitration's increasing popularity as a preferred method of resolving cross-border disputes, it pointed to the challenges ahead in sustaining growth.

It said a rise in disputes during the pandemic led to SIAC and others like the International Chamber of Commerce and London Centre for International Arbitration (LCIA) achieving high caseloads.

"We do not expect this trend to be permanent. Parties will learn to adapt to the new normal and exercise greater flexibility in their business dealings. Covid-19-related disputes may then tail off," said a MinLaw spokesman.

MinLaw said SIAC's caseload also had to be seen in context, noting: "Of the 1,080 new cases SIAC received in 2020, there were two sets of related cases, involving 261 cases and 145 cases.

"To be precise, if the two sets of related cases were excluded from the total caseload for 2020, the number of cases would then be 674 cases. This would still be a significant increase from the 479 cases in 2019."

To continue to grow, "we will need to retain and grow our niche, play to our strengths, and do the best that we can, to stay relevant to the market and provide high-quality facilities and services", said the spokesman.

Lawyers said for Singapore to remain as a top choice for arbitration, fundamental elements had to be maintained. These included the Court's continued support in ensuring robust supervision of arbitrations and enforcement of awards in Singapore.

Clifford Chance Asia partner Paul Tan cited a recent judgment of the Singapore International Commercial Court over whether an arbitration award should be set aside for breach of natural justice.

"The point of interest is that the judgment was rendered within 10 days of hearing, which is a record. The speed with which the SICC acted, and its helpful observations that enforcement action should cease, further underscores why Singapore is a favourite seat of arbitration, and why the SICC is so effective. This is consistent with reports about Singapore catapulting to top position worldwide."

WongPartnership's litigation and dispute resolution head Chou Sean Yu added that the continued efforts of other stakeholders in the arbitration ecosystem would also count, in addition to government's support in maintaining Singapore as a global hub and including the good work of the SIAC as one of the world's leading institutions.