An Interview with Loong Seng Onn

Loong Seng Onn is executive director of the Singapore Mediation Centre and recently spoke to Who’s Who Legal about the use of mediation in Singapore.

LSO

Date of Incorporation: August 1997

Number of referred disputes: more than 2,000 disputes (as of 31 July 2012)

Settlement rate: about 75 per cent

Number of mediators on the panel: more than 300

As executive director of the Singapore Mediation Centre my main role is to oversee the strategic development, project implementation, efficient operations and resource management of SMC.

My initial foray into the world of mediation was pure serendipity. I joined the Singapore Academy of Law (the parent company of SMC) in 1997 to deal with legal education. At that time, the academy was about to set up SMC and I was asked if I would like to be involved. I said ‘yes’, and the rest, as they say, is history.

Mediation is very well established as an effective form of dispute resolution in Singapore, especially in the Subordinate Courts. There is also a thriving community mediation programme handled by the Community Mediation Centre under the Ministry of Law. There is however, much more that can be done to establish non-court commercial mediation. In my opinion, the mediation scene in Singapore is well developed relative to the rest of Asia – but not as well developed as in jurisdictions such as the USA or Australia.

We have seen a gradual uphill trend in the use of mediation for commercial disputes in the last few years and we are encouraged by this. We saw a 30 per cent increase in our mediation caseload in the last year.

For mediation to really “take off” in Singapore we have to continue working the ground and affecting the dispute resolution culture by promoting the benefits of mediation and ensuring that parties at least consider, if not attempt, mediation before resorting to adjudicatory dispute resolute mechanisms. At the moment, mediation is still largely voluntary and there is no compelling reason to use cost sanctions, which will no doubt cause a spike in the number of mediation cases.

Parties are increasingly turning to Singapore for mediation services even when the disputants are not based in the jurisdiction. There was a fairly recent case in which two parties from Australia in a multimillion-dollar dispute mediated their case under the auspices of SMC.

Mediation is attractive to non-Singapore parties as the country enjoys a reputation for neutrality and reliability. It has already established a reputation for dispute resolution as Asia’s foremost arbitration centre. With its corps of skilled multidisciplinary mediators adept at resolving commercial disputes, Singapore is a natural choice where a neutral venue for mediation in Asia is required.

The model endorsed by SMC is the interest-based model of mediation.

The types of commercial disputes we saw most often were construction related disputes. However, the number of such disputes has waned due to legislation being passed which specifically provides for the possibility of adjudicating construction disputes. Most of the mediation cases SMC sees are within the jurisdiction of the Singapore High Court, ie, where disputed sums are in excess of S$250, 000.

Our settlement rate at SMC is generally around 75 per cent. These matters are usually settled very fast compared to litigation or arbitration. Of the cases which result in a settlement, more than 90 per cent are settled within one day.

Professionals are opting to be trained as mediators, in my opinion, as mediation skills complement their other professional skills. Professionals see these skills as important in managing disputes which they may face in their professional or personal lives.

One of SMC’s major functions is to promote the use of mediation. This is often carried out through the more conventional means of roadshows, seminars and workshops. SMC also supports initiatives such as mediation competitions and mediation pledges.

We believe in spreading the word beyond Singapore. In this regard, SMC spearheaded the formation of the Asian Mediation Association (an association of mediation organisations based in Asia). SMC is also one of the founding members of the International Mediation Institute (IMI) which promotes global competency standards for mediators.

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