Singapore pushes for share of Asia's rising arbitration cases

By Chris Crowe

Singapore’s new Maxwell Chambers is expected to become a beacon of Asia-related arbitration in the coming years. The grandiose new building has caused a stir, with its attempt to become the region’s principal arbitral location.

Maxwell Chambers grand opening

Maxwell Chambers
grand opening

Maxwell Chambers’ former Chief Executive, Wong Sheng Kwai, explains that the new centre is the final piece in Singapore’s ambitious international arbitration plans, building on the jurisdiction’s firmly established traditions in the arbitration environment and its open regime that allows foreign lawyers and arbitrators to work alongside local professionals: ‘What Singapore missed was a dedicated venue for holding international arbitration hearings. This missing piece has now been put in place with the establishment of Maxwell Chambers, a one-stop custom designed international dispute resolution complex.’

The significance of its launch has not gone unnoticed by the international arbitration community. Some 40 barristers from London’s Essex Court Chambers have taken office space in the new dispute resolution centre, as have a number of members from fellow London set, 20 Essex Street. 

 While the China International Economic and Trade Arbitration Commission (CIETAC) may be the busiest arbitration venue in Asia by volume of cases, the Hong Kong International Arbitration Centre (HKIAC) is widely considered to be the premier destination for cases involving blue-chip clients.

Even so, Singapore is primed to challenge Hong Kong for supremacy. HKIAC handled 649 disputes in 2009, while the Singapore International Arbitration Centre (SIAC) – which is now located in Maxwell Chambers – dealt with 160 cases. Yet many practitioners already recognise that disputes are increasingly gravitating towards Singapore.


 

Robert Pe, Orrick

'The level of commitment the Singapore Government has put into arbitration will definitely bear fruit. Like Hong Kong, a lot of people do feel very comfortable using Singapore'      Robert Pé, head of litigation (Asia), Orrick  



Robert Pé, Orrick’s Asia head of litigation, says: ‘The level of commitment the Singapore Government has put into arbitration will definitely bear fruit. Like Hong Kong, a lot of people do feel very comfortable with using Singapore.’

Singapore’s reputation for neutrality – it has no administrative nexus to China or any other nation – puts it ahead of Hong Kong. As such, Pé believes that there are many instances where Singapore is preferred to Hong Kong: ‘Korean clients seem to feel more comfortable with Singapore than Hong Kong, particularly when the counterparty is Chinese.’

Other jurisdictions stake their claim

Singapore is not the only jurisdiction to attempt to heighten its international arbitration standing. Australia now wants to be a prime location for resolving disputes involving Asian parties. Earlier this year, the Australian Government announced that it would finance the creation of a modern arbitration centre in Sydney.

 

Damian Sturzaker, Marque Lawyers

Damian Sturzaker
Marque Lawyers, Sydney

Damian Sturzaker, a dispute resolution partner at Sydney-based Marque Lawyers says the choice of arbitration venue is often driven by perceived neutrality: ‘It often boils down to choosing a venue that is not seen as favouring one side rather than the other. For Asian disputes, this could be Australia or New Zealand.’

Even so, Sydney’s geographical remoteness from Asia may well count against it, according to many within the arbitration community. Despite the lower legal and accommodation costs in Sydney compared to prime Asian locations such as Hong Kong and Singapore, it is not cheap to fly there. Ex Clifford Chance London partner Denis Brock says: ‘You generally need to choose an arbitration centre that is the most convenient. You need to ask yourself where the witnesses are and where it’s easiest to deal with the case. You can spend thousands of pounds just moving documents and people around.’

Arbitration professionals may be enthused by the renewed efforts of Asian jurisdictions such as Malaysia and South Korea to attain greater credibility within the international arbitration sector. The increasing flow of cases augurs well for these institutions. The Singapore International Arbitration Centre (SIAC), now a tenant of Maxwell Chambers, handled 160 cases in 2009 up from 99 cases in 2008. Maxwell Chambers’ former Chief Executive Wong Sheng Kwai says: ‘Other Maxwell Chambers tenants like ICC and ICDR (AAA) have reported similar increases in case filings. For ad hoc cases, we know anecdotally that for every institutional case, there are two ad hoc cases being conducted.’

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