Speech by Senior Minister of State for Law, Indranee Rajah, at the NYU Law Singapore Programme's Convocation Ceremony
Your Excellency, Mr David Adelman and Mrs Adelman,
Professor Simon Chesterman, Dean of the NUS Faculty of Law,
Professor Alan Tan, whom I regard not just as a distinguished member of the faculty, but also as a friend. I also had the occasion to help train him for the Jessup where I was quite mean to him then, but he turned out excellently,
Distinguished guests, ladies and gentlemen, parents, and of course, the graduating class,
1. It is always a great pleasure to be present at events like this because you see that it is the end of one chapter, but the beginning of so much more. Just listening to both of you speak just now, you get a sense of the energy and the vigour that comes from this class, and the sense of the bonds that you have built up in the course of one year. These are the precious things you can get out of a course like this.
II. The global context
2. The world is becoming smaller. The legal market place is getting smaller because of technology. When I first started practice, it was a great thing to have a fax machine because we used to operate by telex for overseas communication. Of course, all that has changed today. Technology has brought law firms closer and enabled lawyers to communicate across the world and global practice has changed. Whereas before, you used to think of yourself as a New York lawyer, a UK lawyer or a Singapore lawyer, now increasingly with cross-border disputes as well as cross-border transactions, you find yourself having to interface with people from different countries and from different cultures. As such, you find a great deal of commonalities. That is why in this increasingly borderless and complex world, the kind of bonds that you have built up and the kind of exposure that you have had is very valuable. This is particularly so because we see greater collaboration between Asian and non-Asian law firms. I suppose this decade is the Asian decade, where a lot of the energy of commerce and business is being focused. We now have law firms opening offices in regions outside of their own and employing lawyers called to the Bars of different jurisdictions to enhance their service offerings to their clients. In fact, 21 countries are represented in this graduating cohort today. This alone strongly demonstrates the demand for a globally relevant legal education.
3. What do you have that sets you apart? You have a competitive edge because you have benefitted from outstanding training jointly provided by two top class law schools, with the skills, knowledge, and most importantly, the contacts you have made with one another. You will return to your different countries, do different things but the fact that you know somebody else in a different country, the fact that you can pick up the phone or send an email and say, “I want to do this deal and that is going to have some impact on your country, can I check the laws there?” or “Can I work with you on this deal there?”, that is going to be invaluable.
III. Advanced degrees from two top class law schools
4. NYU is one of the top six best law schools in the United States (2012). The NUS law school is widely regarded as Asia’s leading law school and was listed as one of the top 10 law schools in the world in 2012. It is the only law school from Asia to join the likes of top universities such as Harvard and Oxford.
5. NUS and NYU share that same sense of global connectedness and have pursued the development of globally oriented teaching programmes and research. So, you get the best of both worlds and the best of both the American and Asian perspectives. You would have also acquired some proficiency in American law and benefitted from the unique approach and style of American legal education.
6. At the same time, through the NUS curriculum, you would be able to choose a specialisation in corporate and financial services law or intellectual property and technology law, among others. Now that you finish your LLM degrees, some of you will have the option of taking the New York Bar exams. So the world is really your oyster because you have so many options ahead of you.
IV. Being at the right place
7. You are also in a region going through a time of growth that will allow you to take advantage of opportunities, even in this uncertain economic climate. The International Monetary Fund reports that growth in Asia is projected to expand over two percentage points faster than the world average in 2013.
8. The Ministry of Law here in Singapore has sought to build a strong and vibrant legal services sector to support the growing business environment.
9. We have progressively liberalised the practice of Singapore law in commercial areas through the Qualifying Foreign Law Practice (QFLP) scheme to encourage top tier firms to base their Asian offshore work out of Singapore. Six QFLPs were awarded licences in 2008. A second round of licences has just been awarded to another four top international law firms.
10. Singapore is also recognised as a leading international arbitration hub in Asia. There are many key international arbitration institutions, alongside our local flagship, the Singapore International Arbitration Centre, which have established a presence at our integrated dispute resolution facility, Maxwell Chambers.
11. This is important because for those of you who are not going to do corporate law, and who are going to do dispute resolution, arbitration is very much one of the ways in which international disputes are being resolved. You have the traditional centres in London, Geneva and Paris. In Asia, it is really Hong Kong and Singapore, and Singapore has increasingly over the last six to seven years gained international recognition. So this is one of the places to be if you want to be a player in international dispute resolution.
12. For the corporate lawyers, there is much to be done too. Quite apart from the fact that there is so much to be done for commercial transactions, the other aspect of it is you cannot have rule of law without a framework. What is that framework when you are having commercial deals? How you structure a contract has a great impact in terms of the parties’ dealings with each other. In fact, investment law and human rights are now growing areas. If you are dealing with somebody in a country where that person is less advantaged, you do not just take advantage of them or take away their land without proper form of compensation or without a proper framework. These are issues where corporate lawyers have a role to play. Corporate lawyers also do pro bono work for Voluntary Welfare Organisations and Non-Governmental Organisations, and there is great deal of scope whichever type of specialisation you choose. So there is an opportunity to both practise your chosen area of specialisation but also do good in a broader sense at the same time.
13. In addition, we have implemented measures which allow local law firms more flexibility to structure, expand and internationalise their practices so this allows them to link up with foreign law firms. We also have a foreign practitioner examination that allows experienced foreign qualified lawyers to pass and practise Singapore law in permitted areas of practice.
14. We now have over 1,200 foreign lawyers in Singapore, up from just over 600 five years ago. The number of foreign firms in Singapore has also increased to more than 100 from about 60 over the same period. Eight of the world’s top 10 law firms by revenue have a presence here.
15. All these changes have helped catalyse the legal industry’s growth. The value added from legal services grew by 22 per cent from S$1.48 billion in 2008 to S$1.8 billion in 2011.
16. Why do I mention this? It is not just to blow the trumpet about the growth of Singapore’s legal industry. It is basically to signal that this is a country of opportunity for those in the legal sector. This is a region of opportunity. With your experience this past one year, the bonds that you have built up, the contacts you have made and your travels in the region, you are uniquely placed to take advantage of all this growth that is happening around you.
17. I will also say that the experience of having been in a different place in Asia stands you in very good stead. I hope that the bonds that you have made here will take you even further as you go ahead. I hope that you will remember Singapore, like the experience of mixing with different races and the sense that you can walk out at night and feel safe. I hope that you will remember that these are the nice and good things about Singapore. I hope that when you go away and when you have your own practices, you will think about your friends here and the persons you have met and remember that there is this one little red dot in this area of the world where you had good, warm memories and it is just another place that you can call home, in a different way.
18. Let me just end with a story since Professor Simon mentioned one. I do not know what you read, but I have enough of the law text when I get home. I read a variety of things including science fiction and fantasy. I was particularly struck by this story of a boatman taking a learned scholar across the sea to a particular destination. In this story, the scholar talks about all the wonderful things he has learnt and he basically lets the boatman feel that he is really rather unintelligent and uninformed because he is a mere boatman. He does not know theorems, important principles or doctrines. Then a storm blows up and the boat gets extremely rocky. The boatman says he cannot row to the end and that they will have to swim to shore. The scholar says he never learnt to swim. The boatman says that is too bad, because the only thing he ever learnt was to swim. The boatman jumps off and swims to safety while the scholar perishes.
19. The point behind the story is that it is sometimes the simple things in life that matters. All the knowledge that you have acquired, you will use it in complex situations. But, the really good lawyers are the ones who are able to cut to the chase and are able to see what the issue really is. Sometimes, the simpler the better. So use that knowledge you have acquired, and do not confuse complexity and simplicity. You may have a great deal of detail, but a hallmark of a really good lawyer is to be able to cut down to the bone and identify the issue, and then use the knowledge that you have acquired. This is something that cuts across all cultures, and you find that if you come from a particular jurisdiction, there are a lot of rules, but when you analyse the underlying rules, you will find that there is a sense in each of jurisdiction of the desire to do justice, of the desire to be fair, of the desire to get your dispute resolutions done and that there is a sense of equity about it. So different countries and different cultures interpret this in different ways, but the ability to just drill down and understand how they see it, that is what makes a difference, and there you will see the underlying similarities.
20. I would like to conclude by saying that what you have acquired in the last 300 or so days is not just legal knowledge. You have acquired that sense of the different environment and culture that will stand you in very good stead in this century to come.
21. Thank you very much.
http://www.imf.org/external/pubs/ft/reo/2012/apd/eng/areo1012.htm-Regional Economic Outlook, October 2012
 These include the American Arbitration Association’s (AAA) International Centre for Dispute Resolution, the Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA), ICC’s International Court of Arbitration (ICA), International Centre for the Settlement of Investment Disputes (ICSID), London Court of Commercial Arbitration (LCIA), World Intellectual Property Organization Arbitration & Mediation Center (WIPO AMC), among others.