Opening Address by Singapore Senior Minister of State for Law and Health Edwin Tong at the China-Singapore International Commercial Dispute Resolution Conference
Ms Gao Yan, Chairperson, China Council for the Promotion of International Trade (CCPIT)
Our Many Distinguished Guests
Ladies and Gentlemen
1. Good morning. Welcome to this morning’s opening ceremony of the conference.
2. I am indeed very happy to join you here this morning, at the China-Singapore International Commercial Dispute Resolution Conference. And let me start by very warmly thanking CCPIT for not only co-hosting this conference with us, and the Singapore Ministry of Law, and also inviting me to speak here today and also for welcoming guests from Singapore. We have a cold winter’s weather in January but we are kept very warm by your friendship and hospitality that we have been given.
3. This is the first time that Singapore and China are working together to co-organise a high-level legal conference, bringing together over 300 government officials, academics, business executives, and legal practitioners from both countries. It certainly bears testament to the warm ties between the two countries and our shared desire to work together on legal services as a new area of bilateral cooperation. I would like to take the opportunity of today’s conference to share my thoughts on the fundamental changes in the international economic landscape, its implications for the legal industry, and also how Singapore and China can together seize opportunities in a new Asian century.
Legal Industry in the Asian Century
4. Asia is reclaiming its historic weight in the global economy. According to a McKinsey Study, Asia was in fact the world’s economic centre for well over eight centuries from about 1000 to about 1820. It was only after 1820 that this shifted to Europe, and only after the second world war, that it shifted from Europe, across the Atlantic, to the United States. But from 2000, the world’s economic centre of gravity has started shifting back to Asia, and this heralds the start of a new Asian Century.
5. Today, Asia is home to 28% of the world’s middle class. By 2030, this will increase to two-thirds and by 2050, to 70%. Today, 48% of Asia’s population live in urban areas. By 2030, this will increase to 55% and by 2050, to 62%. Today, Asian countries are predominantly pro-trade, having benefited tremendously from it. Asia remains committed to further integration amongst our economies. A growing middle class, urbanisation and strong integration of our economic markets will power this new Asian century.
6. How will the rise of Asia impact the legal industry? I offer a few thoughts.
7. First, as the world’s economic centre shifts, the centre of gravity for legal services will shift to Asia correspondingly. This is only to be expected. Legal services are an economic activity and they follow business and they provide to meet business needs. And this shift is already happening, just take the period between 2014 to 2019, legal services were projected to grow at 3.3% a year globally in the world. But over the same period of time, legal services in the Asia-Pacific region have been expected to grow at 5.5% annually. So there is a 2.2 percentage point difference in the growth rate. This is compounded each year and the gap can widen very quickly.
8. Second, as Asia drives a larger share of legal demand, Asia will redefine the very character and delivery of legal services, as lawyers and law firms across the world adapt, and adjust and compete to tailor their services to better meet Asia’s needs. As an example, the rules and procedures for settling cross-border commercial disputes today are generally adversarial and embody western values and norms. These rules and procedures have their merits. But over the years, they have been effective in helping to resolve many commercial disputes and they will remain integral instruments of the global trading system for years to come. But even so, they are not necessarily the best instruments for all types of disputes. Asia is a place of great cultural, ethnic and religious diversity and also home to some of the world’s oldest civilisations. Despite this greater diversity, or perhaps more importantly because of it, what is common across Asia is the value in which Asians place on relationships, preserving harmony, those are values which are important to Asia - “以和为贵” (yǐ hé wéi guì). Asian businesses need an alternative way of settling disputes that prioritise preserving the harmony and ensuring relationships continue, and also not having the situation of one person wins and one person loses, but more commonly known as a win-win situation.
Working Together to Seize Opportunities
9. Singapore and China are indeed old friends. Last month, as Chairman mentioned, China conferred on Singapore’s late founding Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew, the China Reform Friendship Medal at a ceremony led by President Xi Jinping to mark the 40th anniversary of China’s reforms.
10. Mr Lee was himself, a close observer of China and took a deep interest in its development. Over 37 years, Mr Lee Kuan Yew visited China 33 times and witnessed first-hand China’s phenomenal growth and development. He not only went to major coastal cities, but also many inland provinces and historical destinations. Mr Lee was in fact the first foreign leader to visit the terracotta in Shaanxi in China’s western region in 1976. Through his various visits over the years, Mr Lee gained a better understanding of Chinese society, and of the tremendous determination of the Chinese people to transform their society and improve their lives.
11. In 1978, Mr Lee met Mr Deng Xiaoping for the first time during Mr Deng’s visit to Singapore, a meeting which Mr Lee described as “unforgettable”. During his visit, Mr Deng saw how Singapore, a resource-less small country or island, could create a better life for its people by bringing in foreign investments, management, and technical skills. Mr Lee told Mr Deng, and I quote “there was nothing that Singapore had done that China could not do, and do better”. Unquote. Subsequently, especially following Mr Deng’s Southern Tour in 1992, hundreds of Chinese delegations made study trips to Singapore to exchange views on our prospective development experiences.
12. The multi-faceted cooperation between Singapore and China today was built on the foundations laid by Mr Lee and Mr Deng. We now have three G-G (government to government) projects - the Suzhou Industrial Park, the Tianjin Eco-City, and the Chongqing Connectivity Initiative. All these projects were designed to complement China’s evolving development needs. The Chongqing Connectivity Initiative was recently expanded to include more provinces and autonomous regions in western China.
13. When Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong and Chinese President Xi Jinping met in September 2017 and again in April 2018, the two leaders agreed that legal and judicial cooperation would be a new area of collaboration between Singapore and China.
14. In August 2018, we signed a Memorandum of Guidance on the recognition and enforcement of money judgements in commercial cases at the 2nd annual Legal and Judicial Roundtable, co-chaired by our respective Chief Justices. The following month, in September, we added legal and judicial cooperation under the Belt and Road Initiative as a new agenda item at the high-level Joint Council for Bilateral Cooperation, the JCBC meeting. This was co-chaired by Singapore Deputy Prime Minister Teo Chee Hean and Chinese Vice-Premier Han Zheng. Two years later, in November, Premier Li Keqiang made an official visit to Singapore. In the Joint Statement issued during his visit, the two governments said that both sides agreed to strengthen legal and judicial cooperation and exchanges.
15. And indeed, we are stepping up exchanges and cooperation. In August last year, Chief Justice Zhou Qiang and Prosecutor-General Zhang Jun made separate visits to Singapore. I am happy to be able to make my first official visit to China this week, and to be able to discuss with Gao Yan this morning and my counterpart from the Ministry of Justice tomorrow on how we can further that legal cooperation. But most importantly also, to deepen the people-to-people ties and how we can continue to exchange and build on the economic and warm relationship and you see we have wasted no time, from the photographs that you see, we have taken much care to further deepen that relationship very quickly.
16. At the working level, Singapore Ministry of Law’s Deputy Secretary, Mr. Han Kok Juan has himself led seven delegations to China over the last two years. He told me that this is in fact the fourth time he is meeting Mr Lu, whom he has very high regard for. In September 2017, Mr Han and Mr Lu were together in Hangzhou to witness the signing of the MOU between our mediation centres, the Singapore International Mediation Centre (SIMC) and the CCPIT Mediation Centre. In May 2018, they both travelled to Xi’an to speak at a Belt and Road legal forum. In October 2018, they witnessed the signing of a MOU between our arbitral institutions, the Singapore International Arbitration Centre (SIAC) and the China International Economic and Trade Arbitration Commission (CIETAC). Today, Mr Han and Mr Lu have joined hands to put together this conference and we will later also witness the signing of a MOU to set up a joint mediator panel for the Belt and Road Initiative. And I just want to take a pause now to reiterate our thanks to CCPIT, not just at the high levels but across all levels and especially to the working people who have worked so hard in putting together today’s conference.
17. This conference extends Singapore and China’s legal cooperation beyond the government-to-government to the business-to-business level and perhaps most importantly also, the people-to-people level. This is important because while the government can lay the foundation and foster a conducive environment, it is people who build ties and businesses which seize initiatives and opportunities. I would like to take this opportunity to suggest three ways in which we, the government, business and the people in the legal community, can work together to take forward the Singapore-China legal cooperation.
18. First, Singapore and China can work together to co-develop a new way of settling cross-border commercial disputes that better reflects the Asian values and is also tailored to Asia’s needs. This will provide an additional option to both Asian and non-Asian parties and be helpful in moving projects along and give confidence to parties, both in Asia and beyond.
19. Second, Singapore and China can work together to promote mediation as an alternative form of dispute resolution. In December 2018, the United Nations General Assembly adopted the United Nations Convention on International Settlement Agreements Resulting from Mediation. Singapore and China have agreed that such an instrument is important to the multilateral rules-based order and will consider signing it. Singapore is organising the signing ceremony on 7 August later this year. I hope to invite all of you to be a part of the ceremony.
20. Third, Singapore and China can work together to promote people-to-people exchange amongst our officials and practitioners in the legal service industry. A good example of this is when the Singapore Ministry of Law and 10 of Singapore’s top legal firms hosted 24 lawyers from six top Shaanxi firms for a one-month attachment under the Singapore-Shaanxi Study Visit programme. This is just late last year, a few months ago. And this is not a once-off engagement because the friendship continues. I am happy to see Mr Han Yongan and Mr Dou Xingya, President and Vice President of the Shaanxi Lawyers Association, here today, joining us in this conference. They have led a delegation of Shaanxi lawyers to Beijing to attend today’s conference. Such people-to-people exchanges allow us to truly deepen the legal cooperation between the two countries.
21. Let me conclude by once again thanking CCPIT for inviting me to today’s conference. The agenda of the conference is a substantive one and we have the privilege of many, many distinguished speakers. This is a forum where I hope people freely exchange ideas, share initiatives and cut the way forward on how we can more closely work together so that we can bring benefits to both our society, both in Singapore and in China. I wish everyone a fruitful conference and look forward to interacting with you over tea break and also at tonight’s dinner.