Opening Speech by Mr Edwin Tong SC, Minister for Culture Community and Youth and Second Minister for Law at TechLaw.Fest 2022 Up Your Game
20 July 2022 Posted in [Speeches]
Justice Lee Seiu Kin and Justice Aedit Abdullah, co-chairs of the TechLaw.Fest steering committee
Friends and colleagues
Ladies and gentlemen
- Good morning to everyone here at MBS.
- And good morning, good afternoon, and good evening to everyone else joining us online, depending on where you are in the world. Such is the advent of the virtual space – you can be anywhere, at any time, and still be part of this session.
- Very happy to be speaking to some of you in-person again, after two years of hiatus where we have to do this online. We are now back in person again and are able to see and talk to each other, suss each other out, and also make that extra human connection.
- Having said that, I am quite excited about and looking forward to another kind of “face-to-face” interaction with DXC general counsel Bill Deckelman in the metaverse later.
I thank the organisers for an innovative programme, giving us new surprises and topics, and bringing us the latest, most cutting-edge topics.
(a) Constantly challenging us to up our Game! And indeed, we need to up our game in this space.
(b) I thank the judges, SAL and the MinLaw team behind TechLaw.Fest for sparing no efforts to bring tomorrow’s trends and issues to the fore, to talk about it today, so that we are prepared and can think about the landscape. As people in the legal industry, we can also think about the relevant issues that will arise within the context of these advances.
Immense Possibilities of Metaverse
- This year’s focus is on the metaverse. It is an exciting new frontier for technology, including legal technology.
The term ‘metaverse’ has become an often-used word. You will also be able to see the word ‘metaverse’ in every other part of the technology lexicon.
(a) It is a conjunction of the word ‘meta’ (meaning beyond) and ‘universe’, and generally refers to the concept of a highly virtual and interactive space, where people gather to socialise, play, and work.
(b) At this point in time, no one has yet landed on a clear or definite idea of what the metaverse world might look like in its fully developed form in the future.
(i) What might seem impossible today, could be possible or a reality tomorrow, with the advancement of technology.
(ii) What we enjoyed as our favourite sci-fi movies and novels from the past now look more and more likely to be turning into reality in the future, if not yet already. I remember Neal Stephenson’s 1992 novel – Snow Crash. By all accounts, Snow Crash was the first publication that used the term ‘metaverse’ and in fact, developed the concept of metaverse. That was in 1992, over 30 years ago. It coined the phrase ‘metaverse’, developed a story around it, talked about the virtual world and envisioned people using digital avatars of themselves to explore the online world. Sounds familiar?
Whilst we cannot as yet be certain of the final state at this point on what the metaverse will evolve into, many are confident of its future.
(a) A report by Bloomberg Intelligence estimates that market opportunity in this space is worth about US$800 billion.
(b) Let me say a little about the current landscape.
(c) Tech giants have made enormous investments in the metaverse.
(i) Indeed, Facebook has changed its corporate name to Meta, to better reflect the direction they are taking and the industry they want to be in.
(ii) Microsoft recently acquired Activision Blizzard – one of the world’s largest interactive video game company – for a whooping almost US$70 billion, which will allow the company to develop Microsoft-backed games and software within the metaverse.
(iii) There are many others who have entered this space, quite expectedly, including Apple, Google, Nvidia, Unity Software, Shopify, Roblox, and Qualcomm.
(iv) But what perhaps is not so expected and more surprising is that non-tech companies have jumped onto the bandwagon: Louis Vuitton; Nike; Coca-Cola; and McDonald’s.
- Governments too, are exploring providing services in the metaverse. South Korea, China, Europe have done so.
You may have heard of a couple from Tamil Nadu, holding their first-of-its-kind wedding reception on the metaverse, inviting their guests to the metaverse.
(a) You do not have to travel the distance, on foot or land. Family and friends from across the world can attend virtually; and
(b) I am told that there is an uncanny avatar of the bride and the groom.
- Even such a highly personalised, very intimate, once-in-a-lifetime event, like solemnisation of marriages, can take place in the metaverse. It would not be unthinkable that, besides registration of marriages, other government services can soon be accessed online via the metaverse.
Legal Services in the Metaverse?
- There is no reason why the same cannot be done for legal services.
The pandemic has already shown us that even dispute resolution – once seen to be a physical, high-touch process. You must see the witness, look at the whole demeanour. Cross-examination was one particular skill that is needed to be very much in-person – can also be held almost entirely online.
(a) Our dispute resolution institutions – the Singapore International Arbitration Centre (SIAC) and the Singapore International Mediation Centre (SIMC) – have been conducting their arbitration hearings and mediation sessions remotely.
(b) Maxwell Chambers, our real brick-and-mortar space that was designed to be a physical setting for arbitration, mediation and other similar meetings have very quickly moved to providing online and virtual solutions. They have been doing well over the last 1.5 – 2 years.
- I was previously a disputes counsel. I did my last case in 2018 before the pandemic, before leaving practice to join the government in mid-2018. I have never argued my case over Zoom.
- At an event last evening, I was chatting with some judges and counsel, and asked about their experience. It was something quite foreign to me. Many lawyers have already embraced it. And still do.
- Today, with life in most parts of the world returning to normal, virtual meetings and hearings remain widely used. I think most of us believe that post-pandemic, this will still be the case. We will not be ripped entirely of virtual hearings and virtual meeting spaces.
- So, the question for us is, can this be taken one step further, beyond just having the hearing or cross-examination done virtually – with end-to-end dispute resolution services offered on a single virtual platform, or even in the metaverse? One day, some of you might come across Justice Aedit or Justice Lee, and their digital twins online. I believe we can be reasonably confident of the overall momentum and trajectory towards this outcome.
Singapore has been and is currently a choice location for international parties to come to Singapore for a number of dispute resolution services.
(a) Businesses, counsel, arbitrators, mediators, expert witnesses come to Singapore for arbitration hearings and mediation sessions not because they are located in Singapore, or the disputes have substantial connections with Singapore, but because Singapore has been a choice location.
(b) Of course, food, shopping and hospitality are all very attractive.
(c) But I think the key reasons people choose Singapore, are:
(i) Strong legal system, and rule of law, first-class judiciary;
(ii) Accessibility, connectivity; and
(iii) Generally, a strong legal infrastructure.
(d) These qualities remain accessible in the virtual space. All of these can be replicated in the meta world.
- To meet the demands of these businesses, we will continually update our policies, legislation and services, to keep pace with global developments. We need to not just keep pace, but perhaps in Singapore, be one step ahead of the curve.
If businesses see a need for an online replica of what Singapore might offer in the physical space for this to be replicated in the metaverse space, we will explore building one.
(a) By looking at what users need, and our focus which has always been user-centric, to look at the market and users and see what is needed and build based on that. What they might need:
(i) when they negotiate a contract;
(ii) to when dispute erupts;
(iii) to resolving that dispute.
(b) This can include:
(i) information on different dispute resolution mechanisms, and standard clauses;
(ii) filing the case with the chosen dispute resolution institution;
(iii) identifying arbitrators, mediators, expert witnesses;
(iv) communicating with different parties involved;
(v) booking of facilities and dates; and
(vi) making payments.
All of that can be built onto and grafted into an online metaverse space.
(c) In the farther future, augmented reality and virtual reality –
(i) For example, in construction disputes, ‘transporting’ the disputants to the construction site instead of poring over 2D plan diagrams, as I used to do, very often not realising that I had been looking at it upside down for a while. You can put yourself into the actual tunnel or the oil containment facility to look at the construction dispute from the perspective of an augmented reality, representing the actual space;
(ii) allowing parties involved in the dispute resolution to feel like they are looking at the relevant defect in question and making sure that we are all on the same page literally.
- I believe such an integrated platform will make the whole dispute resolution process more convenient, efficient, and it keeps pace with how the rest of the world is developing. Even if users may prefer and choose to do part of it offline, e.g. hearings, there can always be a hybrid element. Some things are increasingly hybrid, so we can also take that as an approach.
The Government is actively considering this to see where it pans out, what technology can bring about, at the same time balancing it against the integrity and sanctity of the hearing process. If we decide that this is something that businesses are keen to consider and the whole legal industry ecosystem demand for this, we will consider building it, invest in it, and providing this as a service.
(a) As a case in point:
(i) Minister Shanmugam launched the Legal Technology Platform for the legal industry yesterday, something meant for the legal industry.
(ii) A few years ago, even before the pandemic, we saw a need for our small and medium law firms to leverage technology, to stay competitive. It is important to look at it not so much as removing some jobs, but lifting the entire base of the legal industry to socialise and equip these firms with legal technology.
(iii) We recognise that, if we left legal tech adoption to the market alone, these firms, especially those that are smaller in size and do not have the same economies of scale, will not adopt technology in a big way – understandably so, given the cost barriers. The fact that there are so many options in the technology market, there is a need to be considerate in the choices made. Not just the selection of the product but also the ongoing maintenance, upgrading and troubleshooting.
(iv) Legal tech is critical for us to stay competitive not just amongst ourselves in the Singapore market, but more importantly, internationally. How do we level up Singapore law practices, how do we ensure that as we compete for cross-border work that we will provide the same level of technology services as our international competitors? In many cases now, the larger firms, larger corporate banks will not consider a firm as part of the tender if that firm does not have technology, or AI as part of its armoury of services. Because they do not want lawyers who are highly skilled and highly trained to be spending time doing administrative work. It is increasingly important for us to level up using technology.
(v) So, MinLaw came in to develop something with our partner, Lupl that will suit their needs at a subsidised rate.
(vi) And more importantly, curated it to the needs of the Singapore practice.
Legal Issues Related to Metaverse
- Of course, the metaverse, and virtual platforms like these bring with them their own set of challenges, and cutting-edge frontier legal issues.
- For example, questions of jurisdiction used to be straightforward, issues of territoriality, and conflicts of law will be challenged in a borderless virtual world.
There are international efforts to try to address some of these rising issues.
(a) Two months ago, the World Economic Forum announced an initiative on ‘Defining and Building the Metaverse’. They convened more than 60 leading technology and other sector companies, as well as experts and academics, to develop the governance and policy frameworks around the metaverse.
(b) Last month, a few tech giants came together to form a metaverse standards body, to foster the development of stronger and transparent industry standards that would make the digital worlds compatible with each other.
The Singapore government is closely studying the characteristics of the metaverse, and attendant and legal issues that will arise, having an adoption of the metaverse in the legal world.
(a) For example, the immersive, interactive, decentralised or anonymity elements have the potential to pose risks to online safety, consumer protection, privacy, and protection of intellectual property.
(b) Similar to the physical world, we will seek to balance between promoting economic vitality, preserving social stability, and protecting public security in the digital domain.
(c) International coordination of regulatory approaches to the metaverse and associated technologies will also be crucial, given the borderless nature of these technologies.
Therefore, conferences like this, where we put tomorrow’s issues and challenges to talk about today at fireside chats, to exchange ideas and to share best practices are useful.
(a) I understand that there are participants from over 100 countries at this year’s TechLaw.Fest. That is a very substantial number, coming from different stages of development on a spectrum of the metaverse.
(b) Each one of you brings with you different perspectives, best practices, experiences, and expertise to the table.
(c) Hope you will be able to share freely, and learn from each other being in person, not just in a formal setting but over breakfast and lunch. They are intangible benefits that we still cannot achieve on the meta world.
(d) On that note, at the end of the day,
(i) Up your game individually; and
(ii) Collectively, up our game so that at least in this domain in Singapore, we will be stronger than the sum of our parts.
- With that, I wish you a fruitful time over the next three days.
- Thank you for having me.
Last updated on 20 July 2022