Opening Speech by Minister for Culture, Community and Youth, and Second Minister for Law Edwin Tong SC, at SCCA Annual Gala Dinner and 7th Chief Legal Officer Awards
02 Nov 2023 Posted in [Speeches]
Mr Lucien Wong, Attorney-General, and Patron of the Singapore Corporate Counsel Association (SCCA)
Justice Chua Lee Ming and Justice Chan Seng Onn
Ms Renita Crasta and Mr Daniel Choo, Co-Presidents of SCCA
Ladies and Gentlemen
1. I am so glad to be here to join you to celebrate SCCA’s 21st anniversary, or 21st birthday, as Renita puts it.
2. 21 years really marks the coming of age. As you know, you get to vote in elections, you can legally get married, you can buy an apartment, and you can change your name, if you like.
3. So, congratulations to SCCA, not just for your 21st birthday, but for also reaching adulthood!
Growing Importance of Corporate Counsel
4. Those of you who watched Spiderman and are Marvel fans will know that in Spiderman, when Uncle Ben was shot, just before he died, he told the young Peter Parker: “with great power comes great responsibility”.
5. On SCCA’s 21st birthday, all of you – SCCA members and general counsel here in this room – will have greater power and greater responsibility. It is however not only because of the coming of age of SCCA alone, but also symptomatic, and a sign of, the growing importance of in-house counsel around the world.
6. The larger role played by all of you can be seen from a number of indicators. There are many, but I will spend a few minutes just outlining a few.
7. First, just look in terms of the numbers. Globally, the number of in-house counsel has grown significantly over the last few decades. Earlier this evening, Renita told me that the number of corporate counsel today outstrips the number of lawyers in practice in Singapore. In the United States, the number of in-house counsel also increased by 300% between 1997 to 2020, compared to only around 50% for lawyers working in large law firms.
8. Second, in terms of their broadening role within each organisation. Increasingly, and you all know this better than me, in-house counsel are no longer just legal experts. They are no longer seen as just people who tell you what you cannot do because the law says this, but people who add value, and are very much front and centre of business decisions of many organisations. They are seen as strategic advisors to CEOs and intrinsic to the senior leadership team, who can help to shape the business strategy, and enable commercial outcomes.
9. Third, in terms of remuneration today, which I think in part reflects the demand and growth of stature of qualified corporate counsel; the specialised skills, experience, and expertise required; and the ability of corporate counsel to synthesise the law, the legal requirements and legal obligations, with key business decisions, as well as strategy. Based on a study by research firm Equilar last month, compensation for general counsel is growing faster than that for CEOs. Maybe that is why the number of corporate counsel is also growing faster than the number of lawyers!
10. All of this however, jokes aside, really means something – that corporate counsel, all of you here, have become, and will continue to be, increasingly a key asset for all of your organisations. Indispensable, invaluable, and in many ways, influential.
Corporate Counsel in Singapore
11. At the same time, Singapore can and does offer a lot of opportunities for corporate counsel based here. Let me explain my view on this.
12. First, Asia is now the centre of economic activities. If you look at growth, foreign direct investments coming into Asia has continued unabated, growing over the last couple of years, notwithstanding COVID.
13. If you look at the top economies in Asia – China, Japan, India, and ASEAN as a bloc, which is now number 4 or 5 in the world – that contributes to about 40% of global GDP. Besides being the largest in terms of absolute number, Asia’s economy is also set to grow faster than the rest of the world’s economy, accounting for 70% of global growth this year. In my mind, the headroom and potential for growth in Asia is significant.
14. Within Asia, Singapore is a key business and financial centre. More than 7,000 multinational corporations across a range of industries now call Singapore their home. Many have also set up their regional, or in many cases, even global headquarters, right here in Singapore. In growing areas, such as the technology industry, Singapore hosts 59% of Asia-Pacific regional headquarters.
15. Most recently, Nium, a real-time payments company, set up its headquarters and research and development hub right here in Singapore, and is looking to triple its presence here over the next few years to about 300-strong. Just last year, the vaccine maker BioNTech also designated Singapore as its regional headquarters.
16. All of this is because they see potential for growth here in the business sector in Singapore, but it also means the growth and importance for in-house counsel supporting all these roles will follow, just like law follows business.
17. According to PwC’s 26th Annual Global CEO Survey – Asia Pacific, the importance of the legal function is far more pronounced in Asia Pacific, as companies in this region have to navigate multiple jurisdictions and different legal systems, which have different levels of maturity.
18. So overall, there will be better, and far more opportunities, for legal professionals here in Singapore.
19. Second, Singapore has always had a supportive ecosystem for corporate counsel. In-house legal teams are often not too large, maybe not so much now but at least in the past, except in certain sectors. Therefore, they will need to outsource some of the more specialised legal matters.
20. Amongst the countries in Asia and the different jurisdictions, Singapore has a relatively rich pool of local and foreign legal talent, which in-house counsel can readily tap on, including lawyers, who are qualified in different jurisdictions around the region – Australia, China, India, Japan, Korea, many of our large trading partners.
21. Besides law firms, we also have created legal service providers, to provide support in domains that are not necessarily within the legal realm. For example, legal technology. It will not make sense for companies to hire engineers to develop, maintain, and upgrade the systems, as there are no economies of scale.
22. Third, and perhaps quite importantly from my perspective, the government is very supportive of in-house counsel. We see in-house counsel as an integral part of our legal community, and want to see them grow and flourish. We want to work with SCCA to make this industry grow, flourish, have an ecosystem that you can operate within, and have constant locations for leadership, thought leadership exchange, for know-how, for networking, as you have seen in the slides by Renita and Daniel earlier.
23. As far back as 2012, more than 10 years ago now, the Ministry of Law amended the Evidence Act in Singapore to extend legal professional privilege to in-house counsel, in recognition of the increased role of in-house counsel. You will see that around Asia, there are not many jurisdictions that do the same – that accord advice given by in-house counsel with the same level of privilege, as you might find for advocates and solicitors around Asia. We have done that for more than 10 years now. This allowed corporations to seek advice from their in-house counsel in full confidence.
24. When we roll out initiatives and programmes, we keep corporate counsel in mind. They are part of our stakeholders, and part of the ecosystem that we hope to service and grow, as a result of our initiatives.
25. For example, when MinLaw launched the Legal Technology Platform (LTP) last year, with our technology partner, Lupl, we thought it could also be something that in-house counsel could avail themselves of – and it would benefit them too – for legal departments and in-house counsel to collaborate more effectively with their business units and external counsel, organise relevant documents and information on various projects, and monitor their team’s workflows in a more structured manner. We welcome legal counsels to adopt the LTP, and will continue to engage all of you to see what tweaks we can make to it, and what refinements we can make to help you in your work.
26. Finally, we invite SCCA to many of our events. I think you saw some of them on the screen earlier, so I will not go through them again. But essentially, they are very much a part of our networking system as well. I believe that as much as thought leadership is important, exchange of knowledge and know-how is important, I think the know-who element, the networking element, is equally important. And that applies equally, if not all the more so, to all of you as in-house counsel.
27. So as I close, I want to reiterate that over the 21 years, we have seen the in-house counsel community grow, and I think you will see the quality of the in-house counsel in the nominees tonight of the 7th Chief Legal Officer Awards.
28. All of you have been nominated for the award, because of your intrinsic contributions to your own organisations, and of course, the way you have led your business, not just wearing your in-house counsel hat, but also looking after a range of different business and strategic interests.
29. But I hope that beyond this, you will also able to contribute more - beyond just your own organisation – to the broader in-house counsel community, to SCCA, and to the wider legal community as well. Same for all the other corporate counsel gathered here this evening.
30. Finally as we strive for excellence in our roles, I hope that we can also begin to pay it forward. I was told earlier that Mr Greg Tanner, looking very dapper in his suit this evening, was instrumental in setting up SCCA. Here, along with many other mentors, people who were giants in setting up SCCA have taken a step back to let the young ones take the lead, but remain in the background to guide, to inspire, and most importantly, to mentor.
31. I hope this is something that all of you can also do, as we continue to want to grow into a rich and vibrant landscape for corporate counsel, mentoring junior in-house counsel, and together, make Singapore a conducive place for in-house counsel to operate in!
32. Once again, thank you very much for having me, I wish everyone a pleasant dinner.
Last updated on 02 November 2023