Keynote Address by Minister for Culture, Community and Youth, and Second Minister for Law Mr Edwin Tong SC, at 20th Anniversary Celebration of Rajah & Tann Shanghai Representative Office
24 Oct 2023 Posted in [Speeches]
Mr Lee Eng Beng SC, Chairman of Rajah & Tann Asia. I think that was the most impressive speech I have heard you made. I have argued many cases with you, but the front and back part of your speech (in Mandarin) was the most impressive by far!
The many partners from Rajah & Tann Singapore, who are here – my old friends, Mr Chia Kim Huat, Ms Rebecca Chew, Mr Toh Kian Sing SC, and Mr Ng Kim Beng. Very good to see all of you again, and to be here this evening.
Many distinguished guests
Ladies and gentlemen
1. I am so delighted to be able to join you this evening on the 20th anniversary of Rajah & Tann Shanghai Representative Office (SRO).
2. My warmest and most sincere congratulations to Rajah & Tann on achieving this very remarkable milestone, which started, of course, 20 years ago.
3. I am very glad to see that my friends and ex-colleagues from the Bar looked at the market 20 years ago and decided to set up here in Shanghai.
4. Rajah & Tann was one of the early trailblazers with good foresight coming to Shanghai, and today, as you can see if you look around the room, it is clearly reaping the benefits of that decision.
Official Visits to China and Shanghai
5. China is the country that I visit most often in my official capacity, and it has only been five years since I have taken on this official capacity in July 2018.
6. Over the last five years, I have been to China nine times, and that includes the three years of COVID-19 in between, so that you can see how much I have been in China.
7. I stopped by in Shanghai on five of those trips. You can say that I have got a special affinity for Shanghai.
8. In fact, when the Vice Chairman of the China Council for the Promotion of International Trade (CCPIT) Dr Yu Jianlong asked me just a few days ago where we should have the next edition of the Singapore-China International Commercial Dispute Resolution Conference, I said I am a bit biased, but maybe Shanghai.
9. We take turns to host the conference, alternating between Singapore and China. We started with Beijing, and because of COVID-19, we stopped for a while, and this year, we hosted it in Singapore.
10. As I look around the room, I see so many distinguished guests here to commemorate Rajah & Tann’s two decades in China.
11. I know all of you come from different communities in Shanghai – whether it is the government, the business sector, the legal industry, the bar associations, or the dispute resolution institutions, both local as well as foreign.
12. Looking around the room, I get a sense that Rajah & Tann has assimilated very well, and become very much a part of this large, cosmopolitan community, working alongside, and serving many of the clients in this community, supporting the legal needs of the businesses coming into Shanghai and going out of Shanghai as well.
13. I thank all of you for the support, not just for Rajah & Tann, but for the Singapore Bar, for allowing Singapore to expand into Shanghai in this way, and to build a network to serve clients from across the different parts of Asia.
14. The diverse mix of business entities in this room today best illustrates Shanghai’s position as a global city – a city that is a major centre for trade, commerce, banking, finance, shipping, research, science, technology, you name it; and a city where multinational corporations see as a gateway into other parts of China.
15. As I come back to Shanghai again (I arrived this afternoon), it never ceases to amaze me the buzz that you see on the streets, complemented nicely by the beautiful art deco architecture of your buildings, and, of course, the food. I will confess that I have already had my share of the hairy crabs in the few hours that I have been in Shanghai.
Singapore’s Legal Industry Development Approach
16. I thought what I will do this evening is to spend a few minutes sharing with you Singapore’s approach to building the legal industry, and developing Singapore as a business hub.
17. Singapore has always been open to foreign investments, and international companies looking to establish headquarters in Asia and Southeast Asia. We always have a welcoming eye for global talents coming to Singapore.
18. That is really because, fundamentally, we have a very open economy, and we have to.
19. If you look at our GDP numbers, imports are around 50% of our GDP, and exports are close to around 90% of our GDP. Those two numbers tell you how important it is for our economy to remain open.
20. Today, we have over 7,000 multinational corporations in Singapore, including many Chinese corporations. Nearly half of Asia’s regional headquarters call Singapore its home, using Singapore to access Southeast Asia, and also the rest of Asia.
21. This open stance that we take to our economy extends very much to our legal services sector – a sector that started off being highly protected.
22. But we recognise that being closed and being protected would not serve Singapore’s interests.
23. We opened up because we know that to be a truly international hub, we need to provide businesses with a supportive international ecosystem. We need to make it convenient and efficient for business users to come into Singapore and to be given a choice – choice of the law, choice of counsel, choice of the forum that they want to adopt to resolve their legal disputes.
24. So, we gradually liberalise our legal services regime.
25. We encouraged international firms to set up in Singapore in the late 1970s, and the first firm did so in 1980.
26. We allowed foreign law practices to render advice on Singapore law in permitted areas through various legal structures, like the joint law ventures (JLVs) and the qualifying foreign law practices (QFLPs).
27. We also allowed foreign law practices and lawyers to own a stake in Singapore law practices and share in the profits.
28. We are constantly reviewing the structures, looking at what works for us in Singapore, and how to respond to the legal and business needs in the community.
29. In fact, we recently set up a committee just a few weeks ago, to relook at all of these structures, to see what is the best way moving forward, and encapsulate the practice of Singapore law between local and foreign lawyers.
30. All of these moves are really intended, as I said, to provide businesses with options. At the same time, within these options, to grow our legal services, and push Singapore law practices to become even more competitive.
31. Indeed, the statistics show that the nominal value-added and exports of our legal services have grown over the years – not just due to the entry of foreign law practices, but also the growth and expansion of Singapore law practices, precisely like what Rajah & Tann has done through the SRO.
32. It is definitely not one way because as we take on board foreign practices into Singapore, Singapore law practices have also benefited from the more international work that is available, and from expanding the footprint overseas.
33. Rajah & Tann is one good example of this expansion – opening the office in Shanghai in 2003, and it has since grown to become the largest law firm in Southeast Asia and within the top 30 In Asia, with a very comprehensive network in the region, as we saw in the video earlier.
34. It is really an incredible feat if you think about Rajah & Tann coming from home country with a population today of no more than about 5.5 million, and in the earlier days when Rajah & Tann first set up, the population was no more than 3 to 3.5 million.
35. As Mr. Patrick Ang, Managing Partner of Rajah and Tann Singapore, put it in an interview that he did some years ago in 2019 with the Financial Times, he said “After 2000, more work involved Singapore parties going outside and some foreign parties coming in. The big four Singapore law firms never thought they would break through 200 lawyers, and then in the late 2000s, all four did.”
36. We applied the same philosophy to developing international dispute resolution. At the outset, we wanted to make our institutions – whether it is the Singapore International Arbitration Centre (SIAC), the Singapore International Mediation Centre (SIMC) or the Singapore International Commercial Court (SICC) – very international in flavour. Because we knew that these institutions do not just represent Singapore, and they do not just serve Singapore’s interests or Singaporeans’ interests; they serve the world itself, and they serve international interests.
37. Everything was geared towards doing that. That is why we have an international board and court. We have an international panel of arbitrators, mediators and judges, whether it is with SIAC, SIMC or SICC. And we have an international team of staff, including in the case of SIAC, a full-time team based here in Shanghai, serving the needs of the Chinese market.
38. We allowed foreign lawyers to do international dispute resolution, and also have rights of audience before the SICC in Singapore.
39. Again, why? Because we believe in giving parties autonomy. If you have a major international litigation of commercial nature, your ongoing proceedings use foreign lawyers in different jurisdictions, and you see a need to cohere and to come to Singapore to make arguments along the same vein, you want to bring foreign counsel into SICC cases. That is what the amendments that we made basically allow for.
40. Overall, this has enabled Singapore to attract cases to Singapore, even those with either little or no connection to Singapore, and become widely accepted by users from all over the world, including from as far away as Latin America and Africa.
41. I am humbled to note that when I met Dr Yu Jianlong, he shared the same view. He suggested that we could nominate more Singaporeans to sit on the panels of the China International Economic and Trade Arbitration Commission (CIETAC) and the China Maritime Arbitration Commission (CMAC). And also, the other way round – to have more Chinese practitioners represented on SIAC.
42. But much as we might like, Singapore, or for that matter, any other country, cannot meet the needs of the international community alone.
43. In today’s very globalised world, goods and services are generally cross border. A lot of the work that you do will be international in dimension, not just in the choice of law, but in your transactions. Funds, investment, and monies flow overseas. Supply chains are a lot more complex than before with all the disruptions. Information and data shared almost instantaneously across the globe.
44. So, businesses will have to inevitably navigate different legal systems, different legislation, and even different rules and regulations, taking place in a culturally and contextually different jurisdiction.
45. So, no one country and no one institution can lay claim to be able to meet all the demands of all the businesses.
46. That is why the focus on being multilateral and cooperative, and words like collaboration and cooperation, really should be at the forefront of what we are looking at.
47. This is especially so for countries like Singapore and China, for whom they have had so much historical, economic, and other links.
48. Since 2013, China has been Singapore’s largest merchandise trading partner, and Singapore, on the other hand, has been China’s largest foreign investor. So, a small Singapore, but being able to be at the forefront of a lot of links with the rest of Southeast Asia, can be and has been China’s largest foreign investor.
49. So, I believe there is more than enough headroom for work to grow in this region.
50. If you look at the economics, Asia is growing rapidly, with China leading the charge. Economies in Asia are amongst the largest in the world. Apart from China, you have Japan, India, and ASEAN as a bloc collectively, amongst the top five economies in the world today.
51. In fact, just a little more than a week ago, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) announced that the growth in Asia is expected to accelerate from 3.9% in 2022 to 4.6% this year. And this growth contributes to about two thirds of the total world’s growth this year. Next year’s growth is projected to be at 4.2%.
52. If you compare that against this year’s global growth of 3%, and 2.9% for next year, you can see that, not just is the Asian trajectory growing, but its share of growth in the whole world is increasingly going to be larger. This means that the Asian economy, already the largest in terms of absolute value, is expected to grow faster than the global economy.
53. As law follows businesses, the demand for legal services, I believe, will only increase.
54. So, I am glad that our cooperation with China has expanded in recent years to include legal and judicial cooperation.
55. In fact, in April 2023, when our leaders – President Xi Jinping, and my Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong met in April 2023, we agreed to upgrade our bilateral relations to an “All Round, High Quality, Future Oriented Partnership”.
56. I think this is a very strong signal of the potential that we see in the bilateral growth and the cooperative growth of both countries. So, there is a lot to look forward to between our two countries.
57. Our deeper legal and judicial cooperation only started around 2017 – many years after we have in fact established diplomatic ties in 1990, and many years after the first G-to-G project, which of course, as you know, is the Suzhou Industrial Park. But since then, we have progressed rapidly.
58. At the G-to-G level, legal and judicial cooperation have often been discussed at the Joint Council for Bilateral Cooperation (JCBC – the highest governmental exchange between Singapore and China), the Legal and Judicial Roundtable which is co-chaired by both our Chief Justices, as well as the Legal Cooperation Council between my Ministry of Law and the Chinese Ministry of Justice. We have constant and very close collaboration.
59. My Ministry also collaborates with CCPIT. As I mentioned, we have an annual joint conference every year. Experts from Singapore and China come together to discuss common issues, to brainstorm possible solutions, and to look at our two countries’ legal systems, which may have different origins and different histories, but very common fundamental philosophies. How can we come together and make this work for us?
60. We also collaborate with the Shanghai Justice Bureau and the Shanghai Bar Association on a Lawyers Exchange Programme.
61. In fact, as we speak, a group of 10 promising, young Shanghai lawyers are now in Singapore on a three-month attachment programme with our Singapore law practices.
62. And in the near future, sometime next year – we were discussing which part of the year will be best for this – Singapore lawyers will also come into Shanghai on a similar programme.
63. Why are we doing this? Because besides understanding the nuts and bolts, the legal systems, the rules and regulations, we think it is important for our people-to-people exchanges to be deepened – for each side’s lawyers and important personnel to have a deeper understanding of the cultural and other nuances that might shape the legal jurisdiction that we operate in.
64. A deeper understanding will allow us to serve our clients from Singapore coming into China or from China coming into Singapore, and through Singapore, into ASEAN, even better.
65. So, I want to, at this point, acknowledge and thank the Director-General of the Shanghai Municipal Bureau of Justice, Mr Wu Jianyong, and the immediate past President of the Shanghai Bar Association, Mr Ji Nuo, as well as your many colleagues who have made this happen. Thank you very much.
66. Besides these government-led efforts, our dispute resolution institutions and our law firms have also been proactively cooperating with their counterparts.
67. For example, SIAC has been collaborating with arbitration centres in China, including the Shanghai International Arbitration Centre (SHIAC), to jointly promote arbitration and to facilitate arbitration hearings.
68. Our Singapore law practices also regularly second lawyers to companies and law firms in China, precisely for the reason I mentioned. Because when you second, you can, not just understand the way in which you do your work, but you can really be part of the system culturally and be deeply embedded in each other’s society.
69. Beyond legal relations, I would also be interested to see how Singapore and China can strengthen our bilateral relations in general, especially between Singapore and Shanghai in particular.
70. On this, I have, again, a bit of a bias. I recently took over from my Deputy Prime Minister Lawrence Wong, as the co-chair of the Singapore-Shanghai Comprehensive Cooperation Council earlier this year.
71. I think this is a very important platform for both our cities, in fact, both our countries.
72. Singapore and Shanghai share many commonalities. I think the way in which we can deepen that comprehensive cooperation through this council will be very important.
73. I want to see how we can leverage this platform, to drive mutually beneficial projects and initiatives for both of us and both of our economies.
74. It will only be sustainable in the long term, if both of us and our people can see value in the growth and the prosperity together.
75. Finally, as I know that I stand between you and your dinner, I will wrap up.
76. I want to go back to my congratulations to Rajah & Tann. Many years ago, having taken what was then a bold step, not easy at that point in time, to venture to new jurisdictions. You must remember that 2003, back 20 years ago, Singapore jurisdiction and the Chinese and the Shanghainese jurisdiction, are quite different from what it is today.
77. But for Rajah & Tann to have that vision, that longevity of view, and also over the last two decades, that sustainability of perseverance and resilience in making this work. I think it has resulted in what we see today.
78. So, I add my congratulations to the team at Rajah & Tann for the SRO’s 20th anniversary.
79. I am sure this will continue to flourish and grow for many more years to come.
80. Thank you very much.
Last updated on 24 October 2023