A country of approximately 5.5 million people. Well placed strategically for transport links between other nations. In close proximity to a number of much larger neighbours. A reputation for honesty, fair-dealing, hospitality and good manners. Carefully non-aligned to any major power bloc. A hub for commercial activity.
Singapore is a small island which packs a disproportionate punch in South East Asia. I have just returned from taking part in the launch of the Singapore International Mediation Centre. I was privileged to be invited, along with my good friend and colleague, New Zealand’s leading commercial mediator, Geoff Sharp, to deliver the keynote seminar at the launch. We are both fortunate to have been appointed as members of the Centre’s international panel of mediators. The audience of over 100 government officials, academics, company representatives, legal advisers and mediators from all over South East Asia were enthusiastic participants in our interactive conversation, which posed a number of provocative questions about the practice of mediation and how we can continue to improve it.
The Centre builds on a domestic Primary Dispute Resolution Centre, where Singaporean courts refer cases for mediation, and the Community Mediation Centre. It is another example of Singapore’s ambition to play a key role in the commercial world and, in this instance, in the resolution of international commercial disputes. There is already an international arbitration centre and the mediation project has been developed with the specific encouragement of the Chief Justice and the Singaporean legislature, which has passed measures to enable international mediators to conduct mediation in Singapore. At the launch, both the Chief Justice and the Senior Minister of State for Law were enthusiastic speakers. They recognise the potential to attract major disputes from China and India in their period of exponential commercial growth. Singapore aspires to compete with London and Dubai (another emerging force which I also had the privilege to visit this year) for international business.
Are there lessons for Scotland? Well, our location and positioning at the north western edge of Europe is in some respects not dissimilar to that of Singapore in the south east of Asia. However, we are not the international commercial "hub" which has always been Singapore’s raisin d’être. Location is one aspect. Another is our close proximity to another major hub, namely London. Realistically, we are unlikely to see a significant shift of commercial focus from there.
So what can Scotland offer? Well, a reputation for honesty, fair-dealing, hospitality and good manners should be a good start. We may be perceived, notwithstanding the referendum, as less aligned to major power blocs than, say, London. The key, however, would seem to be competence and capacity. We need to be able to demonstrate, domestically, our enthusiasm for, experience of and commitment to delivering the kind of dispute resolution which international users want. We need skilled exponents. So step changes in the use of mediation would be essential. While arbitration has seen some growth and much government support in recent years, mediation remains under-utilised and probably still significantly misunderstood. That needs to change.
Finally, it might also be important that the international perception of our domestic justice system is of a system that is respected and principled. Again, recent policy developments may be thought by some to exhibit a less than fully integrated approach. Finally, it is still not clear just how profoundly the continuing uncertainty over the Lockerbie verdict affects international confidence in Scotland’s capability to hold itself out as a reputable centre for solving international problems. All interesting issues to wrestle with.