Is Singapore the future of law?

It is thirty years since my first visit to Singapore. At the time, I had no idea that within a decade I would be managing a legal publishing and conference business based in Hong Kong that covered the Asia Pacific region. From a satellite office in Singapore, the company also published the Law Gazette, the official publication of the Law Society of Singapore.

My trips there included meetings with multiple partners at the leading local firms, most notably the big four: Allen & Gledhill, Drew & Napier, Rajah and Tan, and The WongPartnership. They were testament to the extraordinary story that began with Lee Kwan Yew who had transformed and put Singapore into what it has now become: one of the most prosperous, stable and law-abiding countries in the world, consistently ranked as the best place for expatriates to live and work.

Lee himself had read Law at Fitzwilliam College Cambridge, graduating with an exceptional Starred-First. Thatcher later praised “his way of penetrating the fog of propaganda and expressing with unique clarity the issues of our time and the way to tackle them” while Tony Blair called him “the smartest leader I ever met”.

There has long been a healthy cluster of international firms with local offices in Singapore, although in the 1990s most of them were quite small. Among those lawyers who took time to be interviewed was Davinder Singh SC – currently Executive Chairman of Drew & Napier, but who will soon be leaving to set up his own firm. Over lunch, he summarised what Lee had implemented as Prime Minister after Singapore became independent in 1965, before outlining the island state’s further plans to grow as a regional and international hub to expand the legal services market.

Both visions have since been realised. The number of foreign lawyers has grown in line with the jurisdiction. Four out of the five magic circle firms are there in force, while Slaughter and May sends lawyers on secondment to Allen & Gledhill. US, Australian, and international firms can also be found in abundance.

As Asia’s most trade-dependent nation (exports are three times total GDP) – and the most open economy in Southeast Asia – Singapore enjoys a consistently strong level of GDP growth. From Bloomberg to the World Bank, surveys rank Singapore number one as a place to do business. No surprise then that an ever-growing regiment of international firms, now exceeding 150, have offices there; more than a dozen of them have licences to practise local law.

In a more recent interview, Singh told me: “”Singapore is a great place to visit and spend time in: a very advanced economy and so efficient. Everyone thinks things work in Singapore so coming here makes sense.” Meanwhile his counterpart at Rajah & Tan, Eng Beng Lee, pointed to: “The golden age of ASEAN [the Association of South East Asian Nations]; the very plum position of Singapore; and the success of Singapore as a financial hub, a legal hub, a dispute resolution hub, a leisure hub and now ASEAN hub”.

Some firms, like Withers KhattarWong which was established in 2015, are the result of a formal alliance, but most are advising exclusively on international law relating to other jurisdictions. Although their individual footprints are small, among the most notable collective presences are the offshore law firms. Seven of the top ten now have offices there: Bedell Cristin, Carey Olsen, Conyers Dill & Pearman, Collas Crill, Harneys, Maples and Calder, and Walkers. Most have opened in the past five years.

Perhaps more than anything else, this symbolises the wealth and power that flows through Singapore on its way to safe havens in Cayman, Bermuda, the British Virgin Islands, and the Channel Islands.

But the increase in the number and reach of international firms with local offices is only one part of the story. In interviews with lawyers in London, New York and elsewhere, there is uniform recognition that Singapore adds another dimension to legal practice. The US and UK legal markets still dominate international legal practice with their common law systems being applied in multiple contracts, financial transactions and international disputes.

As a former British colony, Singapore’s legal system is based on English common law. Lee recognised the importance of robust impartiality: judicial independence is protected by Singapore’s Constitution. Equally, many areas of law – contract, equity and trust, property and tort – are predominantly judge-made.

If the quality of judges underpins a legal system, then Singapore punches well above its weight in relation to its size. In particular, Sundaresh Menon, the Chief Justice of Singapore and the first Singapore-born Chief Justice, receives praise for his brilliance from judges and international lawyers alike.

But the judicial quality extends further than Menon. There is bench strength too. A prominent retired English judge recently told me: “When I was at the bar, and in my early days as a judge, I don’t recall ever anyone ever citing a Singapore decision. People would cite Australian, New Zealand and Canadian decisions. Now yes, people do cite Singapore decisions in the same way.”

Several commercial sets of barristers’ chambers based in London have also developed Singaporean outposts. One prominent English QC who spends significant time there says: “The Singapore government has everything planned. It works in harmony with the lawyers and everybody’s marching in the same direction. It’s got the best technology and the best support. It’s such a great place to work. Everything works and works beautifully.”

This is best exemplified by the investment in infrastructure and technology. The Singapore State Courts are moving to a new 35-storey building later this year, which will be supported by a real-time transcribing system powered by artificial intelligence (AI).

In January, Chief Justice Menon made a speech in which he said that the legal industry is being “reshaped” by three significant factors: globalisation, technology and the growing commercialisation of the law. “These have come together so powerfully and so quickly that it seems certain that we are heading towards a future that will be dramatically different from the present,” he said. “Our collective attention must therefore shift to preparing ourselves for this new world.” To confront these challenges, he is consult local lawyers to “reform, reimagine and remodel” the legal profession.

Some efficiencies have already been delivered: the number of cases dealt with by the Singapore Court of Appeal has risen by more than 50 per cent since 2013. Meanwhile, Singapore’s position as the leading arbitration centre in Asia, has been further cemented by Maxwell Chambers, the world’s first integrated dispute resolution complex. On completion next year, it will have tripled in size since 2017, adding a further 120,000 sq ft in floor space.

Not everything is perfect in Singapore. Critics have long pointed to the island’s authoritarianism: dissent is unwelcome in a country where one party has been in power for 54 years while human rights activists point to draconian restrictions on public assemblies. Singapore retains the death penalty and the use of corporal punishment is not uncommon.

Supporters would point to the very low crime rates in Singapore as being evidence that such policies work.

From a commercial law perspective, there is no debate to be had: through proper investment and intelligent long term planning, the Singapore model works. There are lessons to be learned from it from much bigger legal systems elsewhere.

Dominic Carman

Written by:

Dominic Carman, journalist, writer and legal commentator.
www.dominiccarman.com