Q1: How did you first get started in mediation?
It was all because of Professor Robert C. Beckman, my professor in Law School and the legendary coach of the NUS Jessup team. Throughout law school I thought I was heading towards a career in litigation and looking forward to it! Then Professor Tan Lee Meng (Dean at that time) offered me a teaching position at NUS Law.
When I decided to go to Harvard for my LLM, I asked Professor Beckman for advice on what to do at Harvard. He said to focus on negotiation and ADR. I was fortunate to have taken courses taught by Professor Frank Sander, Professor Robert Mnookin and Professor Roger Fisher.
When I came back to Singapore, it was 1994, and the Singapore mediation movement was just getting started. Talk about right place and right time.
It was an exciting time because we did so many things! With Harpreet Nehal SC, I started the first Negotiation Workshop in 1994, and the Mediation Workshop the following year with Joel Lee.
I went back to Harvard to teach at the Program on Negotiation and returned to start a multi-disciplinary negotiation and conflict management interest group, made up of professors from law, social work, business, human resources and psychology. As a group we ran the first ADR conference in Singapore and a multidisciplinary workshop at NUS – with students from Faculties of Arts, Business, Science, and Law.
This was also the time when the Singapore International Arbitration Centre under the leadership of Lawrence Boo was starting off their Commercial Mediation, the precursor to the Singapore Mediation Centre. The then Subordinate Courts started Court Dispute Resolution, and we ran a research project on it. Those were exciting times.
Q2: Do you see gender as playing a role in the mediation process?
To be honest, I have never viewed our society as particularly sexist (because I think there is no such thing as equality (because women simply do more), and please don't kill me for saying this). From my experience, mediation has generally developed in that vein.
Having said that, the number of women mediating depends on the particular profession. When I was working closely with EMCC, the first and I think still the only mediation and counselling charity in Asia, I ran training programmes for social workers, and principals. Clearly in those professions, there were more women. The converse may be true for law.
As far as I am concerned, whether a man or a woman is chosen as a mediator in any particular dispute in Singapore depends more on the personality and skills of the particular mediator than the gender.
Q3: If you had to point out something you feel makes female mediators unique, what would it be?
My experience with female mediators has been varied. I would not say there is any significant difference in how female mediators approach mediation, compared to men.
I have mediated with men who are very feeling, and women who are very clinical. I have mediated men who are emotional about the dispute, and women who are very commercial minded. So, I would not say that there is anything about female mediators that make them different from male mediators.
On what makes a mediator unique, I think it is crucial that mediators speak the language of the people in the dispute. By this I mean not just the Mandarin or English or dialect, but also the cultural aspects of the language.
One of the things I love most about Mrs. Chia Swee Tin – Mediator Extraordinaire - is that she is of that generation where everyone speaks different dialects. The connections she can have with people when she speaks in dialect is amazing. She is an amazing woman herself, but when she uses the dialect, and the sayings, there is a palpable impact.
A mediation where I saw Mrs. Chia’s prowess displayed was a family dispute involving 6 or 7 siblings, all arguing about how much to contribute to their elderly parent’s maintenance. They were talking about offering 5 to 10 dollars a month. When we say in English, ‘”it is only 10 dollars”, the impact is very different when you say in Hokkien, “buy your father a cup of coffee a day, then throw in a piece of toast”.
Q4: What are some of the challenges you have had to overcome in your mediation career?
When I first started, I looked young and was young, so one of the early issues was credibility. It rapidly stopped becoming an issue.
Back in the day, I found myself having to prove myself and state my credentials early in the mediation. Then the parties would realize I knew what I was doing and then I didn’t have to worry about establishing credibility and could focus on facilitating the conversation.
Today, there are three main challenges. First is getting enough cases to call yourself a professional mediator. Second, balancing mediation with your other work, because few people can make a living on mediation alone. Finally, personal marketing and getting your name out there.
How people choose a mediator depends on their reputation and what makes the individual unique. There are many mediators who have credibility because of their credentials as lawyers, Senior Counsel, surgeons, accountants, engineers, retired judges.
The rest of us have to find ways for people to know about our strengths in mediation. For example, I can handle emotions in mediation, and I can mediate in Mandarin and sometimes dialect. But that is typecasting me, because I have had equal (if not more) success in commercial disputes, or medical cases, or multi-party disputes.
Q5: What advice do you have for people interested in joining the mediation movement?
What I would tell people, particularly young people, is that you can’t be a mediator without being a person first. The way I see it, you really must learn about yourself and the world around you, before you can help anyone else resolve their disputes.
You must learn how to talk to people and understand who they are and what motivates them. Understand, not for psychological manipulation, but for being able to reach out and connect, or know when you can’t connect.
A mediator is not about skills, but about the heart. You have to have the heart to see the hearts of others, in any kind of dispute, even when it involves insurance, which is just about the least feeling type of dispute. Everyone in a dispute has a heart, and you need to be able to reach out and understand them before you can facilitate a discussion.
I actually would object to the idea of calling what happened in Singapore a mediation movement. Many years ago, I went to Jakarta to talk about mediation. A main component of the presentation was that mediation is something we used to do in all our cultures, particularly Asian cultures.
Although it is a different type of mediation from the interest-based mediation we all use today, at its heart, it is still about making peace with ourselves, based on our beliefs, morals and what is important to each of us. So to me it isn’t so much a movement, but a renewed awareness of things that we are bringing back from those times.
This is different from what happened with the Pound Conference back in the 1960s and the mediation movement in the US. That came out of the whole dissatisfaction with the legal system and wanting to improve it. Although a big part of the push for mediation started in the Courts in Singapore, when we talk about mediation from a family or community perspective, we are harkening back to the kinds of relationships we used to have and want to have again.
In Asia, you can still say that we are closely tied to our families, so perhaps that is why when I do family mediations, it feels different. The deference we give to our elders and our internalized cultural norms all come into play. So, the interests, options, and criteria, you have trained in might work, but relationship and communication become much more important.
This is one of the reasons I find new dispute resolution practices such as online dispute resolution (ODR) difficult to wrap my head around. It takes away a fundamental element of mediation- the face-to-face interaction. I am interested to see what role this and other new technology additions to the mediation marketplace will play going forward.
Q6: For the mediation movement going forward, what do you hope to see?
I would like to bring mediation education to the younger people.
More than 10 years ago I started a project where we brought NUS Law students together to learn about mediation, then had them teach it to their peers, and then got their peers to pass it on to younger students.
Our students ran conflict resolution programmes at St. Joseph's Institution, Hwa Chong Institution, the Singapore Polytechnic, and the Boys Home, among places. I found this to be very meaningful because we weren’t teaching people how to be mediators but rather teaching them the pieces that come with mediation – listening, reframing, managing relationships and understanding conflict.
Our goal shouldn't be to train a bunch of new mediators, because it is quite hard to find the right person or personality for mediation. But you can teach everybody about the concepts and the skills that are required in mediation. It helps them deal with each other, and it helps them to identify when they may want to refer a dispute to mediation.
If students learn about this, and see conflicts among their elders, between their parents, they would know better to say, “hey, try mediation.” This is where I think there is room for growth.
(Published 26 March 2018 by the Singapore International Mediation Institute)