Q1: How did you first become interested in mediation?
I have been a practicing lawyer for 18 years and during that time I have worked in private practice, academia, and now for over 9 years as a corporate counsel. In all these years I have always been involved in mediation in some way.
Since moving to Singapore, I have become more active by becoming accredited with the Singapore Mediation Centre (SMC). Since then, I have mediated and acted as a trainer for SMC.
I think that as a child growing up with very strong personalities in the household, I learned to hone some of the skills that help create a sustainable peace. In an Asian family where children typically rank lower in authority, there is no other way to get opinionated adults to pause and listen, unless one develops strong influencing skills.
I learned how to figure out the best tone to take, how to move forward, and ultimately, how to de-escalate situations where people are more interested in listening to themselves than to one another. From that perspective, you could say I have been a mediator since the age of 10!
Q2: What are some of the challenges you have faced in your mediation career?
There are certain challenges that are endemic to the process itself. You will sometimes find difficult parties who do not have confidence in the process and who are not serious about giving mediation a proper try. But that is to be expected.
Whenever I go into a mediation, I expect the problem to be complex, the people to be complex, for them to not give me all the information that I need, to not have good intentions, for there to be no solution, and even the potential for physical fights.
A good mediator goes in prepared for all this.
With this as the expected scenario, how do we proceed? I think one can only do so with patience, perseverance, and being comfortable with the feeling of frustration. You have to still be able to press on even if there is just a sliver of hope that it may result in an acceptable outcome.
Another challenge for mediation as a profession is that we are still perceived as the youngest, softer sibling in the suite of available dispute resolution options at the moment. We still have some ways to go to be considered an automatic first option for dispute resolution, but we have come a long way.
At this stage, awareness about mediation is still fairly low. Awareness of what it entails and how it can benefit businesses and end-users is also very low. Therefore, organisations like the Singapore International Mediation Institute (SIMI) have their work cut out for them.
The way to grow awareness is to seed future users and future mediators, which means we need to start young – in schools, in graduate schools, and in the workplace. You garner disciples of mediation within the legal profession and in corporate settings who believe that mediation is a viable way to resolve a dispute and then let them spread the usage of the process downstream.
Q3: What can you do in your position as in-house counsel, or for in-house counsels in general?
Well, I think the first step is always education and awareness.
Mediation takes many forms, with different practices, slants, and norms. Mediation in the U.S. for example may look very different from mediation in Australia. The role that the mediator takes can be more prescriptive, more directive, more neutral, facilitative, or directive.
Depending on the situation, different users and even legal practitioners have had different experiences with mediation. There is no one clear cut, one-size-fits-all approach.
As in-house counsel, I think that it is important to help your business be aware of the different types of mediators out there and know what would work for your client, your business, and for yourself. Every time a dispute comes along, corporate counsels should be able to assess whether this matter can be resolved through negotiations or meditation, before resorting to arbitration or litigation.
I would also pay attention to the dispute resolution clause and see if it leaves you any room to build in mediation as a form of dispute resolution, before you explore more traditional forms of dispute resolution such as arbitration, litigation, and the rest.
For example, Arb-Med-Arb is something that is new, exciting, very sexy, and makes a lot of practical sense. I think that if it is a logical and feasible solution, people will naturally gravitate towards it.
Q4: Do you see female mediators as unique or see gender as playing a role in the mediation process?
I think that female mediators are unique in that, by being present at the mediation, we may have an impact on party biases. Based on one's past experiences, parties may have biases against men, in which case they may be open or become more neutral if the mediator happens to be a woman.
Similarly, if a male comes into the mediation with certain biases about females, then hopefully having more women mediators, just like having more women in positions of authority, may gradually change that perception. The catch is that the mediator will not know whether such biases exist in the first place.
Now, I hesitate to resort to stereotypes such as “women have more empathy and are better listeners”, because I do believe that in this day and age, no particular gender has a monopoly over any specific trait. I have seen women, who are not great listeners, or not very empathetic, and I have also met men who are extremely empathetic and understanding.
In the end, it all comes down to the person’s experience, personality, and skills. With that said, I think that having more female representation in all forms of work, including mediation, is a plus for women in general and for society at large.
Q5: Do you have any advice for those interested in getting into the field of mediation?
In my opinion, I think those just starting out should think about the value they are adding to any engagement or interaction, rather than about the label of "mediator."
Ask yourself, 'what can I bring to the table that will help move the needle on this matter?'
The next step is to read, learn, and get yourself accredited. That is the best advice I can give because you can only meet needs and fill gaps if you can identify them. You can only identify them, if you have learned and taught yourself as much as you can about a particular subject.
It is the same as in any profession. Embrace self-education and learning, talk to people who are in the field as much as possible.
Not everyone can, or should be a mediator. It may not be something you enjoy. So the first thing you must do is to examine your reasons for getting into the field, and objectively evaluate whether you are suited to this role.
Q6: Who are some of your mentors or people you looked up to for inspiration in the field of mediation?
I can certainly think of people that I admire. These are not just people who mediate, but people who teach others to do so, like George Lim and Joel Lee. I think it is very special to be able to not just create a sustainable peace, but also be able to teach people how to do so.
Joel has been a dynamic teacher and trainer of mediation for many years in addition to being the Chairperson and fellow director on the board of SIMI, and I have partnered George in training people for mediation accreditation particularly in Fiji. Both of them are dedicated to the growth of mediation.
Because I look up to teachers of mediation, I try to make time to do the same, as often as I can. No matter how busy I get, the moment I have a spare block of time, you will find me workshopping a problem with fellow mediator friends or coaching a class.
It is challenging from a time perspective, but I believe that for the mediation community to grow, it is important for its members to give back.
Q7: What are your hopes for the mediation movement going forward?
I will tell you what is exciting about mediation and I will start by talking about what is thought of as a negative in mediation for many years.
In the past, any settlement that came from mediation was perceived negatively because it seemed to be just another contract. So the certainty of enforceability was always something that made a mediated settlement a little less attractive than an arbitration award.
Moving forward, with programs such as Arb-Med-Arb, where we sandwich a mediated settlement with arbitration and transform it into an arbitration award, on top of the progress at UNCITRAL to enhance enforceability of mediated settlements, it is going to be exciting times ahead.
We may eventually refer to ADR as “appropriate dispute resolution” instead of “alternative dispute resolution” once there is general acceptance that mediation is just as effective as any other form of dispute resolution when appropriately used.
This mindset shift is required for lawyers, especially. They need to be able to see the rise and increasing usage of mediation as something positive instead of something that could potentially reduce their income or billings.
A growing community of educated users will eventually shape the demand for mediation advocates and mediators. This means that the law firms that can accommodate this demand by embracing mediation and acquiring accredited professionals among their ranks will be best positioned to capitalize on this change.
I am excited to see how mediation can be used as a tool for resolution and harmony, in pockets of the world that still harbour intolerance or conflict. But even in a layered or tiered society like Singapore, where different races and cultures have to co-exist in proximity, the ability to de-escalate situations is a critical one.
I see mediation as a tool that not only enables resolution of specific conflicts related to transactional matters, but also as a tool that promotes better listening skills, empathy and peace.
(Published 26 March 2018 by the Singapore International Mediation Institute)