2018 Women in Mediation: 

An Interview with Serene Wee




Serene WEE (Ms)

Serene is the Chief Executive of the Singapore Academy of Law (SAL). In 1997, she was tasked to start SAL’s commercial mediation service, which eventually resulted in the setting up of the Singapore Mediation Centre (SMC). 

Today, she continues to keep an active interest in the use of mediation as the first step in dispute resolution. 

Serene serves on the board of directors of both the Singapore Mediation Centre (SMC) and the Singapore International Dispute Resolution Academy (SIDRA). She is on the panel of SMC’s principal mediators.


Q1: How did your interest in promoting mediation first begin?

My involvement in mediation began more than 20 years ago, in 1996, at the opening of the Legal Year. Chan Sek Keong, the Attorney-General at the time, spoke about the need for Singapore to look at mediation as an alternative form of dispute resolution, and that the Academy of Law should be tasked to start this service. 

It was then that I found myself tasked with creating the commercial mediation service in Singapore. That was the start of my journey into promoting mediation. 

Initially, I could not figure out how that would work – I thought, parties were already not on good terms, how could they settle anything by just talking? 

I spent a considerable part of the year trying to understand the entire mediation field, talking to the National University Singapore (NUS) and trainers from Harvard. It was only when I attended my first training in interest-based negotiation and mediation that I realised we were looking at a gem, and that there were ways of moving parties away from an adversarial mindset to amicable solutions they can live with. 

The training gave me a huge insight towards my task of establishing the Singapore Mediation Centre (SMC).


Q2: What are some of the biggest challenges you have faced in your efforts to promote mediation?

The first challenge we faced was choosing what model of mediation to use. It took me some time to appreciate the power of the Harvard interest-based mediation model. As I said, it needed a mindset change and I had to change my own mindset to get started! The mediation training helped a lot. 


The second challenge was getting lawyers to consider sending their clients for mediation. Lawyers back then did not really know what it was about, but the little they did know, involved the potential loss of fees. Many were skeptical that a case could settle in a day, the logic being if they could not make the clients settle, there was no way a third party could help. So, we had to work on educating the lawyers. 

We had to convince parties that mediation was a highly respectable alternative to litigation. So we created a prestigious panel of mediators at the SMC. We invited senior lawyers, judges, and prominent individuals to lend their names to mediation. 

Having the support of judges in mediation training sessions helped alleviate any confusion that might have existed regarding the difference between mediation and arbitration. Having senior litigators with us also helped our efforts to convince other lawyers to buy into the process. 

Culture has a big part to play as well. In Asian culture, we are a more hierarchical society than in the West, so having the support of more senior people carries a lot of persuasive power. 


The third major challenge was overcoming skepticism that a mediation agreement would not hold. However, reality has proven that such agreements are in fact more likely to hold. The parties will only agree to a solution that they can live with. 

Today, more and more lawyers have experienced mediation, gone through advocacy training, or heard of success stories. The profession has come quite a distance. 

Today, when people talk about dispute resolution, they mean litigation, arbitration, and mediation. And the fact that they mention all three in the same breath is telling.


Q3: What are some of your proudest moments in your work promoting mediation so far?

Here in Singapore, I have had two roles in mediation. One as a mediator and the other as someone helping SMC and the industry it serves. 

As a mediator, I would say that my favorite moments are when mediations end on a very satisfying note. For me, this is when parties are able to restart the relationship they had before the conflict. These situations are not necessarily common, but when you know you were able to help facilitate such a shift, it makes the process worthwhile. 

As a promoter of mediation through the SMC, it is a great thing to witness senior lawyers embrace the process. It has been wonderful to see lawyers, judges, and leaders of industry, come together to form a mediation community.


Q4: What role do you see gender playing in the mediation process and movement?

In general, women seem to have a more personal touch. This is of course not the case for all, but for many it is. 

As mediators, some women tend to stay with the relationship aspects of a dispute a bit longer than their male counterparts. With this in mind, I think it is important not to go into a mediation thinking, ‘I am the woman,’ because you can end up accidentally feeding into your own stereotypes.


Q5: What advice would you give to those interested in getting involved in mediation or using the process in the future?

For mediators, your job mainly involves managing the discussion- setting parameters of conduct and behavior, and allowing the story to unfold. At some point, you have to bring that story to a close by defining the issues and working on the solution together. You have to find your own style. 

Building up a mediation practice takes a bit longer, and I would advise to not give up too quickly. It takes time to build your reputation as a mediator. 


For parties, I think it is always wise to give mediation a try. 

Most mediations take a day, and by the end of the day, you will know if you are looking at a solution.  

Mediation is the only process where you can be told approximately how much it is going to cost you to see the other party. You decide if you want to settle, and it ends there.


Q6: Going forward, what are some of your hopes for the mediation movement?

My two hopes are to see commercial mediation used more internationally, and to see in-house counsel choose mediation as the primary method of resolving company disputes in suitable situations.

(Published 30 March 2018 by the Singapore International Mediation Institute)