Opening Remarks by Minister for Culture, Community and Youth and Second Minister for Law Edwin Tong SC, at International Institute of Mediators (Singapore)'s Second Conference on the Resolution of Multi-Racial, Religious and Neighbour Disputes
08 October 2022 Posted in [Speeches]
Dr Lim Lan Yuan, President of the International Institute of Mediators (Singapore) (iiM)
Professor Fatimah Lateef, Advisor of iiM
Ladies and gentlemen
- A very good morning to everyone.
- I just heard Dr Lim’s five-minute sharing of what iiM has done, and I think it has been very impressive. It has also been very timely. The period that was blacked out by COVID-19 was a period when we actually realised that we need mediation amongst the community members. Because of work-from-home, home-based learning, stay-at-home, safe management measures (SMMs) and so on, meant that we are in our homes a lot. As a result, there is a little bit more disamenities in the community. Oftentimes, it is unintended as you did not intend to annoy your neighbours. But through your daily lifestyles, you end up having conflicts, and mediation is the best way to resolve this.
- Let me start by congratulating Dr Lim and the iiM on your 5th anniversary. In a blink of an eye, five years have gone by and we have seen many efforts take place in the community over the last five years.
- Four years ago, I spoke at iiM’s inaugural conference on the Resolution of Neighbour Disputes. I recall that it was held in this very same room.
II. MANAGING DIFFERENCES
- The theme of this year’s conference is particularly important and necessary given our context – “Resolution of Multi-Racial, Religious and Neighbour Disputes”.
- It is often taken for granted that because we are a multi-racial and multi-cultural society, and by and large, a fairly tolerant society, people live in harmony and we can leave it as it is and not be bothered with the relations. I think that is wrong.
- We have been a strong multicultural, multi-religious, harmonious and cohesive society because we do not take it for granted and we work hard for it.
8. I heard Dr Lim said just now that we have to learn to deal with multicultural and multi-religious differences, learning from the leaders here because there is conflict. Actually, I will take it one step further. I will say regardless of whether there is conflict or not, we do need to understand each other’s faith, background and cultural beliefs a lot more. As we understand better, we will develop a greater sense of shared identity. I think this is regardless of whether there is conflict or not.
- We must also understand the concerns of those who may not share the same lived experiences as us. You know what they say – you can choose your friends but you cannot choose your neighbours, and neighbours move in and out. The only solution is to move away, and this is often a painful solution.
10. We live in a densely populated city, where neighbours live in close proximity. We can certainly do with a lot more harmony between our neighbours.
11. Sometimes, because of different tolerance levels, our own sense of what is noisy becomes very markedly different. When those tolerance levels are mismatched, we end up with conflicts. There is also the misuse and sometimes the obstruction of common spaces e.g. the shared corridor – where you put your shoes, whether you block the corridor and so on. Again, people’s tidiness, neatness and tolerance levels are also different.
- Situations like these require parties to show understanding and compassion.
13. Of course, that is very basic. If you know your neighbour and you are friends with your neighbour, not necessarily best pals, but if you just know your neighbour, immediately the tolerance levels will go up.
14. I used to have experiences of people complaining to me all the time about parking. I look after the ward in Joo Chiat where there are many landed properties, and at Telok Kurau, there are very narrow lanes and you can barely squeeze by with one car parked by the side. When you end up with situations where a car blocks your gates and prevents you from opening the gates, or when a car blocks your dustbins, you end up with conflicts. But if you know your neighbours – and that is why I have encouraged street parties along some of these streets – instead of calling the police, you call your neighbour. After a while, you realise that what he does to you, you sometimes do back to your neighbours inadvertently.
15. So the basic foundation of resolving conflict is really the level of empathy and understanding, and it starts from knowing your neighbours.
III. WHY MEDIATION?
16. But in situations where parties cannot agree – you either do not know your neighbour or after knowing for some time, you realise he is not so nice after all – that is when mediation becomes a very important and powerful tool.
17. Mediation is not a new concept, existing for decades, even centuries. We used to resolve our differences in our villages and our own little community by going to the most senior person, i.e. the village headman or head honcho, to get help. Someone, asa respected authority figure, who is able to reach out across the divide between both sides and find a common basis.
18. Throughout history, community leaders and village elders resolved disputes through informal mediation between community members.
19. But why mediation? Singapore in particular has been at the forefront of promoting mediation, not just domestically in Singapore, but also internationally to ensure Singapore has a branding. Dr Lim mentioned earlier the Singapore Convention on Mediation. We were very proud that the United Nations adopted the Convention and we signed the Convention here in Singapore in 2019 with many world leaders. Today, the Convention is enforced internationally. We have several countries that have signed up at a much faster rate than the New York Convention, about six decades previously. So we will make progress.
20. Let me recap why mediation is in many ways a superior form of dispute resolution.
21. First, mediation allows both parties to have more control over the process and outcome that you cannot have in litigation and arbitration.
(a) Mediation is not bound by the rules of any Court and by rules of law. It is devised by common threads, by finding practical solutions. How do we resolve disputes between two parties without resorting to the law? Well, very simple, we look at the problem and the needs. You can solve the problem here and now by finding a solution or you can turn to a solution that requires future cooperation. None of this is possible when it comes to resolving disputes by litigation in the Court.
22. Second, mediation is quick and cost-effective.
(a) I spent many decades in litigation. Some cases need to be resolved in the courts as they are complex, involve multiple parties and complicated issues of law, or when the parties are really unable to find common ground, resulting in litigation. Often, it is lengthy process, also expensive, time-consuming, draining – both financially as well as emotionally.
(b) In contrast, much less time and costs are required in mediation. If you have to embark on litigation or arbitration, try mediation. That is always the first port of call. What does it cost you? Not much.
(c) Mediation also enhances access to justice, especially for those who cannot afford to go or be in Court either financially or because of time. Pick mediation – get parties together and in the hands of an experienced mediator, a lot can be done.
23. Third, and perhaps most importantly, mediation is advantageous as it allows parties to preserve relationships. It is not a binary, one-size-fits-all solution.
(a) In litigation and arbitration where you are adjudicating the rights between two parties, you have to find a solution by saying that one side is right and therefore the other side is wrong.
(b) In mediation, you would not have to do that. You can completely avoid the problem altogether. You can avoid the problem that gave rise to conflict and avoid focusing on the differences. Instead, we can put the entire emphasis on the mediated agreement on the positive outcomes. What will you do now together? How can you cooperate? How can you take some and I take less on the issue? And perhaps in future I can make up in other ways.
(c) These are all solutions that help to preserve existing relationships. Of course, in disputes between neighbours, that is what you want. If you go to Court with your neighbour, and you found a solution that gives you all your rights, and your neighbour lose everything, ask yourself. You may be satisfied on the day of when the judgement is out, but will this be a sustainable long-term solution? What happens when you walk past your neighbour every day? What happens the next time you do something marginally wrong, will your neighbour bring you to Court as well? Do you want that to be the enduring definition of your relationship between you and your neighbour? So for many reasons, mediation is particularly useful for community disputes.
IV. MEDIATION BEYOND THE SHORES OF SINGAPORE
- Indeed, beyond the shores of Singapore, mediation has also been promoted as an effective dispute resolution tool.
25. For example, in Malawi, the United Nations Development Programme and the European Union supported a joint project that trained and deployed village mediators. Not being able to travel around the remote parts of Malawi, you would have to deploy mediators in the community, which itself gives me an idea as to what we can use in Singapore, even though we are well-connected.
26. These village mediators assisted to mediate petty offences and disputes, and also help to resolve law enforcement difficulties.
27. By doing so, they enhanced access to justice by bringing relief to poor and vulnerable members of society, including women and children. The project was so successful that village mediators resolved over 50,000 cases within two years!
28. This has helped strengthen the country’s delivery of justice, and also enhances community relations.
V. ENCOURAGING MEDIATION IN SINGAPORE
29. Similarly in Singapore, we have worked very hard to encourage the take-up of mediation. I quickly learned from the Courts and judges that we should first try mediation. Very often when we went to Court, the judge would ask if we have tried mediation. We would then look at each other and wonder if the judge was asking us not to carry on with the case. After a while, encouraged by the Courts and the judges and the very proactive stance they took, we would sit down and tear down the case, go back and get the clients to talk to each other. Actually, you would be surprised – just at the door as you are looking at trying to resolve a case openly with a lot of conviction, the parties take a step back and they often do come up with a solution. By doing so, they would save lots of time not just for themselves, but also for the Court as it frees up their time to deal with cases that are a lot more impactful.
- In 1996, then-Minister for Law Professor S Jayakumar tasked an inter-agency Committee on Alternative Dispute Resolution (ADR) to explore how to promote and advance the use of mediation, in particular, beyond the Courts.
- The Committee made recommendations to implement mediation, which led to:
(a) First, the establishment of the Singapore Mediation Centre (SMC) in 1997 as a commercial mediation centre, and
(b) Second, the establishment of the Community Mediation Centre (CMC) in 1998 to promote mediation to resolve social and community disputes.
- I understand that many of you here are either past or present CMC volunteers and I want to just take a minute out of my speech to thank you for all the work.
VI. BUILDING CONSENSUS IN COMMUNITY DISPUTES
- CMC relies a lot on its volunteer mediators. It will not be able to do its work and reach out to the community, if not for your efforts. I want to take a minute to thank you very much for all of this.
- I know much of the work that you do is often difficult because when you first encounter a problem, the parties are emotional and have a longstanding problem, often for years, and it takes a lot of patience to make that bridge. But each time you make that bridge, it is very effective.
- I want to give you one statistic to show how effective this has been. Out of 10 cases that end up at CMC, eight cases are resolved. That is a very important, very significant statistic. Eight out of 10 cases that go through the doors of the CMC end up with a mediated settlement agreement. What we now need to do is to find ways to make more people go to the CMC. I will talk about that in a moment about what we want to do. But I want to spend one minute to thank all the volunteers, and to say that the effort that you have put in over the many years have not gone to waste. So thank you very much.
- Let me share one lived example of a mediation case, just to give you a factual scenario. We have two neighbours: Mr A and Mr B.
(a) Mr A was very upset with the antics of his next-door neighbour, Mr B, who was making a lot of noise, especially in the middle of the night.
(b) Mr A complained of yelling and screaming, and items being dragged or thrown around. All of us who live close to one another, would probably have some experience of that sort, at one point or the other. Lucky enough, after being very exasperated, they decided they would try mediation.
(c) When they went into mediation, they were very sceptical. Because for so long, they did not know each other, and they did not talk to each other. Mr A was of the view that Mr B was completely unreasonable and not someone he wanted to speak to, let alone resolve this.
(d) But they had a very understanding CMC mediator. After a while, his impression of Mr B as a person changed entirely. Mr B was actually quite affable and soft-spoken.
(e) Mr B explained that he had a job as a security guard, leaving very early and sometimes coming back very late at night. He was the sole breadwinner in his family, comprising his wife, young children and his elderly mother.
(f) His shift work meant that his wife carried the burden of taking care of the family, the children and his elderly mother. As a result, the relationship got strained, and the couple often quarrelled.
(g) After hearing of Mr B’s background, his job and his predicament, Mr A became more empathetic to Mr B and understood.
(h) The mediator then spoke about the problem. When you approach a problem in that fashion, the problem seems to disappear into the background.
(i) Mr A now realised these problems Mr B faced, and the problem became far less of a problem. That was how the mediator approached the mediation – let the parties share their frustrations, issues, how to move away through mutual understanding, and ways to control lifestyle, noise and so on.
(j) I must say this is one of the main successes of mediation, also demonstrated by the fact that Mr A, subsequently realising that Mr B had young children who needed someone to look after in the day when Mr B was not around, offered to look after the children as well.
37. You do not just have an outcome that resolves the problem at hand. It is a success story in many ways because it engenders stronger-than-before relationships, before the problem arose.
38. Taking this story I just shared, all of you as mediators play a very crucial role. It is oftentimes not about just solving the problem. It is about understanding the people with the problem. Good mediators have that way to find that bridge into that relation, the personality and the person – it is not about the problem. You will find the solutions are often really much easier.
VII. ENCOURAGING THE UPTAKE OF COMMUNITY MEDIATION
- Despite what I said about CMC’s very high settlement rate, the challenge that we see is how do we get people into CMC? How do we bring them before the mediators so that you can even practice a little bit of that special magic to find that bridge? Why do people not go to mediation? Well, lack of awareness, lack of understanding, maybe it is a deep-seated sense of reluctance because they think it is not going to be useful, or perhaps, just lack of opportunity.
- If you want mediation, you have to go into the heart of the Central Business District (CBD). You and your neighbour, about two meters from you, take the MRT and the bus to a mediation centre – which is why one of the ideas that we have is what is done in Malawi, to put mediators in the community.
- And really, mediation does not have to be a formal process. It can be done by senior grassroots leaders, community leaders, leaders of organisations, someone respected as an elder, someone looked upon as a senior in the community, so I think the idea is to forward deploy them.
- Some of the ideas that I thought I will share with you, which is a subject of discussion that involves several ministries, MinLaw, MCCY, and MND.
- We are looking at the Community Dispute Management Framework (CDMF). Let me give you a little bit of an idea as to what are the issues and solutions we are looking at.
(a) First, as I mentioned earlier, we are looking at how we can mandate mediation in certain cases. In other words, before you take the step of filing a claim in Court, or at the Community Dispute Resolution Tribunals (CDRT), how do you require parties to turn up at CMC and have dispute resolved by mandatory mediation.
(b) Second, we are also looking at how CMC-mediated settlement agreements can be registered as an order of Court to give it some teeth. In other words, for parties to take CMC more seriously. if you walk out of CMC with a mediated settlement agreement, it can be enforceable – not that we would like to see it breached and have it enforced, but it gives it more standing. I think parties will begin to respect the CMC process a lot more.
(c) Third, we are looking at ways to raise awareness for mediation – the value of mediation, and the benefits it can bring. This is where a conference like this, with people coming from different segments and different stakeholders of mediation, whether you are our grassroots leaders, volunteers, or community leaders, wearing double hats or professionals, all of you can help us to raise awareness in the community about the benefits of mediation.
(i) CMC has been posting articles and stories on social media to encourage people to step forth and avail themselves to mediation, to take advantage of the process.
(ii) CMC is also exploring other ways in which we can offer different modes of mediation, including holding mediation sessions online. It is useful if you cannot be present in person, although I must say that having seen mediations for so many years, it is often the face-to-face personal touch that makes the difference. So while online mediation is available, I would say, at the end of the day, a skilled mediator can do a lot more when they are in-person, direct face-to-face, sometimes putting their hand on the shoulder and taking it upon them, explaining things in a personal way, you cannot quite do that online.
- These measures are part of a broader package of measures that our inter-agency group is looking at:
(a) First, upstream, when the dispute first arises, what happens – are there community norms, or practices we want to adopt. In fact, my colleague Sim Ann is currently in Seoul, Korea to study what they do there. They have very effective community programmes to tackling noise. She and officers from different ministries have gone to see first-hand and study what are the approaches we can adopt in Singapore.
(b) We also want to go midstream where we try to mediate the dispute to reach an amicable solution and improve on the success rate of CMC as well.
(c) Finally, if after all these efforts fail, and we really need to get into the CDRT and the adjudicatory process, we are looking at enhancing the efficiency of the CDRT, improving the processes and ensuring a far more effective and efficient outcome.
45. Let me end by saying that we deeply recognise the role of volunteers and community leaders in a successful mediation. I must say that mediation will be far more successful, facilitated by members who are also part of the community.
46. That is why in today’s conference, I look around and I see members in this room representing different aspects of the community in Singapore. If you run into a dispute with somebody in the community, you want someone who knows the community, who knows the living environment, to be resolving it; you do not want someone from a completely different environment. If you have a dispute over religious practices, for example, you want someone who understands and who can empathise with you.
- The success of CMC can really only be enhanced if we can have more people coming forth from different parts of the community with a real interest in resolving disputes, in general, lending your expertise, and more importantly, your empathy and your experience to the process. It is not only about skillsets and formalities, but it is about having a heart to want to reach out to parties.
48. Finally, in this vein, I am heartened that iiM has organised this conference as a platform to:
(a) Bring the like-minded together, to talk about your experiences and enhancing that experience. It is often not about the hardware, but how you share ‘heartware’ experiences, and
(b) Promote the use of mediation, including to strengthen the social fabric that all of us so deeply cherish.
- As grassroot leaders, Harmony Circle leaders, public servants, and members of the community, all of you play a crucial role in fostering social harmony and social resilience.
- Thus, I hope more people like yourselves will step forward and that the efforts of iiM will continue to bring mediation awareness to the community, and ensure people understand what is in it for them. You do not often understand mediation until you have a problem. Unfortunately, you do not know when you need it; and when you need it, you do not know where to look. So the more we are able to talk about it, the more awareness we can raise about the success and the benefits of mediation, the better it will be.
- Finally, I want to say that it is such a welcome sight, to not just see all of you out here in person, but also for the majority of you, I can see the bottom half of your faces. It helps in a session like this, that you are able to talk to one another without that barrier and exchange ideas as mediators. I think this is a very useful forum. I thank iiM for setting this up, and encouraging all of you to be here on a Saturday morning, and I also thank you for listening to me. Thank you very much.
Last updated on 08 October 2022