International arbitration in Singapore

01 May 2010

Boey Swee Siang, Naresh Mahtani

There are two arbitration regimes in Singapore; 'domestic' arbitrations governed by the Arbitration Act 2002 (Cap.10, 2002 Rev.Ed.) and 'international' arbitrations governed by the International Arbitration Act (Cap. 143A, 2002 Rev.Ed.).  This article will discuss the international arbitration system.

 What is 'international' arbitration?

 Pursuant to section 5 of the International Arbitration Act, an arbitration is 'international' if one or more of the following conditions are met:

  • at least one of the parties to the arbitration agreement has its place of business outside Singapore; or

  • either (i) the place of arbitration, (ii) the place where a substantial part of the obligations of the commercial relationship is to be performed, or (iii) the place with which the subject-matter of the dispute is most closely connected is located outside the country where the parties have their places of business; or

  • the parties expressly agree that the subject matter of the arbitration agreement relates to more than one country.



"The Warsaw office deals with clients from the China and Singapore who are looking for advice on European issues.  The addition of the Singapore office strengthens our already growing presence in the Far East.Kuba Ruiz, Warsaw


The International Arbitration Act provides that the UNCITRAL Model Law on International Commercial Arbitration (the "Model Law") can be enforced in Singapore. 

Arbitrating in Singapore

Singapore is an 'arbitration-friendly' jurisdiction.  The courts will generally recognise an arbitration agreement provided it is in writing.  The grounds on which the court may exercise discretion to refuse a stay of litigation proceedings in favour of arbitration are very narrow – the courts have to be satisfied that the arbitration agreement is void, inoperable or incapable of being performed.



"Singapore has a growing reputation as a venue for international arbitration disputes. Clients that are considering arbitrating in Singapore are likely to benefit from our presence there." Eggo Jan Rietema, The Hague


Parties are at liberty to choose the procedural rules for conduct of the arbitration.  The default position that applies where parties have not agreed on the procedural rules themselves is set out in the International Arbitration Act, which is based on the requirements set out in the Model Law.

Singapore's main arbitration institution is the Singapore International Arbitration Centre (the "SIAC").  It is the general institution for administering commercial arbitrations in Singapore, and in 2009 it was involved in 114 out of 160 arbitration cases concerning foreign parties.  Singapore also has a number of other arbitration institutions, which are discussed in more detail below.
 
Awards made following international arbitration in Singapore are readily enforceable by the Singapore courts and there are very limited grounds for setting such awards aside or for refusing enforcement.  To date there have been approximately 15 applications to set aside international arbitration awards in the High Court in Singapore and so far, none have succeeded, save for part of one award recently set aside by the court in March 2010 on the ground of  breach of natural justice.

Articles 34 and 36 of the Model Law permit only the following grounds for setting aside or refusing enforcement: 

  • cases where a party to the arbitration agreement was under an incapacity;

  • where the agreement was not valid under the law to which parties had subjected it or under the law of the country where the award was made;

  • where the party against whom the award was invoked was not given proper notice of the arbitration or was unable to present its case;

  • cases where a party to the arbitration agreement was under an incapacity;

  • where the agreement was not valid under the law to which parties had subjected it or under the law of the country where the award was made;

  • where the party against whom the award was invoked was not given proper notice of the arbitration or was unable to present its case;

  • where the award dealt with a dispute not contemplated by or not falling within the terms of the submissions to arbitration;

  • where the composition of the arbitral tribunal did not accord with the parties' agreement or, failing such agreement, was not in accordance with the law of the country where the arbitration took place;

  • where the award had not yet become binding on parties or was set aside by the Court of the country in which it was made; or

  • where the subject matter of the dispute is not capable of settlement by arbitration under the laws of the State or the award is in conflict with the public policy of the State concerned. 

Other than the grounds set out in the Model Law, section 24 of the International Arbitration Act gives the High Court additional powers to set aside an arbitral award if the making of the award was induced or affected by fraud, corruption or a breach of the rules of natural justice.

Recent developments

An amendment bill was tabled before Parliament late last year to amend the International Arbitration Act.

The two most important amendments seek to (i) update the definition of an arbitration agreement to include agreements made by electronic communications, and (ii) empower the Singapore High Court to grant interim orders or relief to assist arbitrations abroad.  The latter was instigated by a 2007 decision of the Singapore Court of Appeal (see the case of Swift-Fortune Ltd v Magnifica Marine SA [2007] 1 SLR 629) which held that under the current International Arbitration Act, the court had no statutory power to grant interim relief in respect of arbitration proceedings held outside Singapore.  This amendment however now seeks to empower the High Court to grant interim relief in international arbitration, regardless of whether arbitration proceedings are taking place in Singapore or whether a Singaporean court has jurisdiction to hear the matter.



"We are currently working with clients who have operations in Singapore and it is of real advantage to them that we now have a presence there." Pekka Raatikainen, Helsinki


The recent opening of Maxwell Chambers has given a great boost to the international arbitration scene here.  Apart from the SIAC, various other international arbitration institutions are also housed in Maxwell Chambers, including the Permanent Court of Arbitration, the American Arbitration Association, the International Court of Arbitration of the International Chamber of Commerce and the Arbitration and Mediation Centre of the World Intellectual Property Organisation.



"ATMD Bird & Bird could be of great help to our existing clients, particularly those looking to expand into the
Far East
." Fabio Zambito, Milan


Maxwell Chambers is a self-contained one-stop centre for arbitration.  It contains state-of-the-art facilities for arbitration hearings, boasting 14 hearing rooms equipped with a full suite of recording, translation, transcription and video-link systems for overseas witnesses. There are a further 12 smaller meeting rooms as well as catering, concierge and secretarial services to support the hearings.  Maxwell Chambers also has a business lounge and a gymnasium, both of which are available to parties during lunch breaks. 

How ATMD Bird & Bird can assist clients in respect of the international arbitration market

Singapore is an attractive choice as an arbitration venue. Geographically, Singapore is located at a strategically important part of South-east Asia, straddling the mainland just to the north and the huge archipelagos of Indonesia and Philippines to the south and east, and the Indian subcontinent to the west, and boasts a competent legal fraternity who are familiar with the English language. It can often be more convenient for parties based in Asia or having business in Asia to choose Singapore as the arbitration seat and venue, rather than for them to travel to more distant places in Europe or North America.

As stated above, there is now a new dedicated venue in Maxwell Chambers, boasting some of the most state-of-the-art facilities, making it an extremely convenient venue for the arbitrator, counsel and parties to carry out their hearings. The setting up of Maxwell Chambers was financed and fully supported by the Singapore government, which is encouraging the growth of Singapore as a venue for parties to conduct arbitration. The framework of laws in Singapore facilitates efficient arbitration procedures and the ease with which arbitration agreements can be enforced is conducive to the growth of arbitration.



"A number of European clients will find it extremely helpful for their Asia-oriented business activities that they can rely on arbitration proceedings in Singapore as a very feasible and well-accepted means of dispute settlement throughout the entire Asian and, in particular, Indian region, when needing to settle disputes with their customers or suppliers." Alexander Duisberg, Munich


ATMD Bird & Bird is ideally placed to work with clients in Singapore's growing market. The arbitration expertise of the new Singapore office and Bird & Bird's broader International Group of specialist lawyers combined with our local knowledge of handling disputes in this region provides clients a real heavy-weight offering. Together with the work that is already being done with our colleagues in the PRC/Hong Kong and also our Indian desk, Bird & Bird's International Arbitration Group can offer real expertise in the region and the Group can provide critical arbitration know-how to handle disputes in the key emerging markets of China and India.