Whether it is handling the decade- long Susan Lim court saga or a $250 million arbitration spat involving firms backed by famed Malaysian and Indonesian tycoons, Senior Counsel (SC) Alvin Yeo is a master of his craft – both in litigation court work and arbitration advocacy.
The former MP and veteran lawyer, who led teams in the two high-profile cases, told The Straits Times both were equally challenging but required the two different skill sets. He also advises young lawyers to cut their teeth in court work first, before plunging into arbitration where both your competitors and your markets are global.
SC Yeo, who turns 55 tomorrow, was last week lauded by the renowned London-based legal directory Chambers Asia-Pacific with the Outstanding Contribution to the Legal Profession award in its 2017 honours list for the region at a gala event held here.
Chambers Asia-Pacific described Mr Yeo as “an excellent strategist as well as a first-rate litigator” who is a “deeply impressive and extremely capable individual”, and who provided leadership on Singapore International Arbitration Centre and International Chamber of Commerce proceedings. The rare award is another mark of recognition for SC Yeo, who in 2000 became the youngest lawyer appointed senior counsel here at age 37.
SC Yeo was called to the Bar in 1988. He, current Chief Justice Sundaresh Menon and Senior Counsel Wong Meng Meng were the three founding partners of WongPartnership in 1992.
The firm, then a boutique litigation firm with 11 lawyers, has today become a top-tier full-service firm with some 300 lawyers and has offices in six countries in Asia.
The largest source of stress from disputes work stems from the win-lose nature of the work. At the end of the day, the client is looking for a positive result from his case, not just a valiant losing effort.
SENIOR COUNSEL ALVIN YEO
Mr Yeo is currently chairman and senior partner of the firm, which is the youngest of Singapore’s Big Four law firms, with each of the three others being more than twice its age.
SC Yeo’s legal work also spans the growth of Singapore as an international arbitration centre, being a pioneer in the field more than two decades ago.
Two high-profile cases he led in the areas of open-court litigation and closed-door arbitration attest to his broad experience and ability.
In litigation, he was lead counsel for the Singapore Medical Council (SMC) in its disciplinary proceedings against Dr Lim for overcharging in relation to a $24 million bill for a patient in 2007. She was eventually suspended for three years and fined $10,000 in 2012.
In the course of the saga, Dr Lim took the SMC to court to appeal against the outcome and failed.
SC Yeo said it was “one of the most contested SMC cases” and had an “international element”.
But, if he had his way, there would have been little publicity on the details of the case.
“This was a case which attracted so much media attention. In accordance with the SMC’s approach of preserving the confidentiality of its proceedings, I applied on its behalf to have the court proceedings held in camera,” he said. This was done to protect the reputation of the doctors facing disciplinary proceedings, prior to the conclusion of those proceedings, he added.
“Unfortunately, this was resisted, and the proceedings were held in open court, with all the resulting publicity,” he said.
By contrast, in the case of arbitration hearings, publicity is not an issue as confidentiality is a condition. But an arbitration case comes to the public’s attention when the private award is challenged in court.
He cites the spat over a failed pay-television venture between the Astro group controlled by Malaysian billionaire Ananda Krishnan and the Indonesian Lippo group where eight Astro units sued three units of Lippo to enforce the arbitration award in Singapore.
The Court of Appeal in 2013 overturned the $250 million arbitration award won by Astro, and Lippo’s PT First Media and PT Ayunda Prima Mitra had to pay about $700,000 to five units of Astro.
SC Yeo said the challenges in such an arbitration case stem from a range of issues which are fought out across a span of jurisdictions.
In the case, the proceedings took place in Britain, Singapore and Hong Kong, with a host of personalities of different nationalities as, variously, the arbitrators, the legal counsel, expert and factual witnesses.
“It is mastering the sheer breadth of issues playing out over multiple proceedings and executing an overall, coordinated strategy that is the biggest challenge,” he said.
“The arbitration process tends to be very intense, where everything is crammed into a week as some of the parties fly in from abroad and you start very early and finish very late.
“In court, it is not so cramped; they might give you four weeks, six weeks for your trial. In that sense, it’s slightly more spaced out but the fact that you are on your feet for four, six weeks itself is a challenge.”
He advised young lawyers to start off in court litigation to acquire the advocacy and cross-examination skills which they can then apply to the arbitration context.
“In arbitration, your chances for oral advocacy are actually more limited. So you have to make sure it counts because you actually have less time.”
Asked about winning and losing cases, he said: “The largest source of stress from disputes work stems from the win-lose nature of the work. At the end of the day, the client is looking for a positive result from his case, not just a valiant losing effort. If the outcome is not successful, which does happen, you have to analyse what the reasons are, learn from your mistakes, and move on. There is no other way to survive in this practice.”