Arbitration pioneer Alvin Yeo offers tip to young lawyers

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.

CLIENTS’ EXPECTATIONS

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.”

Jarryd James – 1000x ft. Broods

1000×” (pronounced “a thousand times”) is a single by Australian singer-songwriter Jarryd James featuring New Zealand indie pop group, Broods. It was released on 17 June 2016.

Even if I’m leaving you at the door
Even when I know that you’re never lonely
Harder than imagined
Harder when it’s cold
Even when I’m playing in the fire
Even when I’m doing it for all my life
Harder than imagined
Harder when I let it go

Tell me that love is enough
The seas will be parted for us
Tell me that love is, ooh

In another lifetime
I would never change my mind
I would do it again
Ooh, a thousand times
Just to let you in here
Where you make me lose my mind
In another life I’d do it all again a thousand times

Never would I ever let my love escape you
Never keep you from the promises I gave you
Further than imagined
Further than we’ve ever known

V. K. Rajah: The ‘reluctant’ A-G and his ethos of fairness

Mr V. K. Rajah, who retired as Attorney-General last Saturday, hailed the work of AGC staff who work long hours in the belief of “serving a wider cause”. An AGC initiative for lawyers to work with abused foreign workers was also introduced under his watch.

Straits Times, 18 January 2017

Before he became the Attorney-General in 2014, Mr V. K. Rajah twice declined the offer in 2007 and 2013.

“I was a reluctant A-G, but once I decided to be A-G, I put my heart and soul into it,” he said in an interview with The Straits Times at his office last Friday. “I put in 110 per cent, and as long as I held office, I wanted to discharge my responsibilities to the best of my ability.”

In a wide-ranging interview, Mr Rajah, who left the post last Saturday, said one of the changes he implemented soon after taking the job was a reporting mechanism to review the prosecution’s sentencing positions. If the position was excessive or disproportionate, the Attorney-General’s Chambers (AGC) would inform the defence counsel to go ahead and appeal, and prosecution would not object.

Mr Rajah, 60, said prior to this, prosecutors reported to the senior leadership matters that might attract media or public attention.

“I was more interested in (other) matters and our sentencing position that would affect the larger swathe of the population, from shoplifting to property, offences of any sort… and I wanted us to review our sentencing position on every possible area of criminal activity,” he said.

V. K. Rajah on two cases of significance
  • WHY AGC DID NOT PUSH FOR A HEAVIER SENTENCE FOR DAD WHO KILLED SON Banker Philippe Marcel Guy Graffart, then 42, had killed his five-year-old son last year amid a bitter custody battle.The charge was reduced from murder to culpable homicide as the Belgian national was assessed to be suffering from a major depressive disorder.

    His estranged French wife had engaged lawyers to press for a higher sentence.

    The Attorney-General’s Chambers (AGC), said Mr Rajah, would use the full force of law to prosecute cases that were cold-blooded and premeditated.

    “Where homicide takes place as a result of mental issues, it’s unpremeditated, where there is a momentary loss of control, we appraise the facts differently,” he said.

    He also observed that the case arose out of a bigger divorce squabble.

    This is why family law should be practised in a more collaborative and amiable way, he said.

    Mr Rajah added: “Unfortunately after reading the file – and I went through it very thoroughly – I felt that the lawyers advising the couple added fuel to the fire.”

    WHY PROSECUTION APPEALED TO REDUCE CYCLIST’S SENTENCE 

    Mr Rajah said the public might not be aware but the AGC has informed counsel to appeal when a sentence is excessive or disproportionate after reviewing the case.

    The 2015 case involving Mr Lim Choon Teck, then 35, was different as he did not have a lawyer. Mr Lim had received a jail sentence of eight weeks for knocking down an elderly pedestrian while cycling on a pavement. After a review, Deputy Public Prosecutor Prem Raj Prabakaran appealed to have the sentence reduced, arguing that the prosecution believed the original sentence was disproportionate to his culpability and the fact that he had pleaded guilty at the first reasonable opportunity.

    “If (Mr Lim) appealed, there was no certainty that the High Court judge might agree with him… So I directed my colleagues, and they were taken aback that we should appeal,” said Mr Rajah. Mr Lim’s jail term was cut to three weeks.

    Mr Rajah said: “I’m glad the case was publicised because it also assured the public that AGC was trying to do right rather than to punish people excessively.”

    Ng Huiwen

All cases that were concluded were reported in the form of a summary report and Mr Rajah would review these cases every evening.

In one unusual case, the AGC even appealed for a sentence to be reduced. The accused, a cyclist who had knocked down an elderly person, did not have his own lawyer.

Originally sentenced to eight weeks’ jail in 2015, his sentence was reduced to three weeks after the Deputy Public Prosecutor appealed to have it slashed.

Mr Rajah said his “obsessiveness for looking at things granularly” boiled down to a need to exercise the power of the prosecution carefully. Not all were on board at first with the decisions he made, including the move to appeal to have the cyclist’s sentence reduced.

Some colleagues had told him the decision would not have been possible in the AGC a decade ago, because “that’s not part of our culture”.

“But having said that, I think all of them were immediately on the same side because they realised and appreciated that this accorded with their role as ministers of justice.

“My operating ethos in every … office that I held is to ensure fairness. And fairness includes, apart from due process, proportionality. It’s in no one’s interest for individuals to be punished harshly,” he said.

Another initiative launched in his time involved lawyers in the AGC who volunteered to work with abused foreign workers. They halved the time it took to resolve cases that otherwise would require the foreign workers to stay for months or even years in Singapore to resolve their situation in court.

Mr Rajah hailed the work of AGC staff. “Many officers in the AGC and in the public service work anonymously as they should and get very little credit.

“They put in long, long hours of work over weekends, over holidays, and they do this not because they are looking for recognition, but they do this because they believe it’s the right thing and they are serving a wider cause.”

Mr Rajah spent 20 years in the private sector, becoming managing partner of law firm Rajah & Tann. In 1997, he was among the first lawyers to be appointed Senior Counsel.

V. K. RAJAH…

ON HIS ROLE AS ATTORNEY-GENERAL

I was a reluctant Attorney-General, but once I decided to be A-G, I put heart and soul into it. I put in 110 per cent and, as long as I held office, I wanted to discharge my responsibilities to the best of my ability. There is no point having a half-hearted A-G.


ON UPHOLDING FAIRNESS

My operating ethos in every appointment or office that I held is to ensure fairness. And fairness includes, apart from due process, proportionality. It’s in no one’s interest for individuals to be punished harshly.


ON SELECTING HIS TEAM

I pay particular attention to the way people interact and I am less than impressed by people who manage upwards and are all brown-nosed… I rather let the work speak for themselves.

He was then on the Bench for 10 years, first being appointed Supreme Court justice in 2004 and then Judge of Appeal three years later. It was then, in 2007, that he first declined the Attorney-General post.

“I enjoyed my work. Further, I was keen to continue working with Chief Justice Chan Sek Keong, whom I greatly respected. I regard him as the finest legal mind who has held public office in Singapore.”

Outside of his office, Mr Rajah reads extensively on social and political issues that affect Singapore and the wider world, as well as the sciences, such as psychology and neuroscience. “But since I became A-G, I’ve read only a handful of books,” he said, as he spent more time reading up on ongoing cases, even the minor ones, such as shoplifting.

Mr Rajah said: “I could leave my law firm when I wanted to and the fact that it continues to thrive 13 years after I left it means that I left it with good foundations and in good shape.” Former defence minister Howe Yoon Chong, in a conversation with Mr Rajah years ago, called the same quality a “walking capital” and the term stuck with him.

He entered the role as the “reluctant A-G”, but with his retirement, he said: “I made sure everything that I’ve done, every institution I’ve done, I have left it in better shape.”