Legal services in Singapore: an interview with the British High Commissioner

We spoke with High Commissioner Kara Owen about the importance of legal services to Singapore’s economy and the opportunities available to UK firms.

kara-owen

Singapore has been an independent country since 1965. The city-state has a legal system with roots in the common law tradition as well as a sophisticated and diverse legal profession.

Singapore’s legal sector was liberalised with the aim of transforming the country into a ‘key legal services hub’ in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) region. This was to be done through the increased value of offshore transactions brought by foreign firms.

Currently, the legal sector is self-regulating and is governed by the Law Society of Singapore. The Law Society is the representative body for lawyers in Singapore.

Singapore has a fused profession wherein all lawyers are both advocates and solicitors. Besides lawyers, the sector also includes highly specialised litigators called senior counsel.

A major hub for UK firms

Singapore is a major hub for UK firms in Asia, offering a cosmopolitan workforce and trusted regulatory framework.

According to the Doing Business 2020 (Comparing Business Regulation in 190 Economies) data published by the World Bank, Singapore ranks second in its ‘Ease of Doing Business’. Singapore’s growth has been helped by a stable, business-friendly regulatory structure and the country's burgeoning legal services industry.

The Singapore government has liberalised its legal services market and the process is ongoing. Singapore has positioned itself as a regional and increasingly global arbitration hub through the Singapore Arbitration Centre (SIAC) and the Singapore International Commercial Court (SICC). Many local and international firms are building up their dispute resolution practices.

In 2008, the Singapore government took a major step in further liberalising the legal services market by introducing the Qualifying Foreign Law Practice (QFLP) licences. This allows foreign law firms to practice Singaporean law in almost all areas of legal practice, but only through Singapore lawyers as partners or associates.

The QFLP licence offers increased flexibility to foreign law firms making it easier for them to operate in this jurisdiction.

We asked Kara Owen, the British High Commissioner to Singapore, what her thoughts were on the importance of legal services in Singapore. Here are her responses:

How important are legal services to Singapore’s economy? How big a contribution have legal services made to Singapore’s growth?

Singapore is Southeast Asia’s leading commercial and financial hub. It’s renowned for its outward looking economy, stability, and first rate infrastructure.

As a regional hub for businesses, the need for legal services such as corporate services, business setup and dispute resolution is strong and increasing.

The UK-Singapore Free Trade Agreement (FTA) that came into effect on 1 Jan 2021, worth £17 billion, protects and advances a longstanding trading relationship with Singapore.

The UK is a key player in its economy, with over 5,000 British companies in Singapore.

Singapore ranks second in the World Bank’s Ease of Doing Business 2020 data. This ranking has been stimulated by a stable and business friendly regulatory structure. The strong legal services industry in the country is also a factor.

What is the legal sector like in Singapore compared to the UK?

The two nations are global hubs championing progressive free trade and international cooperation.

Singapore and London are also among the ‘premier league’ of litigation, mediation and arbitration centres worldwide, with a pool of outstanding lawyers and a respected judiciary.

Both nations are home to successful international legal centres because they have an open and liberal approach to providing legal services.

What has been the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the legal sector in Singapore?

There has of course been an impact on Singapore and the region’s economy from COVID-19, for example, where some projects have stalled.

Singapore’s own economy has held up relatively well because of swift government action.

But there are also potential opportunities for legal services related to growth and restructuring. This includes services in winding up, dissolution and dispute resolution, insolvency, regulatory compliance and conveyancing.

COVID-19 has also prompted and accelerated shifts to digitisation, for example with hearings in Singapore taking place virtually.

How important is the Singapore-UK FTA?

Singapore is the UK’s largest trading partner in Southeast Asia.

The UK-Singapore FTA came into effect on 1 January 2021 and covers over £17 billion of trade. We expect the upward trade momentum to continue.

Singapore is a major market for UK legal services where legal services exports to Singapore totalled £113.2 million in 2018. The UK-Singapore FTA provides increased access to services in both countries, strengthening the ‘business hub’ status in these regions.

The UK stays committed to the promotion of an arbitration sector which is competitive, dynamic, and responsive to the needs of business.

We are like-minded partners with Singapore in developing our two legal sectors.

This is essential for the maintenance of a global business climate which is conducive to openness, confidence, and the ease of doing business.

The UK-Singapore FTA also creates a framework for the recognition of professional qualifications so that mutual recognition agreements (MRA) can be agreed by the parties.

During her visit to Singapore, Liz Truss, the secretary of state for international trade, discussed the UK’s ambition to join the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP) with Chan Chun Sing, the Singapore minister of trade.

Singapore is a founding member of the CPTPP. We were delighted by Minister Chan’s strong public support for our membership of the bloc.

The UK has since formally applied to join the CPTPP. Membership would give British businesses and service providers access to one of the most progressive free trade areas in the world.

The CPTPP has 11 current members, including Singapore, and accounts for about 13% of global gross domestic product – worth US$10.6 trillion.

What role are foreign lawyers playing in meeting the needs of Singaporean society and the country’s growth?

Foreign lawyers are important as they help Singapore based clients navigate multiple jurisdictions.

Greater cooperation between the global legal hubs is beneficial to everyone. The expertise of foreign lawyers provides clients with easy access to specialist skills, particularly in international mergers and acquisitions.

COVID-19 is also a factor. Reduced business travel has resulted in the need for skills in foreign jurisdictions at home.

A robust pool of foreign lawyers will be important in ensuring cross-border cooperation is sustained to prompt global recovery.

What opportunities are there for UK law firms in Singapore?

Singapore is a major hub for UK firms in Asia.

Nine foreign law firms currently hold Qualified Foreign Law Practice (QFLP) licences, four of which are UK firms.

UK firms can benefit from a flourishing, interconnected global arbitration and mediation system – a system that supports mutually beneficial international trade and underpins global business confidence. It is also a quick and cost effective alternative to litigation.

UK law firms can be set up in Singapore as foreign law firms (FLF). They can also join formal law alliances (FLA) or joint law ventures (JLV).

English, Welsh and all foreign lawyers may work as employees, partners, or directors in: 

  • qualified foreign law practices
  • foreign law firms
  • Singapore law firms
  • FLAs
  • JLVs

What are the market access issues UK law firms could face?

While a large proportion of QFLP holders in Singapore are UK firms, some of these firms focus on niche areas, such as shipping and insurance – but most are large global firms which use Singapore as a base for regional operations.

The process of obtaining a QFLP can be lengthy, and the licence limits the types of law that can be practised.

What do you see as the most exciting aspects of Singapore’s development in the next decade?

One exciting development to look out for is the rollout of Singapore’s Ministry of Law’s Legal Industry Technology and Innovation Roadmap (TIR), launched in October 2020.

The TIR plans to promote innovation as well as technology adoption and development in Singapore’s legal industry in the next decade. This will be crucial not just in helping firms to recover from the pandemic, but for the sector to flourish as a regional and international hub.

Law firms, legal professionals and the industry can benefit from such an affordable and secure cloud-based platform for legal tech and the development of an innovation ecosystem.

Digitalisation in the legal sector benefits clients and firms, making them more productive, efficient, and profitable.

Such committed investment into legal tech is welcome given Singapore’s SMART Nation goals. It cements Singapore’s legal sector as a regional hub where UK players can find a space for practicing their solutions.

Find out more about our work in Singapore

We would like to thank high commissioner Kara Owen and her team at the British High Commission in Singapore for their contributions to this piece.

If you're interested in our work in Singapore or need more information, email international@lawsociety.org.uk

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