#10QuestionswithMaxwell Interview Series: Dr Michael Hwang SC, Michael Hwang Chambers LLC

In this #10QuestionsWithMaxwell interview, we feature Dr Michael Hwang SC, Director of Michael Hwang Chambers, a boutique law practice which specialises in international arbitration and mediation.

Michael was educated at Oxford University at both undergraduate and postgraduate levels where he won a College Scholarship by open competitive examination. He practised at Allen & Gledhill, (one of Singapore’s major law firms) for over 30 years and was appointed as one of the first 12 Senior Counsel of the Supreme Court of Singapore in 1997. From 1991 to 1992, he served as a Judicial Commissioner of the Supreme Court of Singapore. In 2005, Michael was appointed the non-resident Deputy Chief Justice of the DIFC Courts, and from 2010, as non-resident Chief Justice until his retirement in November 2018. Michael has previous appointments as Vice Chairman of the International Court of Arbitration of the ICC, Vice President of ICCA, member of the PCA, Court Member of the LCIA, Trustee of the DIAC, Vice-Chair of the IBA Arbitration Committee, Council Member of ICAS and President of the Law Society of Singapore as well as a Vice President of the Senate of the Singapore Academy of Law. His arbitrations have involved disputes in over 45 countries and hearings in 26 cities. He has served as a UN Compensation Commissioner, adjudicating claims for damages against Iraq arising from the First Gulf War. He has also served as Singapore’s Non-Resident Ambassador to Switzerland and Argentina. He has lectured and written extensively on international arbitration and mediation with two volumes of his writings published in “Selected Essays on International Arbitration” in 2013 and “Selected Essays on Dispute Resolution” in 2018. He has been a Visiting (and later an Adjunct) Professor in arbitration at the National University of Singapore and was conferred an Honorary LLD in 2014 by the University of Sydney (where he began his legal career as a law teacher in 1966-7). 

Michael is currently on the Users Council of the Singapore International Arbitration Centre (SIAC) and on the Advisory Board of the Hong Kong International Arbitration Centre (HKIAC).

In this interview, he shares what he enjoys most about being an arbitrator, recalls highlights of his legal career, gives advice to aspiring individuals who want to pursue a career in ADR, and more.

Read his full interview below:

Q: What do you enjoy most about being an arbitrator? 

A: Applying my knowledge and experience in arriving at the correct legal solution to a dispute which has been properly presented and argued. It is the ultimate satisfaction that many professional lawyers seek, and this is the nearest thing to being a judge, the main difference being that an arbitrator can choose his or her cases, while a judge has to hear the cases assigned to him (or her). 

Q: On the contrary, even with your extensive experience in arbitration practice, what do you find most challenging being an arbitrator? 

A: Sometimes, when some parties are being difficult in their requests or submissions to the Tribunal, arbitrators feel that they have to be more temperate in their responses, whether orally or in writing, because arbitrators are much more susceptible to challenges from the parties, either during the course of the hearing or after they have delivered their awards. This is due to the fact that  members of the Tribunal, who do not have the same automatic authority that national judges can command,  are sometimes treated with less respect from some parties.  The arbitrators then have to be more restrained in their responses to rude (or even aggressive) requests or submissions because of the risk of a challenge based on apparent bias or an alleged violation of the golden rule of treating each party equally and giving each party a full opportunity of presenting its case (as is required by Article 18 of the Model Law).  This tension has created the modern phenomenon known as “Due Process Paranoia”. 

Q: How has ADR landscape changed over the years you’ve been in practice?

A: The number and variety of participants have changed significantly because the total volume and value of international arbitration disputes have grown exponentially since I started my arbitration practice in the mid 1990s. Now all major international law firms aim to have an international arbitration practice of some sort, and the range of cases now being heard by international tribunals has also extended so that the subject matter of disputes have grown outside the original boundaries of the arbitration universe. Construction and Energy disputes have always been the backbone of arbitration, but its scope has now extended to corporate, joint venture, M&A, banking and finance, intellectual property, telecoms and even trust disputes. This is my own personal experience, and other practitioners will probably also add other new practice areas to the list of arbitrable disputes. 

Q: If you could implement one reform in the arbitral system, what would it be? 

A: To create a practical system of arbitrator insurance against claims of unprofessional conduct in the same way as all lawyers are insured against claims for professional negligence. Singapore is fortunate in that its advocates and solicitors are insured against claims arising from arbitration under the Law Society’s Master Indemnity Insurance Policy, but there are other arbitrators practising as such in Singapore who are not members of the Law Society, and have difficulty in obtaining similar cover on their own. 

Q: Share with us some highlights throughout your legal career. 

A: First, when I won a scholarship to Oxford University in 1962 by open competitive exam, the first Singaporean to do so. 

Second, when I was appointed a Judicial Commissioner in 1991, and served on the High Court Bench for 1 ½ years, leaving some contribution to the law by my 15 reported judgments. 

Third, when I was elected President of the Law Society of Singapore in 2008, and served until mid 2010, developing an international footprint for Singapore lawyers by visits to foreign countries and speaking up for Singapore at various conferences, as well as instituting the practice of inviting Leaders of the Bar from our neighbouring countries to our Opening of the Legal Year, and then having close discussions with them on areas of co-operation. Indeed, we inspired the Malaysian judiciary to institute their own equivalent ceremony of the Opening of their Legal Year, to which I was honoured to be the first Singaporean Law Society President to be invited to attend.  

Fourth, when I was appointed as Chief Justice of the Dubai International Financial Centre (DIFC) Courts in 2010, and led the development of a new court to international recognition as one of the three major international commercial courts of the world (as reported in the Economist magazine) by the time I stepped down at the end of 2018.  

Fifth, when I was conferred an Honorary LLD degree by my first employer, the University of Sydney in 2014. 

Q: What do you think are the key ingredients to being a good arbitrator/mediator? 

A: These are two distinct disciplines calling for different qualities. Arbitrators closely resemble judges in their approach, normally being rather removed from the thick of the battle in a hearing, reserving their judgment and decisions on the witnesses and the issues until they come to write their awards, and their decision will be based strictly on the legal merits of the case. Mediators need to engage with the parties right from the beginning of the hearing, to actively become involved in the arguments between the parties (albeit in a neutral way) to demonstrate that they understand the underlying motivations of the parties and their real interests in the ultimate outcome, so as to be able to help bring the parties to a common solution. So, they need to understand human nature more than the legal merits of the dispute.  

Q: What steps can younger legal practitioners take to improve their chances of getting appointments? Could you share some advice(s) to aspiring individuals who want to pursue a career in ADR.  

A: First, they must have experience of acting in arbitrations as counsel so that they understand how the process works in practice. Second, they need to demonstrate that they have sufficient gravitas to be able to command the respect of the parties (and the institution which will appoint them), which they can show by writing articles on arbitration which demonstrate their technical understanding of the workings of arbitration. Third, they need to get themselves known by the profession and the appointing institutions by attending arbitration seminars and conferences and speaking up from the floor to demonstrate their knowledge and gravitas. In this way, they will bring themselves to the attention of institutions like SIAC, which is always looking for new arbitral talent to appoint for smaller cases, so their first appointments are likely to be as sole arbitrators.

Q: To get to know you more on a personal level, share with us 3 fun facts about yourself. 

A: First, although I claim no great prowess as a ballroom dancer, I enjoyed one moment of recognition when, on a holiday to the Philippines, I was in a tour group which organised a Tinikling dance exhibition and class one evening when we visited the Pagsanjan Falls, and there was an impromptu competition among the tour group which ended with me being pronounced the “King of Tinikling of Pagsanjan Falls”. 

Second, I used to sing in the Anglo Chinese School (ACS) choir and still have a love for choral music.  During the early 70s I took part in two light opera musicals “Rose-Marie” and “Land of Smiles” staged by a group called “The Sceneshifters”.   

Sometime around 1990, the Singapore Symphony Orchestra (SSO) decided to mark the 250th anniversary of Handel’s “Messiah” with a performance by a choir of 1000 singers.  As the regular SSO choir was only about 100 strong, they obviously needed reinforcements.  Since Sydney had recently celebrated the same anniversary by putting on a performance with 1000 singers, something like 800 plus singers came over to join the SSO choir, but they still needed a few more Singaporean additions to the chorus to get to their target of 1000 singers.  Under those circumstances, I decided to come out of retirement and volunteered to join the chorus.  For someone who had not been singing regularly for some years, it was an enormous challenge and a life-changing experience performing an epic oratorio that I had known since early childhood in a choir of 1000 voices singing in the open air at the old National Stadium.  The feeling of watching the entire audience of several thousand concertgoers rising to their feet in unison when we sang the “Halleujah Chorus” was incomparable and unbelievable.

Third, I have a very limited interest in poetry, and my two favourite poets may (to some people) seem slightly bizarre: Ogden Nash, who was a great 20th century writer of comic verse, and e. e. cummings (another American 20th century poet), who wrote most of his poems in the lower case with no capitals at all for the purpose of poetic expression. 

Q: Lastly, what reminds you of Maxwell Chambers? 

A: The well designed and practical giveaways which will remind users of the class of Maxwell Chambers in providing practical luxury and comfort in a business setting. 


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