WITH a panel of eminent international jurists and a successful arbitration sector in place here, the Singapore International Commercial Court (SICC) - which has positioned itself as the neutral venue for dispute resolution in the region and is the Republic's newest - is expected to take off in three years' time.
The confidence was expressed by Justice Vivian Ramsey of the United Kingdom, who has had active English and international practice in the areas of construction, engineering and technology disputes, and is one of the 11 jurists on the SICC international bench.
Poised to hear cross-border disputes, the SICC, launched last Monday, is the finishing piece of the arbitration framework that will gear Singapore up to be Asia's dispute resolution hub. There are the Singapore International Arbitration Centre (SIAC), set up in 1991, and the Singapore International Mediation Centre launched last November.
The idea of an international commercial court here was first floated by Chief Justice Sundaresh Menon in 2013, said Justice Quentin Loh, one of 15 judges from the SICC local bench.
CJ Menon had conceptualised a court that deals with international cases without the disadvantages of international arbitration as he saw tremendous prospects in Asia, given the region's trade inflows and economic growth, said Justice Loh.
"If you look at Singapore, we're very well-placed, right in the middle, China to the north, India to the west, Indonesia below us, and the whole of Southeast Asia around us. There's a tremendous amount of infrastructure that has to be built and infrastructure, freight and contracts bring with them inevitable disputes, so they need a venue in which they can resolve their disputes."
The SICC is seen by some as a competitor of the established SIAC. And as international arbitration faces increased criticism that it has gotten more costly, taking longer to resolve cases and lacking transparency due to confidentiality, the SICC is seen to have an edge.
"I see the two as reinforcing each other and I don't see competition which erodes each," said Justice Ramsey, who made the point that any overlap between SIAC and SICC is not big.
Justice Carolyn Berger from the United States, another member of the SICC international bench, pointed out that there is a need for disputes to be attended to in a timely fashion so that businesses will not suffer unneccessarily, and the SICC fits the bill.
While arbitration has its perks - people can tailor the procedures to suit their case - Justice Loh noted that arbitration judgements are binding on two parties and one cannot have multiple arbitrations for the same project, even when several different parties are involved. This spells room for the SICC to grow.
As for the issue of international enforceability of the SICC judgements, the three judges said they are, in practice, rarely resisted.
"Experience will show that the number of cases where you have to take enforcement proceedings are very limited because either party complies because it's a contractual agreement to have their dispute resolved either in the courts or by arbitration," said Justice Ramsey.
And there are provisions to enforce the judgements, said Justice Loh.
Citing the reciprocal enforcement of the Commonwealth judgements, he noted that the whole of India, except two states, has reciprocal enforcement with Singapore. Likewise, similar mechanisms are in place in a few Australian states, Malaysia, England and Hong Kong.
There is also the hope that the Hague Convention on the recognition and enforcement of foreign judgements to be rolled out individually by June this year, will gain currency.
"That means you've got another 26 countries in the world signing on ... I can't see Australia, New Zealand, Malaysia, Hong Kong not signing up. So, that's another ground for reciprocal enforcement," Justice Loh said.
Given that the judges hail from different jurisdictions, how will a "just resolution" be delivered?
Using the example of the reception of evidence which differs vastly between different jurisdictions, the judges said the SICC has adopted a compromise worked out by the International Bar Association that takes the best of civil law and criminal law and does away with the worst aspects.
Closer to home, the SICC is expected to improve the level of dispute resolution here as local lawyers work more closely with international counterparts, which will in turn broaden their horizons.
While it is not known when the new court will receive its first case, one thing is clear in the minds of the judges - that its success lies in resolving disputes fairly.