This year promises to be a busy one on the travel front for Bernice Yeoh, executive director of the Singapore Chamber of Maritime Arbitration (SCMA), as she seeks to grow the organisation’s footprint throughout Asia.

“SCMA provides a suitable framework for people in Asia,” Yeoh said, but a major marketing push that began five years ago was severely curtailed when borders were shut during the pandemic.

“I think we could have done a lot more if not for Covid-19.”

Yeoh, a veteran of the Maritime and Port Authority (MPA) of Singapore, took over as head of the SCMA in June last year, replacing Punit Oza who left to lead a new Singapore dry cargo venture, Wiz Bulk.

Immediate travel plans include Vietnam, Brunei and Thailand, where the SCMA has ongoing relationships with each country’s shipowners’ associations.

“Taking reference from my experience with the MPA, where we had to travel extensively to market Singapore, SCMA can adopt the same approach,” Yeoh said.

Such tie-ups have formed the mainstay of the SCMA’s outreach efforts since it was relaunched in 2010 following the introduction of the autonomous model of arbitration used by the London Maritime Arbitrators’ Association (LMAA).

SCMA vice chairperson Corina Song, who joined Yeoh in an exclusive interview with TradeWinds, said outreach efforts are not just targeting shipowners.

Song, a well-known maritime lawyer in Singapore and partner at law firm Allen & Gledhill, said the SCMA is also targeting traders and commodities houses, which she said takes some convincing as the default setting for these entities is usually administered arbitration under bodies such as the Singapore International Arbitration Centre (SIAC).

Misconceptions about SCMA

The SCMA, in contrast, follows the non-administrated model in response to the shipping industry being orientated towards this more informal model.

We want to attract more arbitrators from different jurisdictions ... We also want more gender diversity

— Corina Song, SCMA vice-chairperson

Song said this has led to a lot of misconceptions about the SCMA.

“People think SCMA doesn’t do too much as compared to SIAC,” she said. “That is because we are considerably different. Shipping disputes may be many in number, but the size of the claims is much smaller than what is seen at SIAC.”

Approximately 50% of the reported arbitration cases done under SCMA rules involve charter payment disputes.

For smaller claims, an expedited procedure with a threshold of $300,000 has replaced a previous small claims procedure that had a threshold of $150,000. The expedited procedure is meant to be a quick and cost-effective method to resolve a dispute using a sole arbitrator, with the issuance of an award within 21 days, providing no oral hearing is required.

Revisions to the rules in response to the constraints caused by the pandemic and the move towards digitalisation have seen the SCMA — from January 2022 — allow for the service of documents via electronic mailing as well as the signing of arbitration awards electronically. Hearings and case-management conferences, if held, may be conducted virtually.

Another major change that has been in force since the beginning of this year sees SCMA allow fully fledged documents-only proceedings.

“The majority of LMAA proceedings are documents-only, so hopefully this will attract more people to us,” Song said.

A review conducted by Yeoh and her team highlighted the need for the SCMA to increase the diversity of its arbitrator panel, which currently comprises 140 arbitrators schooled in common and civil law from 17 countries.

“We have a good spread of legal and shipping people who are qualified to arbitrate, which has positioned us well, but we want to attract more arbitrators from different jurisdictions to make us more attractive to people in those jurisdictions,” Yeoh said.

Song added: “We also want more gender diversity. Our female representation is about 11%, which is good, but it could be better, so we are working on that.”

Bold ambitions

Determining the success of the SCMA based purely on the number of arbitrations is difficult because many proceedings are non-administered. Quite simply, it does not know of a case’s existence unless it is reported — something which is not obligatory.

Reported cases have been averaging around 50 per year in recent times.

However, Song and Yeoh said they are aware that the total number of SCMA-based arbitrations has been increasing. They added that the SCMA is receiving strong industry support.

“I really believe we can make an impact with SCMA,” Song concluded. “Just look at how the SIAC grew from nothing to what it is today in 25 years.”