Asia Law Network had the opportunity to conduct an interview with Shaun Leong, Partner of the International Arbitration and Dispute Management Practice Group based in Eversheds Sutherlands’ Singapore office. Before his current role, he served as Magistrate and Registrar of the Supreme Court of Singapore and practiced international commercial disputes with the magic circle.
Shaun has held various roles such as Head of the Court of Appeal Section of the Supreme Court Registry, and the Secretariat of the Singapore International Commercial Court. He also receives arbitrator appointments as an Accredited International Arbitrator and Mediator of the Global Mediation and Conciliation Network.
In addition, he regularly advises and represent clients in technology-related disputes, and act as project manager to coordinate legal issues faced by technology companies.
Thank you for taking some time to speak with us Mr Leong, can you please share with our readers why did you decide to read law?
You’re most welcome! Very flattered to be featured.
If I have to pin down a source, it would probably be due to my love for reading cultivated since my childhood days. My mum would bring my sister and me to the old MPH bookstore at Parkway Parade, and we would spend half a day reading books. My mum would then “force” my sister and I to pick at least five books each to buy and read for the next couple of weeks. I don’t think I would be here if I had not started off that way.
I went on to do literature at Victoria junior college and that’s when my passion for knowledge & books really accelerated. I started reading widely, from the classics like John Donne, Chaucer, & Shakespeare, to existentialist philosophy of Jean Paul Sartre, psychology of Jung, Christian writings of C.S Lewis, to fiction of greats like Kafka.
I think at the end of it all, a key essence to being a good advocate is to tell a good story, your client’s version of the story.
A good book (or movie, for that matter) is often open to multiple interpretations. There may very well be no “right” interpretation of a story, as your interpretation could be as valid as mine. It’s really the same for the best kind of disputes, where top jurists are asked not so much as to interpret what the law says, but to interpret what the law ought to say, when the express legislation, rules and contracts have gaps that need to be filled in.
If you weren’t a lawyer what would you be?
If I could indulge in fantasy, it would be the General Counsel of Liverpool Football Club. But that’s still a lawyer’s job, so probably the Creative Director of Detective Comics if I may! Coming back to reality, I would probably be a teacher.
Can you share with us about your time as a magistrate and registrar in the Supreme Court?
I couldn’t have asked for any other start to a legal career. It was an immense honour and privilege, but with that comes an understanding of responsibility and duty.
I learnt a lot from my five years with the Supreme Court, perhaps even lessons that I would not have learnt if I had started out with a law firm. Primarily, it was significant to understand the decision-making process of a Judge (or arbitrator), and know-how the Judge would view different perspectives and balance different arguments.
As the Head of the Court of Appeal Section in the Supreme Court Registry, I had the opportunity to see to the effective management of high-value complex commercial disputes, and of course, it was an awesome privilege to work with the team to set up the Singapore International Commercial Court (SICC) as Secretariat of the SICC Committee.
Unlike a State Court Judge who would be required to issue written grounds of decision when appealed against, a magistrate and Registrar of the Supreme Court does not. But I wrote judgments anyway because I knew that I was not going to be doing this forever, and so I wanted to make the best of my time in the courts, including to expound my views on novel issues of commercial law.
I suppose in terms of most memorable judgments, one of it would probably be Titan Unity, where, after reviewing the positions internationally, I held that at the start of the arbitral process, the arbitration should proceed so long as there is an arbitration agreement on the face of it, without the court having to go into a protracted examination of parties’ intentions. I felt very proud when the Court of Appeal endorsed this. Another memorable judgment would be Firstlink Investments v GT payment on the law governing an international arbitration agreement, which remains debated in several texts until today.
The very first court dispute involving the Marina Bay Sands came before me as well, on the interpretation of a “premium player” under the Casino Control Act. That was quite an interesting case.
You have arbitrator and mediator appointments, what is your story behind picking up these qualifications?
I can’t reveal my trade secrets! But seriously, there are no short cuts. There are arbitrator courses that one could sign up for to obtain the relevant qualifications, such as those by the Chartered Institute of Arbitrators and the Singapore Institute of Arbitrators.
Let’s move to your most current area of work, technology! Please tell us how did you find your way onto this path.
Even before I became acquainted with the law, I’ve been fascinated by technology since young and was heavily influenced by the writings of Carl Sagan, Ray Kurzweil and Michio Kaku. I’m excited by the many parallels between Nick Bostrom’s simulation thesis with several of humanity’s ancient religions about materiality and the elusive nature of reality, and honestly believe that the Singularity will happen in our lifetime. Can you imagine, the smartphone you hold in your hand has over 100,000 times the computing power of the Apollo Guidance Computer that sent Apollo 11 to the moon about half a century ago! Just three years ago, the Artificial Intelligence created by Google’s Deepmind, AlphaGo, beat the world’s top human player in Wei Qi. That was an astounding milestone considering that the algorithm has had to capture the immense complexity and unpredictability of the game, which has more possible moves than the total number of estimated atoms in the universe! By Moore’s law, artificial intelligence continues to grow exponentially.
Sorry I got carried away! To complete my answer to your question, I think maybe there’s something to be said about my generation of friends, where many find themselves taking on roles at technology companies. There is a wide range here, friends in the blockchain space, in biotech, e-commerce, machine learning, data analytics, digital payment companies, and even those in the e-sports business! I’ve known these friends for some time and I suppose it became natural for them to seek my legal support when required. My network grew organically over the years. I am very results-oriented. The Truth is in the Result, as I always say. Client commitment is paramount. And so if you deliver on the quality of the work you do, from there, your network starts to refer to your contacts from their own network. And that’s how things grow.
Right now, one of my biggest focus would be on my appointment as the lead counsel and relationship Partner supporting on various exciting projects and matters in different parts of the world for SenseTime, described by South China morning post as the world’s most valuable artificial intelligence company.
What are some tips/tricks you picked up to along your journey as a technology lawyer?
I would share three points:
- Always keep an open mind – Aristotle said, “he who knows he knows nothing is the wisest” (the irony of quoting an ancient person on tech is not lost on me!). When it comes to technology, you need to embrace the fact that you know very little about the next frontier, and that is totally fine. That coupled with the hunger and curiosity to find out more should stand anyone in good stead. Blockchain is a really good example. Some people get really put off by the mere mention of it. But when they find out its really old technology (but used in a new way, on a much larger scale), they become less intimidated and more open to finding out more.
- Converse – The best teachers are my friends, clients and contacts who are doing the real tech work at technology companies. You learn the most by talking with these people, questioning them, and challenging them over a good cup of coffee or brandy (depending on the occasion).
- Read – There’s plenty of material on tech on – you guessed it – the internet, and of course books. I think its worth taking time to read up on a quiet weekend afternoon to really absorb the nuances behind the tech. But at the same time, some books can be outdated the moment it is published because the tech can develop so fast. You have got to keep yourself constantly updated because the moment you think you really know the tech could the moment your knowledge becomes outdated.
It is known that clients are meant to be demanding. In your work of managing tech disputes, are the set of demands any different coming from tech-savvy clients?
I wouldn’t say the demands are different from say, my clients from the other sectors such as diversified industrials, consumer, financial institutions or energy sectors. I would, however, emphasize that I expect my team to be highly responsive to the needs of clients. Many tech companies place significant emphasis on responsiveness on their own internal teams and structures. If a query comes in, I want my team to be in a position to respond almost immediately to let the client know that their query is being taken care of. Ideally, a quality, substantive response should be delivered on the same day and by no less than a day after. I think increasingly it is paramount that we see ourselves not just as the lawyer of the tech company, but really an extension of the company itself.
There is also a need to emphasize on time zone differences. We could be liaising with a client seated in Singapore, but who takes instructions from a superior office from North Asia, on a matter where the focus of main interest is in the Middle East for example, with a developing situation in the United States. There has to be a structure in place to take care of the client’s needs throughout all different time zones, even where everything is coordinated from a single hub such as Singapore. And so it’s great to be with Eversheds Sutherlands as that enhances my ability to coordinate matters cross-jurisdictionally, especially in the 69 cities where we have a presence in.
Being actively in the know of start-up companies, what is your view of the current legal tech start-up scene in Singapore?
I think it’s great and judging from the recent Tech Law Fest there’s so much more to come! The Judiciary, Singapore Academy of Law, and Singapore Law Society are very supportive of the use of legal tech, and it’s great to see platforms like Tessaract lead the way. Eversheds Sutherlands is, of course, proud to have its own in house proprietary legal technology, such as ES Locate which is an electronic discovery software, High Q collaborate which is a project management tool, and ES Unity, a contract management application. We also have a partnership with Luminance on a smart contract initiative.
Any “stitch in time” advise to tech entrepreneurs for what they should look out for?
Entrepreneurs strike me as being very positive, optimistic people and that is fantastic, but a healthy dose of pessimism can be a strength. I would say that entrepreneurs can afford some consideration on when things may go wrong, and how one can go about managing risks and mitigating damage when that happens. Some basic aspects to consider would be, have you considered the scenario where your business partner may default on certain obligations? Have you thought about limiting your liability and how you can go about resolving disputes in a confidential way that would keep reputational impact to a minimum?
I would also say, from a business point of view, its probably worth spending some thought away from how good your product or service is, to how serious your customers’ problems really are. This is because your product may be the perfect product, but there needs to be proper integration and customization of your product to fit the actual needs of your customers. Deployment and implementation can often be a serious pain point and cost centre for customers. If you can find a way to present a perfect product plus seamless integration, I think that would put you in good stead ahead of your rivals.
Please tell us your most memorable case?
A technology client that we were servicing called me one day and informed me that someone from senior management found out there were a few hundred emails in his sent folder that were not sent by him. Within half an hour I worked with a famous data security firm to find out that the senior management had in two previous employment had his email passwords compromised, and in this instance, a malware penetrated the network via a login set up through an open-source WIFI network. That was probably my most memorable case from the tech angle. Since that case, I regularly conduct data security educational sessions for companies. The funny thing is, you can set up double firewalls, encrypt your network, do tonnes of penetration testing and have perfect password hygiene, but it just takes one human error (and it usually is the case) to allow a virus, malware or data leak to taint an entire (global) network.
Most memorable from a cross border disputes perspective would be as counsel for one of the world’s premier Japanese car manufacturer in an alleged breach of a nationwide distributorship agreement against a network of dealers in international arbitration. I can’t share more about the case but I can tell you that till today I can still remember vividly the barbeque my team had at a small offbeat alleyway in Yokohama! It was our last day of the hearing, we ended really late and there were hardly any restaurants left open. We were exhausted and didn’t know what we were eating (there were pictures of similar looking meats (including different animal parts) in Japanese words) but we were all glad we did a great arbitration together.
Most memorable in terms of my growth as a lawyer would be my work for a global biotech, pharma company on crisis management, class action and mass tort product liability claims in South Korea. I grew so much professionally and personally, being substantially engaged in all aspects of legal and strategic work around the case; including work on mediation and settlement, forensic investigations work in cooperation with authorities, and strategic, legal advice regarding communications with media and stakeholders.
Shaun and his other half at Budapest.
This article is written by Preyaz Kartigaysu from Asia Law Network.
This article does not constitute legal advice or a legal opinion on any matter discussed and, accordingly, it should not be relied upon. It should not be regarded as a comprehensive statement of the law and practice in this area. If you require any advice or information, please speak to a practicing lawyer in your jurisdiction. No individual who is a member, partner, shareholder or consultant of, in or to any constituent part of Interstellar Group Pte. Ltd. accepts or assumes responsibility, or has any liability, to any person in respect of this article.