Speech by Guest-Of-Honour Mr Edwin Tong, Senior Minister of State, Ministry Of Law And Ministry Of Health, For Community Mediation Centre’s Mediators’ Appointment Ceremony And Appreciation Dinner At Swissotel Merchant Court Ballroom
11 Oct 2019 Posted in Speeches
Associate Professor Ho Peng Kee
Mediators and friends from the mediation community
Ladies and gentlemen
A very good evening to all of you.
Welcome to what looks like the superhero version of mediation community dinner. Very pleased to join all of you once again this evening, as we celebrate another year. I look forward to welcoming new mediators to our pool at the appointment ceremony later, to help us in our work and of course to expand the reach of mediation in Singapore.
I am so happy to see the mediators I saw at last year’s 20th Anniversary Dinner.
A Cohesive and Harmonious Society is Critical to Singapore’s Success
- I am sure all of you would agree as mediators and friends of the mediation community, that one of the key factors of Singapore’s success over the many years has been cohesion and harmony in our society.
- Harmonious relations are really especially important in an urban environment where we live in close proximity to each other. This is not always easy, and very often presents a myriad of different flash points, different conflict points, as people live their lives together very close to each other. That is the Singapore way, the Singapore style, but it also presents some problems.
- Over the years, the Government has worked very hard with the community, alongside the community, to try to strengthen these community relations.
- For example, neighbours may be annoyed with the noise, and many of you who do community mediation work, will know that this is actually a relatively simple flashpoint, a relatively simple disagreement, but can be a really difficult problem to solve.
- In other instances, people complain to the authorities directly. Very often you hear of people calling the police directly. Does it solve the problem? In some cases, perhaps, but in many other cases, no. In fact, it only serves to exacerbate the problem. When one side calls the police, the other side will also call the police – you call the Bedok Police Station, I call the Cantonment Police Station, and before you know it, it escalates.
- It inevitably causes a breakdown of the relationship between neighbours in the long term.
- Sometimes, family members also get involved with the disagreement. Therefore, over the years, what has been important for us in the government who are looking at the problem and trying to find a way to defuse the tension, is to make enhancements to the way in which we manage community disputes.
The Government Has Made Various Enhancements to the Community Dispute Management Framework
- These enhancements seek to facilitate the management and the resolution of the disputes within the community. I say within a community because if you go outside the community and use legal services, you end up, oftentimes escalating the problem.
- So for example:
a. We formed the Community Mediation Centre, or CMC, in 1998, 21 years ago, to provide an accessible, affordable, casual and informal, but nonetheless effective means of resolving social and community problems.
- That is a wonderful tool because grassroots leaders sometimes see first-hand the escalation of the problem, and having that training helps you to defuse, to de-escalate and to try to manage the disagreements.
- These changes clearly enhanced protection for residents to enjoy their own place – where they live, the peace and quiet of their own home.
b. The role of the CMC has definitely evolved over the years. In 2014, in addition to providing mediation services, the CMC also started providing grassroots leaders with mediation training. I can see around the room here, that there are many grassroots leaders. You started off as grassroots leaders, but over time, with the CMC training, you are now able to bring that training to bear in the community that you serve, that you live in.
c. In 2014, the Government consulted the public on how to encourage good neighbourliness and to improve the management of disputes between neighbours.
d. The views that were gathered contributed ultimately to the strengthening of the Community Disputes Management Framework, including the Community Disputes Resolution Act and of course, the establishment of the Community Disputes Resolution Tribunal (CDRT) in 2015.
e. And in 2015, the State Courts followed suit, so there is also the State Courts’ Centre for Dispute Resolution (CDR) which was established within the state courts set up to provide such services in that system.
- These enhancements have helped to provide avenues for community disputes to be better resolved through the use of mediation, and of course mediators who are trained.
- In this regard, mediation is really an important tool, because not only does it allow parties to resolve their disputes amicably, it often allows the mediator to work with the parties to tailor-make the solution, to find a solution that is not the usual, and to find the solution that best fits that situation, or the people, or the dispute that they find themselves in.
- It is very special in that way, very flexible. It is also important because it helps to preserve the relationship in the long term. We can choose our friends, but we cannot choose our neighbours. Our neighbours are our neighbours, unless you decide to move or they decide to move, or you make enough noise until they move. Because of that, I think it is important to make sure that we find a way to preserve the relationship in the long term. Mediation is also advantageous when compared to litigation or letting the problems just fester.
- Let me give you one example, this is a true story. In France, there was a lawsuit that concerned a rooster. The rooster also has a name. The name is Maurice.
a. This rooster unsurprisingly woke up very early in the morning with a loud crow. It annoyed the neighbour next door. They don't have mediation, they don't have CDRT like we do.
b. So the neighbour filed a lawsuit in the French Courts. The objective of the lawsuit was to silence the rooster. Last month, this court in the western part of France ruled, that because of freedom of speech, which also applies to roosters, Maurice could continue crowing, and in fact ordered the neighbour suing to pay Maurice’s owner €1,000 in damages.
c. It took two years to resolve it. It went through the French courts, a lot of costs, a lot of angst, and ultimately, no crowing about the victory.
- Similar disputes are not uncommon in Singapore. You can substitute rooster for a loud barking dog in your neighbour’s home, or someone who likes to play the drums or guitar late at night in the HDB flat next to you or above you.
- When we have such difficulties, where do we turn to? One example in Singapore was in 2012, which was settled via mediation between residents in a condominium and the neighbouring owner of private property.
a. They initiated the mediation because the neighbour had a rooster. The rooster was a pet and woke up at 4:30am in the morning, and crowed very loudly.
b. Parties agreed to mediate. The case took 6 weeks, not 2 years or more like in France, and cost only $5, to resolve it. Ultimately, it was resolved. The terms were very inventive, very innovative; the parties were comfortable and at peace with the solution.
- This contrasting story to illustrate a few things – in different countries where they have more space, you can afford different types of solution, but this may not be the case for Singapore where we live in close proximity with each other, and amongst different races, different religions, different customs, different practices. You have different ideas of how you practise and show respect for your own religion, which may sometimes cause some disamenity. Because of that, mediation plays an especially important role in preserving the social fabric of our society.
- In 2018 alone, the CMC had registered 429 noise-related cases of which about a quarter were mediated and settled. You cannot quite compare community mediations with the commercial mediations. Commercial mediations where parties disagree over what is essentially money or financial payouts, are much easier to resolve. When you have issues like noise, sound, dust, and so on, it is much harder to find a consensus. I am very happy with the efforts that CMC had made, and I am sure it is down to the efforts of the specific mediators to show the resilience and determination, and of course, the innovation in the way you come up with the solutions.
The CMC Plays an Important Role in Community Dispute Management
- CMC has, over the last 21 years, mediated more than 9,000 cases – an impressive number.
a. In recent years, it has mediated close to 400 cases each year, and based on CMC’s record, more than 70% of cases were settled through mediation.
b. In 2018, the settlement rate was higher than the average. It mediated successfully 80% of its cases.
c. I am told that this is the highest settlement rate that CMC has achieved since the year it was established in 1998, so congratulations to all of you.
(i) Ensuring the High Quality of CMC’s Mediators
- This achievement brings me back to one point I made slightly earlier, that is that this reflects not only the good work of CMC, its organisation, its leaders, but more importantly, the role and the part that volunteer mediators play. I am sure all of you know that in mediation, you play the role in so many different ways and you wear so many different hats.
- You have to be sympathetic, you have to show empathy, you have to understand the problem, you have to dissect the problem, you have to analyse each side’s position, you have to work out all the disagreement and the acrimony, where that one place to put that bridge which will connect two parties is.
- You have to negotiate, you have to coax, you have to cajole, and sometimes you even have to be fierce and scold some of them. Ultimately, it is for you to find innovation in the solutions that allows to build that bridge across so that you can find that connection between two parties, and then through your determination and compassion, have the case settled. It is a whole range of different skill sets, a whole range of different hats that you wear in each mediation.
- Therefore, the success of our mediation centre is really down to the determination of so many of your volunteer mediators. The success is also supported by the CMC’s Mediator Management Framework, which provides for continuous training and professional development and ensures that every single volunteer mediator is kept up to date with the latest mediation knowledge, skills, know-how and experiences. There is no monopoly over good ideas, so the more we share, the more best practices we learn from each other, the better our skills will be.
- Last year, the CMC also attained the SIMI Qualifying Assessment Provider status, which allows it to accredit mediators with SIMI accreditation.
- In 2019, 30% of CMC’s volunteer mediators attained international mediation accreditation through SIMI.
(ii) Going Beyond Mediation, to Promoting Mediation
- What about going beyond mediation? CMC has also pushed the boundary by going out of its comfort zone, to not just mediate cases that come into CMC, but to be proactive in going out there to see where mediation might be effective as well.
- So from May this year, our volunteer mediators have taken on the added role of proactively visiting reluctant parties – parties who are in dispute, but for one reason or another, unable, reluctant, unwilling, to come for mediation. Our mediators have gone out to visit them, to persuade them that mediation is a valuable tool, to sell the benefits of mediation to these people, and to attempt mediation to resolve their disputes.
a. Since May 2019, more than 40 residences have been visited by 9 volunteer mediators. It is hard work, but this effort to reach out, to show sincerity, to tell people about mediation and the benefits, it ultimately pays off.
b. These mediators reached out to them and were able to, in 10-15% of the cases, persuade them that mediation is for them, and successfully mediate their disputes.
c. While this seems like a small percentage, we should bear in mind that these are people who were reluctant or who refuse to come for mediation, but you went out there to persuade them. Every one extra case that you are able to resolve is actually a huge bonus.
d. Once again, thank you very much to all of you for this effort. You spare no effort in reaching out to many of these homes, you pay personal visits and as I said, this will pay off.
- In addition to the house visits, for the first time, our volunteer mediators are also helping to brief frontline officers from the Singapore Police Force.
a. The briefings cover the CMC’s mediation process and how mediators help parties to find resolution.
b. In doing so, mediators share anecdotes of successful mediation, to illustrate how they can help, to give some examples of where the fault lines might lie, and where parties’ bridges to the disputes can be built.
c. By doing this, we are effectively extending our reach to well beyond the CMC. Whether you go and visit residences or whether you help with frontline police officers, who of course will be the first responders to many of these disputes, you equip them with mediation skills and also at least with the ability to respond when they are first responders with some basic mediation techniques. They use them as a tool when they are called upon to manage disputes amongst residents.
d. Of course in the more complex cases, they come back to CMC who will refer them to their volunteer mediators.
- So we do need to invest more time in promoting mediation within our community.
- The examples that I have cited, I do so to illustrate that there is a big role that you can play, and it ultimately fits into preserving our country’s social, racial, religious and community harmony.
Appreciation for Volunteer Mediators
- Finally, I want to thank all of you for being mediators and for promoting mediation within the community. You play an important role to maintaining this harmony and this stability in this space that we call Singapore, and that is actually at the heart of what we want to do when we launched Singapore Together.
- I am heartened to know that some of our mediators amongst our midst in this room tonight have been our mediators from day one. Last year, I said “Thank you for 20 years”, tonight I say “Thank you for 21 years”, and may it long continue.
- Today, we will also see 20 mediators receiving the 20 Years Long Service Award. These mediators started with the CMC when we first opened our Centre back in Ang Mo Kio.
- Many of them started off as grassroots leaders within the same constituency who had stepped up, answered the call to serve Singapore by bringing differences between residents and neighbours together and resolving them.
- Indeed, this tradition will continue because I am heartened to see that the younger generation of Singaporeans are beginning to step up, to play a role and really regard mediation as something that they see value in as well. They continue the good work that had been started by their predecessors.
- I would like to make a special mention to 34-year old Dave Yang. He will be receiving the Outstanding Newcomer Award tonight.
a. Dave was only appointed one year ago but he obviously saw a calling in mediation; he was passionate about the role he could play in it. In one year, he mediated close to 20 cases, and he settled 80%.
b. Not only that, this year, Dave attained a Level 3 mediation accreditation from the Singapore International Mediation Institute (SIMI) through CMC.
c. Dave would be able to tap into the resources, the network and the whole infrastructure that is offered by SIMI to further sharpen and strengthen his skills as a mediator, and offer mentorship to other more junior mediators. From one generation to another, what we have, we pass it on and we pay it forward.
- So thank you very much for selflessly contributing your time and your expertise towards this cause of preserving harmony within our nation.
- Your efforts do not go unappreciated. CMC’s mediators have been receiving compliments from the disputing parties they helped, even from those whose cases did not reach settlement, which demonstrates that it is not just finding a resolution, but the effort, and the compassion and empathy that you have shown is very much appreciated.
- I am equally sure that you are not here to mediate cases, you are not here because you want compliments from the parties. You are here because you genuinely see a role in it, you see a skill set that you can offer and that you can contribute. I thank you all for that volunteer spirit.
- All of you have gone the extra mile to achieve a good outcome for the parties that appear before you. I know you all do because I hear of so many cases, so many reports of cases where you sit well past the appointed hour. You think of ways and means to find that resolution for parties. You adjust yourself and you understand the problem a lot more. This has shown in the high successfully mediated rates that CMC have shown.
- You have continued to contribute your time and your expertise and also constantly upgrade your own skills necessary to play that role, and play it in a bigger way. This is shown through the positive feedback from the parties, which no doubt you would have heard about.
- This year, you went beyond your call of duty as a mediator in the ways that I have mentioned, by reaching out and proactively going out to the community.
- You may remember this quote from our founding Prime Minister, Mr Lee Kuan Yew, and he once said:
“There are two parts to Singapore’s success: (1) the hardware or the hard economic data that adds up to good GDP figures, and (2) the software that drives this hardware.
Without a cohesive society, a people who care for each other, especially the less successful, we cannot succeed.”
- A cohesive society is necessary for Singapore’s survival and continued success, and the role that each of you play goes towards the very heart of preserving the cohesion, ensuring harmony in our community, to keep our social fabric strong and resilient.
- I thank you very much for this because this is intangible – you cannot value this right that we have to live in our society amongst so many different, diverse, religious, cultural and racial groups. It is a very valuable asset that we have in Singapore and each of you have played your own role in ensuring that we preserve this and we continue this in the long term.
- So thank you very much, and enjoy your dinner.
Last updated on 11 Oct 2019