TL;DR – Litigation isn’t the only way to resolve a dispute.
For most people, filing a lawsuit in court would be the first thing that comes to their mind whenever there is a business dispute. But unbeknownst to many, litigation isn’t the only way to resolve a dispute.
I listened earnestly as principal master mediator Dr Lim Lan Yuan, a retired university professor who became a mediator in 1989 unfolded the magic of mediation to me.
Amongst all ways to resolve a dispute, mediation has proven to be a more efficient form of dispute resolution for business owners and self-employed individuals who find themselves embroiled in commercial disputes.
“First of all, you save time. You only need two hours to resolve a dispute through mediation. (Mostly) one, two days, or three days for more complicated ones,” Dr Lim tells me.
And according to the 71-year-old president of the International Institute of Mediators (iiM), mediation is less costly too – at a fraction of the cost of going to court.
It is faster and cheaper, and more importantly, mediation helps to preserve relationships.
Unlike traditional litigation whereby a judge or jury decides the outcome, mediation is a flexible process in which a neutral mediator facilitates the parties’ settlement negotiations to help them to reach their own solution. The focus of mediation is on finding solutions that will meet the parties’ concerns.
In other words, the mediator will not decide who is at fault in the dispute.
Instead, the mediator will come out with a certain proposal for the parties to resolve the dispute.
Another unique feature of mediation which I learned, is that the mediator can meet one party without the presence of the other party to have a better knowledge and understanding of the issue, but they do have to come to a mutual agreement at the end of the day.
Mediation: solutions that save relationships
More often than not, mediation enjoys a higher success rate as compared to other resolution methods because the parties are brought together in an environment where they can freely and confidentially present their position in front of a neutral third party.
“Initially when the disputants come, they just want to win, and they always tell me that,” Mr Gopal Krishnan, master mediator and assessor with Community Mediation Centre (CMC) explains.
“But as a mediator, we get them to resolve with a solution as we facilitate along the way. We don’t do a judgment call, neither do we judge the situation.”
Perhaps having the opportunity to “thrash things out”, disputants get to benefit from hearing the other party’s point of view. A more relaxed atmosphere may eliminate the desire to continue hostile litigation once both parties have seen all the issues in a fair light.
“When they go out, they even feel a sense of happiness. Their relationship, especially in a business situation, do not get destroyed as a result.”
“Another advantage of mediation is that parties can preserve relationships and goodwill. Very useful for business partners, neighbors, families, and even friends,” Dr Lim chimed in eagerly. “But if go to court, one party will win and the other party will lose. Relationship will sour,” he added.
That would be nasty! I shudder at the painful thought of a long dreadful legal battle, hefty legal fees, and losing potential business partners, which are usually the repercussions of a lawsuit, any lawsuit for that matter.
“Even if the dispute is related to breach of contract, businesses or individuals should attempt to go to mediation first,” Dr Lim continued.
On top of preserving relationships, the mediation approach may also be more helpful for business disputes, especially for cross-border disputes, due of the complexity of international laws.
Support for the freelancer community in Singapore
In December 2019, the NTUC’s U FSE (Freelancers and Self-Employed) and iiM inked a collaboration agreement.
The collaboration will allow NTUC U FSE members to enjoy a special discounted rate of 50% for mediation services provided by iiM, including iiM’s specialization in cross-border dispute mediation that would prove useful to freelancers who take on work from overseas.
“This is one of the many initiatives illustrating the Labour Movement’s commitment towards its freelancer members, ensuring that they have an appropriate avenue for amicable dispute resolution,” said Labour MP Mr Patrick Tay in his Parliament Speech.
Mediation as a life skill
“Can anyone from any industry pick up mediation skills and become a mediator then?”, I asked.
“Well, I came from a different industry!”, Mr Gopal tells me.
Before entering the mediation field, Mr Gopal was in the Information technology (IT) industry.
“What made you decide to get into this industry and become a mediator?”, I probed.
“It was during the period when Professor Ho Peng Kee was the minister of state. At that time, I was a grassroots leader and there was a neighbourhood dispute which I was handling, and he sent me to a course,” he recounts.
“That was 50 over years ago when Dr Lim was just doing the mediation in Singapore. I found it an extension of my grassroots work. And subsequently, when Patrick Tay came, he also encouraged me. I find it very wholesome and holistic to have people coming in together to resolve and mediate. Eventually, these people even shake their hands,” he continued.
“There are no hard and fast rules that you must come from a certain industry. As long as you have the heart to serve and the mediation skills.”
Dr Lim convinced me that “even if you don’t want to become a mediator, mediation can also be a life skill. It can be used for any kind of dispute – be it community dispute, neighbourhood dispute, even family dispute”.
“You can even use it for your own personal issues! Like when my mother and my wife quarrel,” Dr Lim jokes candidly.
The 5-day training programme provides foundational knowledge to those who are interested to learn new skills and opens new possibilities for them – should they be keen to venture into a new industry. Furthermore, if you’re an NTUC member, you can use the Union Training Assistance Programme (UTAP) to offset the training fee.
At the end of my meeting with the two veterans in mediation, I’m already half-convinced that I should really consider mediation as my next career move!