A new institute was formed earlier this year to champion the cause of business law convergence in the region. A key supporter, Singapore’s Chief Justice Sundaresh Menon, tells John Church about the possibilities

One could be forgiven for a measure of cynicism when philosophers and idealists talk about unity in Asia, on just about any footing. Yet lately, in the face of hotbed politics, there appears to have been a sea change, and, almost in spite of their own rhetoric, nations are watching intently as first one development, then another, beckons the region towards a greater and more influential collective.

New and very recent initiatives, including a monstrous regional bank, regional trade measures to prop up an economic community, and multiple trading partnerships, are all geared towards building something of substance, finally, that could come close to representing a holistic Asian presence in a world consumed by blocs and a ceaseless march towards a more globalised imperative.

Yet geography, politics, culture, religion and race conspire to create chasms so wide some say they cannot possibly be traversed. From stark poverty to immense wealth, from liberal progressive states to the most feudally draconian, from democracies to juntas, from Buddhists to Muslims to Christians and dozens of faiths in between, from the conquered and colonized to the independent and free-thinking, from stability to quaking uncertainty, Asia is home to complexities, diversities and anachronisms that simply defy the idea of unity.

Against this backdrop, at a Singapore Academy of Law conference on 21 January, the Asia Business Law Institute (ABLI) was born, with a mandate to “initiate, conduct and facilitate research and produce authoritative texts with a view to providing practical guidance in the field of Asian legal development and promoting the convergence of Asian business laws”.

The ABLI’s board of governors reads like a who’s who of Asian legal minds. The key speaker was Sundaresh Menon, the first non-Chinese Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Singapore, and former attorney-general of the city state. Menon outlined a blueprint for legal convergence and explained how the ABLI would contribute to this goal.

Chief Justice Sundaresh Menon was key speaker at the Singapore Academy of Law's conference earlier this year.
Chief Justice Sundaresh Menon was key speaker at the Singapore Academy of Law’s conference earlier this year.

Asia Business Law Journal approached Menon for more information on how these lofty ideas could be achieved and he obliged with his personal views. That Menon and his peers from around the region are talking with excitement about the possibilities and rewards of convergence speaks volumes for a common belief in the highest halls of law in Asia that unity may just come from diversity.

“Though unprecedented, the confluence of recent developments connected with economic integration should not take us completely by surprise,” says Menon. “After all, we live in a time where there is as much to gain from deeper interconnectivity as there is to lose from detached insularity. Governments, lawmakers, businessmen and societies have generally embraced this new reality and, with that, the need to form new economic partnerships and consolidate old ones.

“Regional financial institutions like the recently established Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank [AIIB], and regional trade instruments like the Asean Economic Community [AEC], the Trans Pacific Partnership [TPP] and the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership [RCEP], can therefore be seen as a sign of the times. That these developments have all hit the news at about the same time suggests a broad consensus among policymakers that efforts at Asian, as well as Asia-Pacific, integration should be enhanced.”

Menon believes that this enthusiasm for economic integration does not just open up an opportunity for the convergence of business laws; it has in fact thrown into sharp relief the pressing need for the legal profession to keep up with modern business needs by working with all relevant stakeholders towards the creation of a seamless transnational legal framework for the conduct of cross-border trade and commerce.

“I am certainly not alone in holding this ambition, or in appreciating the urgency of the task at hand,” he says. “At the recent conference to launch the Asian Business Law Institute in January, it was clear that my counterparts from judiciaries across Asia were of the same mind; in fact, their strong interest in promoting a sustained drive towards convergence was one of the key reasons that led us to conceptualise the ABLI. The panellists and participants at the conference, too, showed admirable passion for the idea of legal convergence. On the whole, I am optimistic that the years ahead will see us take meaningful strides towards the convergence of our business laws.”

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ASIA BUSINESS LAW INSTITUTE’S BOARD OF GOVERNORS 

AUSTRALIA

The Honourable Justice Robert French AC
Chief Justice of the High Court of Australia

The Honourable Justice Marilyn Warren AC
Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Victoria

The Honourable Kevin Lindgren AM QC FAAL
Former Judge of the Federal Court of Australia

CHINA

The Honourable Justice Zhang Yongjian, Senior Judge
Chief Judge of the Fourth Civil Division,
The Supreme People’s Court, People’s Republic of China

The Honourable Justice He Zhonglin, Senior Judge
Director General of International Department, The Supreme People’s Court, People’s Republic of China

The Honourable Justice Jiang Huiling, Senior Judge
Director of China Institute of Applied Jurisprudence, The Supreme People’s Court, People’s Republic of China

INDIA

The Honourable Justice A K Sikri
Judge of the Supreme Court of India

Mr Parag P Tripathy
Senior Advocate of the Supreme Court of India

Mr Rahul Singh
Professor of Law at the National Law School of India University

SINGAPORE

The Honourable Chief Justice Sundaresh Menon
Chief Justice of Singapore

The Honourable Mr V K Rajah
Attorney-General of Singapore

The Honourable Justice Andrew Phang Boon Leong
Judge of Appeal of the Supreme Court of Singapore

Professor Joseph Weiler
President of the European University Institute

Ms Lucy Reed
Director-Designate of the Centre for International Law of the National University of Singapore