Mediation in Singapore: “We’re going to solve this matter today”

*An account of a mediation.

A heavy silence filled the room where the parties had just gathered. Six on either side of the table: parties, their lawyers and corporate partners representing the two camps that divided the Chinese business family. The feud concerned hundreds of millions of dollars, invested in the five companies that formed the backbone of the family syndicate. Everything had gone sour after the paterfamilias passed away, three years before. It had been his wish that each of his sons were appointed Managing Director to one of the enterprises, presumably in the expectation that the family fortunes would be collectively and harmoniously cared for.

But there was the one prodigal son, who wanted to take ‘his’ company to new and unfamiliar levels, much to the distress of his siblings. His investments were reckless, they said, squandering the family funds. And his shameful ways! His brothers felt they had no choice but to cross his ways with equally unbecoming means. There were four court cases pending. Imagine, suing your family! How dire the situation had become. What the parties hoped for in the mediation, was for their corporate interests to be disentangled and the damaging lawsuits to go away, so they would be able to each go their separate business way.

At that stage, a little before 10 am, I didn’t believe anyone in the room – except perhaps the mediator – would have dared to bet that the conflict would be resolved before tea time that same afternoon. But that is exactly what happened.

The mediator was George Lim, a lawyer and mediator with a generous 18 years of experience in the field. One of his mediation teachers was Frank Sander, the Harvard professor who was a pioneer in the field of Alternative Dispute Resolution. Lim was first introduced to me as the Deputy Chairman of the Singapore International Mediation Centre’s Board of Directors (SIMC, see one of my previous blogs). He had invited me to join him in the mediation, to listen in and assist when necessary. Hereinafter I will also refer to George Lim as ‘the mediator.’

The process started off in line with the textbooks I studied in my own mediation training, at the Dutch ADR Instituut. In the round of introductions the mediator briefly mentioned his impressive experience and 80% success rate, but only after he talked about his upcoming 30th wedding anniversary and the wellbeing of his two adult children. And he asked everyone present to do the same: ‘Tell me something about yourself; are you married? Do you have kids?’ Though the request felt somewhat uncomfortably personal, it worked very well. It was the beginning of a personal rapport, and the parties relaxed as they were reminded of the common, human side of their opponents. Following each party’s introduction, he looked at them for a solid confirmation of their commitment: ‘We are going to solve this matter today, right?’ And he left no room for doubt concerning his own resolve to getting the best feasible outcome. ‘I am here for you, and I’ll stay as long as it takes. Today, and if necessary we come back tomorrow.’

The procedure was explained and the issues were identified on a white board. Ample emphasis was put on the aspects of confidentiality, and on the potential savings of not only costs and time, but also in terms of family relations. At this point, and a few times thereafter throughout the day, the mediator gently reminded the parties what a resolution to the conflict would mean to their mother.

Then, rather than moving on to jointly explore the interests underlying the issues, the mediator proposed to meet with each of the parties and their lawyers in a private session. What ensued was a series of caucuses, and that’s where the actual mediation took place. The confidentiality of these sessions made it easy for the parties to openly discuss the issues, their concerns, interests and potential options. It was the mediator who subsequently related the essentials, and carried the proposals back and forth between the parties, each withdrawn in their own conference room. This certainly had a ‘smoothing’ effect on the negotiations, and issues of ‘face’ were effectively dodged. The mediator would highlight every step forward and repeatedly express his appreciation for the progress made so far.

And it worked so well: the parties quickly agreed on one issue, then on the next, and with each issue tackled their confidence in a positive outcome grew, as did the goodwill with which they regarded each other’s suggestions. Soon, indeed well before teatime and much to the bewildered surprise of everyone involved, all issues were off the table. ‘We should have done this one year ago,’ one of the parties exclaimed. And the mediator expressed his hope that now that the business conflict was dealt with, the parties would try to come together as a family and perhaps share a meal together.

In an elegant and thoughtful manner George Lim had guided the brothers to a solution of their business conflict. He disentangled the financial matters from the family differences, which enabled the parties to solve the former, and freed the way for them to work on the latter. Lim opted for a mediation process that diverged from the purely facilitative mediation method I was trained in, but demonstrated a refined but practical sensitivity to the parties’ needs. And the parties’ relief and gratitude certainly testified of a textbook-perfect outcome.

Henneke Brink
Singapore, 26 October 2015


The facts of the case have been somewhat altered for the purpose of confidentiality.

Original article here