Revived a billion-dollar treaty claim against Laos
|People in Who’s Who Legal||1|
|Pending cases as counsel||55|
|Value of pending counsel work||US$9.6 billion|
|Current arbitrator appointments||11 (of which 10 are as sole or chair)|
WongPartnership started life in 1992 as specialist litigation firm Wong Meng Meng & Partners, comprising a dozen lawyers. Two years later, it merged with a corporate practice and became WongPartnership. Today, it has more than 280 lawyers and is one of Singapore’s largest firms. It handles arbitrations on a domestic level and across Asia, and prides itself on taking on matters with no relation to Singapore. This is particularly true in the investment arbitration sphere, where it is increasingly visible.
The firm’s international arbitration practice is led by Alvin Yeo SC, a respected arbitrator and counsel. Yeo is a member of the ICC Commission on Arbitration and the SIAC’s council of advisers and is on the ICDR’s Energy Arbitrators List. Another partner to know is Koh Swee Yen, who is seen on some of the firm’s highest-profile cases.
In addition to Singapore, WongPartnership has offices in Shanghai, Doha, Abu Dhabi and Beijing. In 2014, it opened its first office in Myanmar. It has alliances with firms in Malaysia and Indonesia and (as of 2016) Al Aidarous International in Abu Dhabi and Dubai.
Who uses it?
Malaysian media conglomerate Astro is one well-known client. Others include Unitas Capital (an offshoot of JPMorgan Private Equity), Hyundai Steel Company, Banyan Tree Holdings, EY, Shanghai Electric Group and Yantai Raffles Shipyard.
As for investment treaty work, it’s been acting for gaming companies owned by US businessman John Baldwin in a billion-dollar dispute with Laos; and for South African mining investors in a dispute with Lesotho (see ‘Recent events’). A notable state client was Papua New Guinea.
The ICSID case for Papua New Guinea ended in a complete victory for the state in 2015, with a tribunal chaired by Gary Born ruling that Papua New Guinea’s investment promotion law didn’t provide a freestanding consent to arbitrate – the first time any arbitral panel had ruled on the matter.
Around 2009, the firm helped Malaysia’s Astro win a US$130 million SIAC award against Indonesian conglomerate Lippo in a dispute over a failed satellite television venture – but the bulk of the award was later set aside in a closely watched Singapore court action. However, the entire award has been enforced by the courts in Hong Kong.
One of the team’s early milestones was the successful defence of a dozen Asian airlines in 1998 after they were sued by a US computerised reservations system company for US$300 million. That ICC case took place in London and spawned litigation in the courts of Atlanta and Singapore.
The firm acted successfully for the main contractor of an oil-drilling platform in the South China Sea in a proceeding against the platform’s owners that involved questions relating to liability for costs relating to the SARS epidemic that gripped Hong Kong and south China in 2003.
WongPartnership has been part of a number of precedent-setting cases about arbitration in the Singapore courts. In one recent matter, it helped to set aside the bulk of a US$100 million SIAC award concerning steel assets in the Philippines – a case that has clarified the limited scope for curial intervention in the arbitral process in Singapore.
In another case, the firm represented a Thai media company in a dispute with a BVI sports promoter concerning a Bangkok tennis tournament they were jointly organising. The firm persuaded the Singapore Court of Appeal to uphold a SIAC award embodying the parties’ settlement. The case has been credited with helping to define the scope of the public policy challenge to enforcement in Singapore.
In one of the most eye-catching results of 2016, WongPartnership persuaded the Singapore Court of Appeal to reinstate the jurisdictional findings of an UNCITRAL tribunal that had been hearing a treaty claim against Laos. The court, chaired by Chief Justice Sundaresh Menon, agreed with the arbitrators that the China-Laos bilateral investment treaty protects investors in Macao, a former Portuguese colony that only became part of China after the BIT was signed.
The immediate result of the ruling is that a billion-dollar BIT claim brought by the firm’s client, Macanese gaming company Sanum Investments, can resume. The court proceeding had generated much attention because of its potential implications for some 130 other Chinese investment treaties, as well as concern about the Singaporean courts’ readiness to second-guess arbitrators on questions of treaty interpretation.
The firm was instructed by South African mining investor Josias van Zyl to defend an UNCITRAL award against Lesotho in the Singaporean courts. The award held Lesotho liable for a denial of justice in connection with its role in the shuttering of a southern African regional court in Namibia. Van Zyl is also using the firm for a related UNCITRAL claim against Lesotho worth US$200 million concerning a mining expropriation (replacing Three Crowns and Wilmer Cutler Pickering Hale and Dorr, who acted for him in the first arbitration).
The firm’s pending commercial work includes acting for an Indonesian fund in a US$1 billion share ownership dispute with a Philippines conglomerate relating to toll-road concessions; BVI and Thai clients in an ICC dispute over the US$700 million sale of a stake in a renewable energy company in Thailand; and a Singaporean multinational in an ICC arbitration with a Middle Eastern state over the construction of a waste management facility.
In the courts, it is helping the former majority shareholders of a large pharmaceutical company to resist enforcement of a US$500 million award;
The firm promoted Sim Mei Ling and Pamela Tan to the partnership in Singapore and moved partner Suegene Ang to the Myanmar office.
Partner Koh Swee Yen took over as co-chair of IBA Arb40, a group for younger arbitration practitioners, while Smitha Menon became Asia’s representative on the ICC’s Young Arbitrators Forum.
Edmund Chan, general counsel for ExxonMobil in Singapore, retained WongPartnership for an “extremely important” dispute. He praises the firm’s “good strategic thinking and quick grasp of the details”. While the firm was “not the cheapest”, the price was reasonable in light of the quality of the work, he adds.
Jonathan Gibson, chief executive officer of Italian pipe coating company Socotherm, says he has already recommended the firm to friends after his company retained them for a dispute. “I was most impressed by the detail and amount of preparation of our team. They delved deeply into complex technical matters and quickly obtained a very good understanding.”