Conflict Resolution|International|Mediation|Religion

Singapore: Mediation and Culture

Notice has recently gone out of a report and recommendations of a Working Group appointed to review the practicality of an International Mediation Center in Singapore.  The news release, available here, explains that the recommendations include the establishment of a new service provider limited to mediation of cross-border disputes; the creation of a not-for-profit professional body to train and accredit international mediators; and certain legislative and judicial reforms to support efforts to establish Singapore as a center for international mediation — just as the Singapore International Arbitration Centre has gained such prominence in that field.

As it happens I write from Singapore, where I am briefly visiting in the expectation of meeting with several mediators, including Joel Lee, one of the two General Editors of a remarkable volume titled An Asian Perspective on Mediation.

Professor Lee is an Advocate and Solicitor in Singapore and a Principal Mediator at the Singapore Mediation Centre, as well as Associate Professor on the Faculty of Law at the National University of Singapore.  The essays by various contributors are interesting, but the four introductory chapters by Prof. Lee and his colleague Teh Hwee Hwee are outstanding and, to me, of very great importance in the development of a method of truly global dispute facilitation.

My own interest in the limitations of the interest-based model of negotiation stem from two powerful sources of curiosity.  The first is practical: Negotiators with separate cultural biases are unlikely to come to fruitful agreement (unless by sheer luck) without acknowledging and comprehending the other party’s predisposition.  The other is more subjective, but far richer: Negotiators whose main objective is to get as much as they can are indulging in behaviors that in any other context they would condemn, and professionally engaging in a brand of selfishness that is inimical to the way they were raised and the way they raise their children.  That is to say, there is a spiritual dissonance in the way Western negotiators perceive successful negotiation.

By providing definitive analysis of the components of Asian negotiation, Lee and Teh address the topic with candor and sympathy.  For example, they postulate that three interrelated “core concepts” inform Asian conflict resolution: Confucianism, collectivism, and face concerns.  These act to promote conflict resolution approaches that accept and even emphasize social hierarchy, appropriate peer-to-peer interactivity, harmony, relationships, and dignity.  Without relying on stereotype, the authors demonstrate the root cultural sources for contextual negotiation and the importance of recognizing and promoting guanxi.

The implications of these profound cultural truths upon the practice of international mediation are, thus, inescapable.  Face is saved when the mediation provider, rather than one of the parties, initiates the process.  Mediators should have good relationships with the parties and be people of recognized commercial and social authority, not “neutrals” and not disengaged.  The party representatives should be of equal “connectedness.”  Mediators should exercise leadership and require professionalism and respect.  Outcomes may reflect not merely party autonomy but social and commercial expectations that the mediator articulates, and embrace features that far transcend the particular transaction at issue, extending into long-term relationships.  Belligerence and posturing are discouraged.  The mediator is expected to inject ideas of how to move forward productively, and to insist upon outcomes that are practical for all concerned.

The editors of this book presume a level of cohesiveness between the way business is conducted and the cultural values of the region.  For example, in the brief section on the impact of Confucianism on Asian business negotiation, the following four “tenets” have obvious applicability to the value of mediation:

  • FIRST, social harmony is the ultimate goal of human affairs; conflict is an unacceptable form of social disruption.
  • SECOND, the five chief relationships are hierarchical (father to son, ruler to subject, etc.) and fulfilling one’s role is preferable to advancing one’s own objectives.  Overt expressions of anger or hostility are discouraged, especially if directed at figures of authority.
  • THIRD, self-esteem is derived from the relationship of the individual with others, particularly the family, and a high degree of conformity is expected.
  • FOURTH, compromise, non-litigiousness and yielding are virtuous; self-sacrifice is sometimes required for the sake of restoring harmony.  Litigation is to be avoided because it signifies a lack of willingness to compromise and a failure to persuade the other side to make appropriate concessions — worse, an over-concern for one’s own interests, which involves a loss of face.

I find this analysis to be appealing on a variety of levels, not least because it portrays dispute resolution as coherent with broadly acknowledged  social virtues.  By contrast, I was taught as a child to say I’m sorry when I make a mistake, to acknowledge responsibility, and to share; yet American law teaches me as an adult not to speak to a person I’ve harmed, not to admit error, and to take as many cookies as I can when the plate is passed around.

Is the right word “uncomfortable”?

Prof. Lee does not see Western and Asian mediation styles as opposites.  Indeed, he professes that the contribution that the essays in the book might make is to encourage broader application in principles of interest-based negotiation to include contextual interests such as those outlined above.  I remain skeptical.  One is coherent with accepted moral norms and the other is not.  Is that not a distinction worth pursuing?

1 Comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *