S'pore lawyers who shine abroad
Dr Cheng Tai-Heng was a fledgling lawyer over two decades ago where arbitration was not developed in the Singapore law firms and he decided to move overseas to learn and grow as a lawyer in his field.
Building a career in law instead of government service was one of the harder decisions he had to make decades ago, said New York-based Singaporean Cheng Tai-Heng, an Oxford-trained former President's Scholar.
Today, Dr Cheng, 43, is global co-head of international arbitration and trade at Sidley Austin LLP, a first-tier American global law firm - the same firm where former US president Barack Obama met his wife Michelle in 1989 when they were working at its Chicago office.
"I envy my friends (in Singapore) who perform policymaking or political roles, because the problems they confront are unique and challenging, and their decisions directly benefit many people," he said.
"However, as part of Singapore's external network, I am able to help Singapore businesses and decision-makers by drawing on over two decades of experience handling challenging legal and geopolitical problems for corporations and governments," he added.
Dr Cheng, who is also a prize-winning Brazilian jujitsu exponent, is one of a growing number of Singaporean lawyers holding leadership positions abroad. Others include World Intellectual Property Organisation director-general Daren Tang and global law firm Baker & McKenzie's global chair Milton W. M. Cheng .
"Although Singapore is now a major centre of international arbitration, when I was a fledgling lawyer over two decades ago, this area of specialisation was not developed in the Singapore law firms. The deep legal markets were the US, England and France. I had to move overseas to learn and grow as a lawyer in my field," said Dr Cheng.
The challenges in starting out in New York made him "more driven, adaptable and empathetic".
"When you start at the bottom, you understand better the difficulties that people everywhere face in trying to get through life, care for their families, and build up their communities," he said.
There were few Singaporeans working at global law firms in New York and London 20 years ago but the group is growing and he expects more Singaporeans in global leadership positions in a decade.
"Singapore has always punched above its weight in diplomacy. It is now doing so in law as well," said Dr Cheng, whose credentials include being a professor of law at New York Law School.
Besides winning nine-figure awards for clients, he is also an adviser on issues beyond business disputes. He is ranked as one of the top 10 arbitration practitioners in North and South America under 45 by Who's Who Legal.
"I am fortunate to have clients who trusted me with their substantial disputes, and have won many of them, like securing a US$620 million (S$815 million) arbitration award for (offshore drilling company) Vantage against Petrobras, Brazil's state owned oil company.
"I am also presiding arbitrator in an investor-state arbitration brought by a UK investor against China. Together with Sidley's Singapore team and a New York-based Singaporean lawyer at my firm, Meera Rajah, we are involved in a public international law dispute case before the African Court of Justice and Human Rights."
He added: "It is important for Singapore lawyers to develop deep expertise in public international law, following in the tradition of eminent jurists like Prof S. Jayakumar and Prof Tommy Koh. All of these cases are a team effort."
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