1 I am sure that many of you in the audience today can relate to feelings of excitement associated with the number "zero" – for example, the excitement that accompanies each turn of a decade, or maybe the addition of an extra zero immediately after the last integer in your income. Next year, the year 2000, will be triple that excitement. We have, in the last decade, seen a tremendous growth in computerisation in both the public and private sectors. Computerised services such as automated teller machines (or "ATMs"), the Network for Electronic Transfers (or "NETS") and electronic database searches have led to increased efficiency and convenience to the public. The next millennium will no doubt see the introduction of new innovations for which there will be technological challenges to face and opportunities to maximise.
2 Foremost in mind is the subject of electronic commerce (or "e-commerce"). The Government last year unveiled the Electronic Commerce Master Plan as an integral component of the move towards developing a knowledge-based economy. The vision is to make Singapore a hub for e-commerce, both in this region and in the world. To this end, the Attorney-General's Chambers have been actively involved in developing a functional, harmonized, up to date and userfriendly legal framework for both domestic and international e-commerce.
3 The other branches of the legal profession have an equally important role to play. Ecommerce poses novel issues which have not been exhaustively explored anywhere in the world. The expected growth in e-commerce will fuel a demand for legal expertise. The bench and the bar must keep pace with legal and technological developments and acquire core skills for the fair and expeditious disposal of e-commerce disputes. The academia can support their efforts by providing both undergraduate and postgraduate training in this amalgam of law and technology, and by influencing international jurisprudence through research and the presentation of ground-breaking papers. The novelty of commerce in cyberspace creates a level playing field on which Singapore can carve a niche for itself as an international centre for e-commerce legal expertise.
4 The growth of e-commerce and the demand for information technology (or "IT") services are likely to bring with them a corresponding increase in the potential for IT disputes. IT disputes may occur either when IT systems breakdown or when they fail to perform up to the user's expectations. One particularly infamous species of potential IT disputes is, of course, the Year 2000 ("Y2K") or millennium problem, which lends its name to this occasion.
5 Singapore takes the millennium problem seriously. The Government had set a target date of 31 December 1998 for all government departments and agencies to complete the conversion of affected computer systems to Y2K compliant systems. To help organisations and businesses prepare themselves for the millennium problem, the National Computer Board has, since 1996, embarked on a nation-wide Y2K awareness and action programme.
6 In addition to managing the millennium problem on the technological front, we must also provide the IT industry and users with an efficient framework for resolving IT disputes in general and, in particular, the millennium problem. The usual parties to an IT dispute are the IT consumer (or "client") and its IT service provider (or "vendor"). When an IT problem surfaces, the client requires a quick and effective solution which minimizes its downtime and consequential losses. Time costs money, and the parties do not have the time to indulge in debating on contractual niceties. Frequently, the solution is arrived at more quickly when the parties, who are familiar with the client's system, work together to resolve the problem. The need for the parties to maintain a continuing working relationship is therefore self-evident.
7 The nature of IT disputes therefore makes negotiation or mediation, or a combination of both, the ideal vehicle for resolving such disputes. These collaborative methods enable parties to find solutions in private, and within a much shorter time than litigation or arbitration. Most of the cases mediated at the Singapore Mediation Centre are resolved within a day. Further, as negotiation and mediation are not confrontational in nature, the parties are able to preserve their business relationships even as they attempt to settle their differences. Savings in respect of management time and legal costs are an added incentive.
8 Thus, for IT disputes, an effective dispute resolution strategy would be, firstly, to attempt to settle the dispute through negotiations, and, if that fails, to attempt to mediate the dispute with the assistance of a trained neutral third party, and finally, and only as a last resort, to seek recourse in the courts or through arbitration.
9 The framework which I have outlined is in fact borne out in practice, according to a recent study commissioned by the Singapore IT Dispute Resolution Advisory Committee (or "SITDRAC"), of which more will be said later. The study was conducted by a team from the Nanyang Technological University. It was found that most IT disputes between clients and vendors were resolved through mutual adjustments and "give-and-take" at the project team level or, if that failed, through negotiations by senior management. The study also recommended that both the client and the vendor should, at the outset of the contract, provide for procedures to surface and solve problems, so that the contracting parties would have a clear understanding of how best to resolve any IT disputes which they might encounter.
10 The Millennium Accord embodies the objectives of, and fits neatly into, this framework. Apart from providing a dispute resolution procedure for Y2K disputes that incorporates management negotiation and mediation, the Accord also allows any organisation which supports the Accord's rationale to publicly identify itself as such by becoming an Accord Signatory. I understand that a total of 298 organisations have indicated their intention to become Accord Signatories. These include 240 from the private sector and 58 from the public sector. The representatives of some of these organisations will signify their support publicly later today. I congratulate all Accord Signatories for their foresight, dedication to problem solving and disapproval of problem escalation.
11 Since its incorporation, the Singapore Mediation Centre has been working closely with the IT industry in Singapore to promote mediation as the vehicle for resolving IT disputes. In 1997, SITDRAC was formed as an advisory committee to the Singapore Mediation Centre on IT disputes. The members of SITDRAC include the Singapore Federation of Computer Industry, the National Computer Board, the Information Technology Management Association, the Microcomputer Trade Association of Singapore, the Singapore Computer Society and the Singapore International Arbitration Centre. SITDRAC's functions include the referral of IT disputes to the Singapore Mediation Centre and providing the Singapore Mediation Centre with its expert knowledge of the industry. I understand that SITDRAC fully supports the Millennium Accord and will continue to assist in its implementation.
12 The Singapore Mediation Centre will be organising workshops to train IT professionals in mediation later this year. Suitable candidates will be selected for accreditation and will be assigned to help resolve IT disputes. It will be a great relief to IT disputants to know that we have mediators who understand the technicalities and practices of the IT industry, and who speak their language, to assist in the problem solving process.
13 I congratulate the other Accord bodies working in partnership with the Singapore Mediation Centre in launching the Millennium Accord, namely the Centre for Dispute Resolution (UK), the Hong Kong International Arbitration Centre, Lawyers Engaged in Alternative Dispute Resolution (Australia and New Zealand) and JAMS/Endispute (USA).
14 I also congratulate the Singapore Mediation Centre for putting in place this framework for resolving IT disputes in Singapore. I urge all present to continue to support and, whenever appropriate, to complement this initiative.
15 I wish all Accord bodies a very fruitful collaboration and continued success.