Crystal Wong Wai Chin FCIArb is a Partner at Lee Hishammuddin Allen & Gledhill. Crystal has an active arbitration practice throughout Malaysia, Singapore and the ASEAN region, with an emphasis on energy and complex infrastructure & engineering projects. Her experience includes an extended stint with a leading international utilities conglomerate.
Crystal is a director of CIArb’s Malaysia Branch and she sits on the panel of arbitrators for AIAC. Crystal also holds numerous committee appointments, including committee member of the Arbitration Committee for the Bar Council of Malaysia, member of the Belt & Road Committee for the YPG AIAC, regional ambassador of the HK45, HKIAC and ambassador of the ICC Belt and Road Commission. Crystal is a regular contributor to the Arbitration chapter of the Malaysian Civil Procedure.
Why have you decided to specialise in arbitration? Tell us about your legal journey to ADR.
My legal journey began with an opportunity to work on three energy arbitrations during my first-year practice. “Necessity is the mother of invention”, and so, fresh from law school, I was forced to acquaint myself at speed with the strange world of power plants and electricity payment formulae. Learning new skills and disciplines has gone on to be a fixture of my career so far, covering everything from power plants to oil and gas facilities to skyscrapers. Seven years in, each new case presents a little less unfamiliarity, but just as much interest.
Grappling with new, often complex topics, whether legal or technical, is one of my strongest motivations for choosing to continue practising arbitration. Whether exploring different types of coal or studying the civil code of civil law jurisdictions, each fresh challenge renews my enthusiasm and energy to push myself and expand my knowledge.
In the same vein, arbitration is frequently international, allowing me to interact with, exchange views with and go against or before a diversity of arbitrators, counsel, experts and even clients, sometimes even in other languages. Because of this international nature, arbitration is not only fulfilling, fascinating and refreshing in its subject matter, but a chance to combine the best practices from different firms, jurisdictions, cultures, and sectors to improve myself and my team.
What do you consider to be the biggest challenge in your career?
As for any lawyer, the toughest challenge is work-life balance. Rewarding though it is, arbitration is almost always a labour-intensive, gruelling exercise, not least when deadlines loom ominously close and clients are anxious about their cases (as they are fully entitled to be). With seniority comes increased responsibility not only to produce work, but to guide more junior teammates. Under these pressures from work, it remains immeasurably important to give enough time, care and attention to my family, my friends and myself.
In addition to work-life balance, I am also passionate about ensuring equal opportunity for arbitration practitioners regardless of gender. The pool of arbitration practitioners, and especially arbitrators, is heavily male dominated. In no way should that reflect negatively on those practitioners and arbitrators themselves; their accolades and experience speak for themselves. Nevertheless, I strongly believe that just as young female lawyers begin to outnumber their male counterparts in the profession generally, so too should the pool of arbitration practitioners and arbitrators progress towards equal but nonetheless meritocratic representation. I see working towards this not as a “challenge” in the sense of a negative experience I have faced, but rather as an issue to which I am positively committed to finding a solution.
How has a membership with the CIArb benefitted your career?
I was introduced to CIArb in 2013 when I enrolled in the Diploma in International Commercial Arbitration offered by the Australia branch. Through this Diploma programme, I discovered my great interest in International Arbitration and at the same time built a solid foundation of basic knowledge in this field.
Since then, being a CIArb member has afforded me the opportunity to actively participate in CIArb’s courses and events. This in turn has allowed me to foster friendships and establish close networks with arbitration practitioners from other jurisdictions. In 2019, I spoke at the CIArb Asia-Pacific Regional Conference 2019 and presented my ideas on the future of international dispute resolution during the New Voices session. This is one of CIArb’s main initiatives for providing young members with career development opportunities.
Are there any developments in the field of ADR which you consider to be current “hot topics”? What is your opinion on them?
Contactless arbitration and virtual hearings. The lockdown in major economies worldwide has accentuated the need for virtual hearings, even on the domestic dispute resolution front. These measures have resulted in the cancellation, postponement or relocation of scheduled or ongoing hearings. As virtual hearings were suddenly thrust into discussion, CIArb swiftly issued its “Guidance Note on Remote Dispute Resolution Proceedings”.
Are there any interesting developments in ADR in the jurisdiction where you are based?
In April 2018, the Malaysian Parliament promulgated the Arbitration (Amendment) (No. 2) Act 2018 to repeal sections 42 & 43 of the Arbitration Act 2005. As the law currently stands, arbitral awards can only be challenged in Malaysia under section 37 of the Act, for procedural irregularities or on public policy grounds. As a result, uniquely amongst major Commonwealth arbitration jurisdictions, Malaysia lacks any right of recourse in respect of domestic arbitration awards in respect of errors of law.
Currently, reforms are being considered by the local arbitration committee on whether the Arbitration Act 2005 should be amended to align Malaysia’s arbitral landscape with those of other comparable jurisdictions, e.g. the UK, Singapore, Hong Kong, and Australia. This is due to the importance of striking the fine balance between limited court supervision and arbitral finality.
Another proposal which warrants consideration is the potential conferment on the courts of a discretion to vary an award, remit an award or set aside an award in part, as opposed to merely the binary discretion only to affirm or to set aside an award in full.
Tell us about your interests, hobbies or activities outside of work.
My favourite hobby is travelling. As Mark Hertsgaard remarked, “Travel is like knowledge. The more you see the more you know you haven’t seen.” As lawyers, our daily routines can be taxing. I look forward to yearly trips with my husband to re-energise and rejuvenate before another year of deadlines, work-related worries and more arbitrations.
At a deeper level, travelling to new places exposes me to people of vastly different backgrounds, beliefs, cultures, customs and ways of life to my own. Interacting with and learning from these people about their different lives is something I treasure.