Runner-Up at Inaugural Young ITA Writing Competition

Ong Shaw Shiuan ’19

In January 2019, Ong Shaw Shiuan ’19 participated in the inaugural Young Institute for Transnational Arbitration (ITA) Writing Competition and Award. His paper, titled “Dismantling the Safe Harbour: Solving the Evidentiary Problems in Corruption Allegations in Investor-State Arbitration”, was feted as one of three runner-up papers.

The competition was organised by the Institute for Transnational Arbitration together with its youth wing, the Young ITA. Students and practitioners under the age of 40 from all over the world were invited to make submissions on topics related to international commercial arbitration or investment arbitration. Shaw Shiuan’s submission was selected from 38 entries after going through two rounds of review by two judging panels.

The first panel comprised Silvia Marchili (King & Spalding LLP, Young ITA Chair); Elizabeth Devaney, (Occidental Petroleum Corporation, Young ITA Vice-Chair); Dr Crina Baltag (University of Bedfordshire, Young ITA Thought Leadership Chair); Robert Landicho (Vinson & Elkins LLP, Young ITA Communications Chair); and Laura Sinisterra (Debevoise and Plimpton LLP, Young ITA Mentorship Programme Chair). After reviewing the entries, the first panel selected the top four papers to be submitted to the second panel for a final decision. The second panel comprised Charles H Brower II (Wayne State University Law School); Dominique Brown-Berset (Brown & Page); and James Loftis (Vinson & Elkins LLP).

The second judging panel made a special note of Shaw Shiuan’s paper, commending it for being “very well written, makes resourceful use of data, and speaks well to both academic and practitioner audiences”. In recognition of his high quality research, Shaw Shiuan’s paper will be published in the ITA’s peer-reviewed journal, ITA in Review.

Shaw Shiuan’s paper investigates the evidential difficulties in proving corruption in investor-state arbitration. Due to these difficulties, investor-state arbitration has been criticised for becoming a safe harbour which countenances investments procured through corrupt conduct. To address these problems, several solutions were proposed in his paper. Shaw Shiuan’s paper first took shape as part of the University Research Opportunities (UROP) programme in Academic Year 2018/2019, under the supervision of Associate Professor Jean Ho ’03 (NUS Law). Below, Shaw Shiuan and Associate Professor Ho share their insights on the writing and supervision process.

Shaw Shiuan’s perspective on his writing journey

“When I was coming to terms with concepts such as ratio decidendi and stare decisis in my first year of law school, I was accustomed to treating the discipline as being placed on a pedestal, out of my reach. The courts pronounce what the law is; the counsels and academics comment on what the law should be. To my mind, there was no room for my voice, and I was in no place to contribute.

But along the way, I encountered professors who were humble despite their brilliance. They were teachers who were willing to listen and engage in the ideas I had. I also made friends who were willing to discuss various points of law, which on hindsight, arrived at ludicrous conclusions, but such conversations were strangely enjoyable nonetheless. Perhaps, because of these people I have met, I grew to see the law as something within my grasp, that it was something I could grapple with and have my say in. I wanted to make some sort of contribution to legal discourse, and I thought undertaking a directed research would be a great first step.

Typically, thinking of a research topic would be one of the more challenging parts of the research process. The topic needs to have a right mix of novelty, contention, as well as your own interest. Fortunately for me, I came across a topic like this as I was working on a moot problem. Having chosen a topic, the next step would be to approach a professor who was willing to supervise the research. Given the evidentiary aspect of my proposal, I approached my Evidence professor, Professor Ho Hock Lai ’89 (NUS Law). However, in light of the additional investor-state arbitration dimension to my topic, he linked me up with Dr Jean Ho, who agreed to supervise my research.

The benefit of undertaking a directed research is that it places you under the supervision of a professor. You are granted the opportunity to discuss and sharpen your ideas with an esteemed academic. By doing so, you can catch a glimpse of their thought process and hopefully, arrive at your own understanding of what it takes to develop your own idea and put it out there.

In this respect, I’ve learnt a lot from Dr Ho, and am immensely grateful for her guidance. She is approachable and very willing to share her wealth of experience. When I first began preparing my research outline, I got too caught up with the literature review process, and ended up with a product which largely involved a synthesis of all that has been said in existing literature. Steering me away from a purely descriptive narrative, Dr Ho brought me back on track and reminded me to make the paper my own.

Looking back, I think that was one of the most valuable lesson I took away from the research experience. While writing, it can be convenient to fall back on the assurance of existing literature, and just cite sources for any proposition made. But when that happens, it becomes easy to lose sight of your own point. The paper is your own; the idea is your own. The freedom to write on a blank canvas, while daunting, can also be a liberating and rewarding experience!

Finally, I wish to thank Dr Ho for her mentorship, and for pushing me to work harder and to think differently. To my family, thank you for the quiet and loving support. To my friends, in particular Teh Chee Yang ’19, Chuan Limin ’19, Chester Su ’19, Joshua Kwan ’19, Raag Sudha Sanjay (B.A. Political Science ’19), and Khoo Yemin (B.A. Economics ’20), thank you for being encouraging in all your own special ways.”

Associate Professor Jean Ho’s take on the supervision process

“Shaw Shiaun came to me with a very clear idea of what he wanted to write and he epitomised the dedicated and determined supervisee. There was immense potential in the topic he had chosen because it allowed him to exhibit fine technical craftmanship of his arguments based on evidentiary concepts against the perennially attention-grabbing backdrop of large scale transnational corruption. The challenge was combing through and rethinking evidentiary findings in disputes where corruption was alleged, to work out where and how a different and distinctive evidentiary approach (i) could have yielded a different factual outcome and (ii) can be easily employed to evaluate corruption allegations in future. Halfway through the supervision process, I knew that this was a paper that had life beyond graded coursework. I was very tough on Shaw Shiaun because his paper was going to be of great assistance to international tribunals grappling with evidentiary obstacles in corruption allegations. 

I suggested to Shaw Shiuan that he can test the appeal of his paper by entering it for the Young ITA Writing Competition. The paper was tweaked to endure a two-tier junior-senior judging configuration and to emphasise illustrations with a strong or stronger US connection for the benefit of the largely US-based judging panels.

Shaw Shiuan’s achievement signals that the UROP can be harnessed to cultivate student research impact. In my view, the true quality marker of a directed research paper is not its grade, but whether it manages to captivate an international audience.”