GaWC Research Bulletin 288

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This Research Bulletin has been published in I. Farías and T. Bender (eds) (2009) Urban Assemblages: How Actor-Network Theory Changes Urban Studies London: Routledge, pp. 73-90.

Please refer to the published version when quoting the paper.


Urban Studies without ‘Scale’: Localizing the Global through Singapore

R.G. Smith*

‘There is no general recipe. We are finished with all globalizing concepts.’

Deleuze & Guattari (1983: 108)

‘I observe the world as it unfurls, I thought; proceeding empirically, in good faith, I observe it; I can do no more than observe.’

Houellebecq (2003: 286)


Actor-network theory (ANT), ‘a sociology of associations’, has in recent years become an important source of inspiration – along with poststructuralism and non-representational theory – for the development of a new approach to urban studies (e.g. see Amin & Thrift, 2002; Smith, 2003a, 2003b, 2006, 2007; Smith & Doel, 2010). This chapter advances this new approach by demonstrating how the concept of ‘scale’ is problematical, rather than axiomatical. A redundant invention for seeing the spatiality of economic relations; unhelpful for describing how Singapore has sought to manage the lengthening of its legal services to aid its position as a financial and services centre.

Through a fieldwork-led empirical discussion of the millennial (1999–2002) managed restructuring it is demonstrated how any approach that would try to explain the transformation of Singapore’s legal services as a process where ‘scalar processes’ had intersected or interacted would miss the most important aspect of the whole process, namely the intermediary arrangements (the networks) that, no matter what their length, are always ‘local’. Furthermore, the chapter demonstrates how when no extrinsic explanation (an a priori framework, a blueprint or context, such as ‘scale’) is imposed on actors to try to explain the networks in which they are involved different findings emerge to those that the ‘scalar social scientist’ has foreseen. Indeed, through being attentive to how lawyers (actors) describe the formation of networks (or work-nets) in their terms, using their own dimensions and touchstones (rather than those of the trained social scientist), it is clear that ‘scalar processes’, or ‘frontier zones’, or ‘border zones’, or ‘regulatory fractures’, or ‘analytic borderlands’ (see Smith, 2003a, 2003b), are all inadequate for accurately describing how Singapore has lengthened its legal services since the turn of the millennium.

Questioning ‘scale’ in urban studies

‘There exists no place that can be said to be “non-local”. If something is to be “delocalized”, it means that it is being sent from one place to some other place, not from one place to no place.’

Latour (2005: 179)

Whilst it is true that the organization of ‘global finance’ means that hubs such as Manhattan (New York), Ginza district (Tokyo), or the City/Canary Wharf (London), are to some degree denationalized, disconnected from their ‘national contexts’ because they are so highly connected together rather than with their respective ‘national urban hierarchies’, it is also blindingly obvious that states do play an important role in the life of those financial centres, e.g. by providing legal frameworks, taxation regimes, basic services and infrastructure, amongst many other things. Indeed, states are especially important in shaping major primate ‘global cities’.

With globalisation, relations between cities and states have been challenged, and an interesting paradox is now evident. On the one hand, states’ are very important for the restructuring of so-called ‘global cities’. For example, cities like London, Paris, and Singapore enhance and maintain their connectivity and ‘global position’ through the receipt of substantial public investment from their respective national governments. On the other hand, a state’s minor cities are now less ‘national’ because they lack public investment and so need to be neo-liberal and entrepreneurial to compete and survive in the ‘global economy’. A consequence of this paradox is that many contemporary urban researchers are keen to think of cities in terms of their degree of freedom (i.e. more or less autonomous) from states: ‘we need to conceptualize the city at the multiple and interacting scales of global, national and local.’ (Short, 2006: 219).

Short (2006) argues that we are witnessing a profound rescaling as cities are impacted by, on the one hand ‘global forces,’ and on the other, ‘national systems of regulation’. Indeed, Short is certain that ‘scalar processes’ exist;

‘Global, national and urban processes are affecting individual cities around the world, while globalizing cities are the site and platform for shifts in national and global articulations. A new urban theory will be sensitive to cities as sites of intersecting scalar processes. As a (probably unworkable) reminder, we should henceforth place the term ‘city’ in the middle of global – city – national ’ (page 220)

However, the notion that ‘scales’ are, or have, processes is anathema to actor-network theorists. ANT does not need a ‘national scale’ to recognise that states’ are important for urban and economic restructuring (‘scalar thinkers’ do not have a monopoly on recognizing the importance of states), precisely because ANT is always already attuned to that which has hitherto been subsumed under the neat category of ‘scale’: namely, the tireless work of the actor-network where actors and networks become one and the same in the construction of joint-actions. States, cities, and city-states are not sites where ‘scales’ intersect, interact, interface, or overlap, they are all actor-networks, continuums (see Smith, 2003b), scattered lines of humans and non-humans, that are by nature neither local, national, nor global, but are more or less long and more or less connected.

In this chapter it is demonstrated how thinking of Singapore as a ‘scale’, somehow between, below, or intersecting the ‘global’ and the ‘national’, is unhelpful for appreciating how the city-state is strengthened as a financial centre through the lengthening of its legal services. Indeed, it is not just ‘the trap of scale’ which is avoided in this empirical account of the lengthening of Singapore’s legal networks; there is also no appeal to any other a priori construct, no shift to explanation by imposing a Context, a Structure, or a Framework (see Latour, 2005). Singapore is not placed into ‘the scale/context/structure/framework of the global’, precisely because one is always forced to jump from the ‘local’ to the ‘global’, the particular to the general, to pretend to explain what has happened. In other words, when the term ‘scale’ is used by social scientists it is done so to indicate an established state of affairs, a foundation, a given, an unquestionable framework from which one can subsequently begin to account for what is happening in a given situation. Hence, ‘scale’ is what a poststructuralist such as Lyotard terms an exteriority, a concept that is imposed on events before any empirical investigation has even started. That approach is avoided by this empirical account as it seeks to do no more than describe the forging of some longer networks at the turn of the millennium according to those lawyers who were involved.

The approach that is followed in the next section, in the empirical case study, is one that is attentive to the assemblage: the step-by-step restructuring, the sociology of associations, the formation of an actor-network. Overall, the empirical finding is that the restructuring of legal services through Singapore is solely the product of the formation of actor-networks that are always local whatever their length. To put it bluntly, this chapter does not follow a ‘scalar view’ of globalization, but instead confirms Peter Charlton’s (a London Managing Partner for the law firm Clifford Chance) observation that ‘[Globalisation] is not about scale, it’s about having the right network.’ (2003: 1).

The millennial restructuring of Singapore’s legal services

At the Millennium Law Conference Annual Dinner the Senior Minister Lee Kuan Yew1 noted that, ‘A major international financial centre needs to have high quality and competitive legal services’. He noted Singapore’s need to ease its restrictions in the face of globalisation to attract more foreign lawyers and build its capacity as a financial centre; ‘To build a critical mass of good lawyers to service the financial and business community, he [Lee Kuan Yew] said, it is necessary to draw in more top-quality offshore law firms and get more in-house lawyers of multi-national corporations and global financial institutions to base themselves here’ (Boon, 2000: 1). However, it was also evident that simply building capacity in legal services was not enough to enhance Singapore’s position as a leading financial centre. The restructuring of existing capacity through the formation of collaborative networks between foreign and domestic law firms was also important. Only through collaboration will Singaporean law firms gain knowledge in the practical use of English and US (New York) laws (which are the preferred governing laws for documenting and executing financial transactions funded in US Dollars) and consequently play a significant part in offshore financial transactions. Let me start this story about the lengthening of Singapore’s legal networks back in the early 1990s.

Immediately prior to the millennial liberalization and restructuring of legal provision through Singapore there were two distinct providers of legal services2. First, o ff-shore law firms. There were circa. 60 international firms from over 15 different legal jurisdictions (from UK, USA, Australia, Canada, Indonesia, Japan, Hong Kong, China, Germany, Holland, Austria, Italy, France, Sweden and Norway (Sek Keong, 1999: 12 & 162-169)) operating in Singapore dominating the market for top-end international financial work (in the 1980s there were more international law firms with a presence in the city-state than in the 1999 to 2002 period). The strongest presence was that of London law firms (see Figure 1) partly because the City firms began to establish offices there as far back as 19803 (see Figure 2). Second, on-shore law firms. There where circa. 800 local firms, but only a handful (<10) had more than 50 fee-earners (see Figure 3)4. The on-shore firms lacked the resources, specialized skills, and client base of the international offshore firms, whilst the off-shore firms are not permitted to practice Singapore law. Prior to liberalization there were a handful of informal alliances between off-shore (foreign) and on-shore (domestic) firms in order to provide legal services for cross-border financial transactions5. However, the small number of such collaborations highlights the inefficiency and extra costs that could be involved in conducting cross-border transactions from Singapore. Examples include Deacons Graham & James and Yeo Wee Kiong & Partners; Sinclair Roche & Temperley and Colin Ng and Partners; and, Norton Rose and Lee & Lee6.

Since the early-1990s the Singaporean government has actively encouraged companies to expand into Southeast Asia and beyond. However, the so-called ‘regionalization’ of Singaporean law firms that followed that call was very limited. The three most significant attempts to practice beyond the city-state (see Figure 4) were by Colin Ng & Partners (established in 1988), Helen Yeo & Partners (established in 1992), and Drew & Napier (established in 1889). First, Colin Ng & Partners (CNP) grew quickly to 23 partners, over 80 lawyers, and total staff strength of more than 150 throughout Asia. CNP followed an ambitious strategy of, ‘regionalization with a view to globalisation of our services …’ (CNP, 2000: unpaginated). CNP opened offices in Singapore (Main Office (1988)), Singapore (Science Park Office (2000)), Bangkok (1998), Hong Kong (1997), and Beijing (2000). Furthermore, the firm followed several other avenues to increase its geographical reach: (1) CNP opened correspondent offices in Shanghai (1997) and Jakarta (co-operation with Remy & Darus (1997)); (2) created practice groups to cover Myanmar (Burma), Vietnam, and Cambodia; and (3), formed an informal alliance with the UK firm Sinclair Roche & Temperley (which specialises in international trade and transportation) to increase its capacity to service clients on multi-jurisdictional and international matters. Second, from just 9 lawyers Helen Yeo & Partners (HYP) grew to more than 50 lawyers. HYP opened offices in Singapore (main office), Shanghai (China (1997)), Ho Chi Minh City (Vietnam (1996)), and Yangon (Myanmar (1996)). Furthermore, the firm established practice desks to cover Cambodia and Laos. Third, the long established Singaporean firm of Drew & Napier (DN) with more than 140 lawyers opened offices in both Hanoi (Vietnam) and Shanghai (China). DN also established a trademarks and patents office in Malaysia and country specific desks for India, Thailand, Greater China, and Indonesia7.

Despite these few exceptions most Singaporean law firms remained firmly rooted in the city-state. There were perhaps several reasons for the limited ‘regionalization’ of on-shore (Singaporean) law firms. First, a reluctance amongst lawyers to be posted overseas to manage a branch office (which may be remote and involve a lower standard of living). Second, the poverty of Singapore firms in expertise and resources in comparison to international law firms who operate in these locations and with whom they would need to compete. Indeed, the few Singaporean practices established overseas came about primarily to serve the direct investments of Singaporean clients. Third, the negative and unprofitable experience of those domestic firms that have tried to set up offices in places such as Hong Kong, Vietnam, Malaysia, etc. Fourth, that the ‘regionalization’ of Singaporean law firms has been restricted because of the limited use of Singapore law even in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) region8. In short, it is the lack of success of Singaporean firms to ‘regionalize’, and the failure of Singapore law to establish itself as a governing law for ASEAN, which is central to this story about the networking of Singapore’s legal services because a consequence of staying at home was that Singaporean firms lacked expertise in the two relevant governing laws of globalization, namely English and US (New York) law. And that lack was a restriction to Singapore’s development as a financial centre, to the success of the liberalization of its financial sector, because Singapore’s domestic law firms were unable to provide convenient and efficient legal services for both off-shore financial transactions and both aspects of cross-border financial transactions. To quote the Attorney-General Chan Sek Keong, ‘Liberalizing the financial market will not make Singapore competitive unless the supporting services are also competitive.’ He noted that, ‘There was a need to examine the legal services sector to see how it can better serve the growth of the financial services sector’ (Meyer, 1999: 18). Consequently, The Legal Services Review Committee was appointed by the government in September 1997 ‘to review Singapore’s strategic legal needs in the financial sector, and the conditions under which foreign law firms and foreign lawyers are allowed to operate in Singapore, in the context of ensuring Singapore’s competitiveness in financial services’ (Mr Chan Sek Keong (Attorney-General & Committee Chairman, 1999: 1)).

The Committee was faced with three options for the liberalization of Singapore’s legal services. First, a restricted liberalization (closed door) with tight controls on the operations of law firms in Singapore. For example, one might have a rule obligating firms to base their top regional partner in Singapore if they are to be permitted to participate in a joint venture with an on-shore firm. At this time protectionist countries such as China place strict restrictions on the activities of foreign law firms (Tromans, 2000). Second, a semi-restricted liberalization (halfway house) that would allow some collaboration between on and off-shore firms (Meyer, 1999). Third, unrestricted liberalization (open door); the option of full market liberalization (like Hong Kong’s and Thailand’s markets) which is what the UK legal profession was lobbying for (see Sek Keong, 1999) at this stage in the process.

The Legal Services Review Committee reported in June 1999 and recommended the second option of a half-way house. The introduction of two new types of collaboration for law firms operating in Singapore was recommended. First, the joint law venture (JLV) where onshore and offshore firms may apply to join together through joint venture. Offshore lawyers in a JLV firm may provide legal advisory services in Singapore law (including the drafting of legal documents) for onshore, cross-border and offshore financial transactions as long as they are a part of and remain in the JLV firm (Sek Keong, 1999). In other words, JLVs practice English law, US (New York) law, and Singapore law. Second, the Formal Alliance (FA), which is a less integrated form of collaboration that the JLV. Offshore lawyers may draft legal documents regulated by Singapore law for cross-border financial transactions only. In a FA advisory services and opinions relating to Singapore law shall be given by lawyers qualified to practice Singapore law (Sek Keong, 1999)9. Both JLVs and FAs were seen by the Committee as ‘suitable vehicles to promote the regionalization of Singapore’s law practices and may enable Singapore law firms to play a bigger role in offshore financial transactions’ (Sek Keong, 1999: iv). The Committee recommended a maximum of just five JLVs and an unrestricted number of FAs. Both require at least five lawyers resident in Singapore, including two equity partners who, for the offshore firm, have five years experience in offshore legal work, and for the onshore firm have five years experience in banking, finance and corporate work. Furthermore, in a JLV the number of local partners must always exceed the foreign partners and must be jointly managed (Sek Keong, 1999). The government acted on the Committee’s recommendations which meant that JLV firms could be created and would be entities that could practice English and/or US (New York) law, and Singaporean Law10.

As shown in figure 5 nine JLVs11 were formed between large UK/US law firms and smaller Singaporean firms in the period from 1999 to 2002. The initial award of seven licenses involved five UK firms and two US firms12, subsequently two more licenses were awarded13.

Forget scale, follow networks: the lengthening of Singapore’s legal services

‘Networks … are systems that create themselves.’

Riles (2001: 173)

‘In the middle, where nothing is supposed to be happening, there is almost everything.’

Latour (1993: 122-123)

I conducted interviews in Singapore in the year 2000 with the senior domestic and foreign lawyers of those law firms involved in the new JLVs14. The interviews led me to five significant conclusions:

First, it was clear that the lawyers described the JLV process in terms of network formation and the lengthening of their networks to serve clients and increase referrals. Even what motivated the law firms, both domestic and foreign, to enter into joint ventures in the first place was the opportunity that they saw the JLVs affording them to improve and lengthen their relationships, associations, and networks to their collective advantage through Singapore. For domestic (on-shore) firms the key advantages to participating in a JLV with a foreign law firm were: (1) exposure to the expertise (i.e. in international capital markets, asset securitisation, mergers & acquisitions, project finance work and other structured financing) and experience of foreign firm lawyers who are well travelled and expert in negotiating long networks; (2) knowledge and use of both the foreign firm’s established non-human immutable mobiles (e.g. databases, documentation systems, finance and support systems, practice manuals), and the opportunity of direct exposure to the latest ‘cutting edge’ technologies and knowledges (so-called ‘tier one legal software’) being created in the legal profession; and (3) the possibility of increased business (more clients) through referrals from their partner foreign firms extensive overseas office network15. For foreign (off-shore) firms the key advantages to JLV participation were: (1) to maintain good relations/connections with the Singaporean government; (2) to increase their lawyer numbers in Singapore without inducing significant costs (also see Page, 1994). By training domestic lawyers, rather than having to fly in lawyers from the UK or US, costs can be reduced because there is no need to pay foreign lawyers an overseas allowance (one Partner explained how this is a substantial cost because of the numbers of staff that can be relocated); (3) the possibility of an increased Singaporean clientele by benefiting from having an ‘Asian face’ (an interviewee said that clients like to see a mixture of foreign and domestic lawyers) and the contacts of the domestic firm who have greater and different connections into the Singaporean legal community; and (4), to tap into those practices of domestic lawyers which “are not written down” (Interviewee), but are a product of the participation of on-shore firms in different networks to those ordinarily accessible to off-shore firms. Thus, both domestic and foreign firms entered into JLVs for their own benefit, anticipating that through collaboration and integration they would be better networked and so a stronger actor-network in the marketplace for servicing cross-border transactions through Singapore.

Second, it was evident from the interviews that the lawyers (foreign and domestic) were concerned with having the right network. And a key part of having the right network was to be in, not just any JLV, but the right JLV. Firms were concerned with building networks through Singapore that enhanced their capacity to both attract/access clients and service those clients seamlessly. A Partner in an off-shore law firm said that:

‘The companies here [Singapore] are globalizing, so one of the things we think the joint venture will help us with is, given that there is always a mix of Singapore and international law components [in any deal], that we think the domestic firm will give us more direct access to these [Singaporean] clients; and number two, enable us to provide one-stop-shopping for these clients and for the banks, because in a lot of transactions when you get down to the end, it is a question of what law is going to govern: Is it going to be Singapore law? Is it going to be New York law? Or is it going to be English law? And yes, there are some differences but it depends on what the deal is … we don’t really use Zs or Ss in globalization [Laughter].’

All the lawyers were concerned with creating the right networks, precisely because, for them, the world is not ‘scalar’.

Third, it was notable that firms do not organize their operations according to a ‘scalar logic’. The lawyers did not have a ‘scalar view of globalization’. Below a Partner at an off-shore firm describes how his law firm’s spatial organization is one that prioritises relations and networks; ‘geographical scales’ don’t get a look-in:

‘We don’t carve the world up into sort of this is my country, this is your country, kind of thinking, but we do have areas of concentration … it falls out fairly naturally, I mean most businesses speak of Japan and non-Japan Asia. We have a large office in Tokyo … we [Singapore] work with the Tokyo office quite a bit … Hong Kong, most of the Korean work is handled out of Hong Kong, that’s natural, the head of our Korean practice group is in Hong Kong … so there is interaction back and forth. Most of China is handled out of Hong Kong, and the head of the China practice group is out of Hong Kong, but there is a fair amount of China work that’s done out of here [Singapore], large IPOs and debt deals for China based companies … we will do more China work here [Singapore], particularly with the joint venture. We don’t have a regional office, I guess that is the bottom line, the Asia head is based in Hong Kong, the regional business development marketing person is in Hong Kong, the regional IT person is in Singapore, our capital markets group is based here [Singapore], project finance is split, M&A is split, we have no formal regional office.’ (Partner, off-shore firm, 2000)

In their words, we hear how Singapore is, for them, not a regional-hub, not an operational command centre in the ‘global city’ sense. Instead, we are told that their law firm is organized in the form of a network; the threads of that network are listed by the interviewee, who also indicates how his firm’s new JLV will serve to lengthen and strengthen their China network.

Fourth, we learnt from the lawyers’ that they do not have a ‘scalar view of globalization’ and consequently we should not be surprised to learn that their firms’ networks are also not organised as a nested ‘hierarchy of scales’ – with ‘global’, ‘national’, ‘regional’, or ‘local’ offices (hubs) – where power and knowledge flow from top to bottom. Rather the firm’s networks operate at the ‘ground level’ (flat, horizontal), incorporating any number of localities (work-spaces and rooms and offices and buildings and cities and countries etc.) which are purely relational (i.e. dependent upon any firm’s whole actor-network), not absolute. The law firms’ actor-networks are always connecting, assembling, distributing, and centring because they are only held together by these relational forces. Thus, it is evident that the lawyers have a relational understanding of power. Within their networks the lawyers talk about ‘areas of concentration’, what ANT scholars refer to as ‘centres of calculation’, in their networks. And this is precisely how they think about the JLV process in Singapore. The creation of the JLV entities facilitates longer service provision through Singapore, one effect of which is the enhancement of Singapore’s position as both network and point, a financial and service centre (a ‘global city’) with an increased power to ‘act at a distance’.

Finally, the lawyers described, in different words, the JLV restructuring as a work of ‘heterogeneous engineering’ rather than a consequence of intersecting ‘scalar processes’; there is no ‘production of geographical scale’ here. In other words, they describe and acknowledge how the formation and lengthening of their firm’s networks – through JLV participation – is the product of a number of actors (human, non-human, material, discursive) coming together in joint-action. The Legal Services Review Committee report, and the subsequent JLV entities, are hybrid collectives, products of the coming-together of a variety of actors: banks and financial institutions (the lawyers noted the importance of their demand for one-stop legal shopping through Singapore as a driver for the JLV experiment); foreign law firms (the lawyers talked of the need for them to meet demand from financial services for longer legal provision through the Lion city) and domestic law firms (the lawyers commented on their desire to participate in the longer fee-earning networks needed to service the cross-border demands of clients); the government of Singapore and its desire to make Singapore into a ‘global city’ based on financial services like London and New York (the lawyers described how government came to be convinced that the managed restructuring of legal services through the city-state was an essential step if Singapore was to be furthered as a hub for financial services); and, the Singaporean legal system and the UK/US legal systems (the lawyers spoke of how the separate legal systems needed the JLV vehicle to enable them to be brought together into a single legal provision), to name just some of the myriad of elements that were assembled through the JLV process to enable the lengthening of legal services through Singapore.


‘The world, our world, is depleted, impoverished enough. Away with all duplicates of it, until we again experience more immediately what we have.’

Sontag (1966: 7)

ANT is a form of analysis that advances an intransitive understanding of the spatial, the temporal, and the network. ANT’s intransitive conception takes nothing as a priori, as pre-given, stable, fixed, or absolute. ANT is a constructivist approach so that all spatial-temporal formations and relations are conceptualized as constructed within networks: length, distance, location, power, dimension, size, scale, are accomplishments that are never fully guaranteed. Thus, following a network means describing how its topology is made, unmade, and remade. It is not an exercise in restating a phenomenon by inventing an equivalent for it; in replacing the network with a duplicate, such as ‘scale’, to pretend to be able to provide a geographical overview by stepping ‘outside’ of the network. Indeed, a key advance of ANT over other theories is its commitment to fieldwork and case studies which expose the actor-networks that have hitherto been hidden behind categories and terms such as ‘structure’, ‘system’, and ‘scale’.

Susan Sontag (1966) once noted how one only needs to invent a ‘shadow world’ of invisible forces and structures – i.e. levels, layers, tiers, territories, spheres, categories, structures, systems, scales, etc. – if one’s intention is to interpret the world. ANT’s aim is to describe, not prescribe, and so consequently all the devices of interpretation (duplicates, equivalences) which have served to short-circuit description, to impoverish it, ­­to make it manageable and comfortable, are now abandoned. In other words, ANT does not reduce the world to, or deduce the world from, anything (visible or invisible), but instead insists that ‘everything may be allied to everything else’ (Latour, 1988: 163). Abandoning all a priori dualisms and categories, including ‘scale’, ANT changes urban studies by demonstrating – through a description of networks of heterogeneous associations – how cities are relationally constituted entities; temporary assemblages made through associations with other ‘actants’.

With neo-Marxist theory, neo-structuralist Marxism, the networks of firms were neglected in favour of a focus on ‘the big picture’ and something called ‘total’, ‘world’ or ‘global’ capitalism. However, Latour (1993: 121-22) has pointed out that such an interpretation of Marx’s work is highly suspect:

‘The capitalism of Karl Marx or Fernand Braudel is not the total capitalism of the Marxists. It is a skein of somewhat longer networks that rather inadequately embrace a world on the basis of points that become centres of profit and calculation. In following it step by step, one never crosses the mysterious lines that should divide the local from the global. The organization … is a braid of networks materialized in order slips and flow charts, local procedures and special arrangements, which permit it to spread to an entire continent so long as it does not cover the continent. One can follow the growth of an organization in its entirety without ever changing [scale] levels …’

In other words, Braudel is anti-Marxist, and Marx had no ‘world view’ until after his death! They knew that the ‘global’ is always ‘local’, and consequently that any organization’s growth and reach can be followed empirically as a network with no shift in register or ‘scale’ from ‘micro’ to ‘macro’ or ‘local’ to ‘global’. Similarly, ANT is grounded in primary evidence and so knows that any firm’s network is continuously ‘local’: unlike neo-Marxists’ with their universal abstractions ANT never takes the risk of losing touch with the city.

In conclusion, following the lengthening of legal services through Singapore requires no change in ‘scale’ to understand how so few lawyers seem to cover the world; we have seen how Singapore’s lawyers build their worlds in ways that defy scalar categorisation. In fact, to invoke ‘scale’, rather than follow networks, could lead one to some rather dubious conclusions about the restructuring process. ‘Scale’ refers to the size or dimensions of an object, thus if one was to think of foreign UK/US law firms as large (‘global’) and so ‘powerful’, and the domestic Singaporean law firms as small (‘local’) and so ‘weak’, then one might read the restructuring as an overbearing process of the ‘local’ surrendering to the ‘global’ (e.g. an article in World Legal Forum (Anon., 1997: 1) begins with the sentence, ‘The City’s invasion of Singapore began in 1981’). What is more, one might get really carried away, imagining that the Lion City is powerless in the face of ‘global’ firms and ‘global’ capital, imagining the city-state as a ‘victim’, a mere ‘pawn’ in the great game of ‘globalization’. Indeed, in this chapter’s description of the events that unfurled no lines were crossed, there was no switching between ‘geographical scales’, no ‘scalar jumping’ forwards-and-backwards from ‘local’ to ‘national’ to ‘global’, no ‘hierarchies of scales’, there was only the creation, the furthering, the lengthening of relationships and connections to form actor-networks through Singapore. What is more there was not any ‘foreign invasion’ and ‘domestic surrender’; domestic Singaporean law firms did not see the arrival of foreign law firms as threatening, but rather as an opportunity to forge collaborations and participate in longer higher fee earning actor-networks: ‘Capitalists of the World Unite.’ (Advert for Forbes Global, Financial Times, October 20 th, 1997: 25).


Thank you to the British Academy Committee for South East Asian Studies for funding this research. Thank you to the Centre for Advanced Studies at the National University of Singapore for hosting me as a visiting scholar. Thank you to all the lawyers who generously gave up their time to be interviewed. I presented several of the ideas in this chapter to Leicester University Management School, a colloquium at the University of Ghent, the Geography Departments at Swansea University and the University of Sydney; I would like to thank all those audiences for their interest and questions.


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* Richard G. Smith, Centre for Urban Theory, Department of Geography, School of the Environment, Swansea University, UK, Email:

1. The law firm Lee & Lee was founded by Lee Kuan Yew, Lee Kim Yew, and Kwa Geok Choo in 1955.

2. Another provision is that by the in-house counsel of banking and financial institutions. In 1999 there were ca. 140 in-house counsel in companies and statutory boards in Singapore (Sek Keong, 1999). Other providers are: law firms based outside Singapore, some global accountancy firms, and QCs providing advice/opinions on particular aspects of transactions (Sek Keong, 1999).

3. The Asian Dollar Market was established in Singapore in 1968 and created a demand for off-shore legal services because US dollars became the primary source of finance for investments in Southeast Asia.

4. According to Sek Keong (1999) less than 10% of Singapore lawyers were providing services in banking and finance-related work in 1999.

5. The phrase ‘cross-border financial transactions’ refers to those financial transactions that are regulated or affected by two laws (i.e. by Singapore law and at least one other national law). This definition is used in Sek Keong (1999).

6. In the 1980s Freshfields was granted a license for seven years to practice Singapore law. Also in the early 1990s Wong Meng Meng and a small US firm (Shaw Fairweather & Geraldson) were permitted to form a joint venture to handle onshore and offshore work (Page, 1994). With hindsight these permissions can be interpreted as a signal from the Singaporean government as to its vision for the city-state’s future legal landscape.

7. Another firm that lengthened its network in the mid-1990s was Khattar Wong & Partners (KWP). Established in 1974 KWP has some 110 lawyers and 40 partners by the year 2000. At that time KWP had offices in Singapore (1974), Hong Kong (1995), and an associated practice with another firm in Kuala Lumpur and Johor Bahru (Malaysia). The firm also had country specific desks for Indonesia, China, and India. KWP also had a formal alliance with Eversheds.

8. Another reason why Singaporean law firms have not significantly ‘regionalized’ may be down to risk. Financial risk would be partly reduced if firms were private companies (rather than partnerships) as this would allow limited liability.

9. The distinction between a FA and a JLV is that within the former entity a firm can advise on cross-border deals, but not on Singapore’s legal issues directly. Whilst with the latter foreign law firms can advise clients directly on Singapore law and hire local lawyers. Combining both foreign and domestic practice a JLV can undertake onshore, cross-border, and offshore work.

10. JLVs are necessary for Singaporean firms to attract more complex legal work because ‘SingLaw’ is an insignificant governing law compared to English and US (New York) law for cross-border corporate and financial transactions. Note that JLVs are restricted to a just a few areas of practice (i.e. financial, banking, Internet, and corporate legal services). Foreign lawyers in the joint ventures are only allowed to practise Singapore law in these areas. They cannot represent clients in Singapore’s courts, handle property transactions, or provide specialist services such as litigation and conveyancing. The monopoly enjoyed by Singaporean firms remains in many areas.

11. In the 1999 to 2002 period four of the nine JLVs had already ended, indicating the difficulty of maintaining networks (see Ferguson, 2002). The Clifford Chance and Wong Partnership JLV was relaunched at the end of 2002 after dissolving in 2000 (Evans, 2002).

12. The selection of firms from just the UK and USA was controversial. For example, the inclusion of no Australian firms annoyed the president of the Law Council of Australia (see Cronin, 2000). However, the most important issue was the lack of interest from Wall Street firms in the JLV process. The liberalization and opening up of the Singapore legal market is a selective one concerned not so much with opening up to competition, but in enhancing Singapore’s role as a financial centre. And that is why the participation of just one Wall Street law firm in the JLV restructuring process somewhat embarrasses Singapore’s ambition. Indeed, the participation of Shearman & Sterling was an exception rather than the rule, as Wall Street firms such as Sullivan & Cromwell, Milbank Tweed, and Davis Polk & Wardwell have not been involved in the process. However, this is perhaps not surprising because US law firms, and Wall Street firms especially, tend to shun the obligation of associations and joint ventures abroad. To some extent the need to build a geographical presence to win business, as with London firms, is circumvented by having leading US investment banks as clients (such as Goldman Sachs, Chase Manhattan, CitiGroup, or Morgan Stanley). Some Wall Street law firms do have offices in Tokyo and Hong Kong (unlike Singapore these financial centres have captive and substantial economic hinterlands) because their investment bank clients require them to be located in those cities.

13. The number of JLV licenses awarded increased from five to seven to nine because the Attorney-General did not want to exclude any top UK/US firms from the process.

14. Interviews were conducted in Singapore with Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer, Linklaters & Alliance, Allen & Overy, Lee & Lee, Colin NG & Partners, Lovells, White & Case, Shooklin & Bok, Helen Yeo & Partners, and Orricks. An interview was also conducted with Khattar Wong & Partners.

15. Some domestic lawyers viewed the JLVs as the end of the restructuring process whilst others saw their JLV as an important step toward a merger with their foreign partner. Whilst one should not confuse sequence with consequence a common path to full integration seems to be emerging: strategic alliance to FA to JLV to full merger (if permitted by the regulatory framework).

Figure 1:Ten largest off-shore (UK and US) firms prior to JLVs.

Data Source: World Legal Forum (09 March 1999)

[ (last accessed 9/8/2000)]


Figure 2: Time-Line of Key Dates (1889-2002).


Figure 3: Ten largest on-shore (Singaporean) firms prior to JLVs.

Data Source: World Legal Forum (09 March 1999)

[ (last accessed 9/8/2000)]


Figure 4: Locations of Singaporean law firms’ overseas offices prior to their involvement in JLVs.


Figure 5: Joint Law Ventures, 1999-2002.


Edited and posted on the web on 29th October 2008; last update 14th September 2009

Note: This Research Bulletin has been published in I. Farías and T. Bender (eds) (2009) Urban Assemblages: How Actor-Network Theory Changes Urban Studies London: Routledge, pp. 73-90