The maritime industry is fast losing its zest as a lucrative sector for employment as it battles enormous overcapacity and low freight rates that are choking cashflows and payrolls, says lawyer Jeremy M Joseph. Founder and partner of the boutique maritime law firm Joseph & Partners, Joseph said that job interests in the maritime sector have lost their allure as it is no longer lucrative as wages are paid in ringgit. “I have been told that many Malaysian seafarers are no longer paid in US dollars but in ringgit, which means that workers can no longer take advantage of the fluctuations in the exchange rates and their means to earn extra income has ceased,” he told The Malaysian Reserve.
People assume the shipping industry is about shipowners and direct ancillary industries. On the contrary, anything that involves trade indirectly involves ships as 95% of international trade is carried via ships, he noted. Malaysia has the infrastructure and strong fundamentals of a maritime nation with sea boundaries and is strategically positioned in the Straits of Malacca with over 300,000 ships plying through the port every year, said Joseph. The World Port Source (WPS), an Internet website of publicly accessible seaport information, in its port index has listed 25 Malaysian ports and harbours. “Malaysia has the infrastructure and capacity in place but we are lacking the human factor in terms of qualifications and competitiveness as shipping is an international business and graded with other international parties,” he noted. Regionally, Singapore is the leader in the field with a rich history of being a maritime hub and bunkering centre. “We still haven’t reached the level of quality services offered in the global maritime sector and there is also a lack of political will to heighten the capabilities of local human capital. We are trying to aim high but not implementing the steps to achieve the goal,” he said. “We seem to be satisfied with mediocrity in the industry and I think that’s not the way forward. Human capital issues have to be resolved for the industry to thrive and move forward. This can only be possible if there is general awareness of opportunities in the industry,” he added. Sitpah says a critical mass of lawyers will generate the appropriate confidence that translates into the use of local maritime lawyers (Pic by Hafzi Mohamed/TMR)International Malaysian Society of Maritime Law (IMSML) president Sitpah Selvaratnam said that the society, launched this April, is working with both foreign and local institutions to facilitate maritime certifications, diplomas and post graduate courses. “In tandem, training and education are the keys towards increasing confidence and reliance on local talents. IMSML will hold regular seminars and conferences to increase awareness on maritime issues and matters,” Sitpah said. Commenting on the dearth of maritime lawyers, Jeremy attributes it to two primary reasons, the maritime clientele in Malaysia is not big enough to support the number of lawyers specialising in maritime law and the low number of international clients. “Most lawyers are generally practitioners with a diverse portfolio which may include maritime law. Very few firms specialise in maritime law and the Malaysian institutions that offer such courses, unfortunately are not regarded as the most sought-after,” said Joseph, who is an IMSML secretary. “In this respect the academic study of maritime law is lacking both in terms of quality and recognition, so many who opt to study abroad in the UK or Singapore don’t come back because the money is better overseas,” he added. Joseph regards the steps being taken to address the lack of maritime lawyers as long-term structural objectives. “First, we have to set up an Admiralty Court to hear maritime-related issues, which would require lawyers to appear before a specialist court judge. The idea is that even those who do not have the necessary academic qualifications or experience will learn the ropes quickly,” he added. One of the courses being planned for 2017 is a first-of-its-kind specialist Diploma in Maritime Arbitration to capitalise on the current wave of interest. It is a joint collaboration between the Chartered Institute of Arbitration in the UK, Kuala Lumpur Regional Centre for Arbitration (KLCRA) and IMSML.
In order to increase the number of maritime lawyers in the country, Sitpah said that clients must want to engage Malaysian maritime lawyers. It is the demand that drives supply, so a critical mass of lawyers will generate the appropriate confidence that translates into the use of local maritime lawyers. “Lawyers must be excited into reading maritime law and accepting maritime briefs. Measures such as the publication of Admiralty Guide Book, which is being prepared by Malaysian Judiciary, Shipping Bar and KLRCA, will make admiralty processes easy to appreciate and comprehend,” she added. “I think that with the right people in the driving seat of these key institutions, eventually over the next 10 years, we will have a matured, competitive and expanded Shipping Bar. Our lawyers must possess the clout and capability to attract the confidence of international litigants to Malaysia which will result in a thriving maritime dispute resolution environment,” Joseph said.