Cambodia

Executive Summary

Cambodia has experienced an extended period of strong economic growth, with average annual gross domestic product (GDP) growth hovering at seven percent over the last decade, driven by growing exports (particularly in garment and footwear products), increased investment, and domestic consumption. Tourism is another large contributor to growth, with tourist arrivals reaching 6.61 million in 2019. Cambodia’s GDP per capita stood at $1,674 in 2019, while the average annual inflation rate was estimated at 3.2 percent.

The government has made it a priority to attract investment from abroad. Foreign direct investment (FDI) incentives available to investors include 100 percent foreign ownership of companies, corporate tax holidays of up to eight years, a 20 percent corporate tax rate after the incentive period ends, duty-free import of capital goods, and no restrictions on capital repatriation.

Despite incentives, Cambodia has not historically attracted significant U.S. investment. Apart from the country’s relatively small market size, there are other factors dissuading U.S. investors: corruption, a limited supply of skilled labor, inadequate infrastructure (including high energy costs), and a lack of transparency in some government approval processes. Failure to consult the business community on new economic policies and regulations has also created difficulties for domestic and foreign investors alike. Notwithstanding these challenges, a number of American companies have maintained investments in the country, and in December 2016, Coca-Cola officially opened a $100 million bottling plant in Phnom Penh.

In recent years, Chinese FDI has surged and become a significant driver of growth. The rise in FDI highlights China’s desire for influence in Cambodia, and Southeast Asia more broadly, and that Chinese businesses, many that are state-owned enterprises, may not assess the challenges in Cambodia’s business environment in the same manner as U.S. businesses. The World Bank estimates that Chinese FDI accounted for 60 percent of total FDI-funded projects in Cambodia in 2017; that share rose significantly in 2018. In 2019, FDI hit $3.6 billion – a record – with 43 percent reportedly coming from China.

Physical infrastructure projects, including commercial and residential real estate developments, continue to attract the bulk of FDI. However, there has been some increase in investment in manufacturing, including garment and travel goods factories, as well as agro-processing.

Table 1: Key Metrics and Rankings
Measure Year Index/Rank Website Address
TI Corruption Perceptions Index 2019 162 of 180 http://www.transparency.org/
research/cpi/overview
World Bank’s Doing Business Report 2020 144 of 190 http://www.doingbusiness.org/
en/rankings
Global Innovation Index 2019 98 of 129 https://www.globalinnovationindex.org/
analysis-indicator
U.S. FDI in Cambodia ($M USD, historical stock positions) 2018 USD 165 https://apps.bea.gov/international/
di1usdbal
World Bank GNI per capita 2018 USD 1,390 http://data.worldbank.org/indicator/
NY.GNP.PCAP.CD

1. Openness To, and Restrictions Upon, Foreign Investment 

Policies Towards Foreign Direct Investment 

Cambodia has a liberal foreign investment regime and actively courts FDI. The primary law governing investment is the 1994 Law on Investment. The government permits 100 percent foreign ownership of companies in most sectors. In a handful of sectors, such as cigarette manufacturing, movie production, rice milling, gemstone mining and processing, foreign investment is subject to local equity participation or prior authorization from authorities. While there is little or no official legal discrimination against foreign investors, some foreign businesses, however, report disadvantages vis-a-vis Cambodian or other foreign rivals that engage in acts of corruption or tax evasion or take advantage of Cambodia’s poor regulatory enforcement.

The Council for the Development of Cambodia’s (CDC) is the principal government agency responsible for providing incentives to stimulate investment. Investors are required to submit an investment proposal to either the CDC or the Provincial-Municipal Investment Sub-committee to obtain a Qualified Investment Project (QIP) status depending on capital level and location of the investment question. QIPs are then eligible for specific investment incentives.

The CDC also serves as the secretariat to Cambodia’s Government-Private Sector Forum (G-PSF), a public-private consultation mechanism that facilitates dialogue within and among 10 government/private sector Working Groups. The G-PSF acts as a platform for the private sector to identify issues and recommend solutions. More information about investment and investment incentives in Cambodia may be found at: www.cambodiainvestment.gov.kh .

Cambodia has created special economic zones (SEZs) to further facilitate foreign investment; as of February 2020, there are 23 SEZs in Cambodia. These zones provide companies with access to land, infrastructure, and services to facilitate the set-up and operation of businesses. Services provided include: utilities, tax services, customs clearance, and other administrative services designed to support import-export processes. Projects within the SEZs are also offered incentives such as tax holidays, zero rate VAT, and import duty exemptions for raw materials, machinery and equipment. The primary authority responsible for Cambodia’s SEZs is the Cambodia Special Economic Zone Board (CSEZB). The largest of its SEZs is located in Sihanoukville and hosts primarily Chinese companies.

Limits on Foreign Control and Right to Private Ownership and Establishment 

There are few limitations on foreign control and ownership of business enterprises in Cambodia. Foreign investors may own 100 percent of investment projects except in the sectors mentioned Section 1. According to Cambodia’s 2003 Amended Law on Investment and related sub-decrees, there are no limitations based on shareholder nationality or discrimination against foreign investors except in relation to investments in property or state-owned enterprises. Both the Law on Investment and the 2003 Amended Law state that the majority of interest in land must be held by one or more Cambodian citizens. Further, pursuant to the Law on Public Enterprise, the Cambodian government must directly or indirectly hold more than 51 percent of the capital or the right to vote in state-owned enterprises.

Another limitation concerns the employment of foreigners in Cambodia. A QIP allows employers to obtain visas and work permits for foreign citizens as skilled workers, but the  employer may be required to prove to the Ministry of Labor and Vocational Training that the skillset is not available in Cambodia. The Cambodian Bar has periodically taken actions to restrict or impede the work of foreign lawyers or foreign law firms in the country.

employer may be required to prove to the Ministry of Labor and Vocational Training that the skillset is not available in Cambodia. The Cambodian Bar has periodically taken actions to restrict or impede the work of foreign lawyers or foreign law firms in the country.

Other Investment Policy Reviews 

The OECD conducted an Investment Policy Review of Cambodia in 2018. The report may be found at this link .

The World Trade Organization (WTO) last reviewed Cambodia’s trade policies in 2017; the first had occurred in 2011. The report can be found at this link .

Business Facilitation 

All businesses are required to register with the Ministry of Commerce (MoC) and the General Department of Taxation (GDT). Registration with MOC is possible through an online business registration portal (link ) that allows all existing and new businesses to register. Depending on the types of business activity, new businesses may also be required to register with other relevant ministries. For example, travel agencies must also register with the Ministry of Tourism, and private universities must also register with the Ministry of Education, Youth and Sport. GDT also has an online portal for tax registration and other services, which can be located here .

The World Bank’s 2020 Ease of Doing Business Report ranks Cambodia 187 of 190 countries globally for the ease of starting a business. The report notes that it takes nine separate procedures and three months or more to complete all business, tax, and employment registration processes.

Outward Investment 

There are no restrictions on Cambodian citizens investing abroad. A number of Cambodian companies have invested in neighboring countries – notably, Thailand, Laos and Myanmar – in various sectors.

3. Legal Regime 

Transparency of the Regulatory System 

In general, Cambodia’s regulatory system, while improving, still lacks transparency. This lack of transparency is a result of the lack of legislation and limited capacity of key institutions, and is exacerbated by a weak court system. Investors often complain that the decisions of Cambodian regulatory agencies are inconsistent, arbitrary, or influenced by corruption. For example, in May 2016 in what was perceived as a populist move, the government set caps on retail fuel prices, with little consultation with petroleum companies. And, in April 2017, the National Bank of Cambodia introduced an interest rate cap on loans provided by the microfinance industry with no consultation with relevant stakeholders. In the past years, investors have expressed concern as well over draft legislation that has not been subject to stakeholder consultations.

Cambodian ministries and regulatory agencies are not legally obligated to publish the text of proposed regulations before their enactment. Draft regulations are only selectively available for public consultation with relevant non-governmental organizations (NGOs), private sector or other parties before their enactment. Approved or passed laws are available on websites of some

Ministries but are not always up to date. The Council of Jurists, the government body that reviews law and regulations, publishes a list of updated laws and regulations on its website.

International Regulatory Considerations 

As a member of the ASEAN since 1999, Cambodia is required to comply with certain rules and regulations with regard to free trade agreements with the 10 ASEAN member states. These include tariff-free importation of information and communication technology (ICT) equipment, harmonizing custom coding, harmonizing the medical device market, as well as compliance with tax regulations on multi-activity businesses, among others.

As a WTO member, Cambodia has both drafted and modified laws and regulations to comply with WTO rules. Relevant laws and regulations are notified to the WTO legal committee only after their adoption. A list of Cambodian legal updates in compliance with the WTO is described in the above section regarding Investment Policy Reviews.

Legal System and Judicial Independence 

Although the Cambodian Constitution calls for an independent judiciary, both local and foreign businesses report problems with inconsistent judicial rulings, corruption, and difficulty enforcing judgments. For these reasons, many commercial disputes are resolved through negotiations facilitated by the Ministry of Commerce, the Council for the Development of Cambodia, the Cambodian Chamber of Commerce, or other institutions. Foreign investors often build into their contacts clauses which dictate that investment disputes must be resolved in a third country, such as Singapore.

The Cambodian legal system is primarily based on French civil law. Under the 1993 Constitution, the King is the head of state and the elected Prime Minister is the head of government. Legislative power is vested in a bicameral parliament, while the judiciary makes up the third branch of government. Contractual enforcement is governed by Decree Number 38 D Referring to Contract and Other Liabilities. More information on this decree can be found at www.cambodiainvestment.gov.kh/decree-38-referring-to-contract-and-other-liabilities_881028-2.html.

Laws and Regulations on Foreign Direct Investment 

Cambodia’s 1994 Law on Investment created an investment licensing system to regulate the approval process for foreign direct investment and provide incentives to potential investors. In 2003, the government amended the law to simplify licensing and increase transparency (Amended Law on Investment). Sub-decree No. 111 (2005) lays out detailed procedures for registering a QIP, which is entitled to certain taxation incentives, with the CDC and provincial/municipal investment subcommittees.

Information about investment and investment incentives in Cambodia may be found on the CDC’s website.

Competition and Anti-Trust Laws 

A draft antitrust and competition law is near completion and may be finalized in 2020. Once enacted, it will be enforced by Cambodia’s Import-Export Inspection and Fraud Repression Directorate-General (CAMCONTROL).

Expropriation and Compensation 

Land rights are a contentious issue in Cambodia, complicated by the fact that most property holders do not have legal documentation of their ownership because of official policies and social upheaval during Khmer Rouge era in the 1970s. Numerous cases have been reported of influential individuals or groups acquiring land titles or concessions through political and/or financial connections and then using force to displace communities to make way for commercial enterprises.

In late 2009, the National Assembly approved the Law on Expropriation, which sets broad guidelines on land-taking procedures for public interest purposes. It defines public interest activities to include construction, rehabilitation, preservation, or expansion of infrastructure  projects, and development of buildings for national defense and civil security. These provisions include construction of border crossing posts, facilities for research and exploitation of natural resources, and oil pipeline and gas networks. Property can also be expropriated for natural disasters and emergencies, as determined by the government. Legal procedures regarding compensation and appeals are expected to be established in a forthcoming sub-decree, which is under internal discussion within the technical team of the Ministry of Economy and Finance.

projects, and development of buildings for national defense and civil security. These provisions include construction of border crossing posts, facilities for research and exploitation of natural resources, and oil pipeline and gas networks. Property can also be expropriated for natural disasters and emergencies, as determined by the government. Legal procedures regarding compensation and appeals are expected to be established in a forthcoming sub-decree, which is under internal discussion within the technical team of the Ministry of Economy and Finance.

The government has shown willingness to use tax issues for political purposes. For instance, in 2017, a U.S.-owned independent newspaper had its bank account frozen purportedly for failure to pay taxes. It is believed that, while the company may have had some tax liability, the action taken by Cambodia’s General Department of Taxation, notably an inflated tax assessment, was politically motivated and intended to halt operations. These actions took place at the same time the government took steps to reduce the role of press and independent media in the country as part of a wider anti-democratic crackdown.

Dispute Settlement 

ICSID Convention and New York Convention 

Cambodia has been a member of the Convention on the Settlement of Investment Disputes between States and Nationals of Other States (ICSID Convention) since 2005. Cambodia is also a signatory to the New York Convention on the Recognition and Enforcement of Foreign Arbitral Awards 1958 (the New York Convention) since 1960.

Investor-State Dispute Settlement 

International arbitration is available for Cambodian commercial disputes. In March 2014, the Supreme Court of Cambodia upheld the decision of the Cambodian Court of Appeal, which had ruled in favor of the recognition and enforcement of an arbitral award issued by the Korean Commercial Arbitration Board of Seoul, South Korea. Cambodia became a member of the World Bank’s International Center for Settlement of Investment Disputes in January 2005. In 2009, the International Center approved a U.S. investor’s request for arbitration in a case against the Cambodian government, and in 2013, the tribunal rendered an award in favor of Cambodia.

International Commercial Arbitration and Foreign Courts 

Commercial disputes can also be resolved through the National Commercial Arbitration Center (NCAC), Cambodia’s first alternative dispute resolution mechanism, which was officially launched in March 2013. Arbitral awards issued by foreign arbitrations are admissible in the Cambodian court system. An example can be drawn from its recognition and enforcement of arbitral award issued by the Korean Commercial Arbitration Board in 2014.

Bankruptcy Regulations 

Cambodia’s 2007 Law on Insolvency was intended to provide collective, orderly, and fair satisfaction of creditor claims from debtor properties and, where appropriate, the rehabilitation of the debtor’s business. The Law on Insolvency applies to the assets of all business people and legal entities in Cambodia. The World Bank’s 2020 Doing Business Report ranks Cambodia 82 out of 190 in terms of the “ease of resolving insolvency.”

In 2012, Credit Bureau Cambodia (CBC) was established in an effort to create a more transparent credit market in the country. CBC’s main role is to provide credit scores to banks and financial institutions and to improve access to credit information.

4. Industrial Policies 

Investment Incentives 

Cambodia’s Law on Investment and Amended Law on Investment offers varying types of investment incentives for projects that meet specified criteria. Investors seeking an incentive – for examples, incentives as part of a qualified investment project (QIP) – must submit an application to the CDC. Investors who wish to apply are required to pay an application fee of KHR 7 million (approximately $1,750), which covers securing necessary approvals, authorizations, licenses, or registrations from all relevant ministries and entities, including stamp duties. The CDC is required to seek approval from the Council of Ministers for investment proposals that involve capital of $50 million or more, politically sensitive issues, the exploration and exploitation of mineral or natural resources, or infrastructure concessions. The CDC is also required to seek approval from the Council of Ministers for investment proposals that will have a negative impact on the environment or the government’s long-term strategy.

QIPs are entitled to receive different incentives such as corporate tax holidays; special depreciation allowances; and import tax exemptions on production equipment, construction materials, and production inputs used to produce exports. Investment projects located in designated special promotion zones or export-processing zones are also entitled to the same incentives. Industry-specific investment incentives, such as three-year profit tax exemptions, may be available in the agriculture and agro-industry sectors. More information about the criteria and investment areas eligible for incentives can be found at the following link .

Foreign Trade Zones/Free Ports/Trade Facilitation 

To facilitate the country’s development, the Cambodian government has shown great interest in increasing exports via geographically defined special economic zones (SEZs). Cambodia is currently drafting a law on Special Economic Zones, which is now undergoing technical review within the CDC. There are currently 23 special SEZs, which are located in Phnom Penh, Koh Kong, Kandal, Kampot, Sihanoukville, and the borders of Thailand and Vietnam. The main investment sectors in these zones include garments, shoes, bicycles, food processing, auto parts, motorcycle assembly, and electrical equipment manufacturing.

5. Protection of Property Rights 

Real Property 

Mortgages exist in Cambodia and Cambodian banks often require certificates of property ownership as collateral before approving loans. The mortgage recordation system, which is handled by private banks, is generally considered reliable.

Cambodia’s 2001 Land Law provides a framework for real property security and a system for recording titles and ownership. Land titles issued prior to the end of the Khmer Rouge regime (1975-79) are not recognized due to the severe dislocations that occurred during that time period. The government is making efforts to accelerate the issuance of land titles, but in practice, the titling system is cumbersome, expensive, and subject to corruption. The majority of property owners lack documentation proving ownership. Even where title records exist, recognition of legal titles to land has not been uniform, and there are reports of court cases in which judges have sought additional proof of ownership.

Foreigners are constitutionally forbidden to own land in Cambodia; however, the 2001 Land Law allows long and short-term leases to foreigners. Cambodia also allows foreign ownership in multi-story buildings, such as condominiums, from the second floor up. Cambodia was ranked 129 out of 190 economies for ease of registering property in the 2020 World Bank Doing Business Report.

Intellectual Property Rights 

Infringement of intellectual property rights (IPR) is prevalent in Cambodia. Counterfeit apparel, footwear, cigarettes, alcohol, pharmaceuticals, and consumer goods, and pirated software, music, and books are examples of IPR-infringing goods found in the country.

Though Cambodia is not a major center for the production or export of counterfeit or pirated materials, local businesses report that the problem is growing because of the lack of enforcement. To date, Cambodia has not been listed by the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative (USTR) in its annual Special 301 Report.

Cambodia has enacted several laws pursuant to its WTO commitments on intellectual property. Its key IP laws include the Law on Marks, Trade Names and Acts of Unfair Competition (2002), the Law on Copyrights and Related Rights (2003), the Law on Patents, Utility Models and Industrial Designs (2003), the Law on Management of Seed and Plant Breeder’s Rights (2008), the Law on Geographical Indications (2014), and the Law on Compulsory Licensing for Public Health (2018).

Cambodia has been a member of WIPO since 1995 and has acceded to a number of international IPR protocols, including the Paris Convention (1998), the Madrid Protocol (2015), the WIPO Patent Cooperation Treaty (2016), The Hague Agreement Concerning the International

Registration of Industrial Design (2017), and the Lisbon Agreement on Appellations of Origin and Geographical Indications (2018).

To combat the trade in counterfeit goods, the Cambodian Counter Counterfeit Committee (CCCC) was established in 2014 under the Ministry of Interior to investigate claims, seize illegal goods, and prosecute counterfeiters. The Economic Police, Customs, the Cambodia Import-Export Inspection and Fraud Repression Directorate General, and the Ministry of Commerce also have enforcement IPR enforcement responsibilities; however, the division of responsibility among each agency is not clearly defined. This causes confusion to rights owners and muddles the overall IPR environment. Though there has been an increase in the number of seizures of counterfeit goods in recent years, in general such actions are not taken unless a formal complaint is made.

In early 2020, the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office concluded an MOU with Cambodia on accelerated patent recognition, creating a simplified procedure for U.S. patents to be registered in Cambodia.

For additional information about treaty obligations and points of contact at local IP offices, please see the World Intellectual Property Organization’s country profiles at this link .

6. Financial Sector 

Capital Markets and Portfolio Investment 

In a move designed to address the need for capital markets in Cambodia, the Cambodia Securities Exchange (CSX) was founded in 2011 and started trading in 2012. Though the CSX is one of the world’s smallest securities markets, it has taken steps to increase the number of listed companies, including attracting SMEs. It currently has five listed companies, including the Phnom Penh Water Supply Authority, Taiwanese garment manufacturer Grand Twins International, the Sihanoukville Autonomous Port, Phnom Penh SEZ Plc, and Sihanoukville Autonomous Port.

In September 2017, the National Bank of Cambodia (NBC) adopted a Prakas on Conditions for Banking and Financial Institutions to be listed on the Cambodia Securities Exchange. The Prakas sets additional requirements for banks and financial institutions that intend to issue securities to the public. This includes prior approval from the NBC and minimum equity of KHR 60 billion (approximately $15 million).

Cambodia’s bond market is at the beginning stages of development. The regulatory framework for corporate bonds was bolstered in 2017 through the publication of the Prakas on Public Offering of Debt Securities, the Prakas on Accreditation of Bondholders Representative, and the Prakas on Accreditation of Credit Rating Agency. The country’s first corporate bond was issued in 2018 by Hattha Kaksekar Limited. Four additional companies have since been added to the bond market: LOLC (Cambodia) Plc., Advanced Bank of Asia Limited, Phnom Penh Commercial Bank Plc, and RMA (Cambodia) Plc. RMA, which issued its bonds in early 2020, was the first non-bank financial institution to be listed. There is currently no sovereign bond market, but the government has stated its intention of making government securities available to investors by 2022.

Money and Banking System 

The National Bank of Cambodia (NBC) regulates the operations of banking systems in Cambodia. Foreign banks and branches are freely allowed to register and operate in the country. There are 44 commercial banks, 14 specialized banks (set up to finance specific turn-key projects such as real estate development), 74 licensed microfinance institutions, and seven licensed microfinance deposit taking institutions in Cambodia. NBC has also granted licenses to 12 financial leasing companies and one credit bureau company to improve transparency and credit risk management and encourage more lending to small-and medium-sized enterprise customers.

Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, Cambodia’s banking sector experienced strong growth. The banking sector’s assets, including those of MFIs, rose 21.4 percent year-over-year in 2018 to 139.7 trillion riel ($34.9 billion), while credit grew 24.3 percent to 81.7 trillion riel ($20.4 billion). Loans and deposits grew 18.3 percent and 24.5 percent respectively, which resulted in a decrease of the loan-to-deposit ration from 114 percent to 110 percent. The ratio of non-performing loans remained steady at 2.4 percent in 2017.

The government does not use the regulation of capital markets to restrict foreign investment. Banks have been free to set their own interest rates since 1995, and increased competition between local institutions has led to a gradual lowering of interest rates from year to year. However, in April 2017, at the direction of Prime Minister Hun Sen, the NBC capped interest rates on loans offered by micro-finance institutions (MFIs) at 18 percent per annum. The move was designed to protect borrowers, many of whom are poor and uneducated, from excessive interest rates.

In March 2016, the NBC doubled the minimum capital reserve requirement for banks to $75 million for commercial banks and $15 million for specialized banks. Based on the new regulations, deposit-taking microfinance institutions now have a $30 million reserve requirement, while traditional microfinance institutions have a $1.5 million reserve requirement.

In March 2020, the National Bank of Cambodia (NBC) issued several regulations to ensure liquidity and promote lending amid the outbreak of COVID-19. They include: (1) delaying the implementation of Conservation Capital Buffer (CCB) for financial institutions; (2) reducing the minimum interest rate of Liquidity-Providing Collateralized Operations (LPCO); (3) reducing the interest rates of Negotiable Certificate of Deposit (NCD); (4) reducing the reserve requirement rate (RRR) from 8 percent (KHR) and 12.5 percent (USD) to 7 percent (KHR and USD) for 6 months starting from April, 2020; and (5) reducing the liquidity coverage ratio.

Financial technology (Fintech) in Cambodia is still at early stage of development. Available technologies include mobile payment, QR code, and e-wallet accounts for domestic and cross-border payments and transfers. In 2012, the NBC launched retail payments for cheques and credit remittances. A FAST payment system was introduced in 2016 to facilitate instant fund transfers. The Cambodian Shared Switch (CSS) system was launched in October 2017 to facilitate the access to network ATM and POS machines.

In February 2019, the Financial Action Task Force (FATF), an intergovernmental organization whose purpose is to develop policies to combat money laundering, cited Cambodia for being “deficient” with regard to its anti-money laundering and countering financing of terrorism (AML/CFT) controls and policies and included Cambodia on its “grey list.” The government has committed to working with FATF to address these deficiencies through a jointly-developed action plan, although progress to date appears minimal. Should Cambodia not address the deficiencies, it could risk landing on the FATF “black list,” something that could negatively impact the cost of capital as well as the banking sector’s ability to access the international capital markets.

Foreign Exchange and Remittances 

Foreign Exchange 

Though Cambodia has its own currency, the riel (denoted as KHR), U.S. dollars are widely in circulation in Cambodia and remain the primary currency for most large transactions. There are no restrictions on the conversion of capital for investors.

Cambodia’s 1997 Law on Foreign Exchange states that there shall be no restrictions on foreign exchange operations through authorized banks. Authorized banks are required, however, to report the amount of any transfer equaling or exceeding $100,000 to the NBC on a regular basis.

Loans and borrowings, including trade credits, are freely contracted between residents and nonresidents, provided that loan disbursements and repayments are made through an authorized intermediary. There are no restrictions on the establishment of foreign currency bank accounts in Cambodia for residents.

The exchange rate between the riel and U.S. dollar is governed by a managed float and has been stable at around one U.S. dollar to KHR 4,000 for the past several years. Daily fluctuations of the exchange rate are low, typically under three percent. In the past several years, the Cambodian government has taken steps to increase general usage of the riel but, as noted above, the country’s economy remains largely dollarized.

Remittance Policies 

Article 11 of the Cambodia’s 2003 Amended Law on Investment states that QIPs can freely remit abroad foreign currencies purchased through authorized banks for the discharge of financial obligations incurred in connection with investments. These financial obligations include: payment for imports and repayment of principal and interest on international loans; payment of royalties and management fees; remittance of profits; and, repatriation of invested capital in case of dissolution.

Sovereign Wealth Funds 

Cambodia does not have a sovereign wealth fund.

7. State-Owned Enterprises 

Cambodia currently has 15 state-owned enterprises (SOEs): Electricite du Cambodge, Sihanoukville Autonomous Port, Telecom Cambodia, Cambodia Shipping Agency, Cambodia Postal Services, Rural Development Bank, Green Trade Company, Printing House, Siem Reap Water Supply Authority, Construction and Public Work Lab, Phnom Penh Water Supply Authority, Phnom Penh Autonomous Port, Kampuchea Ry Insurance, Cambodia Life Insurance, and the Cambodia Securities Exchange.

In accordance with the Law on General Stature of Public Enterprises, there are two types of commercial SOEs in Cambodia – one that is 100 percent owned by the state, the other is a joint-venture in which a majority of capital is owned by the state and a minority is owned by private investors.

Each SOE is under the supervision of a line ministry or government institution and is overseen by a board of directors drawn from among senior government officials. Private enterprises are generally allowed to compete with state-owned enterprises under equal terms and conditions. SOEs are also subject to the same taxes and value-added tax rebate policies as private-sector enterprises. SOEs are covered under the law on public procurement, which was promulgated in January 2012, and their financial reports are audited by the appropriate line ministry, the Ministry of Economy and Finance, and the National Audit Authority.

Privatization Program 

There are no ongoing privatization programs, nor has the government announced any plans to privatize existing SOEs.

8. Responsible Business Conduct 

There is a small, but growing awareness of responsible business conduct (RBC) and corporate social responsibility (CSR) among businesses in Cambodia despite the fact that the government does not have explicit policies to promote them. RBC and CSR programs are mostly commonly found at larger and multinational companies in the country. U.S. companies, for example, have implemented a wide range of CSR activities to promote skills training, the environment, general health and well-being, and financial education. These programs have been warmly received by both the general public and the government.

A number of economic land concessions in Cambodia have led to high profile land rights cases. The Cambodian government has recognized the problem, but in general, has not effectively and fairly resolved land rights claims. The Cambodian government does not have a national contact point for Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) multinational enterprises guidelines and does not participate in the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative.

9. Corruption 

Corruption remains a significant issue in Cambodia for investors, and is a widespread practice. An increase in foreign investment from investors willing to engage in corrupt practices, combined with sometimes opaque official and unofficial investment processes, has served to facilitate an overall rise in corruption, already at high levels. In its Global Competitiveness Report 2019, the World Economic Forum ranked Cambodia 134th out of 141 countries for incidence of corruption. Transparency International’s 2019 Corruption Perception index ranked Cambodia 162 of 180 countries globally, the lowest ranking among ASEAN member states.

Those engaged in business have identified corruption, particularly within the judiciary, customs services, and tax authorities, as one of the greatest deterrents to investment in Cambodia. Foreign investors from countries that overlook or encourage bribery have significant advantages over foreign investors from countries that criminalize such activity.

Cambodia adopted an Anti-Corruption Law in 2010 to combat corruption by criminalizing bribery, abuse of office, extortion, facilitation payments, and accepting bribes in the form of  donations or promises. Under the law, all civil servants must also declare their financial assets to the government every two years. Cambodia’s Anti-Corruption Unit (ACU), established the same year, has investigative powers and a mandate to provide education and training to government institutions and the public on anti-corruption compliance. Since its formation, the ACU has launched a few high-profile prosecutions against public officials, including members of the police and judiciary, and has tackled the issue of ghost workers in the government, in which salaries are collected for non-existent employees.

donations or promises. Under the law, all civil servants must also declare their financial assets to the government every two years. Cambodia’s Anti-Corruption Unit (ACU), established the same year, has investigative powers and a mandate to provide education and training to government institutions and the public on anti-corruption compliance. Since its formation, the ACU has launched a few high-profile prosecutions against public officials, including members of the police and judiciary, and has tackled the issue of ghost workers in the government, in which salaries are collected for non-existent employees.

The ACU, in collaboration with the private sector, has also established guidelines encouraging companies to create internal codes of conduct prohibiting bribery and corrupt practices. Companies can sign a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) with the ACU pledging to operate corruption-free and to cooperate on anti-corruption efforts. Since the program started in 2015, more than 80 private companies have signed a MOU with the ACU. In 2018, the ACU completed a first draft of a code of conduct for public officials, which has not yet been finalized.

Despite the passage of the Anti-Corruption Law and creation of the ACU, enforcement remains weak. Local and foreign businesses report that they must often make informal payments to expedite business transactions. Since 2013, Cambodia has published the official fees for public services, but the practice of paying additional fees remains common.

UN Anticorruption Convention, OECD Convention on Combatting Bribery

Cambodia ratified the UN Convention against Corruption in 2007 and endorsed the Action Plan of the Asian Development Bank / OECD Anti-Corruption Initiative for Asia and the Pacific in 2003. Cambodia is not a party to the OECD Convention on Combating Bribery.

Resources to Report Corruption 

Om Yentieng President, Anti-Corruption Unit
No. 54, Preah Norodom Blvd, Sangkat Phsar Thmey 3,
Khan Daun Penh, Phnom Penh
Telephone: +855-23-223-954
Email: info@acu.gov.kh

Transparency International Cambodia
#13 Street 554, Phnom Penh
Telephone: +855-23-214430
Email: info@ticambodia.org

10. Political and Security Environment 

Foreign companies have been the targets of violent protests in the past, such as the 2003 anti-Thai riots against the Embassy of Thailand and Thai-owned commercial establishments. More recently, there were reports that Vietnamese-owned establishments were looted during a January 2014 labor protest. Authorities have also used force, including truncheons, electric cattle prods, fire hoses, and even gunfire, to disperse protestors. Incidents of violence directed at businesses, however, are rare. The Embassy is unaware of any incidents of political violence directed at U.S. or other non-regional interests.

Nevertheless, political tensions remain. After relatively competitive communal elections in June 2017, where Cambodia’s opposition party won nearly 50 percent of available seats, the government took steps to strengthen its grip on power and eliminated meaningful political activity. In September 2017, the head of the country’s leading opposition party was arrested and charged with treason, and in November 2017, the same opposition party was banned. In July 2018, Prime Minister Hun Sen won a landslide victory, and his ruling party swept all 125 parliamentary seats, in a national election that was criticized by the United States as being neither free nor fair. The government has also taken steps to limit free speech and stifle independent media, including forcing independent news outlets and radio stations to cease operations. While there are few overt signs the country is growing less secure today, the possibility for insecurity exists going forward, particularly if a large percentage of the population remains disenfranchised.

11. Labor Policies and Practices 

The global COVID-19 pandemic has had significant impact on Cambodia’s labor sector, the full extent of which are not yet known. Cambodia’s garment and manufacturing sector, which is heavily reliant on global supply chains for inputs and on demand from the United States and Europe, is experiencing severe disruptions due to COVID-19. The government estimates that as of May 2020, 180,000 of Cambodia’s approximately 1 million factory workers have been furloughed. In addition, approximately 90,000 of Cambodia’s 1.3 million migrant workers returned from abroad (mostly from Thailand) due to COVID-19 related job losses.

Cambodia’s labor force includes about 10 million people. A small number of Vietnamese and Thai migrant workers are employed in Cambodia, and Chinese-run infrastructure and other businesses are importing an increasing number of Chinese laborers, who typically earn more than their Cambodian counterparts. Given the severe disruption to the Cambodian education system and loss of skilled Cambodians during the 1975-1979 Khmer Rouge period, there are few Cambodian workers with higher education or specialized skills. Around 55 percent of the population is under the age of 25, a fact reflected in Cambodia’s young workforce. The United Nations has estimated that around 300,000 new job seekers enter the labor market each year. The agricultural sector employees about 40 percent of the labor force. Some 37 percent of the non-agricultural workforce, or 2.2 million workers, are in the informal economy. The pandemic has caused mass suspensions and layoffs across all non-agricultural sectors.

Unresolved labor disputes are mediated first on the shop-room floor, after which they are brought to the Ministry of Labor and Vocational Training. If conciliation fails, then the cases may be brought to the Arbitration Council, an independent state body that interprets labor regulations in collective disputes, such as when multiple employees are dismissed. Since the 2016 Trade Union Law went into force, Arbitration Council cases have decreased from over 30 per month to fewer than five, although that number began to increase again in 2019 due to regulatory changes.

Cambodia’s 2016 Trade Union Law (TUL) erects barriers to freedom of association and the rights to organize and bargain freely. The ILO has stated publicly that the law could hinder Cambodia’s obligations to international labor conventions 87 and 98. To address those concerns, Cambodia passed an amended TUL in early 2020, but the amended law still does not go far enough to fully address ILO, U.S. government, labor NGO, and union concerns about the law’s curbs on freedom of association. In addition, Cambodia has only implemented and enforced a minimum wage in the export garment and footwear sectors.

In early 2020, the government also began consultations with businesses and unions on amending the Labor Law. Unions generally oppose the proposed amendments, seeing them as too pro-business. One proposed change, for example, would reduce extra pay for night shift work.

12. U.S. International Development Finance Corporation (DFC) and Other Investment Insurance Programs 

Through 2019, a number of Cambodian companies have received financing from the Overseas Private Investment Corporation (OPIC), including loans to financial institutions for the purposes of onward lending. OPIC’s successor agency, the Development Finance Corporation (DFC), is expected to carry these programs forward in Cambodia.

The Export-Import Bank of the United States (Ex-Im Bank) provides financing and insurance to local companies to help them purchase U.S. made products and services; repayment terms are generally up to seven years. In 2018, Ex-Im Bank facilitated the sale of a U.S.-made grain silo through a loan guarantee, its first commercial transaction in Cambodia. Cambodia is also a member of the Multilateral Investment Guarantee Agency of the World Bank, which offers political-risk insurance to foreign investors.

13. Foreign Direct Investment and Foreign Portfolio Investment Statistics 

There has been a surge in FDI inflows to Cambodia in recent years. Though FDI goes primarily to infrastructure, including commercial and residential real estate projects, it has also recently favored investments in manufacturing and agro-processing. Cambodia reports its total stock of FDI reached $42 billion in 2019 in terms of fixed assets, up from $38.5 billion in 2018.

Investment into Cambodia is dominated by China, and the level of investment from China has surged especially the last five years. Cambodia reports that its stock of FDI from China reached $16.6 billion by the end of 2019. Other major sources of FDIs stock in Cambodia include South Korea ($4.7 billion), United Kingdom ($3.8 billion), Malaysia ($2.7 billion), and Japan ($2.4 billion), through 2019. In 2019 alone, Chinese investment in Cambodia reached $1.3 billion, followed by Hong Kong ($913 million), and the United Kingdom ($822 million).

Table 2: Key Macroeconomic Data, U.S. FDI in Host Country/Economy 
Host Country Statistical source* USG or international statistical source USG or International Source of Data:
BEA; IMF; Eurostat; UNCTAD, Other
Economic Data Year Amount Year Amount
Cambodia Gross Domestic Product (GDP) ($M USD) 2019 $27 billion 2019 $26.7 billion www.worldbank.org/en/country 
Foreign Direct Investment Host Country Statistical source* USG or international statistical source USG or international Source of data:
BEA; IMF; Eurostat; UNCTAD, Other
U.S. FDI in Cambodia ($M USD, stock positions) 2019 $1,375 2017 $517 BEA data available at
https://www.bea.gov/international/
direct-investment-and-multinational-
enterprises-comprehensive-data
 
Cambodia’s FDI in the United States ($M USD, stock positions) N/A N/A 2017 $5 BEA data available at
https://www.bea.gov/international/
direct-investment-and-multinational-
enterprises-comprehensive-data
 
Total inbound stock of FDI as % host GDP 2019 156% 2018 96.8% UNCTAD data available at
https://unctad.org/en/Pages/
DIAE/World%20Investment%20Report/
Country-Fact-Sheets.aspx
 

* Source for Host Country Data: The Council for the Development of Cambodia (CDC) provides official government data on investment in Cambodia, but not all data is published online. See: www.cambodiainvestment.gov.kh/why-invest-in-cambodia/investment-enviroment/investment-trend.html 

Table 3: Sources and Destination of FDI 
Direct Investment from/in Counterpart Economy Data (through 2018)
From Top Five Sources/To Top Five Destinations (US Dollars, Millions)
Inward Direct Investment Outward Direct Investment
Total Inward 23,246 100% Total Outward 840 100%
China 6,786 29.2% South Africa 310 37%
Korea 1,934 8.3% China 260 31%
Vietnam 1,880 8% Singapore 225 27%
Hong Kong 1,688 7.3% Philippines 31 3.7%
Taiwan 1,629 7% Myanmar 17 2%
“0” reflects amounts rounded to +/- USD 500,000.

Data retrieved from IMF’s Coordinated Direct Investment Survey database presents a much different picture of FDI into Cambodia as compared to that provided by the Cambodian government. For example, the Council for Development of Cambodia reports $38.5 billion stock FDI in term of fixed asset through year-end 2018, while the IMF reports only $23 billion.

Table 4: Sources of Portfolio Investment
Data not available.

14. Contact for More Information 

David Ryan Sequeira, CFA
Economic Officer
U.S. Embassy Phnom Penh
No. 1, Street 96, Sangkat Wat Phnom, Phnom Penh, Cambodia
Phone: (855) 23-728-401
Email: CamInvestment@state.gov

Laos

Executive Summary

Laos, officially the Lao People’s Democratic Republic (Lao PDR), is a rapidly growing developing economy at the heart of Southeast Asia, bordered by Burma, Cambodia, China, Thailand, and Vietnam.  Laos’ economic growth over the last decade averaged just below eight percent, placing Laos amongst the fastest growing economies in the world.  According to the World Bank, Laos’ GDP growth fell from 6.3 percent in 2018 to 4.8 percent in 2019 due primarily to natural disasters that affected the agricultural sector.  The COVID-19 outbreak is expected to further intensify the country’s macroeconomic vulnerabilities in 2020, with limited fiscal and foreign currency buffers constraining the ability of the Government of Lao PDR to mitigate the economic impacts of the pandemic.  Over the last 30 years, Laos has made slow but steady progress in implementing reforms and building the institutions necessary for a market economy, culminating in accession to the World Trade Organization (WTO) in February 2013.  The Lao government’s commitment to WTO accession and the creation of the ASEAN Economic Community (AEC) in 2015 led to major reforms of economic policies and regulations aimed at improving the business and investment environment.  Nonetheless, within ASEAN Laos ranks only ahead of Burma in the World Bank’s “Ease of Doing Business’ rankings.  The Lao government is increasingly tying its economic fortunes to the economic integration of ASEAN and export-led development and is seeking to move toward greener growth and sustainable development.

The exploitation of natural resources and development of hydropower drove the rapid economic growth over the last decade, with both sectors largely led by foreign investors. However, the Lao government recognizes that growth opportunities in these industries are finite and employ few people, and has therefore recently began prioritizing and expanding the development of high-value agriculture, light manufacturing, and tourism, while continuing to develop energy resources and related electrical transmission capacity to export to neighboring countries.

The Lao government hopes to leverage its lengthy land borders with Burma, China, Thailand, and Vietnam to transform Laos from “land-locked” to “land-linked,” thereby further integrating the Lao economy with the larger economies of the countries along its borders. The government hopes to increase exports of agriculture, manufactured goods, and electricity to its more industrialized neighbors, and sees significant growth opportunities resulting from the China-Laos Railway, which will connect Kunming in Yunnan Province with Vientiane, Laos. The railway is expected to be completed and operational by 2021.  Some businesses and international investors are beginning to use Laos as a low-cost export base to sell goods within the region and to the United States and Europe.  The emergence of light manufacturing has begun to help Laos integrate into regional supply chains, and improving infrastructure should facilitate this process, making Laos a legitimate locale for regional manufacturers seeking to diversify from existing production bases in Thailand, Vietnam, and China.  New Special Economic Zones (SEZs) in Vientiane and Savannakhet have attracted major manufacturers from Europe, North America, and Japan.

Economic progress and trade expansion in Laos remain hampered by a shortage of workers with technical skills, weak education and health care systems, and poor—although improving—transportation infrastructure.  Institutions, especially in the justice sector, remain highly underdeveloped and regulatory capacity is low. Despite recent efforts and some improvements, corruption is rampant and is a major obstacle for foreign investors.

Corruption, policy and regulatory ambiguity, and the uneven application of laws remain disincentives to further foreign investment in the country.  The Lao government, under the administration of the new Prime Minister Thongloun Sisoulith is making efforts to improve the business environment.  Its current five-year plan (2016 – 2020) directs the government to formulate “policies that would attract investments” and to “begin to implement public investment and investment promotion laws.”  The Prime Minister’s publicly-stated goal is to see Laos improve its World Bank Ease of Doing Business ranking, and in February 2018, he issued a Prime Minister order laying out specific steps ministries were to take in order to improve the business environment.  These efforts are having some impact – for example, it now takes to less than 40 days to obtain a business license, whereas just 4 years ago it took 174 days, and other nonessential steps were eliminated.  The current administration remains active against corrupt practices, with the government and National Assembly in 2019 disciplining hundreds of officials for corruption-related offenses.  Despite these efforts, the Laos’ Ease of Doing Business ranking has fallen from 139 in 2016 to 154 in 2019.  Furthermore, the multiple ministries, laws, and regulations affecting foreign investment into Laos create confusion, and thus, require many potential investors engage either local partners or law firms to navigate the confusing bureaucracy, or turn their efforts entirely toward other countries in the region.

Table 1: Key Metrics and Rankings
Measure Year Index/Rank Website Address
TI Corruption Perceptions Index 2019 130 of 180 http://www.transparency.org/
research/cpi/overview
World Bank’s Doing Business Report 2019 154 of 190 http://www.doingbusiness.org/
en/rankings
Global Innovation Index 2019 Not Ranked https://www.globalinnovationindex.org/
analysis-indicator
U.S. FDI in partner country ($M USD, stock positions) 2019 No Data Available https://apps.bea.gov/international/
factsheet/factsheet.cfm?Area=615
World Bank GNI per capita 2019 $ 2,450 http://data.worldbank.org/indicator/
NY.GNP.PCAP.CD

1. Openness To, and Restrictions Upon, Foreign Investment

Policies Toward Foreign Direct Investment

The Lao government officially welcomes both domestic and foreign investment as it seeks to keep growth rates high and graduate from Least Developed Country status by 2024.  The pace of foreign investment has increased over the last several years.  According to Lao government statistics, mining and hydropower account for 95.7 percent of Foreign Direct Investment (FDI), and agriculture accounted for only 2 percent of FDI in 2019  China, Thailand, France, Vietnam, and Japan are the largest sources of foreign investment, with China accounting for a significant share of  all FDI in Laos.  The government’s Investment Promotion Department encourages investment through its website www.investlaos.gov.la , and holds an annual dialogue with the private sector and foreign business chambers though the Lao Business Forum process.

The 2009 Law on Investment promotion was amended in November 2016, with 32 new articles introduced and 59 existing articles revised.  Notably, the new law, an English version of which can be found at www.investlaos.gov.la , clarifies investment incentives, transfers responsibility for SEZs from the Prime Minister’s office to the Ministry of Planning and Investment, and removes strict registered capital requirements for opening a business, deferring instead to the relevant ministry.  Foreigners may invest in any sector or business except in cases where the government deems the investment to be detrimental to national security, health, or national traditions, or that have a negative impact on the natural environment.  Nevertheless, even in cases where full foreign ownership is permitted, many foreign companies seek a local partner.  Companies involved in large FDI projects, especially in mining and hydropower, often either find it advantageous or are required to give the government partial ownership.

Foreign investors are typically required to go through several procedural steps prior to commencing operations.  Many foreign business owners and potential investors claim the process is overly complex and regulations are erratically applied, particularly to foreigner investors.  Investors also express confusion about the roles of different ministries, as multiple ministries become involved in the approval process.  In the case of general investment licenses (as opposed to concessionary licenses, which are issued by Ministry of Planning and Investment), foreign investors are required to obtain multiple permits, including an annual business registration from the Ministry of Industry and Commerce (MOIC), a tax registration from the Ministry of Finance, a business logo registration from the Ministry of Public Security, permits from each line ministry related to the investment (i.e., MOIC for manufacturing, and Ministry of Energy and Mines for power sector development), appropriate permits from local authorities, and an import-export license, if applicable.  Obtaining the necessary permits can be challenging and time consuming, especially in areas outside the capital.

There are several possible vehicles for foreign investment.  Foreign partners in a joint venture must contribute at least 30 percent of the company’s registered capital.  Wholly foreign-owned companies may be entirely new or a branch of an existing foreign enterprise.  Equity in medium and large-sized SOEs can be obtained through a joint venture with the Lao government.

Reliable statistics are difficult to obtain, yet with the slowdown of the world economy, there is no question that foreign investment has begun to fluctuate in comparison to previous years.  According to the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD), FDI inflows to Laos decreased 17 percent to USD 1.3 billion in 2018 after peaking in 2017 but still 30 percent higher than 2016.  Laos received around USD 1.07 billion in FDI from China in 2019.  Total FDI stock in Laos has increased from USD 5.7 billion in 2016 to USD 8.6 billion in 2018.

Limits on Foreign Control and Right to Private Ownership and Establishment

As discussed above, even though foreigners may invest in most sectors or businesses (subject to previously noted exceptions), many foreign companies seek a local partner in order to navigate byzantine official and unofficial processes.  Companies involved in large FDI projects, especially in mining and hydropower, often either find it advantageous or are required to give the government partial ownership.

Other Investment Policy Reviews

The OECD releases its most recent investment policy review of Laos on July 11, 2017.  More details can be found at http://www.oecd.org/daf/inv/investment-policy/oecd-investment-policy-reviews-lao-pdr-2017-9789264276055-en.htm 

Business Facilitation

Laos does not have a central business registration website yet, but the Ministry of Industry and Commerce (MOIC) has improved its online enterprise registration site, http://www.erm.gov.la , to accelerate the registration process. As discussed above, over the last four years the total time for business registration has been reduced significantly. The timelines and the different government agencies involved in the process can still vary considerably, however, depending on locations and the type of business.  As a result, many investors and even locals often hire consultancies or law firms to shepherd the labor-intensive registration process.

The Lao government has attempted to streamline business registration using a one-stop shop model.  For general business activities, this service is in the MOIC, http://www.erm.gov.la.  For activities requiring a government concession, the service is in the Ministry of Planning and Investment.  For SEZs, one-stop registration is run through the Ministry of Planning and Investment or in special one-stop service offices within the SEZs themselves (under the authority of the Ministry of Planning and Investment), as is the case at Savan Seno SEZ.

Business owners give the one-stop shop concept mixed reviews.  Many acknowledge that it is an improvement but describe it as an incomplete reform with several additional steps that must still be taken outside of the single stop.  Businesses also complain that there are often different registration requirements at the central and provincial levels.

Outward Investment

The Lao government does not actively promote, incentivize, or restrict outward investment.

3. Legal Regime

Transparency of the Regulatory System

Regulations in Laos can be vague and conflicting, a subject that the private sector raises regularly with the government, including through official fora such as the Lao Business Forum.  The 2013 Law on Making Legislation mandated that all laws be available online at the official gazette website, www.laoofficialgazette.gov.la .  Draft bills are also available for public comment through the official gazette website, although not all bills are posted for comment or in the official gazette, and the provinces seldom post their local legislation.  Though the situation continues to improve, the realities of doing business in Laos can fail to correspond with existing legislation and regulation.  Implementation and enforcement often do not strictly follow the letter of the law, and vague or contradictory clauses in laws and regulations provide for widely varying interpretations.  Regulations at the national and provincial levels can often diverge, overlap, or contradict one another.  Many local firms still complain of informal or gray competition from firms that offer lower costs by flaunting formal registration requirements and operating outside of government regulatory structures.

The nascent legal, regulatory, and accounting systems are not particularly conducive to a transparent, competitive business environment.  International accounting norms apply and major international firms are present in the market, though understanding and adherence to these norms is limited to a small section of the business community.  There are nine companies listed on the Lao stock exchange.  Regulations dictate that companies listed on the exchange must be held to accounting standards, but the government’s capacity to enforce those standards is low.

The government now publicly releases the enacted budget, which includes the total amount of domestic and external debt obligations for the whole country.

International Regulatory Considerations

Laos is a member of the ASEAN Economic Community (AEC), and is seeking to implement all AEC-agreed standards domestically.  However, the local capacity to develop regulatory standards is weak, while enforcement of technical regulations is weaker still. On the positive side, the Lao government has been diligent at notifying draft technical regulations – such as its new law on standards – to the WTO committee on Technical Barriers to Trade (TBT).

Legal System and Judicial Independence

Laos currently has a poorly developed legal sector.  The government aims to become a rule of law state by 2020 and continues to work with many international donors on a comprehensive legal sector reform plan.  From 1975 to 1991, Laos did not have a constitution, and government decrees issued by various ministries and officials only exacerbated the country’s poor legal framework.  While there have been dramatic improvements in the legal system over the last decade, there are relatively few lawyers, many judges lack formal training and experience, and laws often remain vague and subject to broad interpretation.

The existing system incorporates some major elements of the French civil law system, but it is also influenced by legal systems of the former Soviet Union and some of its neighbors in the region.  Court decisions are neither widely published nor do they necessarily affect future decisions.  Despite being bureaucratically independent of the government cabinet, the Lao judiciary is still subject to government and political interference.

Contract law in Laos is lacking in many areas important to trade and commerce.  The law provides for the sanctity of contracts, but in practice, contracts are subject to political interference and patronage.  Businesses report that contracts can be voided if they are found to be disadvantageous to one party, or if they conflict with state or public interests.  Foreign businessmen describe contracts in Laos as being “a framework for negotiation” rather than a binding agreement, and even when faced with a judgment, enforcement is weak and subject to the influence of corruption.  Although a commercial court system exists, most judges adjudicating commercial disputes have little training in commercial law.  Those considering doing business in Laos are strongly urged to contact a reputable law firm for additional advice on contracts.

One positive development from 2019 is that under the leadership of MOIC, Laos became the 92nd State Party to join the United Nations Convention on Contracts for the International Sale of Goods.

Laws and Regulations on Foreign Direct Investment

As discussed above, the 2009 Law on Investment promotion was amended in November 2016. The new law provides more transparency regarding regulations and procedures, and provides greater detail about what specific responsibilities fall under the Ministry of Planning and Investment.  The 2016 Law on Investment Promotion introduced uniform business registration requirements and tax incentives that apply equally to foreign and domestic investors.  As noted above, foreigners may invest in any sector or business except in cases where the government deems the investment to be detrimental to national security, health, or national traditions, or to have a negative impact on the natural environment.  Aside from these sectors, there are no statutory limits on foreign ownership or control of commercial enterprises.  For reasons discussed above, despite changes in the law, many companies continue to seek a local partner.

Most laws of interest to investors are featured on the Lao Trade Portal website, http://www.laotradeportal.gov.la , with many laws and regulations translated into English, or the Lao Official Gazette, http://laoofficialgazette.gov.la , or the official website of the  Ministry of Planning and Investment, www.investlaos.gov.la , or the newly created Lao Law App.

In sum, neither the government’s investment bureaucracy nor the commercial court system is well developed, although the former is improving and reforming.  Investors have experienced government practices that deviate significantly from publicly available law and regulation.  Some investors decry the courts’ limited ability to handle commercial disputes and vulnerability to corruption.  The Lao government has repeatedly underscored its commitment to increasing predictability in the investment environment, but in practice, with some exceptions in the creation and operation of SEZs, and investments by larger companies, foreign investors describe inconsistent application of law and regulation.

Competition and Anti-Trust Laws

There have been no updates since 2017.  A new competition law was approved in 2015 that applies to both foreign and domestic individuals and entities.  The law was drafted with the assistance of the German government and other donors.  The competition law was one of the Lao government’s policy efforts to implement the ASEAN Economic Community, or AEC, before 2016.  The law established two new government entities, the Business Competition Control (BCC) Commission and the BCC Secretariat.  The BCC Commission is the senior body and its membership is decided by the Prime Minister with the advice of the Minister of Industry and Commerce (MOIC).  According to the legislation, it should include senior officials from multiple ministries as well as business people, economists, and lawyers.  The BCC Commission can draft regulations, approve mergers, levy penalties, and provide overall guidance on government competition policy and regulation.  The BCC Secretariat, a lower-level institution equivalent to a MOIC department or division, can hear complaints, conduct investigations, and conduct research and reporting at the request of the Commission.

Expropriation and Compensation

According to law, foreign assets and investments in Laos are protected against seizure, confiscation, or nationalization except when deemed necessary for a public purpose.  Public purpose can be broadly defined, however, and land grabs are feared by Lao nationals and expatriates alike.  In the event of a government expropriation, the Lao government is supposed to provide fair market compensation.  Nevertheless, a business relying on a specific parcel of land may lose its investment license if the land is in dispute.  Revocation of an investment license cannot be appealed to an independent body, and companies whose licenses are revoked must quickly liquidate their assets.  Small landholdings, land with unclear title, or land on which taxes have not been paid are at particular risk of expropriation.

Dispute Settlement

ICSID Convention and New York Convention

Laos is not a member state to the International Centre for the Settlement of Investment Disputes (ICSID Convention).  It is, however, a signatory to the Convention on the Recognition and Enforcement of Foreign Arbitral Awards (1958 New York Convention).

Investor-State Dispute Settlement

According to the Law on Investment Promotion, resolution of a dispute resolution should occur through the following process: mediation, administrative dispute resolution, dispute resolution by the Committee for Economic Dispute Resolution, and finally, litigation.  However, due to the underdeveloped state of the Lao legal system, foreign investors are generally advised to seek arbitration outside of the country.  There are few publicly available records on international investment disputes.   According to the 2017 investment promotion law, article 96 on Dispute Resolution by the Office for Economic Dispute Resolution in the Lao PDR or international organization to which Lao PDR is a party states: “When there is an investment-related dispute, either party thereto shall have the rights to request the Office for Economic Dispute Resolution for resolution within the Lao PDR or abroad as agreed by the parties of the dispute. The Lao PDR recognizes and enforces the award of foreign or international arbitration subject to certification by people’s court of Lao PDR.”  However, in practice, the Embassy is not aware of this new article being successfully exercised by a foreign investor.

International Commercial Arbitration and Foreign Courts

Beyond those listed above, there are no formal Alternative Dispute Resolution mechanisms provided in Lao law but based on the amended Investment Promotion Law and the law on Investment resolution law dated June 22, 2018, both parties can decide if they would like to have the arbitration in Laos or abroad as mentioned in the contract.  There is no known history of Laos enforcing foreign commercial arbitral decisions.

The 1994 bankruptcy law permits either the business or creditor the right to petition the court for a bankruptcy judgment and allows businesses the right to request mediation.  The law also authorizes liquidation of assets based upon the request of a debtor or creditor.  However, there is no record of a foreign-owned enterprise, whether as debtor or as creditor, petitioning the courts for a bankruptcy judgment.  According to the World Bank’s Ease of Doing Business Report, Laos remains at the very bottom of the global rankings for ease of resolving insolvency.

4. Industrial Policies

Investment Incentives

Laos offers a range of investment incentives depending on the investment vehicle, with particular focus on government concessions and Special Economic Zones.  Many of these incentives can be found at www.investlaos.gov.la  and are generally governed by the Investment Promotion Law.

Foreign Trade Zones/Free Ports/Trade Facilitation

The new Foreign Investment Law allows for the establishment of Special Economic Zones and Specific Economic Zones (both referred to as SEZs).  Special Economic Zones are intended to support development of new infrastructure and commercial facilities, and include incentives for investment.  Specific Economic Zones are intended for the development of existing infrastructure and facilities, and provide a lower level of incentives and support than Special Economic Zones.  Laos has announced plans to construct as many as 40 special and specific zones, but as of 2020, it has only established 12.  Some, such as Savan Seno SEZ in Savannakhet and Vientiane Industry and Trade Area SEZ, or VITA Park, in Vientiane, have successfully attracted foreign investors.  Others are accused of harboring illegal activities, such as the Golden Triangle SEZ in Bokeo Province that houses the Kings Roman Casino.  The Department of Treasury Office of Foreign Assets Control in early 2018 designated the Kings Roman Casino and its owners a Transnational Criminal Organization for engaging in drug trafficking, human trafficking, money laundering, bribery, and wildlife trafficking.  More Chinese-invested SEZs are expected to open in the coming years, especially along the China-Laos Railway line. Thai companies are also exploring new SEZ-style industrial parks in Laos.

Generally, the Lao government places a high priority on trade facilitation measures in international fora, particularly as it relies upon trade across its neighboring countries in order to reach seaports.  Nonetheless, Laos has struggled to harmonize its own internal processes.   For example, customs practices vary widely at different ports of entry.  With assistance from Japan, the Lao government instituted a new system for electronic collection of customs fees at several major border crossings in 2016, which has been a significant improvement, and in early 2019 the Department of Customs introduced electronic customs payments at the Lao – Thai Friendship Bridge for passengers.  On several border crossings with Vietnam, Lao and Vietnamese officials jointly conduct inspections to facilitate movement of goods.

Performance and Data Localization Requirements

Laos does not have performance requirements.  Requirements relating to foreign hiring are governed by the 2014 Labor Law, but in practice, large investors have been able to extract additional government concessions on use of foreign labor.  Some foreign-owned businesses have criticized labor regulations for strict requirements that foreign employees not travel abroad during the first months of their Lao residency.

Laos does not currently have enacted laws or regulations on domestic data storage or localization requirements.

5. Protection of Property Rights

Real Property

The government continues to consider changes to its existing land policy, although progress has been slow; and is complicated by sensitive issues including community-held land rights, traditional land rights, slash-and-burn or shifting cultivation, and a history of expropriation for infrastructure, mining, and power projects. A draft revision to the Law on Land Rights has been previewed at multiple National Assembly sessions, but continues to be delayed because of the numerous sensitivities.

Foreign investors are not currently permitted to own land.  However, Article 16 of the 2016 Law on Investment Promotion allows investors to obtain land for use through long-term leases or as concessions, and allows the ownership of leases and the right to transfer and improve leasehold interests.  Government approval is not required to transfer property interests, but the transfer must be registered and a registration fee paid.

Under existing law, a creditor may enforce security rights against a debtor and the concept of a mortgage does exist.  The Lao government is currently engaged in a land parceling and titling project, but it remains difficult to determine if a piece of property is encumbered in Laos.  Enforcement of mortgages is complicated by the legal protection given mortgagees against forfeiture of their sole place of residence.

Laos provides for secured interests in moveable and non-moveable property under the 2005 Law on Secured Transactions and a 2011 implementing decree from the Prime Minister.  In 2013, the State Assets Management Authority at the Ministry of Finance launched a new Secured Transaction Registry (STR), intended to expand access to credit for individuals and smaller firms.  The STR allows for registration of movable assets such as vehicles and equipment so that they may be easily verified by financial institutions and used as collateral for loans.

Outside of urban areas, land rights can be even more complex.  Titles and ownership are not clear, and some areas practice communal titling.

Intellectual Property Rights

Intellectual property protection in Laos is weak, but steadily improving.  The USAID-funded Lao PDR-U.S. International and ASEAN Integration (USAID LUNA II) project assisted the Lao government’s efforts to increase its capacity in the area of intellectual property rights (IPR) and to progress on the IPR-related commitments undertaken as a part of Laos’ 2013 WTO accession package. USAID LUNA II worked with the Ministry of Science and Technology’s Department of Intellectual Property to establish an online portal that provides detailed information regarding the registration of copyrights, trademarks, geographic indicators and plant varieties, https://dip.gov.la . Interested individuals can use the portal to complete the application forms online. The portal officially launched in February 2019. Additionally, USAID LUNA II provided technical support to the Lao government in amending the Law on Intellectual Property.

The Ministry of Science and Technology controls the issuance of patents, copyrights, and trademarks.  Laos is a member of the ASEAN Common Filing System on patents but lacks qualified patent examiners. The bilateral IPR agreement between Thailand and Laos dictates that a patent issued in Thailand also be recognized in Laos.

Laos is a member of the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) Convention and the Paris Convention on the Protection of Industrial Property but has not yet joined the Berne Convention on Copyrights.

In 2011 the National Assembly passed a comprehensive revision of the Law on Intellectual Property which brings it into compliance with WIPO and Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property standards (TRIPS).  Amendments to the 2011 Law on Intellectual Property were made public in May 2018. The consolidation of responsibility for IPR under the Ministry of Science and Technology is a positive development, but the Ministry lacks enforcement capacity.

Laos is not listed in USTR’s 2020 Special 301 Report and the USTR 2019 Review of Notorious Markets does not list any physical or online markets based in Laos.

For additional information about treaty obligations and points of contact at local IP offices, please see WIPO’s country profiles at http://www.wipo.int/directory/en/ .

6. Financial Sector

Capital Markets and Portfolio Investment

Laos does not have a well-developed capital market, although government policies increasingly support the formation of capital and free flow of financial resources.  The Lao Securities Exchange (LSX) began operations in 2011 with two stocks listed, both of them state-owned – the Banque Pour l’Commerce Exterieur (BCEL), and the power generation arm of the electrical utility, Electricite du Laos – Generation (EDL-Gen).  In 2012, the Lao government increased the proportion of shares that foreigners can hold on the LSX from 10 to 20 percent.  As of March 2020, there are eleven companies listed on the LSX: BCEL, EDL-Gen, Petroleum Trading Laos (fuel stations), Lao World (property development and management), Souvanny Home Center (home goods retail), Phousy Construction and Development (Construction and real estate development), Lao Cement (LCC), Mahathuen Leasing (leasing), Lao Agrotech (palm oil plantation and extraction factory), Vientiane Center (property development and management), and Lao ASEAN Leasing (LALCO) ( financing and leasing).  News and information about the LSX is available at http://www.lsx.com.la/ .

Businesses report that they are often unable to exchange kip into foreign currencies through central or local banks.  Analysts suggest that concerns about dollar reserves may have led to temporary problems in the convertibility of the national currency.  Private banks allege that the Bank of Lao PDR withholds dollar reserves.  The Bank of Lao PDR alleges that the private banks already hold sizable reserves and have been reluctant to give foreign exchange to their customers in order to maintain unreasonably high reserves.  The tightness in the forex market led to a temporary 5-10 percent divergence between official and gray-market currency rates in late 2019 and early 2020, and since 2017 the Lao kip has depreciated against both the dollar and Thai baht.

Lao and foreign companies alike, and especially small- and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs), note the lack of long-term credit in the domestic market.  Loans repayable over more than five years are very rare, and the choice of credit instruments in the local market is limited.  The Credit Information Bureau, developed to help inject more credit into markets, still has very little information and has not yet succeeded in mitigating lender concerns about risk.

Money and Banking System

The banking system is under the supervision of the Bank of Lao PDR, the nation’s central bank, and includes more than 40 banks, most of them commercial.  Private foreign banks can establish branches in all provinces of Laos.  ATMs have become ubiquitous in urban centers.  Technical assistance to Laos’ financial sector has led to some reforms and significant improvements to Laos’ regulatory regime on anti-money laundering and countering the financing of terrorism, but overall capacity within the financial governance structure remains poor.

The banking system is dominated by large, government-owned banks.  The health of the banking sector is difficult to determine given the lack of reliable data, though banks are widely believed to be poorly regulated and there is broad concern about bad debts and non-performing loans that have yet to be fully reconciled by the state-run banks, in particular.  The IMF and others have encouraged the Bank of Lao PDR to facilitate recapitalization of the state-owned banks to improve the resilience of the sector.

While publicly available data is difficult to find, non-performing loans are widely believed to be a major concern in the financial sector, fueled in part by years of rapid growth in private lending.  The government’s fiscal difficulties in 2013 and 2014 led to non-payment on government infrastructure projects.  The construction companies implementing the projects in turn could not pay back loans for capital used in construction.  Many analysts believe the full effects of the government’s fiscal difficulties have not yet worked their way through the economy.  In recent years Laos is projected to continue running a budget deficit of 4-5 percent, which coupled with rising public or publicly held debt estimated over 60 percent of GDP, add to concerns about Laos’ fiscal outlook.   In 2018 Laos passed a new law on Public Debt Management aimed at reducing the debt-to-GDP ratio in the coming years.

Foreign Exchange and Remittances

Foreign Exchange

There are no published, formal restrictions on foreign exchange conversion, though restrictions have previously been reported, and because the market for Lao kip is relatively small, the currency is rarely convertible outside the immediate region.  Laos persistently maintains low levels of foreign reserves, which are estimated to cover only 1.1 months’ worth of total imports.  The reserve buffer is expected to remain relatively low due to structurally weak export growth in the non-resource sector and debt service payments. The decline in reserves was due to a drawdown of government deposits primarily for external debt service payments, some intervention in the foreign exchange market to manage the volatility of the currency (notwithstanding a more flexible currency), and financing the continuing current account deficit. The Bank of the Lao PDR (BOL) occasionally imposes daily limits on converting funds from Lao kip into U.S. dollars and Thai baht, or restricts the sectors able to convert Lao kip into dollars, sometimes leading to difficulties in obtaining foreign exchange in Laos.

In order to facilitate business transactions, foreign investors generally open commercial bank accounts in both local and foreign convertible currency at domestic and foreign banks in Laos.  The Enterprise Accounting Law places no limitations on foreign investors transferring after-tax profits, income from technology transfer, initial capital, interest, wages and salaries, or other remittances to the company’s home country or third countries provided that they request approval from the Lao government.  Foreign enterprises must report on their performance annually and submit annual financial statements to the Ministry of Planning and Investment (MPI).

According to a recent report from Laos’ National Institute for Economic Research (NIER), the increasing demand for USD and Thai Baht for the import of capital equipment for projects and consumer goods,  coupled with growing demand for foreign currency to pay off foreign debts has resulted in a depreciation of the exchange rate in 2019. The official nominal kip/U.S. dollar reference rate depreciated by 3.59% in 2019, while the kip/Baht exchange rate depreciated by 7.59%.

Remittance Policies

There have been no recent changes to remittance law or policy in Laos.  Formally, all remittances abroad, transfers into Laos, foreign loans, and payments not denominated in Lao kip must be approved by the BOL.  In practice, many remittances are understood to flow into Laos informally, and relatively easily, from a sizeable Lao workforce based in Thailand.  Remittance-related rules can be vague and official practice is reportedly inconsistent.

Sovereign Wealth Funds

There are no known sovereign wealth funds in Laos.

7. State-Owned Enterprises

The Lao government maintains ownership stakes in key sectors of the economy such as telecommunications, energy, finance, airlines, and mining.  Where state interests conflict with private ownership, the state is in a position of advantage.

There is no centralized, publicly available list of Lao State-Owned Enterprises (SOEs).  The Lao government’s most recent figures report that there are now more than 187 SOEs in Lao PDR. 133 SOEs are 51 – 100 percent State owned. The registered capital was more than USD 26 billion. At the end of 2017, the total assets of 60 SOEs managed by State Property Management Department of Ministry of Finance was more than USD 13 billion (80.51percent of GDP). The net profit from SOEs was around USD 156 million of which USD 105 million was the Government dividends.  The government occasionally floats the idea of increasing private ownership in SOEs such as Lao Airlines through partial listings on the LSX, or spinning off parts of larger enterprises, such as the state electrical utility, EDL.

The government has not specified a code or policy for its management of SOEs and has not adopted OECD guidelines for Corporate Governance of SOEs.  There is no single government body that oversees SOEs.  Several separate government entities exercise SOE ownership in different industries.  SOE senior management does not uniformly report to a line minister.  Comprehensive information on boards of directors or their independence is not publicly available.  While there is scant evidence one way or the other, private businesses generally assume that court decisions would favor an SOE over another party in an investment dispute.

Privatization Program

There is no formal SOE privatization program, though Prime Minister Thongloun has openly discussed subjecting some SOEs to greater competition and possible privatization, and the government has over the past several years occasionally floated ideas for increasing private ownership in some SOEs through partial listings on the LSX, or through spinning off and privatizing parts of others.

8. Responsible Business Conduct

There is low general awareness of responsible business conduct (RBC) and corporate social responsibility (CSR).  There is no systematic government or NGO monitoring of RBC.  RBC is not generally included in the government’s investment policy formulations.

9. Corruption

Corruption is a serious problem in Laos that affects all levels of the economy.  The Lao government has developed several anti-corruption laws but enforcement remains weak.   Since assuming office in early 2016, Prime Minister Thongloun Sisoulith has put a renewed focus on government anti-corruption efforts, and Lao media and the National Assembly now regularly report on corruption challenge and the sacking of disciplining of corrupt officials.  In September 2009, Laos ratified the United Nations Convention against Corruption.

Domestic and international firms have repeatedly identified corruption as a problem in the business environment and a major detractor for international firms exploring investment or business activities in the local market.

The Lao State Inspection and Anti-Corruption Authority (SIAA), an independent, ministry-level body, is charged with analyzing corruption at the national level and serves as a central office for gathering details and evidence of suspected corruption.  Additionally, each ministry and province contains an SIAA office independent from the organization in which it is housed.  These SIAA offices feed into the SIAA’s central system.

According to Lao law, both giving and accepting bribes are criminal acts punishable by fine and/or imprisonment.  Nonetheless, foreign businesses frequently cite corruption as an obstacle to operating in Laos.  Often characterized as a fee for urgent service, officials commonly accept bribes for the purpose of approving or expediting applications.  Laos is not a signatory to the OECD Convention on Combating Bribery.

In 2014, an asset declaration regime entered into force for government officials, which required them to declare income, assets and debts for themselves and their family members; this was further strengthened in 2017 and 2018.  Officials are now required to file a declaration of any assets valued over USD 2,500, including land, structures, vehicles and equipment, as well as cash, gold, and financial instruments.  These declarations are reportedly held privately and securely by the government.  If a corruption complaint is made against an official, the SIAA can compare the sealed declaration with the official’s current wealth.  Whether this program has worked or is working remains unclear.

Resources to Report Corruption

Contact at government agency or agencies are responsible for combating corruption:

Mr. Viengkeo PhonAsa,
Director General
Anti-Corruption Department, State Inspection and Anti-Corruption Authority
Sivilay Village, Xaythany District, Vientiane Capital, 13th South Road
Tel: office:, 021 715032; Fax: 021 715006; cell: 020 2222 5432

10. Political and Security Environment

Laos is generally a peaceful and politically stable country.  The risk of political violence directed at foreign enterprises or businesspersons is low.  There was a string of unexplained attacks on vehicles traveling in remote areas of Xaysomboun province in late 2015 and 2016 which caused several diplomatic missions to issue travel warnings to their citizens, but such incidents have not been repeated in recent years.  There has been little-to-no political violence in the last decade, and Laos’ political stability is an attractive feature for foreign investors.

11. Labor Policies and Practices

Despite Laos’ young population, approximately 62 percent of which are 30 years of age or younger, the labor market remains tight with employers reporting shortages of labor at all levels, especially skilled labor, reflecting the relatively low level of educational attainment within Laos.  The government enacted a new labor law in late 2014 that established many new protections for workers.  It also contained provisions aimed at increasing the skills of the Lao labor force and established stricter provisions on the hiring of foreign workers.

The new law also authorized independent worker’s groups to elect their own leaders and to represent their interests and engage in collective bargaining on their behalf.  The Lao Federation of Trade Unions (LFTU), which is associated with the ruling Lao People’s Revolutionary Party, is the primary representative of labor and represents workers in tripartite processes.  Laos’ National Assembly passed a new Trade Union Law in November 2017 but the impact of the new law on the labor market and foreign investors has yet to be determined.  No official English translations of the final Trade Union Law are publicly available.

Child labor is outlawed except under very strict, limited conditions that ensure no interference with the child’s education or physical wellbeing.  The 2014 law outlaws several forms of employment discrimination and provides standards for work hours.  The minimum wage is set by separate regulation, and in recent years has seen annual increases after a tri-partite negotiation among LFTU, the Ministry of Labor and Social Welfare, and the Lao National Chamber of Commerce and Industry.  The 2014 law also established occupational health and safety standards, but inspections remain inconsistent.  An International Labor Organization project undertaken in 2015 and 2016 trained labor inspectors in basic practices, with particular focus on the garment industry.

Foreign investors using a concession as the investment vehicle are reportedly able to negotiate the percentage of foreign labor to be used in the investment.  However, labor standards such as minimum wage and health and safety standards should apply uniformly regardless of investment vehicle or use of a special economic zone.  In 2018, the minimum wage was approximately USD130 per month.

The new labor law authorizes strikes if several steps of dispute resolution fail; however, there is no record of strikes occurring in Laos.  A cultural distaste for open confrontation and the general shortage of labor continue to make strikes highly unlikely.

Employment contracts are required under the labor law, but are rarely used in practice.  In February 2018, the government promulgated a new decree on labor dispute resolution.

Collective bargaining is typically undertaken by representatives of the Lao Federation of Trade Unions, though the 2014 labor law also provides the elected representative of independent worker’s groups the ability to negotiate their own collective bargaining agreements with employers.  Basic and subsistence agriculture, informal businesses, and small family businesses make up the vast majority of employment, thus collective bargaining is relatively rare in the overall economy and unfamiliar to many.

13. Foreign Direct Investment and Foreign Portfolio Investment Statistics

Table 2: Key Macroeconomic Data, U.S. FDI in Host Country/Economy
Host Country Statistical source* USG or international statistical source USG or International Source of Data:
BEA; IMF; Eurostat; UNCTAD, Other
Economic Data Year Amount Year Amount  
Host Country Gross Domestic Product (GDP) ($M USD) 2018 $18,129 2018 $17,954 www.worldbank.org/en/country 
Foreign Direct Investment Host Country Statistical source USG or international statistical source USG or international Source of data:
BEA; IMF; Eurostat; UNCTAD, Other
U.S. FDI in partner country ($M USD, stock positions) N/A N/A N/A N/A BEA data available at
https://www.bea.gov/international/
direct-investment-and-multinational-
enterprises-comprehensive-data
 
Host country’s FDI in the United States ($M USD, stock positions) N/A N/A N/A N/A BEA data available at
https://www.bea.gov/international/
direct-investment-and-multinational-
enterprises-comprehensive-data
 
Total inbound stock of FDI as % host GDP N/A N/A 2018 51% UNCTAD data available at
https://unctad.org/en/Pages/DIAE/
World%20Investment%20Report/
Country-Fact-Sheets.aspx
 

Table 3: Sources and Destination of FDI
Data not available.

Table 4: Sources of Portfolio Investment
Data not available.

14. Contact for More Information

Athnasak Sisouk
Economic and Commercial Assistant
U.S. Embassy, Km 9, Tha Deua Rd, Vientiane Laos
(+856) 21 487-000
AthansakS@state.gov

Malaysia

Executive Summary

Since an unexpected political transition in March, Malaysia’s new government under Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin has focused its attention on the unprecedented set of challenges facing Malaysia in 2020, including the COVID-19 pandemic and a sharp drop in global oil prices.  In response to the economic damage wrought by COVID-19 restrictions, the Malaysian government has approved over USD 60 billion in stimulus measures designed to protect Malaysian citizens and businesses, and has laid out plans to prioritize the country’s economic recovery following the lockdown period for the remainder of 2020 and into 2021.

The Malaysian government has traditionally encouraged foreign direct investment (FDI), and the Prime Minister and many cabinet ministers have signaled their openness to foreign investment since taking office.  Government officials have called for investments in high technology and research and development, focusing on artificial intelligence, Internet of Things device design and manufacturing, smart cities, electric vehicles, automation of the manufacturing industry, telecommunications infrastructure, and other “catalytic sub-sectors,” such as aerospace.  The government also seeks to further develop traditional sectors such as oil and gas; palm oil and rubber; wholesale and retail operations, including e-commerce; financial services; tourism; electrical and electronics (E&E); business services; communications content and infrastructure; education; agriculture; and health care.

Under the previous administration, inbound FDI had been steady in nominal terms, though Malaysia’s performance in attracting FDI relative to both earlier decades and the rest of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) had slowed.  According to the 2013 Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) Investment Policy Review of Malaysia, FDI to Malaysia began to decline in 1992, and private investment overall started to slide in 1997 following the Asian financial crises.  In the intervening years, domestic demand has increasingly been the source of Malaysia’s economic performance, with foreign investment receding as a driver of GDP growth.  The OECD concluded in its Review that Malaysia’s FDI levels in recent years had reached record high levels in absolute terms but were at low levels as a percentage of GDP.  The current government estimates that GDP will shrink 0.5 percent in 2020.

The business climate in Malaysia is generally conducive to U.S. investment.  Increased transparency and structural reforms that will prevent future corrupt practices could make Malaysia a more attractive destination for FDI in the long run.  The largest U.S. investments are in the oil and gas sector, manufacturing, and financial services.  Firms with significant investment in Malaysia’s oil and gas and petrochemical sectors include ExxonMobil, Caltex, ConocoPhillips, Hess Oil, Halliburton, Dow Chemical and Eastman Chemicals.  Major semiconductor manufacturers, including ON Semiconductor, Texas Instruments, Intel, and others have substantial operations in Malaysia, as do electronics manufacturers Western Digital, Honeywell, St. Jude Medical Operations (medical devices), and Motorola.  In recent years Malaysia has attracted significant investment in the production of solar panels, including from U.S. firms.  Many of the major Japanese consumer electronics firms (Sony, Fuji, Panasonic, Matsushita, etc.) have facilities in Malaysia.

Table 1: Key Metrics and Rankings
Measure Year Index/Rank Website Address
TI Corruption Perceptions Index 2019 51 of 183 http://www.transparency.org/
research/cpi/overview
World Bank’s Doing Business Report 2019 12 of 190 http://www.doingbusiness.org/en/rankings
Global Innovation Index 2019 35 of 129 https://www.globalinnovationindex.org/
analysis-indicator
U.S. FDI in partner country ($M USD, historical stock positions) 2018 $13,581 https://www.bea.gov/system/
files/2019-07/fdici0719.pdf
World Bank GNI per capita 2018 $10,591 http://data.worldbank.org/
indicator/NY.GNP.PCAP.CD

1. Openness To, and Restrictions Upon, Foreign Investment

Policies Towards Foreign Direct Investment

Historically, the Malaysian government has welcomed FDI as an integral component of its economic development. Over the last decade, the gradual liberalization of the economy and influx of FDI has led to the creation of new jobs and businesses and fueled Malaysia’s export-oriented growth strategy.  The Malaysian economy is highly dependent on trade.  According to World Bank data, the value of Malaysia’s imports and exports of goods and services as a share of GDP held steady at roughly 130 percent in 2018, more than double the global average.

In October 2019, the government introduced measures in its 2020 budget designed to streamline and further incentivize foreign investment, with special emphasis on investments being redirected from China as a result of shifting global supply chains.  The Malaysian government established the China Special Channel for the purpose of attracting these investments, an initiative being managed by InvestKL, an investment promotion agency under the Ministry of International Trade and Industry.  The government also established the National Committee on Investment, an investment approval body jointly chaired by the Minister of Finance and the Minister of International Trade and Industry, to expedite the regulatory process with respect to approving new investments.

Prior to the government transition in March, the previous government had announced plans to overhaul its existing incentive framework, including a revamp of the Promotion of Investments

Act of 1986 and incentives under the Income Tax Act of 1967.  It is unclear whether the new government will continue with this plan.

Malaysia has various national, regional, and municipal investment promotion agencies, including the Malaysian Investment Development Authority (MIDA) and InvestKL.  These agencies can assist with business strategy consultations, area familiarization, talent management programs, networking, and other post-investment services.

Limits on Foreign Control and Right to Private Ownership and Establishment

Foreign and domestic private entities can establish and own business enterprises and engage in all forms of remunerative activity, with some exceptions.  Although Malaysia has taken steps to liberalize policies concerning foreign investment, there continue to exist requirements for local equity participation within specific sectors.  In 2009, Malaysia repealed Foreign Investment Committee (FIC) guidelines that limited transactions for acquisitions of interests, mergers, and takeovers of local companies by foreign parties.  However, certain business sectors, including logistics, industrial training, and distributive trade, are required to limit foreign equity participation when applying for operating licenses, permits and approvals.  Due to residual economic policies, this limitation most commonly manifests as a 70-30 equity split between foreign investors (maximum 70 percent) and Bumiputera (i.e., ethnic Malays and indigenous peoples) entities (minimum 30 percent).

Foreign investment in services, whether in sectors with no foreign equity caps or controlled sub-sectors, remain subject to review and approval by ministries and agencies with jurisdiction over the relevant sectors.  A key function of this review and approval process is to determine whether proposed investments meet the government’s qualifications for the various incentives in place to promote economic development goals.  The Ministerial Functions Act grants relevant ministries broad discretionary powers over the approval of investment projects.  Investors in industries targeted by the Malaysian government can often negotiate favorable terms with the ministries or agencies responsible for regulating that industry.  This can include assistance in navigating a complex web of regulations and policies, some of which can be waived on a case-by-case basis.  Foreign investors in non-targeted industries tend to receive less government assistance in obtaining the necessary approvals from various regulatory bodies and therefore can face greater bureaucratic obstacles.

Finance

Malaysia’s 2011-2020 Financial Sector Blueprint has produced partial liberalization within the financial services sector; however, it does not contain specific market-opening commitments or timelines.  For example, the services liberalization program that started in 2009 raised the limit of foreign ownership in insurance companies to 70 percent.  However, Bank Negara Malaysia, Malaysia’s central bank, would allow a greater foreign ownership stake if the investment is determined to facilitate the consolidation of the industry.  The latest Blueprint helped to codify the case-by-case approach.  Under the Financial Services Act passed in late 2012, issuance of new licenses will be guided by prudential criteria and the “best interests of Malaysia,” which may include consideration of the financial strength, business record, experience, character and integrity of the prospective foreign investor, soundness and feasibility of the business plan for the institution in Malaysia, transparency and complexity of the group structure, and the extent of supervision of the foreign investor in its home country.  In determining the “best interests of Malaysia,” BNM may consider the contribution of the investment in promoting new high value-added economic activities, addressing demand for financial services where there are gaps, enhancing trade and investment linkages, and providing high-skilled employment opportunities.  BNM, however, has never defined criteria for the “best interests of Malaysia” test, and no firms have qualified.

While there has been no policy change in terms of the 70 percent foreign ownership cap for insurance companies, the government did agree to let one foreign owned insurer maintain a 100 percent equity stake after that firm made a contribution to a health insurance scheme aimed at providing health coverage to lower income Malaysians.

BNM currently allows foreign banks to open four additional branches throughout Malaysia, subject to restrictions, which include designating where the branches can be set up (i.e., in market centers, semi-urban areas and non-urban areas).  The policies do not allow foreign banks to set up new branches within 1.5 km of an existing local bank.  BNM also has conditioned foreign banks’ ability to offer certain services on commitments to undertake certain back office activities in Malaysia.

Information & Communication

In 2012, Malaysia authorized up to 100 percent foreign equity participation among application service providers, network service providers, and network facilities providers.  An exception to this is national telecommunications firm Telekom Malaysia, which has an aggregate foreign share cap of 30 percent, or five percent for individual investors.

Manufacturing Industries

Malaysia permits up to 100 percent foreign equity participation for new manufacturing investments by licensed manufacturers.  However, foreign companies can face difficulties obtaining a manufacturing license and often resort to incorporating a local subsidiary for this purpose.

Oil and Gas

Under the terms of the Petroleum Development Act of 1974, the upstream oil and gas industry is controlled by Petroleum Nasional Berhad (PETRONAS), a wholly state-owned company and the sole entity with legal title to Malaysian crude oil and gas deposits.  Foreign participation tends to take the form of production sharing contracts (PSCs).  PETRONAS regularly requires its PSC partners to work with Malaysian firms for many tenders.  Non-Malaysian firms are permitted to participate in oil services in partnership with local firms and are restricted to a 49 percent equity stake if the foreign party is the principal shareholder.  PETRONAS sets the terms of upstream projects with foreign participation on a case-by-case basis.

Other Investment Policy Reviews

Malaysia’s most recent Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) investment review occurred in 2013.  Although the review underscored the generally positive direction of economic reforms and efforts at liberalization, the recommendations emphasized the need for greater service sector liberalization, stronger intellectual property protections, enhanced guidance and support from Malaysia’s Investment Development Authority (MIDA), and continued corporate governance reforms.

Malaysia also conducted a WTO Trade Policy Review in February 2018, which incorporated a general overview of the country’s investment policies.  The WTO’s review noted the Malaysian government’s action to institute incentives to encourage investment as well as a number of agencies to guide prospective investors.  Beyond attracting investment, Malaysia had made measurable progress on reforms to facilitate increased commercial activity. Among the new trade and investment-related laws that entered into force during the review period were: the Companies Act, which introduced provisions to simplify the procedures to start a company, to reduce the cost of doing business, as well as to reform corporate insolvency mechanisms; the introduction of the goods and services tax (GST) to replace the sales tax; the Malaysian Aviation Commission Act, pursuant to which the Malaysian Aviation Commission was established; and various amendments to the Food Regulations.  Since the WTO Trade Policy Review, however, the new government has already eliminated the GST, and has revived the Sales and Services Tax, which was implemented on September 1, 2018.

http://www.oecd.org/investment/countryreviews.htm 

https://www.wto.org/english/tratop_e/tpr_e/tp466_e.htm 

Business Facilitation

The principal law governing foreign investors’ entry and practice in the Malaysian economy is the Companies Act of 2016 (CA), which entered into force on January 31, 2017 and replaced the Companies Act of 1965.  Incorporation requirements under the new CA have been further simplified and are the same for domestic and foreign sole proprietorships, partnerships, as well as privately held and publicly traded corporations. According to the World Bank’s Doing Business Report 2019, Malaysia streamlined the process of obtaining a building permit and made it faster to obtain construction permits; eliminated the site visit requirement for new commercial electricity connections, making getting electricity easier for businesses; implemented an online single window platform to carry out property searches and simplified the property transfer process; and introduced electronic forms and enhanced risk-based inspection system for cross-border trade and improved the infrastructure and port operation system at Port Klang, the largest port in Malaysia, thereby facilitating international trade; and made resolving insolvency easier by introducing the reorganization procedure.  These changes led to a significant improvement of Malaysia’s ranking per the Doing Business Report, from 24 to 15 in one year.

In addition to registering with the Companies Commission of Malaysia, business entities must file: 1) Memorandum and Articles of Association (i.e., company charter); 2) a Declaration of Compliance (i.e., compliance with provisions of the Companies Act); and 3) a Statutory Declaration (i.e., no bankruptcies, no convictions).  The registration and business establishment process takes two weeks to complete, on average. The new government repealed GST and installed a new sales and services tax (SST), which began implementation on September 1, 2018.

Beyond these requirements, foreign investors must obtain licenses.  Under the Industrial Coordination Act of 1975, an investor seeking to engage in manufacturing will need a license if the business claims capital of RM2.5 million (approximately USD 641,000) or employs at least 75 full-time staff.  The Malaysian Government’s guidelines for approving manufacturing investments, and by extension, manufacturing licenses, are generally based on capital-to-employee ratios. Projects below a threshold of RM55,000 (approximately USD 14,100) of capital per employee are deemed labor-intensive and will generally not qualify.  Manufacturing investors seeking to expand or diversify their operations need to apply through MIDA.

Manufacturing investors whose companies have annual revenue below RM50 million (approximately USD12.8 million) or with fewer than 200 full-time employees meet the definition of small and medium size enterprises (SMEs) and will generally be eligible for government SME incentives.  Companies in the services or other sectors that have revenue below RM20 million (approximately USD5.1 million) or fewer than 75 full-time employees also meet the SME definition.

[Reference]

Outward Investment

While the Malaysian government does not promote or incentivize outward investment, a number of Government-Linked companies, pension funds, and investment companies do have investments overseas.  These companies include the sovereign wealth fund of the Government of Malaysia, Khazanah Nasional Berhad; KWAP, Malaysia’s largest public services pension fund; and the Employees’ Provident Fund of Malaysia.  Government owned oil and gas firm Petronas also has investments in several regions outside Asia.

2. Bilateral Investment Agreements and Taxation Treaties

As a member of ASEAN, Malaysia is a party to trade agreements with Australia and New Zealand; China; India; Japan; and the Republic of Korea. During the review period, the ASEAN-India Agreement was expanded to cover trade in services. Malaysia also has bilateral FTAs with Australia; Chile; India; Japan; New Zealand; Pakistan; and Turkey.

Reference: https://www.wto.org/english/tratop_e/tpr_e/s366_sum_e.pdf 

Malaysia has bilateral investment treaties with 36 countries, but not yet with the United States.  Malaysia does have bilateral “investment guarantee agreements” with over 70 economies, including the United States. The Government reports that 65 of Malaysia’s existing investment agreements contain Investor State Dispute Settlement (ISDS) provisions.  Malaysia has double taxation treaties with over 70 countries, though the double taxation agreement with the U.S. currently is limited to air and sea transportation.

3. Legal Regime

Transparency of the Regulatory System

In July 2013, the Malaysian government accelerated its efforts to modernize the regulatory processes in the country by releasing the National Policy on Development and Implementation of Regulations (NPDIR), a roadmap to achieving Good Regulatory Practice (GRP).  Under the NPDIR, the federal government formalized a comprehensive approach to improve the efficiency and transparency of the country’s regulatory framework.  The benefits to the private sector thus far have included a streamlining of project approval requirements and fees (to the point that Malaysia ranked 2nd in the World Bank’s 2020 Doing Business report on ease of “dealing with construction permits”), a greater role in the lawmaking process, and improved standardization and transparency in all phases of regulatory proceedings.  The main components of the policy are: 1) the requirement of a Regulatory Impact Assessment (RIA) (a cost-benefit analysis of all newly proposed regulations) with each new piece of regulation; and 2) the formalization of a public consultation process to take the views of stakeholders into account while formulating new legislation.  Under the NPDIR, the government has committed to reviewing all new regulations every five years to determine which ones need to be adjusted or eliminated.

In furtherance of the NPDIR, the Malaysian government published four circulars in 2013 and 2014 to explain the methodology and implementation of their new strategy.  These four documents laid out a clear framework toward increasing accountability, standardization, and transparency, as well as explaining enforcement and compliance mechanisms to be established.  Throughout its various agencies, the government of Malaysia has taken steps to actualize these circulars.  Ministries and agencies use their respective websites to publish the text and or summaries of proposed regulations prior to enactment, albeit with varying levels of consistency.  Further, Malaysia’s procurement principles include adherence to open and fair competition, public accountability, transparency, and value for money.

Despite these efforts to foster inclusion, fairness, and transparency, considerable room for improvement exists.  The Malaysian government’s 2018 Report on Modernization (sic) of Regulations emphasized the need to “Establish an accountability mechanism for the implementation of regulatory reviews by the government.”  Many foreign investors echo this lack of accountability and criticize the opacity in the government decision-making process.  One major area of concern for foreign investors remains government procurement policy, as non-Malaysian companies claim to have lost bids against Bumiputera-owned (ethnic Malay) companies despite offering better products at lower costs.  Such results are due to the government’s preference policy to facilitate greater Bumiputera participation in the private sector.  This preference policy is manifested through set-aside contracts for Bumiputera suppliers and contractors, and through the use of preferential price margins to increase the competitiveness of Bumiputera bidders.

Malaysia has a three-tiered system of legislation: federal-level (Parliament), State-level, and local-level.   Federal and state-level legislation derive their authority from the Malaysian Constitution, specifically Articles 73-79.  Parliament has the exclusive power to make laws over matters including trade, commerce and industry, and financial matters.  Parliament can delegate its authority to administrative agencies, states, and local bodies through Acts.  States have the power to make laws concerning land, local government, and Islamic courts.  Local legislative bodies derive their authority from Acts promulgated by Parliament, most notably the Local Government Act of 1976.  Local authorities have the ability to issue by-laws concerning local taxation and land use.  For foreign investors, the Parliament is the most relevant legislating body, as it governs issues related to trade, and because Article 75 of the Constitution states that in a conflict of laws between state and federal-level legislatures, the federal laws win out.

It is also important to note the role of the administrative state in the promulgation of new laws and regulations in Malaysia.  Pursuant to the Interpretation Act of 1948 and 1967,

“Any proclamation, rule, regulation, order, notification, bye-law, or other instrument made under any Act, Enactment, Ordinance or other lawful authority and having legislative effect.”  Thus, the various ministries and agencies can be delegated lawmaking authority by an Act of a legislature with the legal right to make laws.

The Malaysian government’s strides toward improving transparency are evident in its embrace of internationally accepted standards in various highly regulated fields, including auditing, accounting, and law.  In that vein, the Malaysian Accounting Standards Board (MASB) introduced the Malaysian Financial Reporting Standards (MFRS) framework, which came into effect on January 1, 2012.  The MFRS framework is fully compliant with the International Financial Reporting Standards (IFRS) framework; this compliance serves to enhance the credibility and transparency of financial reporting in Malaysia.  According to the World Economic Forum’s 2019 Global Competitiveness Report (the “WEF 2019 Report”), Malaysia ranks 29th out of 141 countries in terms of its strength of auditing and accounting standards.

Specifically regarding auditing, the Malaysian Institute of Accountants (MIA) has the authority to set standards.  The MIA’s Auditing and Assurance Standards Board (AASB) reviews standards and technical pronouncements issued by the International Auditing and Assurance Standards Board (IAASB), which sets International Standards on Auditing (ISAs) that have been adopted in more than 110 jurisdictions.

Publicly listed companies in Malaysia must comply with standard international reporting requirements.  The IFRS framework converged with the Malaysian auditing framework in 2012, compelling compliance by Malaysian publicly listed companies.  The IFRS framework has obtained force of law through Section 7 of the Financial Reporting Act (FRA) of 1997, which allows the MASB to issue approved accounting standards for application in Malaysia.  The FRA requires that financial statements prepared or lodged with the Central Bank, Securities Commission, or Registrar of Companies are required to comply with the standards issued by MASB.  Thus, the MASB’s adoption of the IFRS framework is legally binding.

In theory, pieces of legislation are to be made available for public comment through a multi-stage system of rulemaking.  The Malaysia Productivity Corporation (MPC) published the Guideline on Public Consultation Procedures in 2014 (the “Guideline”), which expanded upon information contained in the Best Practice Regulation Handbook of 2013 in furtherance of GRP.  The Guideline clarifies the roles of government and stakeholders in the consultation process and provides the guiding principles for Malaysia’s public consultation approach.  Additionally, the Guideline provides robust examples of the information that should be included in consultation papers, furnishes information on enforcement, and details the timeline of the consultation process.  As it pertains to foreign investment, the consultation procedures apply to investment laws and regulations, which usually fall under the purview of the Malaysian Securities Commission (SC), the Bursa Malaysia, or the Malaysian Central Bank.  The SC, for example, keeps public consultation papers on its website, easily accessible by stakeholders.  These papers generally contain the rationale for the proposed regulations, as well as potential impacts, and provide a list of questions for stakeholders to explain their views to regulators.

The public is also engaged in the public consultation process through the increased role of PEMUDAH (the Special Task Force to Facilitate Business), which was founded in 2007 to serve as a bridge between government, businesses, and civil society organizations.  PEMUDAH promotes the understanding of regulatory requirements that impact economic activities, by addressing unfair treatment resulting from inconsistencies in enforcement and implementation.  PEMUDAH plays an advocacy role in various points in the regulatory implementation process; it provides recommendations from the private sector to regulators before new regulations are implemented, and monitors enactment of existing pieces of regulation.

Despite the relative robustness of the Guideline, and despite the significant steps forward Malaysia has taken to reduce the regulatory burden on industry, obstacles remain.  There are frequent inconsistencies between different ministries in their implementation of the public consultation procedures, as well as in their respective interpretations of how regulations are to be applied.  Adding to the difficulty is the complicated relationship between state-level and federal-level legislation, which can overlap on a range of issues and lead to inefficiencies for investors.

There is a non-governmental website that publishes Malaysian bills and amendments from 2013 onward: https://www.cljlaw.com/?page=latestmybill&year=2019.  The site publishes the full text of the documents.  However, to the best of our knowledge, no such government-run clearinghouse of historical regulatory action exists.  However, Malaysia took a large step forward on this front in 2019, as in association with the World Bank, the MPC created a website that contains all ongoing pieces of legislation and allows public comment thereon.  The website, called the Uniform Public Consultation Portal (http://upc.mpc.gov.my/csp/sys/bi/%25cspapp.bi.index.cls?home=1), does not appear to contain legislation that was completed or implemented before 2019, but is a positive move toward standardizing and emphasizing the public consultation process.  The website is user-friendly and allows searching by due date, implementing agency, and phase of consultation.

Malaysia has a multi-faceted approach to ensuring governmental compliance with regulatory requirements.  The most important enforcement mechanism is access to judicial review.  The WEF 2019 Report lists Malaysia as the 12th ranked country in efficiency of the legal framework in challenging regulations.  Through ease in accessing administrative and judicial courts, aggrieved parties in Malaysia are able to compel action by the regulator.  Additionally, PEMUDAH (the Malaysian government’s Special Task Force to Facilitate Business) serves as an advocacy role during the various phases of the consultation process to ensure that the private sector’s voice is being heard.

Throughout the administrative state, various avenues exist through which aggrieved parties may seek recourse.  Different governmental organisms have their own enforcement mechanisms to handle specific issues they face.  For instance, the Central Bank has a dedicated “Complaints Unit,” which deals with consumer complaints against banking institutions.  The Bank lists enforcement options as “a public or private reprimand; an order to comply; an administrative and civic penalty; restitution to customer; or prosecution.  By contrast, the Inland Revenue Board of Malaysia (tax agency) has a an organism called the Special Commissioners of Income Tax, to which taxpayers may file appeals concerning judgments and new regulations.  The Malaysian Companies Commission (which regulates laws relating to companies registered in Malaysia) is also engaged in enforcement proceedings, as is the Malaysian Securities Commission.  On matters of procurement, aggrieved bidders may complain to the Public Complaints Bureau, the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission, the Malaysian Competition Commission, or the National Audit Department.

In addition to the various agency-led enforcement mechanisms, aggrieved parties may also go through administrative courts.  The rulings of these courts have force of law pursuant to various Acts of Parliament, and Malaysia has taken measures to increase their efficacy in order to improve its reputation as an international business hub.  The decisions of these administrative courts are subject to judicial review on grounds of illegality, irrationality, and procedural impropriety.

Reference:

International Regulatory Considerations

Malaysia is one of 10 Member States that constitute the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN).  On December 31, 2015, the ASEAN Economic Community formally came into existence. ASEAN’s economic policy leaders meet regularly to discuss promoting greater economic integration within the 10-country bloc.  Although already robust, Member States have prioritized steps to facilitate a greater flow of goods, services, and capital.  No regional regulatory system is in place.  As a member of the WTO, Malaysia provides notification of all draft technical regulations to the Committee on Technical Barriers to Trade.

Legal System and Judicial Independence

Malaysia’s legal system consists of written laws, such as the federal and state constitutions and laws passed by Parliament and state legislatures, and unwritten laws derived from court cases and local customs. The Contract Law of 1950 still guides the enforcement of contracts and resolution of disputes.  States generally control property laws for residences, although the Malaysian government has recently adopted measures, including high capital gains taxes, to prevent the real estate market from overheating.  Nevertheless, through such programs as the Multimedia Super Corridor, Free Commercial Zones, and Free Industrial Zones, the federal government has substantial reach into a range of geographic areas as a means of encouraging foreign investment and facilitating ownership of commercial and industrial property.

In 2007 the judiciary introduced dedicated intellectual property (IP) courts that consist of 15 “Sessions Courts” that sit in each state, and six ‘High Courts’ that sit in certain states (i.e. Kuala Lumpur, Johor, Perak, Selangor, Sabah and Sarawak).  Malaysia launched the IP courts to deter the use of IP-infringing activity to fund criminal activity and to demonstrate a commitment to IP development in support of the country’s goal to achieve high-income status. These lower courts hear criminal cases, and have the jurisdiction to impose fines for IP infringing acts.  There is no limit to the fines that they can impose. The higher courts are designated for civil cases to provide damages incurred by rights holders once the damages have been quantified post-trial. High courts have the authority to issue injunctions (i.e., to order an immediate cessation of infringing activity) and to award monetary damages.

Labor Courts, which the Ministry of Human Resources describes as “a quasi-judicial system that serves as an alternative to civil claims,” provide a means for workers to seek payment of wages and other financial benefits in arrears.  Proceedings are generally informal but conducted in accordance with civil court principles. The High Court has upheld decisions which Labor Courts have rendered.

Certain foreign judgments are enforceable in Malaysia by virtue of the Reciprocal Enforcement of Judgments Act 1958 (REJA).  However, before a foreign judgment can be enforceable, it has to be registered. The registration of foreign judgments is only possible if the judgment was given by a Superior Court from a country listed in the First Schedule of the REJA: the United Kingdom, Hong Kong Special Administrative Region of the People’s Republic of China, Singapore, New Zealand, Republic of Sri Lanka, India, and Brunei.  If the judgment is not from a country listed in the First Schedule to the REJA, the only method of enforcement at common law is by securing a Malaysian judgment. This involves suing on the judgment in the local Courts as an action in debt.

To register a foreign judgment under the REJA, the judgment creditor has to apply for the same within six years after the date of the foreign judgment. Any foreign judgment coming under the REJA shall be registered unless it has been wholly satisfied, or it could not be enforced by execution in the country of the original Court.

Post is not aware of instances in which political figures or government authorities have interfered in judiciary proceedings involving commercial matters.

Laws and Regulations on Foreign Direct Investment

The Government of Malaysia established the Malaysia Investment Development Authority (MIDA) to attract foreign investment and to serve as a focal point for legal and regulatory questions.  Organized as part of the Ministry of International Trade and Industry (MITI), MIDA serves as a guide to foreign investors interested in the manufacturing sector and in many services sectors.  Regional bodies providing support to investors include: Invest Kuala Lumpur, Invest Penang, Invest Selangor, the Sabah Economic Development and Investment Authority (SEDIA), and the Sarawak Economic Development Corporation, among others.

As noted, the Ministerial Functions Act authorizes government ministries to oversee investments under their jurisdiction.  Prospective investors in the services sector will need to follow requirements set by the relevant Malaysian Government ministry or agency over the sector in question.

Competition and Anti-Trust Laws

On April 21, 2010, the Parliament of Malaysia approved two bills, the Competition Commission Act 2010 and the Competition Act 2010.  The Acts took effect January 1, 2012. The Competition Act prohibits cartels and abuses of a dominant market position but does not create any pre-transaction review of mergers or acquisitions.  Violations are punishable by fines, as well as imprisonment for individual violations. Malaysia’s Competition Commission has responsibility for determining whether a company’s “conduct” constitutes an abuse of dominant market position or otherwise distorts or restricts competition.  As a matter of law, the Competition Commission does not have separate standards for foreign and domestic companies. Commission membership consists of senior officials from the Ministry of International Trade and Industry (MITI), the Ministry of Domestic Trade, Cooperatives, and Consumerism (MDTCC), the Ministry of Finance, and, on a rotating basis, representatives from academia and the private sector.

In addition to the Competition Commission, the Acts established a Competition Appeals Tribunal (CAT) to hear all appeals of Commission decisions.  In the largest case to date, the Commission imposed a fine of RM10 million on Malaysia Airlines and Air Asia in September 2013 for colluding to divide shares of the air transport services market.  The airlines filed an appeal in March 2014. In February 2016, the CAT ruled in favor of the airlines in its first-ever decision and ordered the penalty to be set aside and refunded to both airlines.

Expropriation and Compensation

The Embassy is not aware of any cases of uncompensated expropriation of U.S.-held assets, or confiscatory tax collection practices, by the Malaysian government. The government’s stated policy is that all investors, both foreign and domestic, are entitled to fair compensation in the event that their private property is required for public purposes. Should the investor and the government disagree on the amount of compensation, the issue is then referred to the Malaysian judicial system.

Dispute Settlement

ICSID Convention and New York Convention

Malaysia signed the Convention on the Settlement of Investment Disputes between States and Nationals of Other States (ICSID) on October 22, 1965, coming into force on October 14, 1966.  In addition, it is a contracting state of the New York Convention of 1958 on the Recognition and Enforcement of Foreign Arbitral Awards since November 5, 1985.

Malaysia adopted the following measures to make the two conventions effective in its territory:

The Convention on the Settlement of Investment Disputes Act, 1966. (Act of Parliament 14 of 1966); the Notification on entry into force of the Convention on the Settlement of Investment Disputes Act, 1966. (Notification No. 96 of March 10, 1966); and the Arbitration (Amendment) Act, 1980. (Act A 478 of 1980).

Although the domestic legal system is accessible to foreign investors, filing a case generally requires any non-Malaysian citizen to make a large deposit before pursuing a case in the Malaysian courts.  Post is unaware of any U.S. investors’ recent complaints of political interference in any judicial proceedings.

References:

Investor-State Dispute Settlement

Malaysia’s investment agreements contain provisions allowing for international arbitration of investment disputes.  Malaysia does not have a Bilateral Investment Treaty with the United States.

Post has little data concerning the Malaysian Government’s general handling of investment disputes.  In 2004, a U.S. investor filed a case against the directors of the firm, who constituted the majority shareholders.  The case involves allegations by the U.S. investor of embezzlement by the other directors, and its resolution is unknown.

The Malaysian government has been involved in three ICSID cases — in 1994, 1999, and 2005.  The first case was settled out of court. The second, filed under the Malaysia-Belgo-Luxembourg Investment Guarantee Agreement (IGA), was concluded in 2000 in Malaysia’s favor.  The 2005 case, filed under the Malaysia-UK Bilateral Investment Treaty, was concluded in 2007 in favor of the investor. However, the judgment against Malaysia was ultimately dismissed on jurisdictional grounds, namely that ICSID was not the appropriate forum to settle the dispute because the transaction in question was not deemed an investment since it did not materially contribute to Malaysia’s development.  Nevertheless, Malaysian courts recognize arbitral awards issued against the government. There is no history of extrajudicial action against foreign investors.

International Commercial Arbitration and Foreign Courts

Malaysia’s Arbitration Act of 2005 applies to both international and domestic arbitration. Although its provisions largely reflect those of the UN Commission on International Trade Law (UNCITRAL) Model Law, there are some notable differences, including the requirement that parties in domestic arbitration must choose Malaysian law as the applicable law.  Although an arbitration agreement may be concluded by email or fax, it must be in writing: Malaysia does not recognize oral agreements or conduct as constituting binding arbitration agreements.

Many firms choose to include mandatory arbitration clauses in their contracts.  The government actively promotes use of the Kuala Lumpur Regional Center for Arbitration (http://www.rcakl.org.my), established under the auspices of the Asian-African Legal Consultative Committee to offer international arbitration, mediation, and conciliation for trade disputes.  The KLRCA is the only recognized center for arbitration in Malaysia. Arbitration held in a foreign jurisdiction under the rules of the Convention on the Settlement of Investment Disputes between States and Nationals of Other States 1965 or under the United Nations Commission on International trade Law Arbitration Rules 1976 and the Rules of the Regional Centre for Arbitration at Kuala Lumpur can be enforceable in Malaysia.

Bankruptcy Regulations

Malaysia’s Department of Insolvency (MDI) is the lead agency implementing the Insolvency Act of 1967, previously known as the Bankruptcy Act of 1967.  On October 6, 2017, the Bankruptcy Bill 2016 came into force, changing the name of the previous Act, and amending certain terms and conditions. The most significant changes in the amendment include — (1) a social guarantor can no longer be made bankrupt; (2) there is now a stricter requirement for personal service for bankruptcy notice and petition; (3) introduction of the voluntary arrangement as an alternative to bankruptcy; (4) a higher bankruptcy threshold from RM30,000 to RM50,000; (5) introduction of the automatic discharge of bankruptcy; (6) no objection to four categories of bankruptcy for applying a discharge under section 33A (discharge of bankrupt by Certificate of Director General of Insolvency); (7) introduction of single bankruptcy order as a result of the abolishment of the current two-tier order system, i.e. receiving and adjudication orders; (8) creation of the Insolvency Assistance fund.

The distribution of proceeds from the liquidation of a bankrupt company’s assets generally adheres to the “priority matters and persons” identified by the Companies Act of 2016.  After the bankruptcy process legal costs are covered, recipients of proceeds are: employees, secured creditors (i.e., creditors of real assets), unsecured creditors (i.e., creditors of financial instruments), and shareholders.  Bankruptcy is not criminalized in Malaysia. The country ranks 46th on the World Bank Group’s Doing Business Rankings for Ease of Resolving Insolvency.

4. Industrial Policies

Investment Incentives

The Malaysian Government has codified the incentives available for investments in qualifying projects in target sectors and regions.  Tax holidays, financing, and special deductions are among the measures generally available for domestic as well as foreign investors in the following sectors and geographic areas: information and communications technologies (ICT); biotechnology; halal products (e.g., food, cosmetics, pharmaceuticals); oil and gas storage and trading; Islamic finance; Kuala Lumpur; Labuan Island (off Eastern Malaysia); East Coast of Peninsular Malaysia; Sabah and Sarawak (Eastern Malaysia); Northern Corridor.

The lists of application procedures and incentives available to investors in these sectors and regions can be found at: http://www.mida.gov.my/home/invest-in-malaysia/posts/ .

Foreign Trade Zones/Free Ports/Trade Facilitation

The Free Zone Act of 1990 authorized the Minister of Finance to designate any suitable area as either a Free Industrial Zone (FIZ), where manufacturing and assembly takes place, or a Free Commercial Zone (FCZ), generally for warehousing commercial stock.  The Minister of Finance may appoint any federal, state, or local government agency or entity as an authority to administer, maintain and operate any free trade zone.  Currently there are 13 FIZs and 12 FCZs in Malaysia.  In June 2006, the Port Klang Free Zone opened as the nation’s first fully integrated FIZ and FCZ, although the project has been dogged by corruption allegations related to the land acquisition for the site.  The government launched a prosecution in 2009 of the former Transport Minister involved in the land purchase process, though he was later acquitted in October 2013.

The Digital Free Trade Zone (DFTZ) is an initiative by the Malaysian Government, implemented through MDEC, launched in November 2017 with the participation of China’s Alibaba.  DFTZ aims to facilitate seamless cross-border trading and eCommerce and enable Malaysian SMEs to export their goods internationally. According to the Malaysian government, the DFTZ consists of an eFulfilment Hub to help Malaysian SMEs export their goods with the help of leading fulfilment service providers; and an eServices Platform to efficiently manage cargo clearance and other processes needed for cross-border trade.

For more information, please visit https://mydftz.com 

Raw materials, products and equipment may be imported duty-free into these zones with minimum customs formalities. Companies that export not less than 80 percent of their output and depend on imported goods, raw materials, and components may be located in these FZs.  Ports, shipping and maritime-related services play an important role in Malaysia since 90 percent of its international trade by volume is seaborne.  Malaysia is also a major transshipment center.

Goods sold into the Malaysian economy by companies within the FZs must pay import duties.  If a company wants to enjoy Common External Preferential Tariff (CEPT) rates within the ASEAN Free Trade Area, 40 percent of a product’s content must be ASEAN-sourced.  In addition to the FZs, Malaysia permits the establishment of licensed manufacturing warehouses outside of free zones, which give companies greater freedom of location while allowing them to enjoy privileges similar to firms operating in an FZ. Companies operating in these zones require approval/license for each activity. The time needed to obtain licenses depends on the type of approval and ranges from two to eight weeks.

Performance and Data Localization Requirements

Fiscal incentives granted to both foreign and domestic investors historically have been subject to performance requirements, usually in the form of export targets, local content requirements and technology transfer requirements.  Performance requirements are usually written into the individual manufacturing licenses of local and foreign investors.

The Malaysian government extends a full tax exemption incentive of fifteen years for firms with “Pioneer Status” (companies promoting products or activities in industries or parts of Malaysia to which the government places a high priority), and ten years for companies with “Investment Tax Allowance” status (those on which the government places a priority, but not as high as Pioneer Status).  However, the government appears to have some flexibility with respect to the expiry of these periods, and some firms reportedly have had their pioneer status renewed. Government priorities generally include the levels of value-added, technology used, and industrial linkages.  If a firm (foreign or domestic) fails to meet the terms of its license, it risks losing any tax benefits it may have been awarded.  Potentially, a firm could lose its manufacturing license.  The New Economic Model stated that in the long term, the government intends gradually to eliminate most of the fiscal incentives now offered to foreign and domestic manufacturing investors.  More information on specific incentives for various sectors can be found at www.mida.gov.my.

Malaysia also seeks to attract foreign investment in the information technology industry, particularly in the Multimedia Super Corridor (MSC), a government scheme to foster the growth of research, development, and other high technology activities in Malaysia.  However, since July 1, 2018, the Government decided to put on hold the granting of MSC Malaysia Status and its incentives, including extension of income tax exemption period, or adding new MSC Malaysia Qualifying Activities in order to review and amend Malaysia’s tax incentives.  While the MSC Malaysia Status Services Incentive was published on December 31, 2018, the MSC Malaysia Status IP Incentive policy is still under review.  For further details on incentives, see www.mdec.my.  The Malaysia Digital Economy Corporation (MDEC) approves all applications for MSC status.  For more information please visit: https://www.mdec.my/msc-malaysia .

In the services sector, the government’s stated goal is to attract foreign investment in regional distribution centers, international procurement centers, operational headquarter research and development, university and graduate education, integrated market and logistics support services, cold chain facilities, central utility facilities, industrial training, and environmental management.  To date, Malaysia has had some success in attracting regional distribution centers, global shared services offices, and local campuses of foreign universities.  For example, GE and Honeywell maintain regional offices for ASEAN in Malaysia.  In 2016, McDermott moved its regional headquarters to Malaysia and Boston Scientific broke ground on a medical device manufacturing facility.

Malaysia seeks to attract foreign investment in biotechnology but sends a mixed message on agricultural and food biotechnology.  On July 8, 2010, the Malaysian Ministry of Health posted amendments to the Food Regulations 1985 [P.U. (A) 437/1985] that require strict mandatory labeling of food and food ingredients obtained through modern biotechnology.  The amendments also included a requirement that no person shall import, prepare, or advertise for sale, or sell any food or food ingredients obtained through modern biotechnology without the prior written approval of the Director.  There is no ‘threshold’ level on the labeling requirement.  Labeling of “GMO Free” or “Non-GMO” is not permitted.  The labeling requirements only apply to foods and food ingredients obtained through modern biotechnology but not to food produced with GMO feed.  The labeling regulation was supposed to go into force in 2014, but remains to date with no date announced.  A copy of the law and regulations respectively can be found at: http://www.biosafety.nre.gov.my/BiosafetyAct2007.html , and http://www.biosafety.nre.gov.my/BIOSAFETY percent20REGULATIONS percent202010.pdf .

Malaysia has not implemented measures amounting to “forced localization” for data storage.  Bank Negara Malaysia has amended its recent Outsourcing Guidelines to remove the original data localization requirement and shared that it will similarly remove the data localization elements in its upcoming Risk Management in Technology framework.  The government has provided inducements to attract foreign and domestic investors to the Multimedia Super Corridor but does not mandate use of onshore providers.  Companies in the information and communications technology sector are not required to hand over source code.

5. Protection of Property Rights

Real Property

Land administration is shared among federal, state, and local government.  State governments have their own rules about land ownership, including foreign ownership.  Malaysian law affords strong protections to real property owners. Real property titles are recorded in public records and attorneys review transfer documentation to ensure efficacy of a title transfer.  There is no title insurance available in Malaysia. Malaysian courts protect property ownership rights.  Foreign investors are allowed to borrow using real property as collateral.  Foreign and domestic lenders are able to record mortgages with competent authorities and execute foreclosure in the event of loan default.  Malaysia ranks 29th (ranked 42nd in 2018) in ease of registering property according to the Doing Business 2019 report, right behind Finland and ahead of Hungary, thanks to changes it made to its registration procedures.

[Reference]

http://www.doingbusiness.org/rankings 

Intellectual Property Rights

In December 2011, the Malaysian Parliament passed amendments to the copyright law designed to bring the country into compliance with the WIPO Copyright Treaty and the WIPO Performance and Phonogram Treaty, define Internet Service Provider (ISP) liabilities, and prohibit unauthorized recording of motion pictures in theaters.  Malaysia subsequently acceded to the WIPO Copyright Treaty and the WIPO Performance and Phonogram Treaty in September 2012.  In addition, the Ministry of Domestic Trade, Cooperatives, and Consumerism (MDTCC) took steps to enhance Malaysia’s enforcement regime, including active cooperation with rights holders on matters pertaining to IPR enforcement, ongoing training of prosecutors for specialized IPR courts, and the 2013 reestablishment of a Special Anti-Piracy Taskforce.  On December 27, 2019, Malaysia’s new Trademarks Act came into force bringing Malaysia’s trademark protections in line with the Madrid Protocol for international registration of trademarks, allowing U.S. trademark holders to more easily register their trademarks within Malaysia.

The government, acting through the Property Association of Malaysia (MyIPO), is currently preparing an overhaul of the 1976 Trade Marks Act and revisions to the 1983 Patents Act and 1987 Copyright Act in an effort to bring the country’s IP rules in line with its adoption of the Doha Declaration on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) Agreement. While some amendments are expected to bring it in closer adherence to global standards under proposed compulsory license provisions, Malaysian private enterprises would be able to export products produced under a compulsory license to foreign markets that also have compulsory licenses in place.

In response to trends of rising internet piracy, the interagency Special Anti-Piracy Task Force established a Special Internet Forensics Unit (SIFU) within MDTCC. The SIFU team’s responsibilities include monitoring for sites suspected of being, or known as, purveyors of infringing content.  This organization follows MDTCC’s practice of launching investigations based on information and complaints from legitimate host sites and content providers. Capacity building remains a priority for the SIFU.  Coordination with the Malaysian Communications and Multimedia Commission (MCMC), which has responsibility for overall regulation of internet content, has been improving according to many rights holders in Malaysia.  The Malaysian Communications and Multimedia Commission (MCMC) is proactively combatting illegal streaming sites which provide content that breaches copyrights and is taking action against owners of non-certified Android TV boxes that are used to stream illegal content.

Despite Malaysia’s success in improving IPR enforcement, key issues remain. There is relatively widespread availability of pirated and counterfeit products in Malaysia and there are concerns that the Royal Malaysian Customs Department (RMC) is not always effectively identifying counterfeit goods in transit.  According to U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP)’s statistics, Malaysia ranked as the ninth largest source country for IPR seizures. Although the $4,647,447 USD worth of items seized during fiscal year 2018 was a significant increase from the previous reporting year, it still only represents a small fraction of total seized counterfeit goods.  Limited interagency cooperation and a lack a knowledge of IPR laws among RMC officers remain impediments to effective enforcement.  The MTDCC’s Enforcement Division effectively targeted counterfeit alcohol, tobacco, and other products sold domestically; however, cases are not always brought to prosecution effectively.

The September 2017 authorization of a compulsory license for U.S. pharmaceutical Gilead Sciences’ sofosbuvir, a medicine used to treat the hepatitis C virus infection, has raised serious concerns among rights holders due to the lack of transparency and due process. While the compulsory license is set to expire in October 2020, the government has not taken proactive steps to end the compulsory license following the expiration of its tender with the foreign company producing Malaysia’s sofosbuvir medication.

USTR conducted an Out-of-Cycle Review of Malaysia in 2019 to consider the extent to which Malaysia is providing adequate and effective IP protection and enforcement, including with respect to patents. During this review, the United States and Malaysia have held numerous consultations to resolve outstanding issues. In 2020, USTR extended the out of cycle review until November 2020.

The United States continues to encourage Malaysia to accede to the WIPO Budapest Treaty on the International Recognition of the Deposit of Microorganisms for the Purposes of Patent Procedure.  Additionally, the United States urges Malaysia to provide effective protection against unfair commercial use and unauthorized disclosure of test or other data generated to obtain marketing approval for pharmaceutical products, and an effective system to address patent issues expeditiously in connection with applications to market pharmaceutical products.

For additional information about national laws and points of contact at local IP offices, please see WIPO’s country profiles at http://www.wipo.int/directory/en/ .

6. Financial Sector

Capital Markets and Portfolio Investment

Foreigners may trade in securities and derivatives.  Malaysia houses one of Asia’s largest corporate bond markets and is the largest sukuk (Islamic bond) market in East Asia.  Both domestic and foreign companies regularly access capital in Malaysia’s bond market.  Malaysia provides tax incentives for foreign companies issuing Islamic bonds and financial instruments in Malaysia.

Malaysia’s stock market (Bursa Malaysia) is open to foreign investment and foreign corporation issuing shares.  However, foreign issuers remain subject to Bumiputera ownership requirements of 12.5 percent if the majority of their operations are in Malaysia.  Listing requirements for foreign companies are similar to that of local companies, although foreign companies must also obtain approval of regulatory authorities of foreign jurisdiction where the company was incorporated and valuation of assets that are standards applied in Malaysia or International Valuation Standards and register with the Registrar of Companies under the Companies Act 1965 or 2016.

Malaysia has taken steps to promote good corporate governance by listed companies.  Publicly listed companies must submit quarterly reports that include a balance sheet and income statement within two months of each financial quarter’s end and audited annual accounts for public scrutiny within four months of each year’s end.  An individual may hold up to 25 corporate directorships.  All public and private company directors are required to attend classes on corporate rules and regulations.

Legislation also regulates equity buybacks, mandates book entry of all securities transfers, and requires that all owners of securities accounts be identified.  A Central Depository System (CDS) for stocks and bonds established in 1991 makes physical possession of certificates unnecessary. All shares traded on the Bursa Malaysia must be deposited in the CDS.  Short selling of stocks is prohibited.

Money and Banking System

International investors generally regard Malaysia’s banking sector as dynamic and well regulated.  Although privately owned banks are competitive with state-owned banks, the state-owned banks dominate the market.  The five largest banks – Maybank, CIMB, Public Bank, RHB, and AmBank – account for an estimated 75 percent of banking sector loans.  According to the World Bank, total banking sector lending for 2017 was 140.27 percent of GDP, and 1.5 percent of the Malaysian banking sector’s loans were non-performing for 2017.

Bank Negara prohibits hostile takeovers of banks, but the Securities Commission has established non-discriminatory rules and disclosure requirements for hostile takeovers of publicly traded companies.

Foreign Exchange and Remittances

Foreign Exchange

In December 2016, the central bank, began implementing new foreign exchange management requirements.  Under the policy, exporters are required to convert 75 percent of their export earnings into Malaysian ringgit.  The goal of this policy was to deepen the market for the currency, with the goal of reducing exchange rate volatility.  The policy remains in place, with the Central Bank giving case-by-case exceptions.  All domestic trade in goods and services must be transacted in ringgit only, with no optional settlement in foreign currency.  The Central Bank has demonstrated little flexibility with respect to the ratio of earnings that exporters hold in ringgit.  Post is unaware of any instances where the requirement for exporters to hold their earnings in ringgit has impeded their ability to remit profits to headquarters.

Remittance Policies

Malaysia imposes few investment remittances rules on resident companies.  Incorporated and individual U.S. investors have not raised concerns about their ability to transfer dividend payments, loan payments, royalties or other fees to home offices or U.S.-based accounts.  Tax advisory firms and consultancies have not flagged payments as a significant concern among U.S. or foreign investors in Malaysia.  Foreign exchange administration policies place no foreign currency asset limits on firms that have no ringgit-denominated debt.  Companies that fund their purchases of foreign exchange assets with either onshore or offshore foreign exchange holdings, whether or not such companies have ringgit-denominated debt, face no limits in making remittances.  However, a company with ringgit-denominated debt will need approval from the Central Bank for conversions of RM50 million or more into foreign exchange assets in a calendar year.

The Treasury Department has not identified Malaysia as a currency manipulator.

Sovereign Wealth Funds

The Malaysian Government established government-linked investment companies (GLICs) as vehicles to harness revenue from commodity-based industries and promote growth in strategic development areas.  Khazanah is the largest of the GLICs, and the company holds equity in a range of domestic firms as well as investments outside Malaysia.  The other GLICs – Armed Forces Retirement Fund (LTAT), National Capital (PNB), Employees Provident Fund (EPF), Pilgrimage Fund (Tabung Haji), Public Employees Retirement Fund (KWAP) – execute similar investments but are structured as savings vehicles for Malaysians.  Khazanah follows the Santiago Principles and participates in the International Forum on Sovereign Wealth Funds.

Khazanah was incorporated in 1993 under the Companies Act of 1965 as a public limited company with a charter to promote growth in strategic industries and national initiatives.  As of December 31, 2018, Khazanah reported a 21 percent drop in its net worth and a decline in its “realizable” assets to RM136 billion (from USUSD 39.3 billion to USUSD 32.9 billion).  Khazanah also recorded a pre-tax loss of RM6.27 billion (USUSD 1.52 billion) compared to a pre-tax profit of RM2.89 billion (USUSD 723 million) the previous year.  The sectors comprising its major holdings include telecommunications and media, airports, banking, real estate, health care, and the national energy utility.  According to its Annual Review 2019 presentation, in 2018, Khazanah’s mandate and objectives were refreshed, and the company will now pursue its two distinct objectives (commercial vs. strategic) through a dual-fund investment structure: (1) an intergenerational wealth fund to meet its commercial objectives (which will include public and private assets); and (2) a strategic fund to meet its strategic objective (which will include strategic assets and developmental ones).

7. State-Owned Enterprises

State-owned enterprises which in Malaysia are called government-linked companies (GLCs), play a very significant role in the Malaysian economy.  Such enterprises have been used to spearhead infrastructure and industrial projects.  A 2017 analysis by the University of Malaya estimated that the government owns approximately 42 percent of the value of firms listed on the Bursa Malaysia through its seven Government-Linked Investment Corporations (GLICs), including a majority stake in a number of companies.  Only a minority portion of stock is available for trading for some of the largest publicly listed local companies.  Khazanah, often considered the government’s sovereign wealth fund, owns stakes in companies competing in many of the country’s major industries including aerospace, construction, energy, finance, information & communication, and marine technologies.  The Prime Minister  chairs Khazanah’s Board of Directors.  PETRONAS, the state-owned oil and gas company, is Malaysia’s only Fortune Global 500 firm.

As part of its Government Linked Companies (GLC) Transformation Program, the Malaysian Government embarked on a two-pronged strategy to reduce its shares across a range of companies and to make those companies more competitive through improved corporate governance.  The Transformation Program pushes for more independent and professionalized board membership, but the OECD noted in 2018 that in practice shareholder oversight is lax an government officials exert influence over corporate boards.

Among the notable divestments of recent years, Khazanah offloaded its stake in the national car company Proton to DRB-Hicom Bhd in 2012.  In 2013, Khazanah divested its holdings in telecommunications services giant Time Engineering Bhd.  Khazanah’s annual report for 2017 noted only that the fund had completed 12 divestments that produced a gain of RM 2.5 billion (USD 625 million).  In 2018, Khazanah partially divested its shares in IHH Healthcare Berhad, saw two successful IPOs, and issued USUSD 321 million in exchangeable sukuk.  However, significant losses at domestic companies including at Axiata, Telekom Malaysia, Tenaga Nasional, IHH Healthcare Berhad, CIMB Bank, and Malaysia Airports led to the pre-tax loss of USD  1.52 billion the company experienced in 2018.  In April 2019, Khazanah sold 1.5 percent of its stake in Tenaga Nasional on Bursa Malaysia, after which Khazanah still owned 27.27 percent of the national electric company.  In its most recent annual review, Khazanah noted a 607% increase in divestment revenue from the prior year with total divestments for 2019 of RM 9.9 billion (USD 2.25 billion).

Reference: https://www.khazanah.com.my/Media-Downloads/Downloads 

GLCs with publicly traded shares must produce audited financial statements every year.  These SOEs must also submit filings related to changes in the organization’s management.  The SOEs that do not offer publicly traded shares are required to submit annual reports to the Companies Commission.  The requirement for publicly reporting the financial standing and scope of activities of SOEs has increased their transparency.  It is also consistent with the OECD’s guideline for Transparency and Disclosure.  Moreover, many SOEs prioritize operations that maximize their earnings.

The close relationships SOEs have with senior government officials, however, blur the line between strictly commercial activity pursued for its own sake and activity that has been directed to advance a policy interest.  For example, Petroliam Nasional Berhad (PETRONAS) is both an SOE in the oil and gas sector and the regulator of the industry.  Malaysia Airlines (MAS), in which the government previously held 70 percent but now holds 100 percent, required periodic infusions of resources from the government to maintain the large numbers of company’s staff and senior executives.  As of April, 2020, the government’s sovereign wealth fund, Khazanah, has shortlisted 4 of 9 bids to acquire the airline.

The Ministry of Finance holds significant minority stakes in five companies including a 50% stake in the financial guarantee insurer Danajamin Nasional Berhad.  The government also holds a golden share in 32 companies from key industries such as aerospace, marine technology, energy industries and ports.  The Ministry of Finance maintains a list of 70 companies directly controlled by the Minister of Finance Incorporated, known as MOF Inc, the largest Government Linked Investment Company (GLIC).  The seven GLICs in Malaysia are also listed.  However, a comprehensive list of the more than 200 GLCs that are controlled by these seven investment companies is not readily available.

https://www1.treasury.gov.my/index.php/en/contactus/faqs/gic.html 

With formal and informal ties between board members and government, Malaysian SOEs (GLCs) may have access to capital and financial protection from bankruptcy as well as reduced pressure to deliver profits to government shareholders.  The legal framework establishing GLCs under Malaysian law specifically seeks economic opportunity for Bumiputera entrepreneurs. There is some empirical evidence, published by the Asian Development Bank, that SOEs crowd out private investment in Malaysia.

Malaysia participates in OECD corporate governance engagements and continues to work on full adherence to the OECD Guidelines on Corporate Governance for SOEs through its Government Linked Companies (GLC) Transformation Program.  The National Resource Governance Institute’s Resource Governance Index rates Malaysia as weak on governance of its oil and gas sector; however, Malaysia also ranks as 27th among 89 rated countries, in the top third.

Privatization Program

In several key sectors, including transportation, agriculture, utilities, financial services, manufacturing, and construction, Government Linked Corporations (GLCs) continue to dominate the market.  However, the Malaysian Government remains publicly committed to the continued, eventual privatization, though it has not set a timeline for the process and faces substantial political pressure to preserve the roles of the GLCs.  The Malaysian Government established the Public-Private Partnership Unit (UKAS) in 2009 to provide guidance and administrative support to businesses interested in privatization projects as well as large-scale government procurement projects.  UKAS, which used to be a part of the Office of the Prime Minister, is now under the Ministry of Finance.  UKAS oversees transactions ranging from contracts and concessions to sales and transfers of ownership from the public sector to the private sector.

Foreign investors may participate in privatization programs, but foreign ownership is limited to 25 percent of the privatized entity’s equity.  The National Development Policy confers preferential treatment to the Bumiputera, which are entitled to at least 30 percent of the privatized entity’s equity.

The privatization process is formally subject to public bidding.  However, the lack of transparency has led to criticism that the government’s decisions tend to favor individuals and businesses with close ties to high-ranking officials.

8. Responsible Business Conduct

The development of RBC programs in Malaysia has transformed from a government-led initiative into a concept embraced by the private sector.  Through the efforts of the Bursa Malaysia and other governmental bodies, awareness of corporate responsibility now exists across wide swathes of the private sector in Malaysia.

The government initially viewed RBC through the lens of Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) and philanthropic activities.  In 2006, the Malaysian Securities Commission published a CSR framework for all publicly listed companies (PLCs), which are required to disclose their CSR programs in their annual financial reports.  In 2007, the Women, Family and Community Ministry launched the Prime Minister’s CSR Awards to encourage the spread of CSR programs, and to honor those companies whose commitment to CSR had made a difference in their respective communities.

In 2011, the Malaysian government began to take a more holistic approach to RBC, using it as a way to facilitate change in Malaysian society.  That year the government launched the 1Malaysia Training Plan (SL1M), an employment incentive program that allows businesses to double the permitted tax deduction for expenses incurred in hiring and training graduates from rural areas and low-income families.  The Business Council for Sustainable Development Malaysia (BCSDM) (formerly known as the Board for Corporate Sustainability and Responsibility Malaysia) also supplanted the Institute for Corporate Responsibility Malaysia as the focal point for the country’s RBC programs.  This was an important development on the road to meeting international norms, as BCSDM is the local affiliate of the World Business Council for Sustainable Development, and aims to meet the World Bank’s Sustainable Development Goals.  Additionally, BCSDM has laid out its own Vision 2050 plan, which aims to facilitate an improvement in global living standards through the implementation of a series of environmentally responsible steps.

In the arena of Environmental, Social, and Governance (ESG) issues related to RBC, Bursa Malaysia has been the main catalyst in the drive to enhance corporate accountability.  In 2014, Bursa Malaysia launched the FTSE4Good Bursa Malaysia Index, which is composed of companies selected from the top 200 Malaysian stocks in the FTSE Bursa Malaysia EMAS Index.  These companies are screened in accordance with transparent and defined ESG criteria, and the index provides an avenue for investors to make ESG-focused investments and increase ESG exposure in their investment portfolios, thereby putting indirect pressure on companies to behave more responsibly.

In a subsequent step in 2015, Bursa Malaysia launched a Sustainability Framework, which was comprised of amendments to the Listing Requirement (which all PLCs must meet), and the publication of a Sustainability Reporting Guide Toolkit.  As part of their new responsibilities, PLCs were required to disclose sustainability statements in their annual reports, incorporating ESG issues related to their respective businesses.  In 2018 Bursa Malaysia launched a 2nd edition of the Sustainability Reporting Guidelines, which include recommendations for PLCs regarding how to integrate sustainability into their businesses, and how to conduct more extensive reporting on material Economic, Environmental, and Social (EES) risks and opportunities.

Various governmental entities have enacted measures to encourage RBC.  In 2015, SUHAKAM, the Malaysian Human Rights Commission, published a framework for a national plan of action on business and human rights (BHR Framework).  The goal of the BHR Framework was to facilitate the adoption and implementation of the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights by both state and non-state actors in Malaysia.  Subsequent to the creation of the BHR Framework, Parliament passed an amended Companies Act in 2016, which included the optional disclosure of a business review, containing information about: (i) environmental matters, including the impact of the company’s business on the environment; (ii) the company’s employees; and (iii) social and community issues.   In the wake of the Companies Act 2016, The Companies Commission of Malaysia similarly sought to push RBC, by developing a best practices circular that promotes adherence to international sustainability reporting standards.  This circular endorses specific international standards such as the Global Reporting Initiative (GRI) framework and the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights.

The push toward effectuating RBC by the government has not only involved human rights, but has also addressed environmental concerns.  The Ministry of Energy, Science, Technology, Environment & Climate Change (MESTECC) has published multiple roadmaps to that end, including: Green Technology Master Plan Malaysia 2017-2030; Malaysia’s Roadmap towards Zero Single-use Plastics 2018-2030; and National Energy Efficiency Master Plan.  Despite the efforts across multiple ministries to emphasize RBC, there is nothing in Malaysia’s official procurement policy that mentions it as a factor in government contracting.

In September 2019, U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) issued a Withhold Release Order (WRO), thereby suspending imports of medical gloves from WRP Asia Pacific, a Malaysian manufacturer, citing widespread reports of the company’s use of forced labor to produce the gloves.  This came on the heels of a December 2018 report by The Guardian accusing WRP and another Malaysian glove manufacturer, Top Glove, of “forced labor, forced overtime, debt bondage, withheld wages and passport confiscation.”  Malaysia is the world’s largest exporter of medical gloves, and the U.S. is its largest export market, so the response from the Malaysian government to the WRO was prompt.   Soon after the WRO, then-Human Resources Minister M. Kulasegaran vowed to include a chapter on forced labor in the amended  Employment Act  to protect workers’ rights; however, the amendment to the Employment Act has not come before parliament.  Irrespective of the internal steps that the Malaysian government may have taken to codify protection of workers, CBP provided feedback to WRP to adjust its manufacturing and labor practices to ensure they are compliant with U.S. and international labor standards.  In March 2020, CBP revoked the WRO on WRP-produced rubber gloves, citing information “showing the company is no longer producing the rubber gloves under forced labor conditions.”

A 2019 chemical dumping incident paints a blurry picture regarding Malaysia’s ability to effectively and fairly enforce domestic laws on environmental protection.  In the state of Johor in March 2019, a lorry dumped a mixture of toxic chemicals into the Kim Kim River, causing the hospitalization of almost 3,000 individuals.  The overwhelming majority of those hospitalized did not get sick after the initial dumping, but rather days later aided by strong winds.  The authorities did not immediately remove the chemicals from the river due to the costliness of the procedure, leading to a political backlash.  The state government took straightforward legal steps against the responsible parties, and completed its investigation in a thorough and impartial manner.  The Johor government charged the driver of the lorry under the Environmental Quality Act 1974, and charged the owners of the factory responsible for the dumping pursuant to the Environment Quality Regulations (Scheduled Wastes) 2005 and Environmental Quality Regulations (Clean Air) Regulations 2014.

The Malaysian Securities Commission leads issues regarding corporate governance and shareholder protection.  In furtherance of its goal of safeguarding investors, in 2017 the SC released an updated version of the Malaysian Code of Corporate Governance (MCCG).  This -document includes principles on board leadership and effectiveness, audit and risk management, integrity in corporate reporting, and meaningful relationships with stakeholders.  The SC publishes an annual report called the CG Monitor to ascertain which of their suggested best practices in the MCCG are being implemented.  The CG Monitor evaluates issues ranging from executive compensation standards to the quality of disclosures made by PLCs.  The SC also issues policy papers on a range of related issues, including rules on takeovers, mergers, and acquisitions, with an eye on protecting shareholders.

Bursa Malaysia is similarly interested in ensuring shareholder protection, and has a dedicated chapter in its Listing Requirements to corporate governance.  This chapter lays out in detail the requirements for listed companies concerning board composition, rights of directors, and auditing practices.  The Listing Requirements circle back to the MCCG, and require that the board of PLCs disclose which of the best practices annunciated in the MCCG the company is following.

Promotion of RBC in Malaysia has been increasing due to pressure from institutional investors and government-linked investment funds.  In 2014, the Minority Shareholders Watch Group (an independent research organization on corporate governance matters, originally funded by four state-owned investment funds) (MSWG) and the SC worked together to draft the Malaysian Code for Institutional Investors (MCII).  The MCII includes six principles of effective stewardship by institutional investors, as well as guidance to facilitate implementation.   Furthermore, the MCII encourages institutional investors to invest responsibly by taking stock of the RBC and corporate governance standards of the company.  As a response to the MCII, the Institutional Investor Council (IIC) was formed in 2015.  The IIC is an industry-led initiative that represents the common interests of institutional investors in Malaysia, and promotes good governance (including ESG considerations) to PLCs.

The interest in RBC and good governance has taken hold not only in industry, but in governmental funds as well.  The government of Malaysia’s strategic investment fund (Khazanah Nasional Berhad), the government pension fund (KWAP), and the Employees Provident Fund (EPF) are signatories to the UN-supported Principles for Responsible Investment (PRI).  As signatories, they are required to carry out PRI principles, including taking ESG into consideration during the due diligence phase before making a potential investment, and ensuring that ESG best practices are met in companies in which they invest.

Post is not aware of any governmental interference in the efforts of regulators, business associations, and investors to improve responsible business practices amongst Malaysian corporations.

9. Corruption

The Malaysian government established the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission (MACC) in 2008 and the Whistleblower Protection Act in 2010 and considers bribery a criminal act.  Malaysia’s anti-corruption law prohibits bribery of foreign public officials, permits the prosecution of Malaysians for offense committed overseas, prohibits bribes from being deducted from taxes, and provides for the seizure of property.

The MACC conducts investigations, but prosecutorial discretion remains with the Attorney General’s Chambers (AGC).  There is no systematic requirement for public officials to disclose their assets and the Whistleblower Protection Act does not provide protection for those who disclose allegations to the media.

The former Pakatan Harapan government prioritized anti-corruption efforts in its campaign manifesto.  After taking office in May 2018, it established Royal Commissions of Inquiry into alleged corruption at the Federal Land Development Authority (FELDA), the Council of Trust for the People (MARA), and the Hajj Pilgrims Fund (Tabung Haji), all government or government-linked agencies.  On May 21, 2018 the MACC established a 1MDB taskforce, including the police and central bank.  The government subsequently charged former Prime Minister Najib with 42 counts of money laundering, criminal breach of trust, and abuse of power for his alleged involvement in the 1MDB corruption scandal.  The current Prime Minister Muhyiddin has said to the media that his Perikatan Nasional (PN) government will continue to implement the National Anti-Corruption Plan (NACP) put in place by the previous Pakatan Harapan (PH) coalition government.  It remains to be seen how robustly this plan will be implemented.

Resources to Report Corruption

Contact at government agency or agencies are responsible for combating corruption:

Datuk Seri Azam Baki -Chief Commissioner
Malaysia Anti-Corruption Commission
Block D6, Complex D, Pusat Pentadbiran
Kerajaan Persekutuan, Peti Surat 6000
62007 Putrajaya
+6-1800-88-6000
Email: info@sprm.gov.my

Contact at a “watchdog” organization:

Cynthia Gabriel, Director
The Center to Combat Corruption and Cronyism (C4)
C Four Consultancies Sdn Bhd
A-2-10, 8 Avenue
Jalan Sg Jernih 8/1, Seksyen 8, 46050 Petaling Jaya
Selangor, Malaysia
Email: info@c4center.org

10. Political and Security Environment

There have been no significant incidents of political violence since the 1969 national elections.  The May 9, 2018 national election led to the first transition of power between coalitions since independence and was peaceful.  The Pakatan Harapan administration collapsed on February 24, 2020 and was replaced by the Perikatan Nasional coalition led by Muhyiddin Yassin.  In April 2012, the Peaceful Assembly Act took effect, which outlaws street protests and places other significant restrictions on public assemblies.  Following the July 2014 Israeli incursion into Gaza, several Malaysian non-governmental entities organized a boycott of McDonald’s.  Over a several week period, protestors picketed at several McDonalds restaurants, at times taunting and harassing employees.  Periodically, Malaysian groups will organize modest protests against U.S. government policies, usually involving demonstrations outside the U.S. embassy.  To date, these have remained peaceful and localized, with a strong police presence.  Likewise, several non-governmental organizations have organized mass rallies in major cities in peninsular and East Malaysia related to domestic policies that have been peaceful.

11. Labor Policies and Practices

Malaysia’s two million documented and 3.9 to 5.5 million undocumented foreign workers make up over 30 percent of the country’s workforce.  The previous government pledged to reduce Malaysia’s reliance on foreign labor while bringing the nation’s laws up to international standards, and had taken steps toward reforming a foreign worker recruitment process plagued by allegations of corruption and debt bondage before being replaced by Prime Minister Muhyiddin’s government in March.

Malaysia’s shortage of skilled labor is the most frequently mentioned impediment to economic growth cited in numerous studies.  Malaysia has an acute shortage of highly qualified professionals, scientists, and academics.  U.S. firms operating in Malaysia have echoed this sentiment, noting that the shortage of skilled labor has resulted in more on-the-job training for new hires.

The Malaysian labor market, traditionally accustomed to operating at or near full employment, has been heavily impacted by the prolonged shutdown as part of the government’s response to the global pandemic.  The unemployment rate reached five percent in April 2020, Malaysia’s highest in over 30 years, with economic observers predicting it will climb higher during the year.

Malaysia is a member of the International Labor Organization (ILO).  Labor relations in Malaysia are generally non-confrontational.  While  a system of government controls strongly discourages strikes and restricts the formation of unions, the new government has created a National Labor Advisory Council – comprised of the Malaysian Trade Unions Congress and Malaysian Employer’s Federation – to increase labor participation in unions.  The government amended its Trade Unions Act and Industrial Relations Act in July 2019 to increase freedom of association in Malaysia.  Some labor disputes are settled through negotiation or arbitration by an industrial court.  Malaysian authorities have pledged to move forward with amendments to the country’s labor laws as a means of boosting the economy’s overall competitiveness and combatting forced labor conditions.  The previous government prohibited outsourcing companies, improved oversight of employment agencies, and brought the Employment Act, Children and Young Persons Act, and Occupational Safety and Health Act in line with ILO principles.

Although national unions are currently proscribed due to sovereignty issues within Malaysia, there are a number of territorial federations of unions (the three territories being Peninsular Malaysia, Sabah and Sarawak).  The government has prevented some trade unions, such as those in the electronics and textile sectors, from forming territorial federations.  Instead of allowing a federation for all of Peninsular Malaysia, the electronics sector is limited to forming four regional federations of unions, while the textile sector is limited to state-based federations of unions, for those states which have a textile industry.  Proposed changes to the Trade Unions Act should address this issue and allow unions to form.  Employers and employees share the costs of the Social Security Organization (SOSCO), which covers an estimated 12.9 million workers and has been expanded to cover foreign workers.  No systematic welfare programs or government unemployment benefits exist; however, the Employee Provident Fund, which employers and employees are required to contribute to, provides retirement benefits for workers in the private sector.  Civil servants receive pensions upon retirement.

The regulation of employment in Malaysia, specifically as it affects the hiring and redundancy of workers, remains a notable impediment to employing workers in Malaysia.  The high cost of terminating employees, even in cases of wrongdoing, is a source of complaint for domestic and foreign employers.  The former prime minister formed an Independent Committee on Foreign Workers to study foreign worker policies.  The Committee submitted 40 recommendations for streamlining the hiring of foreign workers and protecting employees from debt bondage and forced labor conditions.  It is unclear whether or how the new government will act on these recommendations.

Executives at U.S. companies operating in Malaysia have reported that the government monitors the ethnic balance among employees and enforces an ethnic quota system for hiring in certain areas.  Race-based preferences in hiring and promotion are widespread in government, government-owned universities, and government-linked corporations.

The former government increased and standardized the minimum wage across the country to RM 1100 (USD 275), a raise from RM 1,000 (USD 250) in Peninsular Malaysia and RM 920 (USD 230) in East Malaysia.

In 2018, the Department of Labor’s Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act (TVPRA) listing of goods produced with child labor and forced labor included Malaysian palm oil (forced and child labor), electronics (forced labor), and garments (forced labor).  Senior officials across the Malaysian interagency have taken this listing seriously and have been working with the private sector and civil society to address concerns relating to the recruitment, hiring, and management of foreign workers in all sectors of the Malaysian economy, including palm oil and electronics.

12. U.S. International Development Finance Corporation (DFC) and Other Investment Insurance Programs

Malaysia has a limited investment guarantee agreement with the United States under the U.S. Overseas Private Investment Corporation (OPIC), the predecessor agency to the U.S. International Development Finance Corporation (DFC), for which it has qualified since 1959.  Few investors have sought OPIC insurance in Malaysia.

13. Foreign Direct Investment and Foreign Portfolio Investment Statistics

Table 2: Key Macroeconomic Data, U.S. FDI in Host Country/Economy
Host Country Statistical source USG or international statistical source USG or International Source of Data:  BEA; IMF; Eurostat; UNCTAD, Other
Economic Data Year Amount Year Amount
Host Country Gross Domestic Product (GDP) ($M USD) N/A N/A 2019 $364,700 www.worldbank.org/en/country 
Foreign Direct Investment Host Country Statistical source USG or international statistical source USG or international Source of data:  BEA; IMF; Eurostat; UNCTAD, Other
U.S. FDI in partner country ($M USD, stock positions) N/A N/A 2019 $10,849 BEA data available at
https://www.bea.gov/international/
direct-investment-and-multinational-
enterprises-comprehensive-data
 
Host country’s FDI in the United States ($M USD, stock positions) N/A N/A 2019 $981 BEA data available at
https://www.bea.gov/international/
direct-investment-and-multinational-
enterprises-comprehensive-data
 
Total inbound stock of FDI as % host GDP N/A N/A 2019 46.3% UNCTAD data available at
https://unctad.org/en/Pages/DIAE/
World%20Investment%20Report/
Country-Fact-Sheets.aspx
 
Table 3: Sources and Destination of FDI
Direct Investment from/in Counterpart Economy Data
From Top Five Sources/To Top Five Destinations (US Dollars, Millions)
Inward Direct Investment Outward Direct Investment
Total Inward 152,510 100% Total Outward 118,886 100%
Singapore 29,038 19% Singapore 23,388 20%
Japan 18,202 12% Indonesia 11,273 9%
China, P.R.: Hong Kong 17,954 12% Cayman Islands 7,244 6%
The Netherlands 10,345 7% United Kingdom 5,925 5%
United States 9,876 6% Australia 5,731 5%
“0” reflects amounts rounded to +/- USD 500,000.
Table 4: Sources of Portfolio Investment
Portfolio Investment Assets
Top Five Partners (Millions, current US Dollars)
Total Equity Securities Total Debt Securities
All Countries 95,283 100% All Countries 72,518 100% All Countries 22,765 100%
United States 19,567 21% United States 14,688 20% United States 4,879 21%
Singapore 10,746 11% Singapore 8,768 12% Singapore 1,978 9%
China P.R.: Hong Kong 6,541 7% China, P.R.: Hong Kong 5,679 8% Cayman Islands 1,971 9%
United Kingdom 5,592 6% China, P.R.: Mainland 4,545 6% Australia 1,788 8%
China, P.R. Mainland 5,123 5% United Kingdom 4,485 6% Indonesia 1,425 6%

14. Contact for More Information

Embassy Kuala Lumpur Economic Section
376 Jalan Tun Razak / 50400 Kuala Lumpur Malaysia
+6-03-2168-5153
Email: KualaLumpurEcon@state.gov

Singapore

Executive Summary

Singapore maintains an open, heavily trade-dependent economy, characterized by a predominantly open investment regime, with strong government commitment to maintaining a free market and to actively managing Singapore’s economic development. U.S. companies regularly cite transparency and lack of corruption, business-friendly laws and regulations, tax structure, customs facilitation, intellectual property protections, and well-developed infrastructure as attractive features of the investment climate. The World Bank’s Doing Business 2020 report ranked Singapore as the world’s second-easiest country in which to do business. The Global Competitiveness Report 2019 by the World Economic Forum ranked Singapore as the most competitive economy globally. Singapore actively enforces its robust anti-corruption laws and typically ranks as the least corrupt country in Asia and one of the least corrupt in the world. Transparency International’s 2018 Corruption Perception Index placed Singapore as the fourth least corrupt nation. The U.S.-Singapore Free Trade Agreement (USSFTA), which came into force on January 1, 2004, expanded U.S. market access in goods, services, investment, and government procurement, enhanced intellectual property protection, and provided for cooperation in promoting labor rights and environmental protections.

Singapore has a diversified economy that attracts substantial foreign investment in manufacturing (petrochemical, electronics, machinery, and equipment) and services (financial services, wholesale and retail trade, and business services). The government actively promotes the country as a research and development (R&D) and innovation center for businesses by offering tax incentives, research grants, and partnership opportunities with domestic research agencies. U.S. direct investment in Singapore in 2018 totaled $219 billion, primarily in non-bank holding companies, manufacturing (particularly computers and electronic products), and finance and insurance. Singapore remains Asia’s largest recipient of U.S. FDI. The investment outlook remains positive due to Singapore’s involvement in Southeast Asia’s developing economies. Singapore remains a regional hub for thousands of multinational companies and continues to maintain its reputation as a world leader in dispute resolution, financing, and project facilitation, particularly for regional infrastructure development. In 2019, U.S. companies pledged $4 billion in future investments in Singapore’s manufacturing and services sectors.

Looking ahead, Singapore is poised to attract foreign investments in digital innovation and cybersecurity. The Government of Singapore (hereafter, “the government”) is investing heavily in automation, artificial intelligence, and integrated systems under its Smart Nation banner and seeks to establish itself as a regional hub for these technologies. Singapore is also a well-established hub for medical research and device manufacturing.

In recent years, the government has tightened foreign labor policies to encourage firms to improve productivity and employ more workers that are Singaporean. The government introduced measures in the 2019 and 2020 budget to further decrease the ratio of mid- and low-skilled foreign workers to local employees in a firm. These cuts, which target the service sector, were taken despite industry concerns about skills gaps. To address some of these concerns, the government has introduced programs that partially subsidize the cost to firms of recruiting, hiring, and training local workers. Singapore is heavily reliant on foreign workers who make up more than 20 percent of the workforce. The COVID-19 outbreak has been concentrated in dormitories for low-wage workers in Singapore, which may accelerate the government’s efforts to reduce the number of foreign workers.

Table 1: Key Metrics and Rankings
Measure Year Index/Rank Website Address
TI Corruption Perceptions Index 2019 4 of 175 http://www.transparency.org/
research/cpi/overview
World Bank’s Doing Business Report 2020 2 of 190 http://www.doingbusiness.org/en/rankings
Global Innovation Index 2019 8 of 129 https://www.globalinnovationindex.org/
analysis-indicator
U.S. FDI in partner country ($M USD, historical stock positions) 2018 218,835 http://apps.bea.gov/international/factsheet/
World Bank GNI per capita 2018 58,770 http://data.worldbank.org/
indicator/NY.GNP.PCAP.CD

1. Openness To, and Restrictions Upon, Foreign Investment

Policies Towards Foreign Direct Investment

Singapore maintains a heavily trade-dependent economy characterized by an open investment regime, with some licensing restrictions in the financial services, professional services, and media sectors. The World Bank’s Doing Business 2020 report ranked Singapore as the world’s second-easiest country in which to do business. The 2019 Global Competitiveness Report ranks Singapore as the most competitive economy globally. The 2004 USSFTA expanded U.S. market access in goods, services, investment, and government procurement, enhanced intellectual property protection, and provided for cooperation in promoting labor rights and the environment.

The government is committed to maintaining a free market, but it also actively plans Singapore’s economic development, including through a network of state wholly-owned and majority-owned enterprises (SOEs). As of February 2019, the top three Singapore-listed SOEs accounted for 13.1 percent of total capitalization of the Singapore Exchange (SGX). Some observers have criticized the dominant role of SOEs in the domestic economy, arguing that they have displaced or suppressed private sector entrepreneurship and investment.

Singapore’s legal framework and public policies are generally favorable toward foreign investors. Foreign investors are not required to enter into joint ventures or cede management control to local interests, and local and foreign investors are subject to the same basic laws. Apart from regulatory requirements in some sectors (reference Limits on National Treatment and Other Restrictions), eligibility for various incentive schemes depends on investment proposals meeting the criteria set by relevant government agencies. Singapore places no restrictions on reinvestment or repatriation of earnings or capital. The judicial system, which includes international arbitration and mediation centers and a commercial court, upholds the sanctity of contracts, and decisions are generally considered to be transparent and effectively enforced.

Singapore’s Economic Development Board (EDB) is the lead promotion agency that facilitates foreign investment into Singapore (https:www.edb.gov.sg ). EDB undertakes investment promotion and industry development and works with foreign and local businesses by providing information and facilitating introductions and access to government incentives for local and international investments. The government maintains close engagement with investors through the EDB, which provides feedback to other government agencies, such as the recently launched Infrastructure Asia, to ensure that infrastructure and public services remain efficient and cost-competitive.

Exceptions to Singapore’s general openness to foreign investment exist in sectors considered critical to national security, including telecommunications, broadcasting, the domestic news media, financial services, legal and accounting services, ports and airports, and property ownership. Under Singapore law, articles of incorporation may include shareholding limits that restrict ownership in corporations by foreign persons.

Telecommunications

Since 2000, the Singapore telecommunications market has been fully liberalized. This move has allowed foreign and domestic companies seeking to provide facilities-based (e.g. fixed line or mobile networks) or services-based (e.g. local and international calls and data services over leased networks) telecommunications services to apply for licenses to operate and deploy telecommunication systems and services. Singapore Telecommunications (Singtel) –majority owned by Temasek, a state-owned investment company with the Singapore Minister for Finance as its sole shareholder – faces competition in all market segments. However, its main competitors, M1 and StarHub, are also SOEs. In December 2018, Australian telco TPG Telecom launched a free 12-month service, including unlimited data and free local TPG-to-TPG calls. Approximately thirty mobile virtual network operator services (MVNOs) have also entered the market. The three established Singapore telecommunications competitors are expected to strengthen their partnerships with the MVNOs in a defensive move against TPG’s entry.

As of February 2020, Singapore has 70 facilities-based operators and 251 services-based (individual) operators offering telecommunications services. Since 2007, Singtel has been exempted from dominant licensee obligations for the residential and commercial portions of the retail international telephone services. Singtel is also exempted from dominant licensee obligations for wholesale international telephone services, international managed data, international IP transit, leased satellite bandwidth (VSAT, DVB-IP, satellite TV Downlink, and Satellite IPLC), terrestrial international private leased circuit, and backhaul services. The Info-communications Media Development Authority (IMDA) granted Singtel’s exemption after assessing that the market for these services had effective competition. Singapore’s IMDA operates as both the regulatory agency and the investment promotion agency for the country’s telecommunications sector. IMDA conducts public consultations on major policy reviews and provides decisions on policy changes to relevant companies.

To facilitate 5G technology and service trials, IMDA has waived frequency fees for companies interested in conducting 5G trials for equipment testing, research, and assessment of commercial potential. In 2019, IMDA issued a subsequent 5G Call for Proposal to provide for two nationwide 5G networks and smaller, specialized 5G networks. IMDA announced April 29 that Singtel, Singapore’s largest mobile network operator (MNO), and a separate joint venture between StarHub and M1, were awarded rights to build two 5G networks that are expected to provide 5G coverage to more than half the country by the end of 2022, with the goal of full coverage by the end of 2025. These three companies, along with Singapore’s only other MNO, TPG Telecom, are also now permitted to launch smaller, specialized 5G networks to support specialized applications, such as manufacturing and port operations. Singapore’s government did not hold a traditional spectrum auction, instead charging a moderate, flat fee to operate the networks, and evaluating proposals from the MNOs based on their ability to provide effective coverage, meet regulatory requirements, invest significant financial resources, and address cybersecurity and network resilience concerns. The announcement emphasized the importance of the winning MNOs using multiple vendors, to ensure security and resilience. Singapore has committed to being one of the first countries to make 5G services broadly available, and its tightly managed 5G-rollout process continues apace, despite COVID-19. The government views this as a necessity for a country that prides itself on innovation and has pushed Singapore’s MNOs to move forward with 5G, even as these private firms worry that the commercial potential does not yet justify the extensive upfront investment necessary to develop new networks.

Media

The local free-to-air broadcasting, cable, and newspaper sectors are effectively closed to foreign firms. Section 44 of the Broadcasting Act restricts foreign equity ownership of companies broadcasting in Singapore to 49 percent or less, although the Act does allow for exceptions. Individuals cannot hold shares that would make up more than five percent of the total votes in a broadcasting company without the government’s prior approval. The Newspaper and Printing Presses Act (NPPA) restricts equity ownership (local or foreign) of newspaper companies to less than five percent per shareholder and requires that directors be Singapore citizens. Newspaper companies must issue two classes of shares, ordinary and management, with the latter available only to Singapore citizens or corporations approved by the government. Holders of management shares have an effective veto over selected board decisions.

Singapore regulates content across all major media outlets. The government controls the distribution, importation, and sale of any newspaper and has curtailed or banned the circulation of some foreign publications. Singapore’s leaders have also brought defamation suits against foreign publishers, which have resulted in the foreign publishers issuing apologies and paying damages. Several dozen publications remain prohibited under the Undesirable Publications Act, which restricts the import, sale, and circulation of publications that the government considers contrary to public interest. Examples include pornographic magazines, publications by banned religious groups, and publications containing extremist religious views. Following a routine review in 2015, the formerly named Media Development Authority lifted a ban on 240 publications, ranging from decades-old anti-colonial and communist material to adult interest content.

Singaporeans generally face few restrictions on the internet. However, the IMDA has blocked various websites containing objectionable material, such as pornography and racist and religious hatred sites. Online news websites that report regularly on Singapore and have a significant reach are individually licensed, which requires adherence to requirements to remove prohibited content within 24 hours of notification from IMDA. Some view this regulation as a way to censor online critics of the government.

In April 2019, the government introduced legislation in Parliament to counter “deliberate online falsehoods.” The legislation, called the Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act (POFMA) entered into force on October 2, 2019, requires online platforms to run carry correction notifications alongside statements that government ministers classify as factually false or misleading, and which they deem likely to threaten national security, diminish public confidence in the government, incite feelings of ill will between people, or influence an election “online falsehoods.” Non-compliance is punishable by fines and/or imprisonment and the government can use stricter measures such as disabling access to end-users in Singapore and forcing online platforms to disallow persons in question from using its services in Singapore. U.S. social media companies have reported being the target of the majority of POFMA cases so far. U.S. media and social media sites continue to operate in Singapore, but a few major players have ceased running political ads after the government announced that it would impose penalties on sites or individuals that spread “misinformation,” as determined by the government.

Pay-Television

Mediacorp TV is the only free-to-air TV broadcaster and is 100 percent owned by the government via Temasek Holdings (Temasek). Local pay-TV providers are StarHub and Singtel, which are both partially owned by Temasek or its subsidiaries. Local free-to-air radio broadcasters are Mediacorp Radio Singapore, which is also owned by Temasek Holdings, SPH Radio, owned by the publicly-held Singapore Press Holdings, and So Drama! Entertainment, owned by the Singapore Ministry of Defense. BBC World Services is the only foreign free-to-air radio broadcaster in Singapore.

To rectify the high degree of content fragmentation in the Singapore pay-TV market, and shift the focus of competition from an exclusivity-centric strategy to other aspects such as service differentiation and competitive packaging, the MDA implemented cross-carriage measures in 2011 requiring pay-TV companies designated by MDA to be Receiving Qualified Licensees (RQL) – currently Singtel and StarHub – to cross-carry content subject to exclusive carriage provisions. Correspondingly, Supplying Qualified Licensees (SQLs) with an exclusive contract for a channel are required to carry that content on other RQL pay-TV companies. In February 2019, the IMDA proposed to continue the current cross-carriage measures. The Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) has expressed concern that this measure restricts copyright exclusivity. Content providers consider the measures an unnecessary interference in a competitive market that denies content holders the ability to negotiate freely in the marketplace, and an interference with their ability to manage and protect their intellectual property. More common content is now available across the different pay-TV platforms, and the operators are beginning to differentiate themselves by originating their own content, offering subscribed content online via PCs and tablet computers, and delivering content via fiber networks.

Streaming services have entered the market, which MPAA has found leads to a significant reduction in intellectual property infringements. StarHub and Singtel have both partnered with multiple content providers, including U.S. companies, to provide streaming content in Singapore and around the region.

Banking and Finance

The Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS) regulates all banking activities as provided for under the Banking Act. Singapore maintains legal distinctions between foreign and local banks and the type of license (i.e. full service, wholesale, and offshore banks) held by foreign commercial banks. As of May 2020, 29 foreign full-service licensees and 99 wholesale banks operated in Singapore. An additional 24 merchant banks are licensed to conduct corporate finance, investment banking, and other fee-based activities. Offshore and wholesale banks are not allowed to operate Singapore dollar retail banking activities. Only Full Banks and “Qualifying Full Banks” (QFBs) can operate Singapore dollar retail banking activities but are subject to restrictions on the number of places of business, ATMs, and ATM networks. Additional QFB licenses may be granted to a subset of full banks, which provide greater branching privileges and greater access to the retail market than other full banks. As of May 2020, there are 9 banks operating QFB licenses.

Except in retail banking, Singapore laws do not distinguish operationally between foreign and domestic banks. Currently, all banks in Singapore are required to maintain a Domestic Banking Unit (DBU) and an Asian Currency Unit (ACU), separating international and domestic banking operations from each other. Transactions in Singapore dollars can be booked only in the DBU whereas transactions in foreign currency are typically booked in the ACU. The ACU is an accounting unit that the banks use to book all their foreign currency transactions conducted in the Asian Dollar Market (ADM). This enables additional prudential requirements to be imposed on banks’ domestic businesses in Singapore, while also avoiding undue restrictions on the offshore activities of banks. Following public consultations, MAS initiated a 30-month implementation timeline from February 2017 for the removal of the DBU-ACU divide, which align revisions made to MAS 610 (Submission of Statistics and Returns).

The government initiated a banking liberalization program in 1999 to ease restrictions on foreign banks and has supplemented this with phased-in provisions under the USSFTA, including removal of a 40 percent ceiling on foreign ownership of local banks and a 20 percent aggregate foreign shareholding limit on finance companies. The Minister in charge of the Monetary Authority of Singapore must approve the merger or takeover of a local bank or financial holding company, as well as the acquisition of voting shares in such institutions above specific thresholds of 5 , 12, or 20 percent of shareholdings.

Although Singapore’s government has lifted the formal ceilings on foreign ownership of local banks and finance companies, the approval of controllers of local banks ensures that this control rests with individuals or groups whose interests are aligned with the long-term interests of the Singapore economy and Singapore’s national interests. Of the 29 full-service licenses granted to foreign banks, three have gone to U.S. banks. U.S. financial institutions enjoy phased-in benefits under the USSFTA. Since 2006, U.S.-licensed full-service banks that are also QFBs, which is only one as of May 2020, have been able to operate at an unlimited number of locations (branches or off-premises ATMs).. U.S. and foreign full-service banks with QFB status can freely relocate existing branches and share ATMs among themselves. They can also provide electronic funds transfer and point-of-sale debit services and accept services related to Singapore’s compulsory pension fund. In 2007, Singapore lifted the quota on new licenses for U.S. wholesale banks.

Locally and non-locally incorporated subsidiaries of U.S. full-service banks with QFB status can apply for access to local ATM networks. However, no U.S. bank has come to a commercial agreement to gain such access. Despite liberalization, U.S. and other foreign banks in the domestic retail-banking sector still face barriers. Under the enhanced QFB program launched in 2012, MAS requires QFBs it deems systemically significant to incorporate locally. If those locally incorporated entities are deemed “significantly rooted” in Singapore, with a majority of Singaporean or permanent resident members, Singapore may grant approval for an additional 25 places of business, of which up to ten may be branches. Local retail banks do not face similar constraints on customer service locations or access to the local ATM network. As noted above, U.S. banks are not subject to quotas on service locations under the terms of the USSFTA. Holders of credit cards issued locally by U.S. banks incorporated in Singapore cannot access their accounts through the local ATM networks. They are also unable to access their accounts for cash withdrawals, transfers, or bill payments at ATMs operated by banks other than those operated by their own bank or at foreign banks’ shared ATM network. Nevertheless, full-service foreign banks have made significant inroads in other retail banking areas, with substantial market share in products like credit cards and personal and housing loans.

In January 2019, MAS announced the passage of the Payment Services Bill after soliciting public feedback for design of the bill. The bill requires more payment services such as digital payment tokens, dealing in virtual currency and merchant acquisition, to be licensed and regulated by MAS. In order to reduce the risk of misuse for illicit purposes, it also limits the amount of funds that can be held in or transferred out of a personal payment account (e.g. mobile wallets) in a year. Regulations are tailored to the type of activity preformed and addresses issues related to terrorism financing, money laundering, and cyber risks. To expand the banking industry, MAS has procured bids for digital online bank licenses, which are set to be announced in June 2020 and begin operation in the middle of 2021.

Singapore has no trading restrictions on foreign-owned stockbrokers. There is no cap on the aggregate investment by foreigners regarding the paid-up capital of dealers that are members of the SGX. Direct registration of foreign mutual funds is allowed provided MAS approves the prospectus and the fund. The USSFTA has relaxed conditions foreign asset managers must meet in order to offer products under the government-managed compulsory pension fund (Central Provident Fund Investment Scheme).

Legal Services

The Legal Services Regulatory Authority (LSRA) under the Ministry of Law oversees the regulation, licensing, and compliance of all law practice entities and the registration of foreign lawyers in Singapore. Foreign law firms with a licensed Foreign Law Practice (FLP) may offer the full range of legal services in foreign law and international law but cannot practice Singapore law except in the context of international commercial arbitration. U.S. and foreign attorneys are allowed to represent parties in arbitration without the need for a Singapore attorney to be present. To offer Singapore law, FLPs require either a Qualifying Foreign Law Practice (QFLP) license, a Joint Law Venture (JLV) with a Singapore Law Practice (SLP), or a Formal Law Alliance (FLA) with a SLP. The vast majority of Singapore’s 130 foreign law firms operate FLPs, while QFLPs and JLVs each number in the single digits.

The QFLP licenses allow foreign law firms to practice in permitted areas of Singapore law, which excludes constitutional and administrative law, conveyancing, criminal law, family law, succession law, and trust law. As of May 2020, there are nine QFLPs in Singapore, including five U.S. firms. In January 2019, the Ministry of Law announced the deferral to 2020 of the decision to renew the licenses of five QFLPs, which were set to expire in 2019 so that the government can better assess their contribution to Singapore along with the other four firms whose licenses were also extended to 2020. Decisions on the renewal considers the firms’ quantitative and qualitative performance such as the value of work that the Singapore office will generate, the extent to which the Singapore office will function as the firm’s headquarter for the region, the firm’s contributions to Singapore, and the firm’s proposal for the new license period.

A JLV is a collaboration between a Foreign Law Practice and Singapore Law Practice, which may be constituted as a partnership or company. The Director of Legal Services in the LSRA will consider all the relevant circumstances including the proposed structure and its overall suitability to achieve the objectives for which Joint law Ventures are permitted to be established. There is no clear indication on the percentage of shares that each JLV partner may hold in the JLV.

Law degrees from designated U.S., British, Australian, and New Zealand universities are recognized for purposes of admission to practice law in Singapore. Under the USSFTA, Singapore recognizes law degrees from Harvard University, Columbia University, New York University, and the University of Michigan. Singapore will admit to the Singapore Bar law school graduates of those designated universities who are Singapore citizens or permanent residents, and ranked among the top 70 percent of their graduating class or have obtained lower-second class honors (under the British system).

Engineering and Architectural Services

Engineering and architectural firms can be 100 percent foreign-owned. Engineers and architects are required to register with the Professional Engineers Board and the Board of Architects, respectively, to practice in Singapore. All applicants (both local and foreign) must have at least four years of practical experience in engineering, of which two are acquired in Singapore. Alternatively, students can attend two years of practical training in architectural works, and pass written and/or oral examinations set by the respective Board.

Accounting and Tax Services

The major international accounting firms operate in Singapore. Registration as a public accountant under the Accountants Act is required to provide public accountancy services (i.e. the audit and reporting on financial statements and other acts that are required by any written law to be done by a public accountant) in Singapore, although registration as a public accountant is not required to provide other accountancy services, such as accounting, tax, and corporate advisory work. All accounting entities that provide public accountancy services must be approved under the Accountants Act and their supply of public accountancy services in Singapore must be under the control and management of partners or directors who are public accountants ordinarily resident in Singapore. In addition, if the accounting entity firm has two partners or directors, at least one of them must be a public accountant. If the business entity has more than two accounting partners or directors, two-thirds of the partners or directors must be public accountants.

Energy

Singapore further liberalized its gas market with the amendment of the Gas Act and implementation of a Gas Network Code in 2008, which were designed to give gas retailers and importers direct access to the onshore gas pipeline infrastructure. However, key parts of the local gas market, such as town gas retailing and gas transportation through pipelines remain controlled by incumbent Singaporean firms. Singapore has sought to grow its supply of Liquefied Natural Gas (LNG), and BG Singapore Gas Marketing Pte Ltd (acquired by Royal Dutch Shell in February 2016) was appointed in 2008 as the first aggregator with an exclusive franchise to import LNG to be sold in its re-gasified form in Singapore. In October 2017, Shell Eastern Trading Pte Ltd and Pavilion Gase Pte Ltd were awarded import licenses to market up to 1 Million Tonnes Per Annum (Mtpa) or for three years, whichever occurs first. This also marked the conclusion of the first exclusive franchise awarded to BG Singapore Gas Marketing Pte Ltd.

Beginning in November 2018 and concluding in May 2019, Singapore rolled out the launch of an Open Electricity Market (OEM). Previously, Singapore Power was the only electricity retailer. As of October 2019, 40 percent of resident consumers had switched to a new electricity retailer and are saving between 20 and 30 percent on their monthly bills. To participate in the Open Electricity Market licensed retailers must satisfy additional credit, technical, and financial requirements set by EMA in order to sell electricity to households and small businesses. There are two types of electricity retailers: Market Participant Retailers (MPRs) and Non-Market Participant Retailers (NMPRs). MPRs have to be registered with the Energy Market Company (EMC) to purchase electricity from the National Electricity Market of Singapore (NEMS) to sell to contestable consumers. NMPRs need not register with EMC to participate in the NEMS since they will purchase electricity indirectly from the NEMS through the Market Support Services Licensee (MSSL). As of April 2020, there were 12 retailers in the market, including foreign and local entities.

Limits on Foreign Control and Right to Private Ownership and Establishment

Foreign and local entities may readily establish, operate, and dispose of their own enterprises in Singapore subject to certain requirements. A foreigner who wants to incorporate a company in Singapore is required to appoint a local resident director; foreigners may continue to reside outside of Singapore. Foreigners who wish to incorporate a company and be present in Singapore to manage its operations are strongly advised to seek approval from the Ministry of Manpower (MOM) before incorporation. Except for representative offices (where foreign firms maintain a local representative but do not conduct commercial transactions in Singapore) there are no restrictions on carrying out remunerative activities. As of October 2017, foreign companies may seek to transfer their place of registration and be registered as companies limited by shares in Singapore under Part XA (Transfer of Registration) of the Companies Act (https://sso.agc.gov.sg/Act/CoA1967). Such transferred foreign companies are subject to the same requirements as locally-incorporated companies.

All businesses in Singapore must be registered with the Accounting and Corporate Regulatory Authority (ACRA). Foreign investors can operate their businesses in one of the following forms: sole proprietorship, partnership, limited partnership, limited liability partnership, incorporated company, foreign company branch or representative office. Stricter disclosure requirements were passed in March 2017 requiring foreign company branches registered in Singapore to maintain public registers of their members. All companies incorporated in Singapore, foreign companies, and limited liability partnerships registered in Singapore are also required to maintain beneficial ownership in the form of a register of controllers (generally individuals or legal entities with more than 25 percent interest or control of the companies and foreign companies) aimed at preventing money laundering.

While there is currently no cross-sectional screening process for foreign investments, investors are required to seek approval from specific sector regulators for investments into certain firms. These sectors include energy, telecommunications, broadcasting, the domestic news media, financial services, legal services, public accounting services, ports and airports, and property ownership. Under Singapore law, Articles of Incorporation may include shareholding limits that restrict ownership in corporations by foreign persons.

Singapore does not maintain a formalized investment screening mechanism for inbound foreign investment. There are no reports of U.S. investors being especially disadvantaged or singled out relative to other foreign investors.

Other Investment Policy Reviews

Singapore underwent a trade policy review with the World Trade Organization (WTO) in July 2016. No major policy recommendations were raised. This was the country’s only policy review in the past four years, with another WTO review expected later in 2020. (https://www.wto.org/english/tratop_e/tpr_e/tp443_e.htmhttps://www.wto.org/english/tratop_e/tpr_e/tp443_e.htm )

The OECD and United Nations Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO) released a joint report in February 2019 on the ASEAN-OECD Investment Program. The Program aims to foster dialogue and experience sharing between OECD countries and Southeast Asian economies on issues relating to the business and investment climate. It is implemented through regional policy dialogue, country investment policy reviews, and training seminars. (https://www.oecd.org/industry/inv/mne/seasia.htm)

The OECD released a Transfer Pricing Country Profile for Singapore in June 2018. The country profiles focus on countries’ domestic legislation regarding key transfer pricing principles, including the arm’s length principle, transfer pricing methods, comparability analysis, intangible property, intra-group services, cost contribution agreements, transfer pricing documentation, administrative approaches to avoiding and resolving disputes, safe harbors and other implementation measures. (https://www.oecd.org/tax/transfer-pricing/transfer-pricing-country-profile-singapore.pdf)

The OECD released a peer review report in March 2018 on Singapore’s implementation of internationally agreed tax standards under Action Plan 14 of the base erosion and profit shifting (BEPS) project. Action 14 strengthens the effectiveness and efficiency of the mutual agreement procedure, a cross-border tax dispute resolution mechanism. (http://www.oecd.org/corruption-integrity/reports/singapore-2018-peer-review-report-transparency-exchange-information-aci.html)

The UNCTAD has not conducted an IPR of Singapore.

Business Facilitation

Singapore’s online business registration process is clear and efficient and allows foreign companies to register branches. All businesses must be registered with the Accounting & Corporate Regulatory Authority (ACRA) through Bizfile, its online registration and information retrieval portal (https://www.bizfile.gov.sg/), including any individual, firm or corporation that carries out business for a foreign company. Applications are typically processed immediately after the application fee is paid, but may take between 14 to 60 days, if the application is referred to another agency for approval or review. The process of establishing a foreign-owned limited liability company in Singapore is among the fastest of the countries surveyed by IAB.

ACRA (www.acra.gov.sg ) provides a single window for business registration. Additional regulatory approvals (e.g. licensing or visa requirements) are obtained via individual applications to the respective Ministries or Statutory Boards. Further information and business support on registering a branch of a foreign company is available through the EDB (https://www.edb.gov.sg/en/how-we-help/setting-up.html ) and GuideMeSingapore, a corporate services firm Hawskford (https://www.guidemesingapore.com/).

Foreign companies may lease or buy privately or publicly held land in Singapore, though there are some restrictions on foreign ownership of property. Foreign companies are free to open and maintain bank accounts in foreign currency. There is no minimum paid-in capital requirement, but at least one subscriber share must be issued for valid consideration at incorporation.

At GER (ger.co), Singapore’s online business registration process scores 7/10 in Online Single Windows (https://www.bizfile.gov.sg/).

Business facilitation processes provide for fair and equal treatment of women and minorities, and there are no mechanisms that provide special assistance to women and minorities.

Outward Investment

Singapore places no restrictions on domestic investors investing abroad. The government promotes outward investment through Enterprise Singapore, a statutory board under the Ministry of Trade and Industry (MTI). It provides market information, business contacts, and financial assistance and grants for internationalizing companies. While it has a global reach and runs overseas centers in major cities across the world, a large share of its overseas centers are located in major trading and investment partners and regional markets like China, India, and ASEAN.

3. Legal Regime

Transparency of the Regulatory System

The government establishes clear rules that foster competition. The USSFTA enhances transparency by requiring regulatory authorities to consult with interested parties before issuing regulations, and to provide advance notice and comment periods for proposed rules, as well as to publish all regulations. Singapore’s legal, regulatory, and accounting systems are transparent and consistent with international norms.

Rule-making authority is vested in the Parliament to pass laws that determine the regulatory scope, purpose, rights and powers of the regulator and the legal framework for the industry. Regulatory authority is vested in government ministries or in statutory boards, which are organizations that have been given autonomy to perform an operational function by legal statutes passed as Acts in parliament, and report to a specific Ministry. Local laws give regulatory bodies wide discretion to modify regulations and impose new conditions, but in practice agencies use this positively to adapt incentives or other services on a case-by-case basis to meet the needs of foreign as well as domestic companies. Acts of Parliament also confer certain powers on a Minister or other similar persons or authorities to make rules or regulations in order to put the Act into practice; these rules are known as subsidiary legislation.

National-level regulations are the most relevant for foreign businesses. Singapore, being a city-state, has no local or state regulatory layers.

Before a ministry instructs the Attorney-General’s Chambers (AGC) to draft a new bill or make an amendment to a bill, the ministry has to seek in-principle approval from the Cabinet for the proposed bill. The Legislation Division of AGC advises and helps vet or draft bills in conjunction with policymakers from relevant ministries. Public and private consultations are often requested for proposed draft legislative amendments. Thereafter, the Cabinet’s approval is required before the bill can be introduced in Parliament.  All Bills passed by Parliament (with some exceptions) must be forwarded to the Presidential Council for Minority Rights (PCMR) for scrutiny, and thereafter presented to the President for assent. Only after the President has assented to the Bill does the Bill become law (i.e. an Act of Parliament).

While ministries or regulatory agencies do conduct internal impact assessments of proposed regulations, there are no criteria used for determining which proposed regulations are subjected to an impact assessment, and there are no specific regulatory impact assessment guidelines. There is no independent agency tasked with reviewing and monitoring regulatory impact assessments and distributing findings to the public. The Ministry of Finance publishes a biennial Singapore Public Sector Outcomes Review (http://www.mof.gov.sg/Resources/Singapore-Public-Sector-Outcomes-Review-SPOR). It focuses on broad outcomes and indicators rather than policy evaluation. Results of scientific studies or quantitative analysis conducted in review of policies and regulations are not made publicly available.

Industry self-regulation occurs in several areas, including advertising and corporate governance. Advertising Standards Authority of Singapore  (ASAS), an advisory council under the Consumers Association of Singapore, administers the Singapore Code of Advertising Practice, which focuses on ensuring that advertisements are legal, decent, and truthful. Listed companies are required under the Singapore Exchange (SGX) Listing Rules to describe in their annual reports their corporate governance practices with specific reference to the principles and provisions of the Code. Listed companies must comply with the principles of the Code, and, if their practices vary from any provisions of the Code, they must note the reason for the variation and explain how the practices they have adopted are consistent with the intent of the relevant principle. The SGX plays the role of a self-regulatory organization (SRO) in listings, market surveillance, and member supervision to uphold the integrity of the market and ensure participants’ adherence to trading and clearing rules. There have been no reports of discriminatory practices aimed at foreign investors.

Singapore’s legal and accounting procedures are transparent and consistent with international norms and rank similar to the U.S. in international comparisons (http://worldjusticeproject.org/rule-of-law-index ). The prescribed accounting standards for Singapore-incorporated companies applying to be or are listed in the public market, Singapore Exchange, are known as Singapore Financial Reporting Standards (SFRS(I)), which areidentical to those of the International Accounting Standards Board (IASB). Non-listed Singapore-incorporated companies can voluntarily apply for SFRS(I). Otherwise, they are required to comply with Singapore Financial Reporting Standards (SFRS), which are also aligned with those of IASB. For the use of foreign accounting standards, the companies are required to seek approval of the Accounting and Corporate Regulatory Authority (ACRA).

For foreign companies with primary listings on the Singapore Exchange, the SGX Listing Rules allow the use of alternative standards such as International Financial Reporting Standards (IFRS) or the U.S. Generally Accepted Accounting Principles (U.S. GAAP). Accounts prepared in accordance with IFRS or U.S. GAAP need not be reconciled to SFRS(1). Companies with secondary listings on the Singapore Exchange need only reconcile their accounts to SFRS(I), IFRS, or U.S. GAAP.

Notices of proposed legislation to be considered by Parliament are published, including the text of the laws, the dates of the readings, and whether or not the laws eventually pass. The government has established a centralized Internet portal (www.reach.gov.sg ) to solicit feedback on selected draft legislation and regulations, a process that is being used with increasing frequency. There is no stipulated consultative period. Results of consultations are usually consolidated and published on relevant websites. As noted in the “Openness to Foreign Investment” section, some U.S. companies, in particular in the telecommunications and media sectors, are concerned about the government’s lack of transparency in its regulatory and rule-making process. However, many U.S. firms report they have opportunities to weigh in on pending legislation that affects their industries. These mechanisms also apply to investment laws and regulations.

The Parliament of Singapore website (https://www.parliament.gov.sg/parliamentary-business/bills-introduced ) publishes a database of all Bills introduced, read, and passed in Parliament in chronological order as of 2006. The contents are the actual draft texts of the proposed legislation/legislative amendments. All statutes are also publicly available in the Singapore Statutes Online website (https://sso.agc.gov.sg ). However, there is no centralized online location where key regulatory actions are published. Regulatory actions are published separately on websites of Statutory Boards.

Enforcement of regulatory offences is governed by both Acts of Parliament and subsidiary legislation. Enforcement powers of government statutory bodies are typically enshrined in the Act of Parliament constituting that statutory body. There is accountability to Parliament for enforcement action through Question Time, where Members of Parliament may raise questions with the Ministers on their respective Ministries’ responsibilities.

Singapore’s judicial system and courts serve as the oversight mechanism in respect of executive action (such as the enforcement of regulatory offences) and dispense justice based on law. The Supreme Court, which is made up of the Court of Appeal and the High Court, hears both civil and criminal matters. The Chief Justice heads the Judiciary. The President appoints the Chief Justice, the Judges of Appeal and the Judges of the High Court if she, acting at her discretion, concurs with the advice of the Prime Minister.

No systemic regulatory reforms or enforcement reforms relevant to foreign investors have been announced. The Monetary Authority of Singapore focuses enforcement efforts on timely disclosure of corporate information, business conduct of financial advisors, compliance with anti-money laundering/combatting the financing of terrorism requirements, deterring stock market abuse, and insider trading.. In March 2019, MAS published its inaugural Enforcement Report detailing enforcement measures and publishes recent enforcement actions on its website (https://www.mas.gov.sg/regulation/enforcement/enforcement-actions ).

International Regulatory Considerations

Singapore was the 2018 chair of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). ASEAN is working towards the 2025 ASEAN Economic Community (AEC) Blueprint aimed at achieving a single market and production base, with a free flow of goods, services, and investment within the region. While ASEAN is working towards regulatory harmonization, there are no regional regulatory systems in place; instead, ASEAN agreements and regulations are enacted through each ASEAN Member State’s domestic regulatory system. While Singapore has expressed interest in driving intra-regional trade, the dynamics of ASEAN economies are convergent.

The WTO’s 2016 trade policy review notes that Singapore’s guiding principle for standardization is to align national standards with international standards, and Singapore is an elected member of the International Organization of Standardization (ISO) and International Electrotechnical Commission (IEC) Councils. Singapore encourages the direct use of international standards whenever possible. Singapore Standards (SS) are developed when there is no appropriate international standard equivalent, or when there is a need to customize standards to meet domestic requirements. At the end of 2015, Singapore had a stock of 553 SS, about 40 percent of which were references to international standards. Enterprise Singapore, the Singapore Food Agency, and the Ministry of Trade and Industry are the three national enquiry points under the TBT Agreement. There are no known reports of omissions in reporting to TBT.

A non-exhaustive list of major international norms and standards referenced or incorporated into the country’s regulatory systems include Base Erosion and Profit Shifting (BEPS) project, Common Reporting Standards (CRS), Basel III, EU Dual-Use Export Control Regulation, Exchange of Information on Request, 27 International Labor Organization (ILO) conventions on labor rights and governance, UN conventions, and WTO agreements.

Singapore is signatory to the Trade Facilitation Agreement (TFA). The WTO reports that Singapore has fully implemented the TFA (https://www.tfadatabase.org/members/singapore ).

Legal System and Judicial Independence

Singapore’s legal system has its roots in English common law and practice and is enforced by courts of law. The current judicial process is procedurally competent, fair, and reliable. In the 2020 Rule of Law Index by World Justice Project , it is ranked overall 12th in the world, 1st on order and security, 3rd on regulatory enforcement, 3rd in absence of corruption, 6th on civil and criminal justice, 29th on constraints on government powers, 26th on open government, and 32nd on fundamental rights. Singapore’s legal procedures are ranked 1st in the world in the World Bank’s 2020 Ease of Doing Business sub-indicator on contract enforcement which measures speed, cost, and quality of judicial processes to resolve a commercial dispute. The judicial system remains independent of the executive branch and the executive does not interfere in judiciary matters.

Laws and Regulations on Foreign Direct Investment

Singapore strives to promote an efficient, business-friendly regulatory environment. Tax, labor, banking and finance, industrial health and safety, arbitration, wage, and training rules and regulations are formulated and reviewed with the interests of both foreign investors and local enterprises in mind. Starting in 2005, a Rules Review Panel, comprising senior civil servants, began overseeing a review of all rules and regulations; this process will be repeated every five years. A Pro-Enterprise Panel  of high-level public sector and private sector representatives examines feedback from businesses on regulatory issues and provides recommendations to the government.

The Cybersecurity Act, which came into force in August 2018, establishes a comprehensive regulatory framework for cybersecurity. The Act provides the Commissioner of Cyber Security with powers to investigate, prevent, and assess the potential impact of cyber security incidents and threats in Singapore. These can include requiring persons and organizations to provide requested information, requiring the owner of a computer system to take any action to assist with cyber investigations, directing organizations to remediate cyber incidents, and, if safeguards have been met, authorizing officers to enter premises, and installing software and take possession of computer systems to prevent serious cyber-attacks in the event of severe threat. The Act also establishes a framework for the designation and regulation of Critical Information Infrastructure (CII). Requirements for CII owners include a mandatory incident reporting regime, regular audits and risk assessments, and participation in national cyber security stress tests. In addition, the Act will establish a regulatory regime for cyber security service providers and required licensing for penetration testing and managed security operations center (SOC) monitoring services. U.S. business chambers have expressed concern about the effects of licensing and regularly burdens on compliance costs, insufficient checks and balances on the investigatory powers of the authorities, and the absence of a multidirectional cyber threat sharing framework that includes protections from liability. Under the law, additional measures, such as the Cybersecurity Labelling Scheme, continue to be introduced. Authorities stress that, “in view of the need to strike a good balance between industry development and cybersecurity needs, the licensing framework will take a light-touch approach.”

Competition and Anti-Trust Laws

The Competition and Consumer Commission of Singapore (CCCS) is a statutory board under the Ministry of Trade and Industry (MTI) and is tasked with administering and enforcing the Competition Act. The Act contains provisions on anti-competitive agreements, decisions, and practices; abuse of dominance; enforcement and appeals process; and mergers and acquisitions. The Competition Act was enacted in 2004 in accordance with U.S-Singapore FTA commitments, which contains specific conduct guarantees to ensure that Singapore’s GLCs will operate on a commercial and non-discriminatory basis towards U.S. firms. GLCs with substantial revenues or assets are also subject to enhanced transparency requirements under the FTA. A 2018 addition to the Act gives the CCCS additional administrative power to protect consumers against unfair trade practices.

The most recent infringement decision  issued by CCCS occurred in January 2019 when three competing hotel operators, including a major British hospitality company, exchanged “commercially sensitive” information. The operators were fined a total financial penalty of $1.1 million for conduct potentially resulting in reduced competitive pressure on the market. No other cases tied to commercial behavior in 2019 or the first quarter of 2020 have received penalties from CCCS.

Expropriation and Compensation

Singapore has not expropriated foreign owned property and has no laws that force foreign investors to transfer ownership to local interests. Singapore has signed investment promotion and protection agreements with a wide range of countries. These agreements mutually protect nationals or companies of either country against certain non-commercial risks, such as expropriation and nationalization and remain in effect unless otherwise terminated. The USSFTA contains strong investor protection provisions relating to expropriation of private property and the need to follow due process; provisions are in place for an owner to receive compensation based on fair market value. No disputes are pending.

Dispute Settlement

ICSID Convention and New York Convention

Singapore is party to the Convention on the Settlement of Investment Disputes (ICSID Convention) and the convention on the Recognition and Enforcement of Foreign Arbitration Awards (1958 New York Convention). Singapore passed an Arbitration (International Investment Disputes) Act to implement the ICSID Convention in 1968. Singapore acceded to the 1958 New York Convention in August 1986 and gives effect to it via the International Arbitration Act (IAA). The 1958 New York Convention is annexed to the IAA as the Second Schedule. Singapore is bound to recognize awards made in any other country that is a signatory to the 1958 New York Convention. (http://www.lexology.com/library/detail.aspx?g=3f833e8e-722a-4fca-8393-f35e59ed1440 )

Domestic arbitration in Singapore is governed by the Arbitration Act (Cap 10). The Arbitration Act was enacted to align the laws applicable to domestic arbitration with the Model Law.

Singapore is also a party to the United Nations Convention on International Settlement Agreements Resulting from Mediation, further referred to as the “Convention.” This Convention provides a process for parties to enforce or invoke an international commercial mediated settlement agreement once the conditions and requirements of the Convention are met. Singapore has put in place domestic legislation – the Singapore Convention on Mediation Bill 2020, which was passed in Parliament on 4 February 2020. On 25 February 2020, Singapore and Fiji were the first two countries to deposit their respective instruments of ratification of the Convention at the United Nations Headquarters. The Convention will enter into force six months after the third State deposits its instrument of ratification, acceptance and approval or accession.

Investor-State Dispute Settlement

After Singapore’s accession to the New York Convention of 1958 on August 21, 1986, it re-enacted most of its provisions in Part III of the IAA. By acceding to this Convention, Singapore is bound to recognize awards made in any other country that is a signatory to the Convention. Singapore is a member of the Commonwealth of Nations and, under the Reciprocal Enforcement of Commonwealth Judgments Act (RECJA), recognizes judgments made in the United Kingdom, as well as jurisdictions that are part of the Commonwealth and with which Singapore has reciprocal arrangements for the recognition and enforcement of judgments. The Act lists the countries with which such arrangements exist, and of the 53 countries that are members of the Commonwealth, nine have been listed. (https://sso.agc.gov.sg/SL/RECJA1921-N1?DocDate=19990701) Singapore also has reciprocal recognition of foreign judgements with Hong Kong Special Administrative Region of the People’s Republic of China.

Singapore is party to the Convention on the Settlement of Investment Disputes between States and Nationals of Other States (ICSID Convention). Singapore passed an Arbitration (International Investment Disputes) Act to implement the ICSID Convention in 1968. ICSID Convention has an enforcement mechanism for arbitration awards rendered pursuant to ICSID rules that is separate from the 1958 arbitration awards rendered pursuant to ICSID rules that is separate from the 1958 New York Convention. Investor-State dispute settlement provisions in Singapore’s trade agreements, including the USSFTA, refer to ICSIID rules as one of the possible options for resolving disputes. Investor-State arbitration under rules other than ICSID’s would result in an arbitration award that may be enforced using the 1958 New York Convention.

Singapore has had no investment disputes with U.S. persons or other foreign investors in the past ten years that have proceeded to litigation. Any disputes settled by arbitration/mediation would remain confidential. There have been no claims made by U.S. investors under the USSFTA. There is no history of extrajudicial action against foreign investors. The government is investing in establishing Singapore as a global mediation hub.

International Commercial Arbitration and Foreign Courts

Dispute resolution (DR) institutions include the Singapore International Arbitration Centre (SIAC), Singapore International Mediation Centre (SIMC), Singapore International Commercial Court (SICC), and the Singapore Chamber of Maritime Arbitration (SCMA). Singapore’s extensive dispute resolution institutions and integrated dispute resolution facilities at Maxwell Chambers have contributed to its development as a regional hub for alternative disputes mechanisms. The SIAC is the major arbitral institution and its increasing caseload reflects Singapore’s policy of encouraging the use of alternative modes of dispute resolution, including arbitration.

Arbitral awards in Singapore, for either domestic or international arbitration, are legally binding and enforceable in Singapore domestic courts, as well as in jurisdictions that have ratified the 1958 New York Convention.

The International Arbitration Act (IAA) regulates international arbitrations in Singapore. Domestic arbitrations are regulated by the Arbitration Act (AA). The IAA is heavily based on the United Nations Commission on International Trade Law (UNCITRAL) Model Law, with a few significant differences. For example, arbitration agreements must be in writing. This requirement is deemed to be satisfied if the content is recorded in any form, including electronic communication, regardless of whether the arbitration agreement was concluded orally, by conduct, or by other means (e.g. an arbitration clause in a contract or a separate agreement can be incorporated into a contract by reference). The AA is also primarily based on the UNCITRAL Model Law. There have been no reported complaints about the partiality or transparency of court processes in investment and commercial disputes.

Bankruptcy Regulations

Singapore has bankruptcy laws allowing both debtors and creditors to file a bankruptcy claim. Singapore ranks number 27 for resolving insolvency in the World Bank’s 2020 Doing Business Index. While Singapore performed well in recovery rate and time of recovery following bankruptcies, the country did not score well on cost of proceedings or insolvency frameworks.. In particular, the insolvency framework does not require approval by the creditors for sale of substantial assets of the debtor or approval by the creditors for selection or appointment of the insolvency representative.

Singapore has made several reforms to enhance corporate rescue and restructuring processes, including features from Chapter 11 of the U.S. Bankruptcy Code. Amendments to the Companies Act, which came into force in May 2017, include additional disclosure requirements by debtors, rescue financing provisions, provisions to facilitate the approval of pre-packaged restructurings, increased debtor protections, and cram-down provisions that will allow a scheme to be approved by the court even if a class of creditors oppose the scheme, provided the dissenting class of creditors are not unfairly prejudiced by the scheme.

In October 2018, the Insolvency, Restructuring and Dissolution Act was passed, but the expected effective date of the bill has been delayed from the first half of 2019 into 2020.. It updates the insolvency legislation and introduces a significant number of new provisions, particularly with respect to corporate insolvency. It mandates licensing, qualifications, standards, and disciplinary measures for insolvency practitioners. It also includes standalone voidable transaction provisions for corporate insolvency and, a new wrongful trading provision. The Act allows ‘out of court’ commencement of judicial management, permits judicial managers to assign the proceeds of certain insolvency related claims, restricts the operation of contractual ‘ipso facto clauses’ upon the commencement of certain restructuring and insolvency procedures, and modifies the operation of the scheme of arrangement cross class ‘cram down’ power. Authorities continue to seek public consultations of subsidiary legislation to be drafted under the Act.

Two MAS-recognized consumer credit bureaus operate in Singapore: the Credit Bureau (Singapore) Pte Ltd and Experian Credit Bureau Singapore Pte Ltd. U.S. industry advocates enhancements to Singapore’s credit bureau system, in particular, adoption of an open admission system for all lenders, including non-banks. Bankruptcy is not criminalized in Singapore. https://www.acra.gov.sg/CA_2017/ 

4. Industrial Policies

Investment Incentives

Singapore’s Economic Development Board (EDB) is the lead investment promotion agency facilitating foreign investment into Singapore (https://www.edb.gov.sg ). EDB undertakes investment promotion and industry development, and works with international businesses, both foreign and local, by providing information, connection to partners, and access to government incentives for their investments. The Agency for Science, Technology, and Research (A*STAR) is Singapore’s lead public sector agency focused on economic-oriented research to advance scientific discovery and innovative technology. (https://www.a-star.edu.sg ) The National Research Foundation (NRF) provides competitive grants for applied research through an integrated grant management system, (https://researchgrant.gov.sg/pages/index.aspx ). Various government agencies (including Intellectual Property Office of Singapore (IPOS), NRF, and EDB,) provide venture capital co-funding for startups and commercialization of intellectual property.

Foreign Trade Zones/Free Ports/Trade Facilitation

Singapore has nine free-trade zones (FTZs) in five geographical areas operated by three FTZ authorities. The FTZs may be used for storage and repackaging of import and export cargo, and goods transiting Singapore for subsequent re-export. Manufacturing is not carried out within the zones. Foreign and local firms have equal access to the FTZ facilities.

Performance and Data Localization Requirements

Performance requirements are applied uniformly and systematically to both domestic and foreign investors. Singapore has no forced localization policy requiring domestic content in goods or technology. The government does not require investors to purchase from local sources or specify a percentage of output for export. There are no rules forcing the transfer of technology. There are no requirements for foreign IT providers to turn over source code and/or provide access to encryption. The industry regulator is the Info-communications Media Development Authority (IMDA), a statutory board under the Ministry of Communications and Information (MCI).

In May 2020, Singapore will tighten requirements for hiring foreign workers, including raising minimum salary thresholds and additional enforcement of penalties for employers not giving “fair consideration” to local applicants before hiring foreign workers.

Personal data matters are independently overseen by the Personal Data Protection Commission, which administers and enforces the Personal Data Protection Act (PDPA) of 2012. The PDPA governs the collection, use, and disclosure of personal data by the private sector and covers both electronic and non-electronic data.

Singapore is currently reviewing the PDPA to ensure that it keeps pace with the evolving needs of businesses and individuals in a digital economy such as introducing an enhanced framework for the collection, use, and disclosure of personal data and a mandatory data breach notification regime.

Singapore does not have a data localization policy. Singapore participates in various regional and international frameworks that promote interoperability and harmonization of rules to facilitate cross-border data flows. The ASEAN Framework on Digital Data Governance (FDFG) is one example. Under DFDFG, Singapore will focus on developing model contractual clauses and certification for cross border data flows within the ASEAN region. Another is Singapore’s participation in the APEC Cross-Border Privacy Rules (CBPR) and Privacy Recognition for Processors (PRP) systems, to facilitate data transfers for certified organizations across APEC economies.

5. Protection of Property Rights

Real Property

Property rights and interests are enforced in Singapore. Residents have access to mortgages and liens, with reliable recording of properties. In the 2020 World Bank Doing Business Report, Singapore ranks first in the world in enforcing contracts and number 21st in registering property.

Foreigners are not allowed to purchase public housing (HDB) in Singapore, and prior approval from the Singapore Land Authority is required to purchase landed residential property and residential land for development. Foreigners can purchase non-landed, private sector housing (e.g. condominiums or any unit within a building) without the need to obtain prior approval. However, they are not allowed to acquire all the apartments or units in a development without prior approval. These restrictions also apply to foreign companies.

There are no restrictions on foreign ownership of industrial and commercial real estate. Since July 2018, foreigners who purchase homes in Singapore are required to pay an additional effective 20 percent tax on top of standard buyer’s taxes.. However, U.S. citizens are accorded national treatment under the FTA, meaning only second and subsequent purchases of residential property will be subject to 12 and 15 percent ABSD, equivalent to Singaporean citizens.

The availability of covered bond legislation under MAS Notice 648 has provided an incentive for Singapore financial institutions to issue covered bonds. Under Notice 648, only a bank incorporated in Singapore may issue covered bonds. The three main Singapore banks: DBS, OCBC, and UOB, all have in place covered bond programs, with the issues offered to private investors. The banking industry has made suggestions to allow the use of covered bonds in repo transactions with the central bank and to increase the encumbrance limit, currently at four percent. (http://www.mas.gov.sg/regulations/notices/notice-648 ))

Intellectual Property Rights

Singapore maintains one of the strongest intellectual property rights (IPR) regimes in Asia. The Chief Executive of the Intellectual Property Office of Singapore was elected director-Director General of the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) in April 2020. However, some concerns remain in certain areas such as business software piracy, online piracy, and enforcement.

Effective from January 1, 2020, all patent applications must be fully examined by the Intellectual Property Office of Singapore (IPOS) to ensure that any foreign-granted patents fully satisfy Singapore’s patentability criteria. The Registered Designs (Amendment) Act broadens the scope of registered designs to include virtual designs and color as a design feature, and will stipulate the default owner of designs to be the designer of a commissioned design, rather than the commissioning party.

The USSFTA ensures that government agencies will not grant regulatory approvals to patent- infringing products, but Singapore does allow parallel imports. Under the Patents Act, with regards to pharmaceutical products, the patent owner has the right to bring an action to stop an importer of “grey market goods” from importing the patent owner’s patented product, provided that the product has not previously been sold or distributed in Singapore, the importation results in a breach of contract between the proprietor of the patent and any person licensed by the proprietor of the patent to distribute the product outside Singapore and the importer has knowledge of such.

The USSFTA ensures protection of test data and trade secrets submitted to the government for regulatory approval purposes. Disclosure of such information is prohibited. Such data may not be used for approval of the same or similar products without the consent of the party who submitted the data for a period of five years from the date of approval of the pharmaceutical product and ten years from the date of approval of an agricultural chemical. Singapore has no specific legislation concerning protection of trade secrets. Instead, it protects investors’ commercially valuable proprietary information under common law by the Law of Confidence as well as legislation such as the Penal Code (e.g. theft) and the Computer Misuse Act (e.g., unauthorized access to a computer system to download information). U.S. industry has expressed concern that this provision is inadequate.

Singapore is a member of the WTO and a party to the Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS). It is a signatory to other international intellectual property rights agreements, including the Paris Convention, the Berne Convention, the Patent Cooperation Treaty, the Madrid Protocol, and the Budapest Treaty. WIPO Secretariat opened a regional office in Singapore in 2005 (http://www.wipo.int/about-wipo/en/offices/singapore/ ). Amendments to the Trademark Act, which were passed in January 2007, fulfill Singapore’s obligations in WIPO’s revised Singapore Treaty on the Law of Trademarks.

Singapore ranked 11th out of 53 in the world in the 2020 U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s International IP Index. The index noted that Singapore’s key strengths include an advanced national IP framework and efforts to accelerate research, patent examination, and grants. The index also lauded Singapore as a global leader in patent protection and online copyright enforcement. Despite a decrease in estimated software piracy from 35 percent in 2009 to 27 percent in 2020, the Index noted that piracy levels remain high for a developed, high-income country. Lack of transparency and data on customs seizures of IP-infringing goods is also noted as a key area of weakness.

Singapore does not publicly report the statistics on seizures of counterfeit goods, and does not rate highly on enforcement of physical counterfeit goods, online sales of counterfeit goods or digital online piracy, according to the 2018 U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s International IP Index. Singapore is not listed in USTR’s 2020 Special 301 Report, but some Singapore-based online retailers are named in USTR’s2019 Review of Notorious Markets. For additional information about national laws and points of contact at local IP offices, see WIPO’s country profiles at http://www.wipo.int/directory/en/.

6. Financial Sector

Capital Markets and Portfolio Investment

The government takes a favorable stance towards foreign portfolio investment and fixed asset investments. While it welcomes capital market investments, the government has introduced macro-prudential policies aimed at reducing foreign speculative inflows in the real estate sector since 2009. The government promotes Singapore’s position as an asset and wealth management center, and assets under management grew 5.4 percent in 2018 to US$2.4 trillion (S$3.4 trillion)– the latest year for which the Monetary Authority of Singapore conducted a survey.

The Government of Singapore facilitates the free flow of financial resources into product and factor markets, and the Singapore Exchange (SGX) is Singapore’s stock market. An effective regulatory system exists to encourage and facilitate portfolio investment. Credit is allocated on market terms and foreign investors can access credit, U.S. dollars, Singapore dollars (SGD), and other foreign currencies on the local market. The private sector has access to a variety of credit instruments through banks operating in Singapore. The government respects IMF Article VIII by refraining from restrictions on payments and transfers for current international transactions.

Money and Banking System

Singapore’s banking system is sound and well regulated by the Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS), and it serves as a financial hub for the region. Banks have a very high domestic penetration rate, and according to World Bank Financial Inclusion indicators, over 97 percent of persons held a financial account in 2017. (latest year available). Local Singapore banks saw net profits rise 27 percent in the last quarter of 2019. Banks are statutorily prohibited from engaging in non-financial business. Banks can hold 10 percent or less in non-financial companies as an “equity portfolio investment.” At the end of 2019, the non-performing loans ratio (NPL ratio) of the three local banks remained at an averaged 1.5 percent since the last quarter of 2018. The World Bank records Singapore’s banking sector overall NPL ratio at 1.3 in 2018.

Foreign banks require licenses to operate in the country. The tiered licenses, for Merchant, Offshore, Wholesale, Full Banks and Qualifying Full Banks (QFBs) subject banks to further prudential safeguards in return for offering a greater range of services. U.S. financial institutions enjoy phased-in benefits under the USSFTA. Since 2006, U.S.-licensed full service banks that are also QFBs have been able to operate at an unlimited number of locations (branches or off-premises ATMs) versus 25 for non-U.S. full service foreign banks with QFB status.

Under the OECD Common Reporting Standards (CRS), which has been in effect since January 2017, Singapore-based Financial Institutions (SGFIs) – depository institutions such as banks, specified insurance companies, investment entities, and custodial institutions – are required to establish the tax residency status of all their account holders, collect and retain CRS information for all non-Singapore tax residents in the case of new accounts and report to tax authorities the financial account information of account holders who are tax residents of jurisdictions with which Singapore has a Competent Authority Agreement (CAA) to exchange the information. As of December 2019, Singapore has established more than 80 exchange relationships, include one with the United States established in September 2018.

U.S. financial regulations do not restrict foreign banks’ ability to hold accounts for U.S. citizens. U.S. Citizens are encouraged to alert the nearest U.S. Embassy of any practices they encounter with regard to the provision of financial services.

Fintech investments in Singapore rose from $365 million in 2018 to $861 million in 2019. To strengthen Singapore’s position as a global Fintech hub, MAS has created a dedicated Fintech Office as a one-stop virtual entity for all FinTech-related matters to enable FinTech experimentation and promote an open-API (Application Programming Interfaces) in the financial industry. Investment in payments start-ups accounted for about 40 percent of all funds. Singapore has over 50 innovation labs established by global financial institutions and technology companies.

MAS also aims to be a regional leader in the implementation of blockchain technologies to position Singapore as a financial technology center. MAS and the Association of Banks in Singapore are prototyping the use of Distributed Ledger Technology (DLT) for inter-bank clearing and settlement of payments and securities. Two phases have been completed, including a proof-of-concept project for inter-bank payments and software prototypes for decentralized inter-bank payment and settlements. The next two phases will focus on DLT interoperability, including Delivery-versus-Payment (DvP) settlement of payments and securities, and cross-border payments. A fifth phase will then explore the business value of a blockchain-based multi-currency payments network, such as in enabling business opportunities that would benefit or make viable greater cost efficiencies compared to existing systems. (https://www.mas.gov.sg/schemes-and-initiatives/Project-Ubin ).

Alternative financial services include retail and corporate non-bank lending via finance companies, co-operative societies, and pawnshops; and burgeoning financial technology-based services across a wide range of sectors: crowdfunding, Initial Coin Offerings, payment services and remittance, which remains a small but growing sector. In January 2020, the Payment Services Bill went into effect, which will require all cryptocurrency service providers to be licensed with the intent to provide more user protection. Smaller payment firms will receive a different classifications from larger institutions and will be less heavily regulated. Key infrastructures supporting Singapore’s financial market include interbank (MEP), Foreign exchange (CLS, CAPS), retail (SGDCCS, USDCCS, CTS, IBG, ATM, FAST, NETS, EFTPOS), securities (MEPS+-SGS, CDP, SGX-DC) and derivatives settlements (SGX-DC, APS)(https://www.mas.gov.sg/regulation/payments/payment-systems )

Foreign Exchange and Remittances

Foreign Exchange

The USSFTA commits Singapore to the free transfer of capital, unimpeded by regulatory restrictions. Singapore places no restrictions on reinvestment or repatriation of earnings and capital, and maintains no significant restrictions on remittances, foreign exchange transactions and capital movements.

Singapore’s monetary policy has been centered on the management of the exchange rate since 1981, with the stated primary objective of promoting medium term price stability as a sound basis for sustainable economic growth. As described by MAS, there are three main features of the exchange rate system in Singapore. MAS operates a managed float regime for the Singapore dollar with the trade-weighted exchange rate allowed to fluctuate within a policy band. The Singapore dollar is managed against a basket of currencies of its major trading partners. The exchange rate policy band is periodically reviewed to ensure that it remains consistent with the underlying fundamentals of the economy.

Remittance Policies

There are no time or amount limitations on remittances. No significant changes to investment remittance was implemented or announced over the past year. Local and foreign banks may impose their own limitations on daily remittances.

Sovereign Wealth Funds

The Government of Singapore has three key investment entities. GIC Private Limited (GIC) is the sovereign wealth fund in Singapore that manages the government’s substantial investments, fiscal, and foreign reserves, with the stated objective to achieve long-term returns and preserve the international purchasing power of the reserves. Temasek is a holding company wholly owned by the Singapore Minister for Finance. Under the Singapore Minister for Finance (Incorporation) Act, the Minister for Finance is a corporate body. The MAS, as the central bank of Singapore, manages the Official Foreign Reserves, and a significant proportion of its portfolio is invested in liquid financial market instruments.

GIC does not publish the size of the funds under management, but some industry observers estimate its managed assets may exceed $400 billion. GIC does not invest domestically, but manages Singapore’s international investments, which are generally passive (non-controlling) investments in publicly traded entities. The United States is its top investment destination, accounting for 32 percent of GIC’s portfolio as of March 2019, while Asia ex-Japan accounts for 20 percent, the Eurozone 12 percent, Japan 12 percent, and UK 6 percent. Investments in the United States are diversified and include industrial and commercial properties, student housing, power transmission companies, and financial, retail and business services. Although not required by law, GIC has published an annual report since 2008.

Temasek began as a holding company for Singapore’s state-owned enterprises, now GLCs, but has since branched out to other asset classes and often holds significant stake in companies. As of March 2019, Temasek’s portfolio value reached $222 billion, and its asset exposure to Singapore is 26 percent; 40 percent in the rest of Asia, and 15 percent in North America. As set out in the Temasek Charter, Temasek delivers sustainable value over the long term for its stakeholders. Temasek has published a Temasek Review annually since 2004. The statements only provides consolidated financial statements, which aggregate all of Temasek and its subsidiaries into a single financial report. A major international audit firm audits Temasek Group’s annual statutory financial statements. GIC and Temasek uphold the Santiago Principles for sovereign investments. GIC is a member of the International Forum of Sovereign Wealth Funds.

Other investing entities of government funds include EDB Investments Pte Ltd, Singapore’s Housing Development Board, and other government statutory boards with funding decisions driven by goals emanating from the central government

7. State-Owned Enterprises

Singapore has an extensive network of full and partial SOEs that held under the umbrella of Temasek Holdings, a holding company with the Singapore Minister for Finance as its sole shareholder. Singapore SOEs play a substantial role in Singapore’s domestic economy, especially in strategically important sectors including telecommunications, media, healthcare, public transportation, defense, port, gas, electricity grid, and airport operations. In addition, the SOEs are also present in many other sectors of the economy, including banking, subway, airline, consumer/lifestyle, commodities trading, oil and gas engineering, postal services, infrastructure, and real estate.

The Government of Singapore emphasizes that government-linked entities operate on an equal basis with both local and foreign businesses without exception. There is no published list of SOEs.

Temasek’s annual report notes that its portfolio companies are guided and managed by their respective boards and management, and Temasek does not direct their business decisions or operations. However, as a substantial shareholder, corporate governance within GLCs typically are guided or influenced by policies developed by Temasek. There are differences in corporate governance disclosures and practices across the GLCs, and GLC boards are allowed to determine their own governance practices, with Temasek advisors occasionally meeting with the companies to make recommendations. GLC board seats are not specifically allocated to government officials, although it “leverages on its networks to suggest qualified individuals for consideration by the respective boards”, and leaders formerly from the armed forces or civil service are often represented on boards and fill senior management positions. Temasek exercises its shareholder rights to influence the strategic directions of its companies but does not get involved in the day-to-day business and commercial decisions of its firms and subsidiaries.

GLCs operate on a commercial basis and compete on an equal basis with private businesses, both local and foreign. Singapore officials highlight that the government does not interfere with the operations of GLCs or grant them special privileges, preferential treatment or hidden subsidies, asserting that GLCs are subject to the same regulatory regime and discipline of the market as private sector companies. Observers, however, have been critical of cases where GLCs have entered into new lines of business or where government agencies have “corporatized” certain government functions, in both circumstances entering into competition with already-existing private businesses. Some private sector companies have said they encountered unfair business practices and opaque bidding processes that appeared to favor incumbent, government-linked firms. In addition, they note that the GLC’s institutional relationships with the government give them natural advantages in terms of access to cheaper funding and opportunities to shape the economic policy agenda in ways that benefit their companies.

The USSFTA contains specific conduct guarantees to ensure that GLCs will operate on a commercial and non-discriminatory basis towards U.S. firms. GLCs with substantial revenues or assets are also subject to enhanced transparency requirements under the USSFTA. In accordance with its USSFTA commitments, Singapore enacted the Competition Act in 2004 and established the Competition Commission of Singapore in January 2005. The Act contains provisions on anti-competitive agreements, decisions, and practices, abuse of dominance, enforcement and appeals process, and mergers and acquisitions.

Privatization Program

The government has privatized GLCs in multiple sectors and has not publicly announced further privatization plans, but is likely to retain controlling stakes in strategically important sectors, including telecommunications, media, public transportation, defense, port, gas, electricity grid, and airport operations. The Energy Market Authority (EMA) is extending the liberalization of the retail market from commercial and industrial consumers with an average monthly electricity consumption of at least 2,000 kWh to households and smaller businesses. The Electricity Act and the Code of Conduct for Retail Electricity Licensees govern licensing and standards for electricity retail companies.

8. Responsible Business Conduct

The awareness and implementation of corporate social responsibility (CSR) in Singapore has been increasing since the formation of the Global Compact Network Singapore (GCNS) under the United Nations Global Compact (UNGC) network, with the goals of encouraging companies to adopt sustainability principles related to human and labor rights, environmental conservation, and anti-corruption. GCNS facilitates exchanges, conducts research, and provides training in Singapore to build capacity in areas including sustainability reporting, supply chain management, ISO 26000, and measuring and reporting carbon emissions.

KPMG’s 2017 Corporate Responsibility Reporting survey showed that 84 percent of the largest companies in Singapore are fulfilling their corporate responsibility and sustainability reporting responsibilities, which is higher than the global average at 72 percent. KPMG’s survey also noted that climate and environment risks are not adequately recognized or addressed by Singapore companies. Only 17 percent of Singapore companies have set carbon-reduction targets, lower than the global rate of 50 percent. The Government of Singapore notes that in 2018 as part of the Year of Climate Action, the Ministry of Environment and Water Resources received more than 500 pledges from companies that have made public commitments toward taking climate action. A 2019 World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) survey showed a lack of transparency by Singapore companies in disclosing palm oil sources. However, awareness is growing and the Southeast Asia Alliance for Sustainable Palm Oil (Saspo) has received additional pledges in 2018 by companies to adhere to standards for palm oil sourcing set by the Roundtable for Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO). A group of F&B, retail and hospitality companies announced in January 2019 what the WWF calls “the most impactful business response to-date on plastics.” The pact, initiated by WWF and supported by Singapore’s National Environment Agency, is a commitment to significantly reduce plastic production and usage by 2030.

In June 2016, the Singapore Exchange (SGX) introduced mandatory, comply-or-explain, sustainability reporting requirements for all listed companies, including material environmental, social and governance practices, from the financial year ending December 31, 2017 onwards. The Singapore Environmental Council (SEC) operates a green labeling scheme, which endorses environmentally friendly products, numbering over 3,000 from 2729 countries. The Association of Banks in Singapore (ABS) has issued voluntary guidelines to banks in Singapore last updated in Jule 2018 encouraging them to adopt sustainable lending practices, including the integration of environmental, social and governance (ESG) principles into their lending and business practices. Singapore-based banks is listed in a 2018 Market Forces report as major lenders in regional coal financing.

Singapore has not developed a National Action Plan on business and human rights, but promotes responsible business practices, and encourages foreign and local enterprises to follow generally accepted CSR principles. The government does not explicitly factor responsible business conduct (RBC) policies into its procurement decisions.

The host government effectively and fairly enforces domestic laws with regard to human rights, labor rights, consumer protection, environmental protections, and other laws/regulations intended to protect individuals from adverse business impacts. The private sector’s impact on migrant workers and their rights, and domestic migrant workers in particular (due to the latter’s exemption from the Employment Act which stipulates the rights of workers), remains an area of advocacy by civil society groups. The government has taken incremental steps to improve the channels of redress and enforcement of migrant workers’ rights; however, key concerns about legislative protections remain unaddressed for domestic migrant workers. The government generally encourages businesses to comply with international standards. However, there are no specific mentions of the host government encouraging adherence to the OECD Due Diligence Guidance, or supply chain due diligence measures.

The Companies Act principally governs companies in Singapore. Key areas of corporate governance covered under the act include separation of ownership from management, fiduciary duties of directors, shareholder remedies, and capital maintenance rules. Limited liability partnerships are governed by the Limited Liability Partnerships Act. Certain provisions in other statutes such as the Securities and Futures Act are also relevant to listed companies. Listed companies are required under the Singapore Exchange Listing Rules to describe in their annual reports their corporate governance practices with specific reference to the principles and provisions of the Code of Corporate Governance (“Code”). Listed companies must comply with the principles of the Code and if their practices vary from any provision in the Code, they must explain the variation and demonstrate the variation is consistent with the relevant principle. The revised Code of Corporate Governance will impact Annual Reports covering financial years from January 1, 2019 onward. The revised code encourages board renewal, strengthens director independence, increases transparency of remuneration practices, enhances board diversity, and encourages communication with all stakeholders. MAS also established an independent Corporate Governance Advisory Committee (CGAC) to advocated good corporate governance practices in February 2019. The CGAC monitors companies’ implementation of the code and advises regulators on corporate governance issues.

There are independent NGOs promoting and monitoring responsible business conduct (RBC). Those monitoring or advocating around RBC are generally able to do their work freely within most areas. However, labor unions are tightly controlled and legal rights to strike are granted with restrictions under the Trade Disputes Act.

Singapore has no oil, gas, or mineral resources and is not a member of the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative (EITI). A small sector in Singapore processes rare minerals and complies with responsible supply chains and conflict mineral principles. Under the Anti-Money Laundering and Countering Financing of Terrorism (AML/CFT) framework, it is a requirement for Corporate Service Providers to develop and implement internal policies, procedures and controls to comply with Financial Action Task Force (FATF) recommendations on combating of money laundering and terrorism financing.

9. Corruption

Singapore actively enforces its strong anti-corruption laws, and corruption is not cited as a concern for foreign investors. Transparency International’s 2019 Corruption Perception Index ranks Singapore 4th 4th of 180175 countries globally, the highest ranking Asian country. The Prevention of Corruption Act (PCA), and the Drug Trafficking and Other Serious Crimes (Confiscation of Benefits) Act provide the legal basis for government action by the Corrupt Practices Investigation Bureau (CPIB), which is the only agency authorized under the PCA to investigate corruption offences and other related offences. These laws cover acts of corruption within Singapore as well as those committed by Singaporeans abroad. When cases of corruption are uncovered, whether in the public or private sector, the government deals with them firmly, swiftly, and publicly. The anti-corruption laws extend to family members of officials, and to political parties. The CPIB is effective and non-discriminatory. Singapore is generally perceived to be one of the least corrupt countries in Asia and the world, and corruption is not identified as an obstacle to FDI in Singapore. In its 2018 annual review of corruption, Asia, Political, and Economic Risk Consultancy rated Singapore the least corrupt country in the Asian-Pacific Region and praised Singapore authority’s response to a high-level corruption case involving Keppel Offshore & Marine, in which GLC Temasek Holdings holds a 20 percent stake. Singapore is a signatory to the UN Anticorruption Convention, but not the OECD Anti-Bribery Convention.

Resources to Report Corruption

Contact at government agency or agencies are responsible for combating corruption:

Corrupt Practices Investigation Bureau
2 Lengkok Bahru, Singapore 159047
+65 6270 0141
 info@cpib.gov.sg

Contact at a “watchdog” organization:

Transparency International
Alt-Moabit 96
10559 Berlin, Germany
+49 30 3438 200

10. Political and Security Environment

Singapore’s political environment is stable and there is no history of incidents involving politically motivated damage to foreign investments in Singapore. The ruling People’s Action Party (PAP) has dominated Singapore’s parliamentary government since 1959 and currently controls 83 of the 89 regularly contested parliamentary seats. Singapore opposition parties, which currently hold six regularly contested parliamentary seats and three additional seats reserved to the opposition by the constitution, do not usually espouse views that are radically different from the mainstream of Singapore political opinion.

11. Labor Policies and Practices

As of June 20192018, Singapore’s labor market totaled 3.7 million workers; this includes about 1.4 million foreigners, of whom about 684 percent are basic skilled or semi-skilled workers. The labor market continues to be tight, with overall unemployment rate averaging in the 2.4 percent the first quarter of 2020. Budget 2020 announced in February and two subsequent supplementary budgets announced in March and April, provides for substantial wage and training support for all firms during the COVID-19 outbreak. In sectors, such as travel and tourism, the government offered temporary employment or training for workers placed on unpaid leave. 2018. Local labor laws allow for relatively free hiring and firing practices. Either party can terminate employment by giving the other party the required notice. The Ministry of Manpower (MOM) must approve employment of foreigners.

Since 2011, the government has introduced policy measures to support productivity increases coupled with reduced dependence on foreign labor. In Budget 2019, MOM announced a decrease in the foreign worker quota ceiling from 40 percent to 38 percent on January 1, 2020 and to 35 percent on January 1, 2021. The quota reduction does not apply to those on Employment Passes which are high skilled workers making above $33,100 per year. In Budget 2020, the foreign worker quota was cut further in the for mid-skilled (“S Pass”) workers in construction, marine shipyards, and the process sectors from 20 to 18 percent by January 1, 2021. The quota will be further reduced to 15 percent on January 1, 2023. Singapore’s labor force did not significantly change in size in 2019 and is expected to face significant demographic headwinds from an aging population and low birth rates, alongside restrictions on foreign workers. Singapore’s local workforce growth is slowing, heading for stagnation over the next ten years. In November 2018, the IMDA announced a new program to support and scale start-ups in Singapore.

To address concerns over an aging and shrinking workforce, MOM has expanded its training and grant programs to more than 15. In Budget 2019, MOM raised the work-life grant budget from $22.2 million to $73.8 million. Additional individual and company subsidies for existing and new programs were included in the Budget 2020 and the supplementary March and April budgets. An example of an existing program is SkillsFuture, a government initiative managed by SkillsFuture Singapore (SSG), a statutory board under the Ministry of Education, designed to provide all Singaporeans with enhanced opportunities and skills-capacity building. SSG also administers the Singapore Workforce Skills Qualifications (WSQ), a national credential system that trains, develops, assesses and certifies skills and competencies for the workforce.

All foreigners must have a valid work pass before they can start work in Singapore, with Employment Pass (for professionals, managers and executives), S Pass (for mid-level skilled staff), and Work Permits (for semi-skilled workers), among the most widely issued. Workers need to have a job with minimum fixed monthly salary and acceptable qualifications to be eligible for the Employment Pass and S Pass. In March 2020, MOM announced that the minimum salaries will be raised as of May 1, 2021. The minimum monthly salary eligibility thresholds for S Pass holders will be raised from $919 to $990 and for Employment Pass holders from $2334 to $2546., 2020. The government further regulates the inflow of foreign workers through the Foreign Worker Levy (FWL) and the Dependency Ratio Ceiling (DRC). The DRC is the maximum permitted ratio of foreign workers to the total workforce that a company can hire, and serves as a quota on the hiring of foreign workers. The DRC varies across sectors. Employers of S Pass and Work Permit holders are required to pay a monthly FWL to the government. The FWL varies according to the skills, qualifications and experience of their employees. The FWL is set on a sector-by-sector basis and is subject to annual revisions. FWLs have been progressively increased for most sectors since 2012.

MOM requires employers to consider Singaporeans before hiring skilled professional foreigners. The Fair Consideration Framework (FCF), implemented in August 2014, affects employers who apply for Employment Passes (EP), the work pass for foreign professionals working in professional, manager, and executive (PME) posts. Companies have noted inconsistent and increasingly burdensome documentation requirements and excessive qualification criteria to approve EP applications. Under the rules, firms making new EP applications must first advertise the job vacancy in a new jobs bank administered by Workforce Singapore (WSG), www.mycareersfugure.sg, ) for at least 14 days. The jobs bank is free for use by companies and job seekers and the job advertisement must be open to all, including Singaporeans. Employers are encouraged to keep records of their interview process as proof that they have done due diligence in trying to look for a Singaporean worker. If an EP is still needed, the employer will have to make a statutory declaration that a job advertisement on www.careersfuture.sg had been made. Smaller firms with 10 or fewer employees and jobs, which pay a fixed monthly salary of $10,609 or more, are exempt from the requirements, which were newly tightened and took effect from July 2018. The minimum fixed salary will be raised to $14,145 on May 1, 2021.

Consistent with Singapore’s WTO obligations, intra-corporate transfers (ICT) are allowed for managers, executives, and specialists who had worked for at least one year in the firm before being posted to Singapore. ICT would still be required to meet all EP criteria, but the requirement for an advertisement on www.careersfuture.sg would be waived. In April 2016, MOM outlined measures to refine the work pass applications process, looking not only at the qualifications of individuals, but at company-related factors. Companies found not to have a “healthy Singaporean core, lacking a demonstrated commitment to developing a Singaporean core, and not found to be “relevant” to Singapore’s economy and society, will be labeled “triple weak” and put on a watch list. Companies unable to demonstrate progress may have work pass privileges suspended after a period of scrutiny. Since 2016, MOM has placed approximately 600 companies on the FCF Watchlist. The Tripartite Alliance for Fair and Progressive Employment Practices have worked with 260 companies to be successfully removed from the watchlist.

The Employment Act covers all employees under a contract of service, and under the act, employees who have served the company for at least two years are eligible for retrenchment benefits, and the amount of compensation depends on the contract of service or what is agreed collectively. Employers have to abide by notice periods in the employment contract before termination, and stipulated minimum periods in the Employment Act in the absence of a notice period previously agreed upon, or provide salary in lieu of notice. Dismissal on grounds of wrongful conduct by the employee is differentiated from retrenchments in the labor laws, and is exempted from the above requirements. Employers must notify MOM of retrenchments within five working days after they notify the affected employees to enable the relevant agencies to help affected employees find alternative employment and/or identify relevant training to enhance employability. Singapore does not provide unemployment benefits, but provides training and job matching services to retrenched workers.

Labor laws are not waived in order to attract or retain investment in Singapore. There are no additional or different labor law provisions in free trade zones.

Collective bargaining is a normal part of labor-management relations in all sectors. As of 2018 about 20 percent of the workforce is unionized. Foreign workers constituted approximately 15 percent of union members. Almost all unions are affiliated with the National Trades Union Congress (NTUC), the sole national federation of trade unions in Singapore, which has a close relationship with the PAP ruling party and the government. The current NTUC Secretary General is also a Minister in the Prime Minister’s Office. Given that nearly all unions are NTUC affiliates, the NTUC has almost exclusive authority to exercise collective bargaining power on behalf of employees. Union members may not reject collective agreements negotiated between their union representatives and an employer. Although transfers and layoffs are excluded from the scope of collective bargaining, employers consult with unions on both problems, and the Taskforce for Responsible Retrenchment and Employment Facilitation issues guidelines calling for early notification to unions of layoffs. Data on coverage of collective bargaining agreements is not publicly available. The Industrial Relations Act (IRA) regulates collective bargaining. The Industrial Arbitration Courts must certify any collective bargaining agreement before it is deemed in effect and can deny certification on public interest grounds. Additionally, the IRA restricts the scope of issues over which workers may bargain, excluding bargaining on hiring, transfer, promotion, dismissal, or reinstatement of workers.

Most labor disagreements are resolved through conciliation and mediation by MOM. Since April 2017 the Tripartite Alliance for Dispute Management (TADM) under MOM provides advisory and mediation services, including mediation for salary and employment disputes. Where the conciliation process is not successful, the disputing parties may submit their dispute to the IAC for arbitration. Depending on the nature of the dispute, the Court may be constituted either by the President of the IAC and a member of the Employer and Employee Panels, or by the President alone. The Employment Claims Tribunals (ECT) was established under the Employment Claims Act (2016). To bring a claim before the ECT, parties must first register their claims at the TADM for mediation. Mediation at TADM is compulsory. Only disputes which remain unresolved after mediation at TADM may be referred to the ECT.

The ECT hears statutory salary-related claims, contractual salary-related claims, dismissal claims from employees, and claims for salary in lieu of notice of termination by all employers. There will be a limit of $21,200 on claims for cases with TADM mediation, and $14,100 for all other claims. In March 2019, MOM announced that 85 percent of salary claims had been resolved by TADM between April 2017 and December 2018. Salary-related disputes that are not resolved by mediation are covered by the Employment Claims Tribunals under the State Courts.

Industrial disputes may also submit their case be referred to the tripartite Industrial Arbitration Court (IAC). The IAC composed has two panels: an employee panel and a management panel. For a majority of dispute hearings, a Court is constituted comprising the President of the IAC and a member each from the employee and employer panels’ representatives and chaired by a judge. In some situations, the law provides for compulsory arbitration. The court must certify collective agreements before they go into effect. The court may refuse certification at its discretion on the ground of public interest.

The legal framework in Singapore provides for some restrictions in the registration of trade unions, labor union autonomy and administration, the right to strike, who may serve as union officers or employees, and collective bargaining. Under the Trade Union Act (TUA), every trade union must register with the Registrar of Trade Unions, which has broad discretion to grant, deny, or cancel union registration. The TUA limits the objectives for which unions can spend their funds, including for contributions to a political party or for political purposes, and allows the Registrar to inspect accounts and funds “at any reasonable time.” Legal rights to strike are granted with restrictions under TUA. The law requires more than 50 percent of affected unionized workers to vote in favor of a strike by secret ballot, as opposed to 51 percent of those participating in the vote. Strikes cannot be conducted for any reason apart from a dispute in the trade or industry in which the strikers are employed, and it is illegal to conduct a strike if it is “designed or calculated to coerce the government either directly or by inflicting hardship on the community.” Workers in “essential services” are required to give 14 days’ notice to an employer before conducting a strike. Although workers, other than those employed in the three essential services of water, gas and electricity, may strike, no workers did so since 1986 with the exception of a strike by bus drivers in 2012. The TUA bars non-citizens from serving as union officers or employees, unless prior written approval is received from the Minister for Manpower.

The Employment Act, which prohibits all forms of forced or compulsory labor and the Prevention of Human Trafficking Act (PHTA), strengthens labor trafficking victim protection, and governs labor protections. Other acts protecting the rights of workers include the Occupational Safety and Health Act and Employment of Foreign Manpower Act. Labor laws set the standard legal workweek at 44 hours, with one rest day each week, and establish a framework for workplaces to comply with occupational safety and health standards, with regular inspections designed to enforce the standards. MOM effectively enforces laws and regulations establishing working conditions and comprehensive occupational safety and health (OSH) laws, and implements enforcement procedures and promoted educational and training programs to reduce the frequency of job-related accidents. Changes to the Employment Act took effect on April 1, 2019, including for extension of core provisions to managers and executives, increasing the monthly salary cap, transferring adjudication of wrongful dismissal claims from MOM to the ECT, and increasing flexibility in compensating employees working during public holidays (for more detail see https://www.mom.gov.sg/employment-practices/employment-act  ). All workers, except for public servants, domestic workers and seafarers are covered by the Employment Act, and additional time-based provisions for more vulnerable employees.

Singapore has no across the board minimum wage law, although there are some exceptions in certain low skill industries. Generally, the government follows a policy of allowing free market forces to determine wage levels. In specific sectors where wages have stagnated and market practices such as outsourcing reduce incentive to upskill workers and limit their bargaining power, the government has implemented Progressive Wage Models to uplift wages. These are currently implementing in the cleaning, security, elevator maintenance, and landscape sectors. The National Wage Council (NWC), a tripartite body comprising representatives from the government, employers and unions, recommends non-binding wage adjustments on an annual basis. The NWC recommendations apply to all employees in both domestic and foreign firms, and across the private and public sectors. While the NWC wage guidelines are not mandatory, they are published under the Employment Act and form the basis of wage negotiations between unions and management. The NWC recommendations apply to all employees in both domestic and foreign law firms, and across the public and private sectors. The level of implementation is generally higher among unionized companies compared to non-unionized companies.

MOM is responsible for combating labor trafficking and improving working conditions for workers, and generally enforces anti-trafficking legislation, although some workers in low-wage and unskilled sectors are vulnerable to labor exploitation and abuse. PHTA sets out harsh penalties (including up to nine strokes of the cane and 15 years’ imprisonment) for those found guilty of trafficking, including forced labor, or abetting such activities. The government developed a mechanism for referral of forced labor, among other trafficking-in-persons activities, to the interagency taskforce, co-chaired by the Ministry of Home Affairs and the Ministry of Manpower. Some observers note that the country’s employer sponsorship system made legal migrant workers vulnerable to forced labor, because they cannot change employers without the consent of the current employer. MOM effectively enforces laws and regulations pertaining to child labor. Penalties for employers that violated child labor laws were subject to fines and/or imprisonment, depending on the violation. Government officials assert that child labor is not a significant issue. The incidence of children in formal employment is low, and almost no abuses are reported.

The U.S.-Singapore Free Trade Agreement came into effect on January 1, 2004 and includes a chapter on labor protections. The chapter contains a statement of shared commitment by each party that the principles and rights set forth in Article 17.7 of the ILO Declaration on Fundamental Principles and Rights at Work and its Follow-up are recognized and protected by domestic law, and each party shall strive to ensure it does not derogate protections afforded in domestic labor law as an encouragement for trade or investment purposes. The chapter includes the establishment of a labor cooperation mechanism, which promotes the exchange of information on ways to improve labor law and practice, and the advancement of effective implementation of the principles reflected in the ILO Declaration on Fundamental Principles and Rights at Work and its Follow-up.

See the U.S. State Department Human Rights Report as well as the U.S. State Department’s Trafficking in Persons Report https://www.state.gov/reports-bureau-of-democracy-human-rights-and-labor/country-reports-on-human-rights-practices/ and https://www.state.gov/wp-content/uploads/2019/06/2019-Trafficking-in-Persons-Report.pdf [16 MB]

https://www.state.gov/wp-content/uploads/2019/06/2019-Trafficking-in-Persons-Report.pdf [16 MB]

12. U.S. International Development Finance Corporation (DFC) and Other Investment Insurance Programs

Under the 1966 Investment Guarantee Agreement with Singapore, the Overseas Private Investment Corporation (OPIC) offers insurance to U.S. investors in Singapore against currency inconvertibility, expropriation, and losses arising from war. Singapore became a member of the Multilateral Investment Guarantee Agency (MIGA) in 1998. In March 2019, Singapore and the United States signed a MOU aimed at strengthening collaboration between the infrastructure agency of Singapore, Infrastructure Asia, and OPIC. Under the agreement, both countries will work together on information sharing, deal facilitation, structuring and capacity building initiatives in sectors of mutual interest such as energy, natural resource management, water, waste, transportation, and urban development. The aim is to enhance Singapore-based and U.S. companies’ access to project opportunities, while building on Singapore’s role as an infrastructure hub in Asia.

Singapore’s domestic public infrastructure projects are funded primarily via Singapore government reserves or capital markets, reducing the scope for direct project financing subsidies by foreign governments.

13. Foreign Direct Investment and Foreign Portfolio Investment Statistics

Table 2: Key Macroeconomic Data, U.S. FDI in Host Country/Economy
Host Country Statistical source* USG or international statistical source USG or International Source of Data: BEA; IMF; Eurostat; UNCTAD, Other
Economic Data Year Amount Year Amount
Host Country Gross Domestic Product (GDP) ($M USD) 2019 $358,888 2018 $364,157 https://www.singstat.gov.sg/ 
www.worldbank.org/en/country 
Foreign Direct Investment Host Country Statistical source* USG or international statistical source USG or international Source of data: BEA; IMF; Eurostat; UNCTAD, Other
U.S. FDI in partner country ($M USD, stock positions) 2018 $204, 658 2018 $218,835 https://www.singstat.gov.sg/ 
BEA data available at
https://www.bea.gov/international/
direct-investment-and-multinational-
enterprises-comprehensive-data
 
Host country’s FDI in the United States ($M USD, stock positions) 2018 $18,295 2018 $19,665 https://www.singstat.gov.sg/ 
BEA data available at
https://www.bea.gov/international/
direct-investment-and-multinational-
enterprises-comprehensive-data
 
Total inbound stock of FDI as % host GDP 2018 342% 2018 410% https://www.singstat.gov.sg/ 
UNCTAD data available at
https://unctad.org/en/Pages/DIAE/
World%20Investment%20Report/
Country-Fact-Sheets.aspx
 

* Source for Host Country Data

Table 3: Sources and Destination of FDI
Direct Investment from/in Counterpart Economy Data
From Top Five Sources/To Top Five Destinations (US Dollars, Millions)
Inward Direct Investment Outward Direct Investment*
Total Inward 1,269,518 100% Total Outward 606,726 100%
United States 220,520 17% China 99,605 16%
Cayman Islands 131,578 10% Indonesia 45,932 8%
British Virgin Islands 116,707 9% India 43,058 7%
Japan 93,994 7% Hong Kong 40,799 7%
Netherlands, The 69,387 5% United Kingdom 40,217 7%
“0” reflects amounts rounded to +/- USD 500,000.

*CDIS data not available. Outward 2018 FDI taken from www.singstat.gov.sg .

Table 4: Sources of Portfolio Investment
Data not available.

14. Contact for More Information

Martha Tipton
Economic Specialist
U.S. Embassy
27 Napier Road
Singapore 258508
+65 9069-8592
Tiptonm@state.gov

Thailand

Executive Summary

Thailand, the second largest economy in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), is an upper middle-income country with pro-investment policies and well-developed infrastructure. General Prayut Chan-o-cha was elected by Parliament as Prime Minister on June 5, 2019. Thailand celebrated the coronation of King Maha Vajiralongkorn May 4-6, 2019, formally returning a King to the Head of State of Thailand’s constitutional monarchy. Despite some political uncertainty, Thailand continues to encourage foreign direct investment as a means of promoting economic development, employment, and technology transfer. In recent decades, Thailand has been a major destination for foreign direct investment, and hundreds of U.S. companies have invested in Thailand successfully. Thailand continues to encourage investment from all countries and seeks to avoid dependence on any one country as a source of investment.

The Foreign Business Act (FBA) of 1999 governs most investment activity by non-Thai nationals. Many U.S. businesses also enjoy investment benefits through the U.S.-Thai Treaty of Amity and Economic Relations, signed in 1833 and updated in 1966. The Treaty allows U.S. citizens and U.S. majority-owned businesses incorporated in the United States or Thailand to maintain a majority shareholding or to wholly own a company, branch office, or representative office located in Thailand, and engage in business on the same basis as Thai companies (national treatment). The Treaty exempts such U.S.-owned businesses from most FBA restrictions on foreign investment, although the Treaty excludes some types of business. Notwithstanding their Treaty rights, many U.S. investors choose to form joint ventures with Thai partners who hold a majority stake in the company, leveraging their partner’s knowledge of the Thai economy and local regulations.

The Thai government maintains a regulatory framework that broadly encourages investment. Some investors have nonetheless expressed views that the framework is overly restrictive, with a lack of consistency and transparency in rule-making and interpretation of law and regulations.

The Board of Investment (BOI), Thailand’s principal investment promotion authority, acts as a primary conduit for investors. BOI offers businesses assistance in navigating Thai regulations and provides investment incentives to qualified domestic and foreign investors through straightforward application procedures. Investment incentives include both tax and non-tax privileges.

The Thai government in 2019 passed new laws and regulations on cybersecurity and personal data protection that have raised concerns about Thai authorities’ broad power to potentially demand confidential and sensitive information, introducing new uncertainties in the technology sector. IT operators and analysts have expressed concern with private companies’ legal protections, ability to appeal, or ability to limit such access. As of March 2020, the government is still in the process of considering and implementing regulations to enforce laws on Cyber Security and Personal Data Protection.

Gratuity payments to civil servants responsible for regulatory oversight and enforcement remain a common practice. Firms that refuse to make such payments can be placed at a competitive disadvantage to other firms that do engage in such practices. The government launched its Eastern Economic Corridor (EEC) development plan in 2017. The EEC is a part of the “Thailand 4.0” economic development strategy introduced in 2016. Many planned infrastructure projects, including a high-speed train linking three airports, U-Tapao Airport commercialization, and Laem Chabang Port expansion, could provide opportunities for investments and sales of U.S. goods and services. In support of its “Thailand 4.0” strategy, the government offers incentives for investments in twelve targeted industries: next-generation automotive; intelligent electronics; advanced agriculture and biotechnology; food processing; tourism; advanced robotics and automation; digital technology; integrated aviation; medical hub and total healthcare services; biofuels/biochemical; defense manufacturing; and human resource development.

Table 1: Key Metrics and Rankings
Measure Year Index/Rank Website Address
TI Corruption Perceptions Index 2019 36/ 101 http://www.transparency.org/
research/cpi/overview
World Bank’s Doing Business Report 2019 21 of 190 http://www.doingbusiness.org/en/rankings
Global Innovation Index 2019 43 of 129 https://www.globalinnovationindex.org/
analysis-indicator
U.S. FDI in partner country ($M USD, stock positions) 2018 USD 17,667 http://www.bea.gov/intl-trade-investment/
direct-investment-country-and-industry
World Bank GNI per capita 2018 USD 6,610 http://data.worldbank.org/
indicator/NY.GNP.PCAP.CD

3. Legal Regime

Transparency of the Regulatory System

Generally, Thai regulations are readily available to the public. Foreign investors have, on occasion, expressed frustration that draft regulations are not made public until they are finalized. Comments stakeholders submit on draft regulations are not always taken into consideration. Non-governmental organizations report, however, the Thai government actively consults them on policy, especially in the health sector and on intellectual property issues. In other areas, such as digital and cybersecurity laws, the Thai government has taken stakeholders’ comments into account and amended draft laws accordingly.

U.S. businesses have repeatedly expressed concerns about Thailand’s customs regime. Complaints center on lack of transparency, the significant discretionary authority exercised by Customs Department officials, and a system of giving rewards to officials and non-officials for seized goods based on a percentage of their sales price. Specifically, the U.S. government and private sector have expressed concern about inconsistent application of Thailand’s transaction valuation methodology and the Customs Department’s repeated use of arbitrary values. Thailand’s latest Customs Act, which entered into force on November 13, 2017, is a moderate step forward. The Act removed the Customs Department Director General’s discretion to increase the Customs value of imports. It also reduced the percentage of remuneration awarded to officials and non-officials from 55 percent to 40 percent of the sale price of seized goods (or of the fine amount). While a welcome development, reduction of this remuneration is insufficient to remove the personal incentives given Customs officials to seize goods nor to address the conflicts of interest the system entails.

Consistent and predictable enforcement of government regulations remains problematic. In 2017, the Thai government launched a “regulatory guillotine” initiative to cut down on red tape, licenses, and permits. The policy focused on reducing and amending outdated regulations in order to improve Thailand’s ranking on the World Bank “Ease of Doing Business” report. The regulatory guillotine project has helped improve Thailand’s ranking and is still underway.

Gratuity payments to civil servants responsible for regulatory oversight and enforcement remain a common practice. Firms that refuse to make such payments can be placed at a competitive disadvantage to other firms that do engage in such practices.

The Royal Thai Government Gazette (www.ratchakitcha.soc.go.th ) is Thailand’s public journal of the country’s centralized online location of laws, as well as regulation notifications.

International Regulatory Considerations

Thailand is a member of the World Trade Organization (WTO) and notifies most draft technical regulations to the Technical Barriers to Trade (TBT) Committee and the Sanitary and Phytosanitary Measures Committee. However, Thailand does not always follow WTO and other international standard-setting norms or guidance, butprefers to set its own standards in many cases. In October 2015, the country ratified the WTO Trade Facilitation Agreement, which came into effect in February 2017.

Legal System and Judicial Independence

Thailand has a civil code, commercial code, and a bankruptcy law. Thailand has an independent judiciary that is generally effective in enforcing property and contractual rights. The legal process is slow in practice, and litigants or third parties sometimes influence judgments through extra-legal means. Monetary judgments are calculated at the market exchange rate. Decisions of foreign courts are not accepted or enforceable in Thai courts. Disputes such as the enforcement of property or contract rights have generally been resolved in Thai courts.

There are three levels to the judicial system in Thailand: The Court of First Instance, which handles most matters at inception; the Court of Appeals; and the Supreme Court. There are also specialized courts, such as the Labor Court, Family Court, Tax Court, the Central Intellectual Property and International Trade Court, and the Bankruptcy Court.

The Specialized Appeal Court handles appeals from specialized courts. The Supreme Court has discretion whether to take a case that has been decided by the Specialized Appeal Court. If the Supreme Court decides not to take up a case, the Specialized Appeal Court decision stands.

Laws and Regulations on Foreign Direct Investment

The Foreign Business Act (described in detail above) governs most investment activity by non-Thai nationals. Other key laws governing foreign investment are the Alien Employment Act (1978) and the Investment Promotion Act (1977). However, as explained above, many U.S. businesses enjoy investment benefits through the U.S.-Thailand Treaty of Amity and Economic Relations (often referred to as the ‘Treaty of Amity’), which was established to promote friendly relations between the two nations. Pursuant to the Treaty, American nationals are entitled to certain exceptions to the FBA restrictions.

Pertaining to the services sector, the 2007 Financial Institutions Business Act unified the legal framework and strengthened the Bank of Thailand’s (the country’s central bank) supervisory and enforcement powers. The Act allows the Bank of Thailand to raise foreign ownership limits for existing local banks from 25 percent to 49 percent on a case-by-case basis. The Minister of Finance can authorize foreign ownership exceeding 49 percent if recommended by the central bank. Details are available at https://www.bot.or.th/English/AboutBOT/LawsAndRegulations/SiteAssets/Law_E24_Institution_Sep2011.pdf .

Apart from acquiring shares of existing (traditional) local banks, foreign banks can enter the Thai banking system by obtaining new licenses. The Ministry of Finance issues such licenses, following a consultation process with the Bank of Thailand. The Thai central bank is currently studying new licenses for digital-only banks, a tool meant to enhance financial inclusion and keep pace with consumer needs in the digital age. Digital-only banks can operate at a lower cost and offer different services than traditional banks.

The 2008 Life Insurance Act and the 2008 Non-Life Insurance Act apply a 25 percent cap on foreign ownership of insurance companies. Foreign boards of directors’ membership is also limited to 25 percent. However, in January 2016 the Office of the Insurance Commission (OIC), the primary insurance industry regulator, notified that Thai life or non-life insurance companies wishing to exceed these limits may apply to the OIC for approval. Any foreign national wishing to hold more than 10 percent of the voting shares in an insurance company must seek OIC approval. With approval, a foreign national can acquire up to 49 percent of the voting shares. Finally, the Finance Minister, with OIC’s positive recommendation, has discretion to permit greater than 49 percent foreign ownership and/or a majority of foreign directors, when the operation of the insurance company may cause loss to insured parties or to the public.

The Board of Investment offers qualified investors several benefits and provides information to facilitate a smoother investment process in Thailand. Information on the BOI’s “One Start One Stop” investment center can be found at http://osos.boi.go.th . A physical office is located on the 18th floor of Chamchuri Square on Rama 4/Phayathai Road in Bangkok.

Competition and Anti-Trust Laws

Thailand updated the Trade Competition Act on October 5, 2017. The updated Act covers all business activities, except: state-owned enterprises exempted by law or cabinet resolution; specific activities related to national security, public benefit, common interest and public utility; cooperatives, agricultural and cooperative groups; government agencies; and other enterprises exempted by the law. The Act broadens the definition of a business operator to include affiliates and group companies, and broadens the liability of directors and management, subjecting them to criminal and administrative sanctions if their actions (or omissions) resulted in violations. The Act also provides details about penalties in cases involving administrative court or criminal court actions. The amended Act has been noted as an improvement over the prior legislation and a step towards Thailand’s adoption of international standards in this area.

The Office of Trade Competition Commission (OTCC) is an independent agency and the main enforcer of the Trade Competition Act B.E. 2560 (2018). The OTCC is comprised of seven members nominated by a selection committee and endorsed by the Cabinet. The Commission has the following responsibilities: advises the government on issuance of relevant regulations; ensures fair and free trade practices; investigates cases and complaints of unfair trade; and pursues criminal and disciplinary actions against those found guilty of unfair trade practices stipulated in the law. The law focuses on the following areas: unlawful exercise of market dominance; mergers or collusion that could lead to monopoly; unfair competition and restricting competition; and unfair trade practices.

The government has authority to control the price of specific products and services under the Price of Goods and Services Act. The MOC’s Department of Internal Trade administers the law and interacts with affected companies. The Committee on Prices of Goods and Services makes final decisions on products to add or remove from price controls. As of October 2019, the MOC decreased the number of controlled commodities and services to 52 from 54 the previous year. Examples of controlled products include automotive tires, agricultural fertilizer, and sugar. Raising prices of controlled products and services is prohibited without obtaining the Committee’s approval. The government uses its controlling stakes in major suppliers of products and services, such as Thai Airways and PTT Public Company Limited (the national petroleum company), to influence prices in the market.

Expropriation and Compensation

Thai laws provide guarantees regarding protection from expropriation without compensation and non-discrimination for some, but not all, investors. Thailand’s Constitution provides protection from expropriation without fair compensation and requires the government to pass a specific, tailored expropriation law if the expropriation is required for the purpose of public utilities, national defense, acquisition of national resources, or for other public interests. The Investment Promotion Act also guarantees the government shall not nationalize the operations and assets of BOI-promoted investors.

The Expropriation of Immovable Property Act (EIP), most recently amended in 2019, applies to all property owners, whether foreign or domestic nationals. The Act provides a framework and clear procedures for expropriation; sets forth detailed provision and measures for compensation of land owners, lessees and other persons that may be affected by an expropriation; and recognizes the right to appeal decisions to Thai courts. The 2019 EIP requires the government to return land that was expropriated but has not been used back to the original property owners. However, the EIP and Investment Promotion Act do not protect against indirect expropriation and do not distinguish between compensable and non-compensable forms of indirect expropriation.

Thailand has a well-established system for land rights that is generally upheld in practice, but the legislation governing land tenure still significantly restricts foreigners’ rights to acquire land.

Dispute Settlement

ICSID Convention and New York Convention

Thailand is a signatory to the New York Convention, which means that investors can enforce arbitral awards in any other signatory country. Thailand signed the Convention on the Settlement of Investment Disputes in 1985 but has not ratified it. Therefore, most foreign investors covered under Thailand’s treaties with investor-state dispute settlement (ISDS) provisions that are limited to ICSID arbitration have not been able to bring ISDS claims against Thailand under these treaties.

Investor-State Dispute Settlement

Thailand is party to bilateral investment treaties with 46 nations. Two treaties — with the Netherlands and United States (Treaty of Amity) — do not include binding dispute resolution provisions. This means that investors covered under these treaties are unable to pursue international arbitration proceedings against the Thai government without first obtaining the government’s consent. There have been two notable cases of investor-state disputes in the last fifteen years, neither of which involved U.S. companies. The first case involved a concession agreement for a construction project filed under the Germany-Thailand bilateral investment treaty. In the second case, Thailand is engaged in a dispute over the government’s invocation of special powers to shut down a gold mine in early 2017.

International Commercial Arbitration and Foreign Courts

Thailand’s Arbitration Act of 2002, modeled in part after the UNCITRAL Model Law, governs domestic and international arbitration proceedings. The Act states that “in cases where an arbitral award was made in a foreign country, the award shall be enforced by the competent court only if it is subject to an international convention, treaty, or agreement to which Thailand is a party.” Any arbitral award between parties subject to the New York Convention should thus be enforced. The following organizations provide arbitration services in Thailand: the Thai Arbitration Institute of the Alternative Dispute Resolution Office; Office of the Judiciary; and the Office of the Arbitration Tribunal of the Board of Trade of Thailand. In addition, the semi-public Thai Arbitration Center offers mediation and arbitration for civil and commercial disputes. An amendment to the Arbitration Act that allows foreign arbitrators to take part in cases involving foreign parties came into force on April 15, 2019. Under very limited circumstances, a court can set aside an arbitration award.

Bankruptcy Regulations

Thailand’s bankruptcy law is modeled after that of the United States. The law authorizes restructuring proceedings that require trained judges who specialize in bankruptcy matters to preside. According to the law, bankruptcy is defined as a state in which courts permit the distribution of assets belonging to a debtor among the creditors within the parameters of the law. Thailand’s bankruptcy law allows for corporate restructuring similar to U.S. Chapter 11 and does not criminalize bankruptcy. The law also distinguishes between secured and unsecured claims, with the former prioritized. While bankruptcy is under consideration, creditors can request the following ex parte applications from the Bankruptcy Court: an examination by the receiver of all the debtor’s assets and/or that the debtor attend questioning on the existence of assets; a requirement that the debtor provide satisfactory security to the court; and immediate seizure of the debtor’s assets and/or evidence in order to prevent the loss or destruction of such items.

The law stipulates that all applications for repayment must be made within one month after the Bankruptcy Court publishes the appointment of an official receiver. If a creditor eligible for repayment does not apply within this period, the creditor forfeits his/her right to receive payment or the court may cancel the order to reorganize the business. If any person opposes a filing, the receiver shall investigate the matter and approve, partially approve, or dismiss the application. Any objections to the orders issued by the receiver may be filed with the court within 14 days after learning of the issued order.

Within bankruptcy proceedings, it is also possible to undertake a “composition” in order to avoid a long and protracted process. A composition takes place when a debtor expresses in writing a desire to settle his/her debts, either partially or in any other manner, within seven days of submitting an explanation of matters related to the bankruptcy or during a time period prescribed by the receiver. After the proposal for a composition has been submitted, the receiver calls for a meeting among creditors to consider whether or not to accept the proposal. If the proposal is accepted, the court will approve the composition in order to legally execute the proposal; however, it will only do so if the proposal includes clear provisions for the repayment of debts.

The National Credit Bureau of Thailand (NCB) provides the financial services industry with information on consumers and businesses. The NCB is required to provide the financial services sector with payment history information from utility companies, retailers and merchants, and trade creditors.

4. Industrial Policies

Investment Incentives

The Board of Investment:

The Board of Investment offers investment incentives to qualified domestic and foreign investors. To upgrade the country’s technological capacity, the BOI presently gives more weight to applications in high-tech, innovative, and sustainable industries. These include digital technology, “smart agriculture” and biotechnology, aviation and logistics, automation and robotics, medical and wellness tourism, and other high-value services.

The most significant privileges offered by the BOI for promoted projects include: corporate income tax exemptions; tariff reductions or exemptions on imports of machinery used in the investment; tariff-free treatment on imported raw materials used in production for export.

  • corporate income tax exemptions; tariff reductions or exemptions on imports of machinery used in the investment; tariff-free treatment on imported raw materials used in production for export.
  • permission to own land; permission to bring foreign experts; and visa and work permit facilitation.

Investment projects with a significant R&D, innovation, or human resource development component may be eligible for additional grants and incentives. Moreover, grants are provided to support targeted technology development under the Competitive Enhancement Act. BOI offers a one-stop service to expedite multiple business processes for investors.

For additional information, contact the Office of Board of Investment on 555 Vibhavadi-Rangsit Road, Chatuchak, Bangkok 10900 and telephone at +662-553-8111 or website at www.boi.go.th.

Office of the Eastern Economic Corridor:

Thailand’s flagship investment zone, the “Eastern Economic Corridor (EEC),” spans the provinces of Chachoengsao, Chonburi, and Rayong (5,129 square miles). The EEC leverages the developed infrastructure networks of the adjacent Eastern Seaboard industrial area, Thailand’s primary investment destination for more than 30 years. The Thai government foresees the EEC as a primary investment and infrastructure hub in ASEAN and a gateway to east and south Asia. Among the EEC development projects are: smart cities; an innovation district (EECi); a digital park (EECd); an aerotropolis (EEC-A); a medical hub (EECmd); and other state-of-the-art facilities. The EEC is targeting twelve key industries:

  • Next-generation automotive
  • Intelligent electronics
  • Advanced agriculture and biotechnology
  • Food processing
  • Tourism
  • Advance robotics and automation
  • Integrated aviation industry
  • Medical hub and total healthcare services
  • Biofuels and biochemicals
  • Digital technology
  • Defense industry
  • Human resource development

The EEC Act authorized investment incentives and privileges. Investors can obtain long-term land leases of 99 years (with an initial lease of up to 50 years and a renewal of up to 49 years). The EEC Act shortens the public-private partnership approval process to approximately nine months.

The BOI works in cooperation with the EEC Office. BOI offers corporate income tax exemptions of up to 13 years for strategic projects in the EEC area. Foreign executives and experts who work in targeted industries in the EEC are subject to a maximum personal income tax rate of 17 percent.

For additional information, contact the Eastern Economic Corridor Office at 25th floor, CAT Tower, 72 Soi Wat Maungkhae, Charoenkrung Road, Bangrak, Bangkok 10500, telephone at +662-033-8000 and website at https://eng.eeco.or.th/en.

Foreign Trade Zones/Free Ports/Trade Facilitation

The Industrial Estate Authority of Thailand (IEAT), a state-enterprise under the Ministry of Industry, develops suitable locations to accommodate industrial properties. IEAT has an established network of industrial estates in Thailand, including Laem Chabang Industrial Estate in Chonburi Province and Map Ta Phut Industrial Estate in Rayong Province in Thailand’s eastern seaboard region, a common location for foreign-owned factories due to its proximity to seaport facilities and Bangkok. Foreign-owned firms generally have the same investment opportunities in the industrial zones as Thai entities. While the IEAT Act requires that in the case of foreign-owned firms, the IEAT Committee must consider and approve the amount of space/land bought or leased in industrial estates, in practice, there is no record of disapproval for requested land. Private developers are heavily involved in the development of these estates.

The IEAT currently operates 14 estates, plus 45 more in conjunction with the private sector, in 16 provinces nationwide. Private-sector developers independently operate over 50 industrial estates, most of which have received promotion privileges from the Board of Investment. Amata Industrial Estate and WHA Industrial Development are Thailand’s leading private industrial estate developers. Most major foreign manufacturing investors, including U.S. manufacturers, are located in these two companies’ industrial estates and in the eastern seaboard region.

The IEAT has established 12 special IEAT “free trade zones” reserved for industries manufacturing exclusively for export. Businesses may import raw materials into, and export finished products from, these zones free of duty (including value added tax). These zones are located within industrial estates and many have customs facilities to speed processing. The free trade zones are located in Chonburi, Lampun, Pichit, Songkhla, Samut Prakarn, Bangkok (at Lad Krabang), Ayuddhya, and Chachoengsao. In addition to these zones, factory owners may apply for permission to establish a bonded warehouse within their premises to which raw materials, used exclusively in the production of products for export, may be imported duty-free.

The Thai government also established Special Economic Zones (SEZs) in ten provinces bordering neighboring countries: Tak, Nong Khai, Mukdahan, Sa Kaeo, Trad, Narathiwat, Chiang Rai, Nakhon Phanom, Songkhla, and Kanchanaburi. Business sectors and industries that can benefit from tax and non-tax incentives offered in the SEZs include logistics; warehouses near border areas; distribution; services; labor-intensive factories; and manufacturers using raw materials from neighboring countries. These SEZs support Thai government goals for closer economic ties with neighboring countries and allow investors to tap into abundant migrant labor; however, these SEZs have proven less attractive to overseas investors due to their remote locations far from Bangkok and other major cities.

In 2019, Thai Customs implemented three measures to improve trade and customs processing efficiency: Pre-Arrival Processing (PAP); an “e-Bill Payment” electronic payment system; and an e-Customs system that waives the use of paper customs declaration copies. The measures comply with the World Trade Organizations (WTO) Trade Facilitation Agreement (TFA), adopted in February 2016, which requires WTO members to adopt procedures for pre-arrival processing for imports and to authorize electronic submission of customs documents, where appropriate. The measures have also improved Thailand’s ranking in the World Bank’s “Doing Business: Trading Across Borders 2020” index.

Performance and Data Localization Requirements

The Thai government does not have specific laws or policies regarding performance or data localization requirements. Foreign investors are not required to use domestic content in goods or technology, but the Thai government has encouraged such an approach through domestic preferences in government procurement proceedings.

There are currently no requirements for foreign IT providers to localize their data, turn over source code, or provide access to surveillance. However, the Thai government in 2019 passed new laws and regulations on cybersecurity and personal data protection that have raised concerns about Thai authorities’ broad power to potentially demand confidential and sensitive information. IT operators and analysts have expressed concern with private companies’ legal protections, ability to appeal, or ability to limit such access. IT providers have expressed concern that the new laws might place unreasonable burdens on them and have introduced new uncertainties in the technology sector. As of March 2020, the government is still in the process of considering and implementing regulations to enforce laws on Cyber Security and Personal Data Protection.

Thailand has implemented a requirement that all debit transactions processed by a domestic debit card network must use a proprietary chip.

5. Protection of Property Rights

Real Property

Property rights are guaranteed by the Constitution. While the government provides fair compensation in instances of expropriation, Thai policy generally does not permit foreigners to own land. There have been instances, however, of granting such permission to foreigners under certain laws or ministerial regulations for residential, business, or religious purposes. Foreign ownership of condominiums and buildings is permitted under certain laws. Foreigners can freely lease land. Relevant articles of the Civil and Commercial Codes do not distinguish between foreign and Thai nationals in the exercise of lease rights. Secured interests in property, such as mortgage and pledge, are recognized and enforced. Unoccupied property legally owned by foreigners or Thais may be subject to adverse possession by squatters who stay on that property for at least 10 years.

IP Enforcement

The National Committee on Intellectual Property Policy sets Thailand’s overall Intellectual Property (IP) policy. The National Committee is chaired by the Prime Minister with two Deputy Prime Ministers as vice chairs. Eighteen heads of government agencies serve as Committee members. In 2017, this Committee approved a 20-year IP Roadmap to reform the country’s IP system.

The Department of Intellectual Property (DIP) is responsible for IP-related administration, including registration and recording of IP rights and coordination of IP enforcement activities. DIP also acts as the secretary of the National Committee on Intellectual Property Policy.

Patents and Trademarks

Thailand is a member of the Patent Cooperation Treaty (PCT). Thailand’s patent regime generally provides protection for most new inventions. The process of patent examination through issuance of patents takes on average six to eight years. The patenting process may take longer for certain technology sectors such as pharmaceuticals and biotechnology. In order to address the long patent pendency and backlogs, DIP hired 91 patent and trademark examiners in recent years. While the patent backlogs decreased from prior years in 2018, volumes increased again in 2019. As of September 2019, approximately 19,000 patent applications were pending examination, according to DIP.

The Thai government is in the process of preparing two amendments to the Patent Act. The first amendment, which concerns streamlining of the patent examination process, is pending review by the Council of the State as of April 2020. This amendment is expected to be adopted by the Parliament by the end of 2020. A second amendment to the Patent Act will authorize Thailand’s accession to the “Hague Agreement Concerning the International Registration of Industrial Designs.” The draft of this second amendment is expected to be submitted to the Council of State after the Council completes its review of the first amendment.

Thailand protects trademarks, traditional marks, and sound marks. As a member of the “Protocol Relating to the Madrid Agreement Concerning the International Registration of Marks” (Madrid Protocol). Thailand allows trademark owners to apply for trademark registrations in Thailand directly at DIP or through international applications under the Madrid Protocol. DIP historically takes 10 to 14 months to register a trademark. More than 46,000 trademark applications were pending examination at the end of 2019.

Copyrights

As Thailand is a member of the “Bern Convention,” copyright works are protected automatically. However, copyright owners may record their works with DIP to establish proof of ownership. Thailand joined the Marrakesh Treaty to Facilitate Access to Published Works for Persons Who Are Blind, Visually Impaired or Otherwise Print Disabled in January 2019. The Guidelines on Use of Copyright Works for the Benefits of Disabled Persons is available on the DIP website, Thai language only (http://www.ipthailand.go.th/th/dip-law-2/item/notificatioofmoc_disableperson2019.html).

In addition, Thailand is in the process of a two-phase amendment of the Copyright Act. The first phase will enhance protections of copyrights in the digital environment and prepare Thailand for accession to the WIPO Copyright Treaty. The second phase will prepare Thailand for accession to the WIPO Performances and Phonograms Treaty. The first-phase draft is undergoing a legal review by the Council of State, after which it will be submitted to the Parliament. The second amendment remains in the drafting process.

DIP recently adopted a new system of voluntary registration of copyright (collective management) agents to curb illegal activities of rogue agents. To register, an agent must meet certain qualifications and undergo prescribed training. The roster of registered agents along with associated licensed copyrights is available on the DIP website. The Thai government amended the Computer Crime Act in 2017 to add IPR infringement as a predicate offense under the Act’s Section 20. This enables IP rights-holders to file requests to either DIP or the Ministry of Digital Economy and Society for removal of online IPR-infringing content from computer systems or for disabling access.

Geographical Indications

Thailand’s Geographical Indications (GI) Act has been in force since April 2004. Thailand protects GIs, which identify goods by their specific geographical origins. The geographical origins identified by a GI must be directly attributable to the reputation, qualities, or characteristics of the good. In Thailand, a registered trademark does not prevent a similar geographical name to be registered as a GI.

Intellectual Property Rights

In 2017, Thailand was placed on the USTR Special 301 Watch List. Thailand has one physical market, Patpong Market in Bangkok, listed in the USTR’s 2019Review of Notorious Markets.

Thailand has taken the following steps recently to improve IP enforcement: provided ex-officio authority for border enforcement officials to inspect in-transit goods; set enforcement benchmarks; published monthly enforcement statistics online; and stepped up efforts to investigate IP cases. Thailand’s Central Intellectual Property and International Trade Court (CIPIT) is the first instance of a court having jurisdiction over both civil and criminal intellectual property cases and civil international trade cases for all of Thailand. The Court of Appeal for Specialized Cases hears appeals from the CIPIT, including administrative appeals from DIP that already received a first instance decision from the CIPIT.

For additional information about national laws and points of contact at local IP offices, please see the DIP website at https://www.ipthailand.go.th/en/  and WIPO’s country profiles at http://www.wipo.int/directory/en/ .

6. Financial Sector

Capital Markets and Portfolio Investment

The Thai government maintains a regulatory framework that broadly encourages and facilitates portfolio investment. The Stock Exchange of Thailand, the country’s national stock market, was established under the Securities Exchange of Thailand Act B.E. 2535 in 1992. There is sufficient liquidity in the markets to allow investors to enter and exit sizeable positions. Government policies generally do not restrict the free flow of financial resources to support product and factor markets. The Bank of Thailand, the country’s central bank, has respected IMF Article VIII by refraining from restrictions on payments and transfers for current international transactions.

Credit is generally allocated on market terms rather than by “direct lending.” Foreign investors are not restricted from borrowing on the local market. In theory, the private sector has access to a wide variety of credit instruments, ranging from fixed term lending to overdraft protection to bills of exchange and bonds. However, the private debt market is not well developed. Most corporate financing, whether for short-term working capital needs, trade financing, or project financing, requires borrowing from commercial banks or other financial institutions.

Money and Banking System

Thailand’s banking sector, with 15 domestic commercial banks, is sound and well-capitalized. As of December 2019, the non-performing loan rate was low (around 2.98 percent industry wide). The ratio of capital funds/risk-weighted assets (capital adequacy) was high (19.61 percent). Thailand’s largest commercial bank is Bangkok Bank, with assets totaling USD 100 billion as of December 2019. The combined assets of the five largest commercial banks totaled USD 450 billion, or 69.39 percent of the total assets of the Thai banking system, at the end of 2019.

In general, Thai commercial banks provide the following services: accepting deposits from the public; granting credit; buying and selling foreign currencies; and buying and selling bills of exchange (including discounting or re-discounting, accepting, and guaranteeing bills of exchange). Commercial banks also provide credit guarantees, payment, remittance and financial instruments for risk management. Such instruments include interest-rate derivatives and foreign-exchange derivatives. Additional business to support capital market development, such as debt and equity instruments, is allowed. A commercial bank may also provide other services, such as bank assurance and e-banking.

Thailand’s central bank is the Bank of Thailand (BOT), which is headed by a Governor appointed for a five-year term. The BOT serves the following functions: prints and issues banknotes and other security documents; promotes monetary stability and formulates monetary policies; manages the BOT’s assets; provides banking facilities to the government; acts as the registrar of government bonds; provides banking facilities for financial institutions; establishes or supports the payment system; supervises financial institutions manages the country’s foreign exchange rate under the foreign exchange system; and determines the makeup of assets in the foreign exchange reserve.

Apart from the 15 domestic commercial banks, there are currently 11 registered foreign bank branches, including three American banks (Citibank, Bank of America, and JP Morgan Chase), and four foreign bank subsidiaries operating in Thailand. To set up a bank branch or a subsidiary in Thailand, a foreign commercial bank must obtain approval from the Ministry of Finance and the BOT. Foreign commercial bank branches are limited to three service points (branches/ATMs) and foreign commercial bank subsidiaries are limited to 40 service points (branches and off-premise ATMs) per subsidiary. Newly established foreign bank branches are required to have minimum capital funds of 125 million baht (USD 4.03 million at end of 2019 exchange rates) invested in government or state enterprise securities, or directly deposited with the Bank of Thailand. The number of expatriate management personnel is limited to six people at full branches, although Thai authorities frequently grant exceptions on a case-by-case basis.

Non-residents can open and maintain foreign currency accounts without deposit and withdrawal ceilings. Non-residents can also open and maintain Thai baht accounts; however, in an effort to curb speculation, in July 2019 the Bank of Thailand capped non-resident Thai baht deposits to 200 million baht across all domestic bank accounts. Any deposit in Thai baht must be derived from conversion of foreign currencies, receipt of payment for goods and services, or capital transfers. Withdrawals are freely permitted. Since mid-2017, the BOT has allowed commercial banks and payment service providers to introduce new financial services technologies under its “Regulatory Sandbox” guidelines. Recently introduced technologies under this scheme include standardized QR codes for payments, blockchain funds transfers, electronic letters of guarantee, and biometrics.

Thailand’s alternative financial services include cooperatives, micro-saving groups, the state village funds, and informal money lenders. The latter provide basic but expensive financial services to households, mostly in rural areas. These alternative financial services, with the exception of informal money lenders, are regulated by the government.

Foreign Exchange and Remittances

Foreign Exchange

There are no limitations placed on foreign investors for converting, transferring, or repatriating funds associated with an investment; however, supporting documentation is required. Any person who brings Thai baht currency or foreign currency in or out of Thailand in an aggregate amount exceeding USD 15,000 or the equivalent must declare the currency at a Customs checkpoint. Investment funds are allowed to be freely converted into any currency.

The exchange rate is generally determined by market fundamentals but is carefully scrutinized by the BOT under a managed float system. During periods of excessive capital inflows/outflows (i.e., exchange rate speculation), the central bank has stepped in to prevent extreme movements in the currency and to reduce the duration and extent of the exchange rate’s deviation from a targeted equilibrium.

Remittance Policies

Thailand imposes no limitations on the inflow or outflow of funds for remittances of profits or revenue for direct and portfolio investments. There are no time limitations on remittances.

Sovereign Wealth Funds

Thailand does not have a sovereign wealth fund and the Bank of Thailand is not pursuing the creation of such a fund. However, the International Monetary Fund has urged Thailand to create a sovereign wealth fund due to its large accumulated foreign exchange reserves (USD 224.3 billion as of December 2019).

7. State-Owned Enterprises

Thailand’s 56 state-owned enterprises (SOEs) have total assets of USD 422 billion and a combined net income of USD 8.3 billion (end of 2018 figures, latest available). They employ around 270,000 people, or 0.7 percent of the Thai labor force. Thailand’s SOEs operate primarily in-service delivery, in particular in the energy, telecommunications, transportation, and financial sectors. More information about SOEs is available at the website of the State Enterprise Policy Office (SEPO) under the Ministry of Finance at www.sepo.go.th .

A 15-member State Enterprises Policy Commission, or “superboard,” oversees operations of the country’s 56 SOEs. In May 2019, the Development of Supervision and Management of State-Owned Enterprise Act B.E. 2562 (2019) went into effect. The law aims to reform SOEs and ensure transparent management decisions. The Thai government generally defines SOEs as special agencies established by law for a particular purpose that are 100 percent owned by the government (through the Ministry of Finance as a primary shareholder). The government recognizes a second category of “limited liability companies/public companies” in which the government owns 50 percent or more of the shares. Of the 56 total SOEs, 43 are wholly-owned and 13 are majority-owned. Twelve of these companies are classed as limited liability companies. Five are publicly listed on the Stock Exchange of Thailand: Thai Airways International Public Company Limited; Airports of Thailand Public Company Limited; PTT Public Company Limited; MCOT Public Company Limited; and Krung Thai Bank Public Company Limited. By regulation, at least one-third of SOE boards must be comprised of independent directors.

Private enterprises can compete with SOEs under the same terms and conditions with respect to market share, products/services, and incentives in most sectors, but there are some exceptions, such as fixed-line operations in the telecommunications sector.

While SEPO officials aspire to adhere to the OECD Guidelines on Corporate Governance for SOEsno level playing field exists between SOEs and private sector enterprises, which are often disadvantaged in competing with Thai SOEs for contracts.

Generally, SOE senior management reports directly to a line minister and to SEPO. Corporate board seats are typically allocated to senior government officials or politically-affiliated individuals. Privatization Program

The 1999 State Enterprise Corporatization Act provides a framework for conversion of SOEs into stock companies. Corporatization is viewed as an intermediate step toward eventual privatization. (Note: “corporatization” describes the process by which an SOE adjusts its internal structure to resemble a publicly-traded enterprise; “privatization” denotes that a majority of the SOE’s shares is sold to the public; and “partial privatization” refers to a situation in which less than half of a company’s shares are sold to the public.) Foreign investors are allowed to participate in privatizations, but restrictions are applied in certain sectors, as regulated by the FBA and the Act on Standards Qualifications for Directors and Employees of State Enterprises of 1975, as amended. However, privatizations have been on hold since 2006 largely due to strong opposition from labor unions.

A 15-member State Enterprises Policy Commission, or “superboard,” oversees operations of the country’s 56 SOEs. In May 2019, the Development of Supervision and Management of State-Owned Enterprise Act B.E. 2562 (2019) went into effect. The law aims to reform SOEs and ensure transparent management decisions; however, privatization is not part of this process.

8. Responsible Business Conduct.

The Thai government has committed to implement the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights (UNGP).

On October 29, 2019, Thailand’s Cabinet adopted the country’s first National Action Plan on Business and Human Rights (NAP on BHR). The NAP aims to prevent adverse effects of business operations on human rights. Regional consultations and discussions with various stakeholders during the drafting process of the NAP (2016-2019) identified four priority areas: 1) labor; 2) community, land, natural resource and environment; 3) human rights defenders; and 4) cross border investment and multinational enterprises.

The Ministry of Industry has joined the National Human Rights Committee, the Ministry of Justice, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Ministry of Commerce, the Federation of Thai Industries, the Thai Bankers Association, the Thai Chamber of Commerce, and the Global Computing Network of Thailand in signing a memorandum of cooperation to advance implementation of the UNGP.

In May 2019, Thailand’s capital market regulator, the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC), and the National Human Rights Commission of Thailand signed an MO]U to uphold UNGP principles. The Ministry of Industry’s Department of Industrial Works encourages the private sector to implement its Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR-DIW) standards to achieve ISO 26000 standards (an international standard on CSR). I

There are several local NGOs that promote and monitor responsible business conduct. Most such NGOs operate without hindrance, though a few have experienced intimidation as a result of their work. International NGOs continue to call on the Thai government and Thai companies to act more responsibly with respect to human and labor rights.

9. Corruption

Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index ranked Thailand 101st out of 180 countries with a score of 36 out of 100 in 2019. According to some studies, a cultural propensity to forgive bribes as a normal part of doing business and to equate cash payments with finders’ fees or consultants’ charges, coupled with the relatively low salaries of civil servants, encourages officials to accept gifts and illegal inducements. U.S. executives with experience in Thailand often advise new-to-market companies that it is far easier to avoid corrupt transactions from the beginning than to stop such practices once a company has been identified as willing to operate in this fashion. American firms that comply with the strict guidelines of the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (FCPA) are able to compete successfully in Thailand. U.S. businessmen say that publicly affirming the need to comply with the FCPA helps to shield their companies from pressure to pay bribes.

Thailand has a legal framework and a range of institutions to counter corruption. The Organic Law to Counter Corruption criminalizes corrupt practices of public officials and corporations, including active and passive bribery of public officials. The anti-corruption laws extend to family members of officials and to political parties.

Thai procurement regulations prohibit collusion amongst bidders. If an examination confirms allegations or suspicions of collusion among bidders, the names of those applicants must be removed from the list of competitors.

Thailand adopted its first national government procurement law in December 2016. Based on UNCITRAL model laws and the WTO Agreement on Government Procurement, the law applies to all government agencies, local authorities, and state-owned enterprises, and aims to improve transparency. Officials who violate the law are subject to 1-10 years imprisonment and/or a fine from Thai baht 20,000 (approximately USD 615) to Thai baht 200,000 (approximately USD 6,150).

Since 2010, the Thai Institute of Directors has built an anti-corruption coalition of Thailand’s largest businesses. Coalition members sign a Collective Action Against Corruption Declaration and pledge to take tangible, measurable steps to reduce corruption-related risks identified by third party certification. The Center for International Private Enterprise equipped the Thai Institute of Directors and its coalition partners with an array of tools for training and collective action.

Established in 2011, the Anti-Corruption Organization of Thailand (ACT) aims to encourage the government to create laws to combat corruption. ACT has 54 member organizations drawn from the private, public, and academic sectors. Their signature program is the “integrity pact.” Drafted by ACT and the Finance Ministry and based on a tool promoted by Transparency International, the pact forbids bribes from signatory members in bidding for government contacts. Member agencies and companies must adhere to strict transparency rules by disclosing and making easily available to the public all relevant bidding information, such as the terms of reference and the cost of the project.

Thailand is a party to the UN Anti-Corruption Convention, but not the OECD Anti-Bribery Convention.

Thailand’s Witness Protection Act offers protection (to include police protection) to witnesses, including NGO employees, who are eligible for special protection measures in anti-corruption cases.

Resources to Report Corruption

Contact at government agency or agencies responsible for combating corruption:

International Affairs Strategy Specialist
Office of the National Anti-Corruption Commission
361 Nonthaburi Road, Thasaai District, Amphur Muang Nonthaburi 11000, Thailand
Tel: +662-528-4800
Email: TACC@nacc.go.th

Contact at “watchdog” organization:

Dr. Mana Nimitmongkol
Secretary General
Anti-Corruption Organization of Thailand (ACT)
44 Srijulsup Tower, 16th floor, Phatumwan, Bangkok 10330
Tel: +662-613-8863
Email: mana2020@yahoo.com

10. Political and Security Environment

On March 24, 2019, Thailand held its first national election since the 2014 military coup that ousted democratically elected Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra. On June 5, the newly-seated Parliament elected coup leader General Prayut Chan-o-cha to continue in his role as Prime Minister.

Violence related to an ongoing ethno-nationalist insurgency in Thailand’s southernmost provinces has claimed more than 7,000 lives since 2004. Although the number of deaths and violent incidents has decreased year-over-year, efforts to end the insurgency have so far been unsuccessful. The government is currently engaged in confidence-building measures with the leading insurgent group. Almost all attacks have occurred in the three southernmost provinces of the country.

11. Labor Policies and Practices

In 2019, 38.18 million people were in Thailand’s formal labor pool, comprising 57 percent of the total population. Thailand’s official unemployment rates stood at 1.0 percent at the end of 2019, slightly less than 1.1 percent the previous year. Unemployment among youth (15-24 years old) is around 5.2 percent, while the rate is only 0.5 percent for adults over 25 years old. Well over half the labor force (54.3 percent) earns income in the informal sector, including through self-employment and family labor, which limits their access to social welfare programs. (Note: These statistics do not take into account the impact of the coronavirus pandemic, the long-term impact of which on the Thai labor force is difficult to ascertain. End note.)

The Thai government is actively seeking to address shortages of both skilled and unskilled workers through education reform and various worker-training incentive programs. Low birth rates, an aging population, and a skills mismatch, are exacerbating labor shortages in many sectors. Despite provision of 15 years of free universal education, Thailand continues to suffer from a skills mismatch that impedes innovation and economic growth. Thailand has a shortage of high-skill workers such as researchers, engineers, and managers, as well as technicians and vocational workers.

Regional income inequality and labor shortages, particularly in labor-intensive manufacturing, construction, hospitality and service sectors, have attracted millions of migrant workers, mostly from neighboring Burma, Cambodia, and Laos. In 2019, the International Organization for Migration estimated Thailand hosted 4.9 million migrant workers, or 13 percent of country’s labor force. Although an increasing number of migrant laborers are documented, many continue to work illegally. As of 2019, approximately 3.8 million formerly undocumented migrant workers had been regularized.

Employers may dismiss workers provided the employer pays severance. Where an employer temporarily suspends business, in part or in whole, the employer must pay the employee at least 75 percent of his or her daily wages throughout the suspension period.

Among wage and salary workers, 3.5 percent are unionized and only 34 out of 77 provinces have labor unions. Thai law allows private-sector workers to form and join trade unions of their choosing without prior authorization, to bargain collectively, and to conduct legal strikes, although these rights come with some restrictions. Noncitizen migrant workers, whether registered or undocumented, do not have the right to form unions or serve as union officials. Migrants can join unions organized and led by Thai citizens.

In 2019 the government issued a new regulation to ensure that seasonal employees in agriculture, fishing, forestry, and husbandry businesses have access to the government’s accident compensation fund. Additional information on migrant workers issues and rights can be found in the U.S. Trafficking in Persons Report, as well as the Labor Rights chapter of the U.S. Human Rights report.

12. U.S. International Development Finance Corporation (DFC) and Other Investment Insurance Programs

Under an agreement with the Thai government, the U.S. International Development Finance Corporation (DFC, formerly the Overseas Private Investment Corporation) can provide equity investments, debt financing, partial credit guarantees, political risk insurance, grants and private equity capital to support U.S. and other investors and their investments. DFC also can provide debt financing, in the form of direct loans and loan guarantees, of up to USD one billion per project for business investments, preferably with U.S. private sector participation, covering sectors as diverse as tourism, transportation, manufacturing, franchising, power, infrastructure, and others. DFC political risk insurance is also available for currency inconvertibility, expropriation, and political violence for U.S. and other investments including equity, loans and loan guarantees, technical assistance, leases, and consigned inventory or equipment. Grants, a new tool for DFC, are available for projects that are already reasonably developed but need additional, limited funding and specific work — for example technical, environmental and social-risk (E&S) screening, or legal advice — in order to be bankable and eligible for DFC financing or insurance. In addition, DFC supports twelve private equity funds that are eligible to invest in projects in Thailand. In all cases, DFC support is available only where sufficient or appropriate investment support is unavailable from local or other private sector financial institutions.

13. Foreign Direct Investment and Foreign Portfolio Investment Statistics

Table 2: Key Macroeconomic Data, U.S. FDI in Host Country/Economy
Host Country Statistical source* USG or international statistical source USG or International Source of Data: BEA; IMF; Eurostat; UNCTAD, Other
Economic Data Year Amount Year Amount
Host Country Gross Domestic Product (GDP) ($M USD) 2019 $545,519 2018 $504,993 www.worldbank.org/en/country 
Foreign Direct Investment Host Country Statistical source* USG or international statistical source USG or international Source of data: BEA; IMF; Eurostat; UNCTAD, Other
U.S. FDI in partner country ($M USD, stock positions) 2018 $16,233 2018 $17,667 BEA data available at https://www.bea.gov/international/direct-investment-and-multinational-enterprises-comprehensive-data 
Host country’s FDI in the United States ($M USD, stock positions) 2018 $7,918 2018 $2,375 BEA data available at https://www.bea.gov/international/direct-investment-and-multinational-enterprises-comprehensive-data 
Total inbound stock of FDI as % host GDP N/A N/A 2018 48.9% https://unctad.org/en/Pages/DIAE/
World%20Investment%20Report/
Country-Fact-Sheets.aspx
 
Table 3: Sources and Destination of FDI
Direct Investment from/in Counterpart Economy Data
From Top Five Sources/To Top Five Destinations (US Dollars, Millions)
Inward Direct Investment Outward Direct Investment
Total Inward $238,620 100% Total Outward $135,920 100%
Japan $86,810 36.4% China, P.R.: Hong Kong $24,157 17.8%
Singapore $33,066 13.9% Singapore $14,797 10.9%
China, P.R.: Hong Kong $23,354 9.8% Mauritius $10,367 7.6%
United States $16,234 6.8% Netherlands $9,033 6.6%
Netherlands $15,646 6.6% United States $7,918 5.8%
“0” reflects amounts rounded to +/- USD 500,000.
Table 4: Sources of Portfolio Investment
Portfolio Investment Assets
Top Five Partners (Millions, US Dollars)
Total Equity Securities Total Debt Securities
All Countries $56,517 100% All Countries $28,688 100% All Countries $27,829 100%
Luxembourg $7,944 14% Luxembourg $7,323 25% Japan $2,824 10%
United States $8,030 14% United States $5,772 20% China, P.R. Mainland $2,974 11%
Ireland $3,916 7% Ireland $3,888 14% Laos DPR $2,853 10%
China, P.R.: Mainland 3,306 6% Singapore $3,561 12% United States $2,258 8%
Singapore $4,213 7% China, P.R.: Hong Kong $1,837 6% China, P.R.: Hong Kong $1,399 5%

http://data.imf.org/regular.aspx?key=60587804 

14. Contact for More Information

U.S. Embassy Bangkok
Economic Section
BangkokEconSection@state.gov