邬美珍律师是贝克·麦坚时新加坡成员所Baker McKenzie Wong & Leow负责人、并购业务联合主管，她也观察到：“中国科技企业在新加坡展开运营需要一系列广泛的法律服务，包括公司法、劳动法、税务和知识产权领域服务。最重要的是，他们希望法律顾问在其产品和服务引入东南亚时，提供与此相关的监管及合规建议，并且这些建议要中肯又实用。”
Due to its geographical and cultural proximity to China, tiny Singapore has long had deep ties with the world’s most populous country. These ties are set to deepen as Chinese tech giants look to Southeast Asia as the next area for growth, with Singapore as the most obvious hub for the region.
With China tightening its supervision of Internet companies in the past year, these firms are looking at Southeast Asia for their next phase of growth, and Singapore is at the centre of their plans.
According to Bloomberg, following a similar decision from Alibaba, Tencent has chosen Singapore as a regional hub for its overseas operations. But they are not the only ones looking at the “Little Red Dot.” At the end of 2020, Baidu-supported video platform iQiyi announced that Singapore would be its international headquarters. The Financial Times also reported that the social media giant ByteDance would expand its operations in Singapore.
There are many reasons why this is happening. Singapore is believed to offer a safe haven for companies caught between China-U.S. trade tensions. Also, it is known for its mature legal and commercial system, and with its multilingual business environment, it is accessible to Chinese companies and investors.
Additionally, nearly a quarter of China's Belt and Road outbound investment is flowing through Singapore. Earlier this year, Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan noted that as a regional financial hub, Singapore can play an important role in China's dual-cycle economy due to its special geographical position and neutrality.
“Singapore is known for her political stability, absence of corruption, competitive commercial laws and institutions and neutrality, and it’s bilingual language policy has also led to a well-educated and highly skilled workforce that can bridge communications divides, including day to day working conversations and professional communications.”
- Randolph Khoo, Drew & Napier LLC
“Singapore is known for her political stability, absence of corruption, competitive commercial laws and institutions and neutrality,” says Randolph Khoo, deputy managing director of the dispute resolution practice at Drew & Napier, one of the city-state’s largest firms, adding that these factors are attractive for international companies expanding in Singapore.
“Singapore’s bilingual language policy has also led to a well-educated and highly skilled workforce that can bridge communications divides, including day to day working conversations and professional communications,” he adds. “Therefore, Singapore has evolved into an effective gateway between China and the West.”
Indeed, Khoo has observed the growing presence of Chinese Internet and technology companies in Singapore recently, and this situation “undoubtedly provides more opportunities.” Support that these companies need includes “advising on market entry, info-communications regulation, competition and compliance, public listings, joint ventures, investment and financing agreements and acquisitions, which are likely to be within the needs of such businesses.”
Bee Chun Boo, a principal and co-head of the M&A practice at Singapore’s Baker McKenzie Wong & Leow, adds that Chinese tech companies need a wide range of legal services when they expand operations into Singapore, including corporate, employment, tax and intellectual property. “Most importantly, Chinese tech companies look for advisers who can provide them with sound and practical advice on regulatory and compliance issues that are associated with the introduction of their products and services into Southeast Asia,” she adds. “The challenge is navigating through the various legal regimes within Southeast Asia as there are significant differences between these regimes.”
LAW FIRMS ON THE WAY
With Chinese enterprises stepping up their presence in Singapore, PRC law firms are also on their way to the city-state.
“I have the impression Singapore is becoming more important to Chinese law firms in recent times as a result of the need for businesses emerging out of China to have adequate and responsive legal support,” says Khoo of Drew & Napier. “It is a natural development that Chinese law firms are expanding their presence in Singapore to serve the growing legal needs of Chinese businesses expanding into the region.”
For a long time, Chinese law firms generally ignored Singapore and Southeast Asia when it came to overseas expansion. The situation appears to be changing: Chinese firms such as King & Wood Mallesons, Jingsh Law Firm and Landing Law Offices have expanded in Singapore in recent years. And in June, Shanghai-headquartered AllBright Law Offices became the latest one to announce Singapore plans.
"With the influx of capital and industries in recent years, as well as the changes of the international situation, Singapore is like a funnel in Southeast Asia. As it is flexible to change as the situation changes, therefore it is easier to take on some new opportunities than other regions. And Chinese companies will also have more trust in Chinese law firms, so our legal services need to be further extended."
- Amy Ye, AllBright Law Offices
John Liu and Amy Ye, two Shanghai-based partners at AllBright, will lead its Singapore office in future. They tell ALB that the office will initially advice Chinese companies investing in Southeast Asia. "With the influx of capital and industries in recent years, as well as the changes of the international situation, Singapore is like a funnel in Southeast Asia. As it is flexible to change as the situation changes, therefore it is easier to take on some new opportunities than other regions," says Ye. “And Chinese companies will also have more trust in Chinese law firms, so our legal services need to be further extended."
Liu adds: “The importance of Singapore is gradually strengthening. As far as China is concerned, the continuous promotion of the Belt and Road Initiative is the inevitable factor for Singapore to become an indispensable transit station.”
In Liu’s view, Singapore is likely to become a strategic priority for more Chinese law firms that are expanding overseas. Ye predicts that if Chinese law firms see more demand for an office there in the future, they will increase their investment accordingly.
According to data of Singapore's Ministry of Law, there are more than 130 foreign law firms with offices in the city-state. Assuming more Chinese law firms arrive in Singapore in the future, they will be competing in a very crowded market indeed. Should they fear the competition?
Liu believes that as newcomers, Chinese law firms should first make clear their unique advantages in this new market. "As far as AllBright is concerned, our advantage lies in the huge domestic customer base. How to help them solve the urgent need of overseas legal services and receive the most appropriate overseas legal resources is our focus," he notes, adding that it’s important to collaborate with local firms.
Khoo agrees: “We look forward to enhancing collaboration with these Chinese law firms to seize new opportunities in the region.”
To contact the editorial team, please email ALBEditor@thomsonreuters.com.