Following an extensive nominations process, Asia Business Law Journal reveals the A-List of the country’s legal profession. Putro Harnowo reports
For centuries, Malaysia has been open to foreign business, and absorbed global influences. No wonder that the country is hailed as one of the most open economies in the region. Openness to trade and investment has played a key role in the country’s income growth.
Electronics, automotive and construction are the biggest industries, along with commodities such as crude oil and gas, and palm oil. Malaysia’s economy has been on an upward trajectory, averaging growth of 5.4% since 2010, and is expected to transition from an upper middle-income economy to a high-income economy by 2024.
However, the pandemic has taken a toll on the economy, disrupting supply chains and travel, with exports of goods and services expected to continue shrinking. The country’s GDP contracted 5.6% in 2020, compared with a growth of 4.3% in 2019, following a deterioration in all economic sectors. The government’s priority has shifted towards addressing the well-being of the bottom 40% of the country’s income earners. This puts an additional pressure on the country’s politics that has been in turmoil for the past years.
From a legal standpoint, the country practices a mixed system that includes common law, Islamic law and customary law, which can be perplexing for foreign businesses trying to navigate the regulatory framework. It is imperative for both domestic and international businesses to seek legal assistance when understanding the business environment in the country.
Against this challenging backdrop, Asia Business Law Journal presents its A-list of the top 100 lawyers practising in Malaysia (see the list of all 100 lawyers and the key practice areas for which they are endorsed here).
The A-List is based on extensive research conducted and nominations received from in-house counsel based in Malaysia and elsewhere, as well as Malaysia-focused partners at international law firms. Nearly all of the A-List lawyers are located in the country’s capital, Kuala Lumpur, the main hub for international business in various sectors. This reflects the premium on lawyers who are well placed to have their ear to the ground with regard to developments among the financial and sector-specific regulators, and within the corridors of power in government.
To comprehend clients’ opinions on what it takes to be a first-class lawyer in Malaysia, we sought answers from a large number of professionals, mainly experienced in-house counsel and corporate legal managers. From these recommendations, it is possible to extract a portrait of exceptional Malaysian lawyers that make up this elite group.
Comments submitted to Asia Business Law Journal by clients suggest that they not only look for lawyers who are familiar with the laws and how the transactions work, but those who also have a deep sense of commercial and businesses operations – to balance the value and legal risk in undertaking transactions, and then break down advice into simple, easy to understand terms.
The country’s liberal environment for foreign investment creates opportunities for M&A in leading sectors such as oil and gas, palm oil, logistics, and electronics manufacturing. Many renowned lawyers in the A-List are nominated for their expertise in such transactions.
Jerry Ong, a partner at Zul Rafique & Partners, is one of them. He is recommended by Syed Hafez Hussain, a general counsel of internet company Axiata Digital in Kuala Lumpur, for his years of experience in advising on complex and intricate corporate transactions.
“His in-depth practical knowledge of M&A, corporate finance and corporate governance has greatly assisted us in maneuvering across deep and unknown waters,” says Hussain.
“He takes a very pragmatic and practical approach in his counsel to solve issues with a lot of commercial sense and understanding built into it. This makes his advice relatable and easy for the management to understand, which I think is key to a successful counsel engagement.”
Tan Bee Lian, executive director of the corporate services division at Malaysian environmental solutions provider Puncak Niaga Holdings in Shah Alam, Selangor, praises Deepak Sadavisan, managing partner at Adnan Sundra & Low, as a member of a “super league in corporate, M&A and Islamic finance in Malaysia. He never fails to provide best solutions to clients each and every time.”
Greg Poarch, the chief financial officer of JcbNext, a digital marketing company in Kuala Lumpur, nominates Jeff Leong, a senior partner at Jeff Leong Poon & Wong, for the commercial and business development experience.
“This has always been very valuable to us, as he has been able to advise us throughout the growth of our firm to date, from IPO to our transfer to the Bursa (stock exchange of Malaysia) main board, and ultimately the disposal of a substantial asset,” says Poarch. “The time he has invested in developing the long-term relationship and understanding our needs at various stages is greatly appreciated.”
Leong is also commended by Manichelvam Subramaniam, co-founder of multi-brand food and beverage company FBE Ventures in Kuala Lumpur, for his steadfast assistance in countless transactions for more than 20 years, and for being well versed in many aspects, especially with securities and corporate law.
“His unique ability to identify potential problems, or deal with an existing problem, and most importantly provide a solution, makes him stand out from most corporate counsel,” says Subramaniam. “His regional and cross-border experience is vast and, as a young company trying to grow regionally, we require someone like him to advise and navigate us through the different jurisdictions.”
Sulip Menon, a legal consultant of investment company Peremba Group in Shah Alam, compliments Sedgley & Co partner Iain Sedgley for being highly incisive, with immaculate drafting skills.
“Iain is without comparison one of the best, if not the best corporate lawyer in the country,” says Menon. “The thing that really separates him from the rest of the pack is that he has a keen commercial sense, which is invaluable in navigating restrictive frameworks, and he does so while keeping us on the right side of the line.”
Disputes and taxation
Dealing with complex taxation matters and navigating dispute resolution in a wide range of situations come as highly sought capabilities in Malaysia, skills for which many A-List lawyers are nominated.
Dave Comerford, vice president, corporate tax, of Eastman Chemical Company in Kingsport, Tennessee, in the US, is all praises for S Saravana Kumar, a partner at Rosli Dahlan Saravana Partnership. “Sara is a very thoughtful attorney who ensures a taxpayer is made aware of all available options, as well as the most strategic potential avenues a taxpayer should consider pursuing,” says Comerford.
Vernon Samuel, general manager, legal, of Mercedes-Benz Malaysia in Puchong, Selangor, also supports Kumar for his “vast knowledge in the area of tax, excellent and prompt service, and short turnaround time for advice that is sought”.
Kumar and his colleague, senior partner D P Naban, “portray high integrity, and are highly knowledgeable in their field”, says Ong Su Leh, a senior general manager of Berjaya Corporation, an investment holding company in Kuala Lumpur.
“Their ability to formulate legal strategy is outstanding, such as securing the stay order for our tax disputes with the local tax authority for our companies,” says Ong.
David Chiam, legal director for Southeast Asia at Dairy Farm Group in Shah Alam, also recommends Naban, who has worked with him for many years. “Naban is able to advise on highly contentious commercial issues, and be effective in navigating complex tax issues and scenarios,” says Chiam. “Certainly someone I can call upon in such situations.”
Soh Lian Seng, an executive director of KPMG Tax Services in Petaling Jaya, agrees. “Naban has the ability to formulate legal strategy, such as securing the stay order for my present disputes, when the law requires taxes to be paid upfront,” he says.
When it comes to dispute resolution and litigation, Faisal Moideen, a partner at Moideen & Max, is applauded by Christine Tan, an executive vice president of Malaysian Resources Corporation, a construction company based in Kuala Lumpur, for his analytical skills and legal strategies, whether defending a case or commencing a legal proceeding.
“He is like a detective when investigating the facts of the matter, planning and formulating legal strategies, and creative in solving legal disputes,” says Tan. “Faisal is also committed in getting ready all the pleadings, and excellent in his advocacy.”
Shaliza Abd Malek, general counsel of Petronas in Petaling Jaya, says Moideen is bold and innovative. “Faisal advocates difficult positions with integrity, conviction and energy,” says Malek. “He superbly dissects, layer by layer, complicated technical and commercial issues as though he is an engineer, banker, contractor, employer etc., then dives into a legal position.”
Malek also recommends Lee Shih, managing partner at Lim Chee Wee Partnership, for being “very knowledgeable, resourceful and dynamic, and providing practical strategy, particularly on restructuring and insolvency issues. With Lee Shih, we always feel safe and in good hands. Neat and niche are a true description of him,” she says.
Peter Cheong, the head of consumer legal at Citibank in Petaling Jaya, says: “Lee Shih is a well-seasoned dispute resolution practitioner specialising in shareholder disputes, corporate restructuring, M&A, winding-up, judicial management and liquidation.”
Another dispute resolution lawyer, Shook Lin & Bok partner Yoong Sin Min, is described by Geraldine Kamalanathan, the head of legal at Maybank in Kuala Lumpur, as a “top banking litigator with good commercial acumen, practical legal strategy, reasonable fees, easy to contact and very responsive”.
Lim Tai Ching, the head of legal and compliance of insurance company MPI Generali in Kuala Lumpur, supports Kamalanathan’s view. “Yoong Sin Min is an exceptional dispute resolution lawyer,” she says. “She has excellent advocacy skills and her advice is always sensible and sound, and she exercises practical judgment. She is always well prepared and can be trusted to do what is right, above money and self-interest.”
Leonard Yeoh, a partner at Tay & Partners, is described as “among one of the most prominent top-notch lawyers in Malaysia” by Karen Lee, a senior manager, legal administration, of Singapore-based property developer, CapitaLand.
“Leveraging on his excellent business insights, Leonard is often able to take innovative and effective commercial solutions to achieve the best possible outcomes for his clients; his primary focus has always been to safeguard his clients’ interests,” says Lee.
Taranjit Singh, legal counsel at AirAsia Digital in Kuala Lumpur, also praises Yeoh as “a top lawyer for litigation and human resource matters”.
In the same domain, Menon, at Peremba Group, mentions Bahari Yeow, a partner at Gan Partnership, as a versatile lawyer. “Bahari has a calming presence that allows everyone in the room to look at the issues in a clear and unflustered manner,” says Menon. “Bahari is highly competent and highly reliable. I know that with Bahari at the helm, he gets things done.”
Compiling the A-List
The A-List is based on extensive research conducted by Asia Business Law Journal. To identify the top 100 lawyers in Malaysia, we turned to thousands of in-house counsel in Malaysia and around the world – as well as partners at international law firms – and asked them to tell us which lawyers should make the cut. Nominations were made by professionals at a wide range of Malaysian and global companies, financial institutions and law firms, including: AEON Credit Service, AirAsia Digital, Allianz Malaysia, Asia Plantation Capital, Atlan Holdings, Axiata Digital, Berjaya Corporation, Bird & Bird, CapitaLand, Chartered Institute of Islamic Finance Professionals, Citibank, Country Garden, Crowe Malaysia, Dairy Farm Group, Eastman Chemical Company, Element Asia, FBE Ventures, Grab Smart Capital, I-Berhad, JcbNext, KEPCO, KPMG Tax Services, Malaysian Resources Corporation, Matrix Concepts Holdings, Maxis, Maybank, Mercedes-Benz Malaysia, MPI Generali, NAMA Foundation, Niche Properties, Peremba Group, Petronas, Public Bank, Puncak Niaga Holdings, Repsol Oil & Gas, Sansico Industries, Serba Dinamik Group, Subway, Sunway, Tenaga Nasional, TIME dotCom, TPM Technopark, Tune Protect Group, and many more. The nominations process was backed up by thorough editorial research.
The final list reflects the nominations received, combined with the Asia Business Law Journal editorial team’s more than 30 years of collective experience in documenting and analysing Malaysia’s legal market. All Malaysian private-practice lawyers were automatically eligible for inclusion in the nominations process and, as always, there were no fees or any other requirements for entry.
The names and photographs of all 100 A-list lawyers are published here. In addition, each A-list lawyer was given the opportunity to include their biography and contact details, for which a publishing fee was charged.
It is important to note that while the compilation of the A-list was based solely on independent research, the biographies and contact details that appear alongside many of the listings have been written by the participating lawyers and the content has not been independently verified by Asia Business Law Journal.