Singapore’s new competition laws attract Western lawyers

Like bees to a honeypot, foreign law firms and barristers’ chambers are swarming in to Singapore to secure new competition work after anti-monopoly laws were introduced last month.

As part of its recently-signed free trade agreement with the US, Singapore is required to introduce competition laws, and the Competition Act 2004 came into effect at the beginning of this year. Modelled on competition legislation in the UK, the act focuses on prohibitions relating to anti-competitive agreements, abuses of dominant positions and mergers which threaten to lessen competition substantially.

Similar to the way in which regulators operate here, Singapore’s Ministry of Trade and Industry has set up a Competition Commission to encourage competition and maintain the “efficient functioning of the markets”.

Monckton Chambers acted quickly, establishing a solid footing in Singapore as early as 2004, when the laws were first passed. The set’s senior clerk David Hockney joined a group of barristers on a successful meet-and-greet mission in Singapore last month.

“As leaders in the field, it seemed sensible to introduce ourselves to local law firms,” says Hockney. “We have received instructions to advise since our trips. Although historically we have clients in Singapore, our recent work has been received from new clients since the two conferences.”

In saying that, Hockney is also realistic about the amount of competition-related work that is likely come as a result of the act. “Competition policy is very new to the jurisdiction, and I would imagine that it all depends on how active the Competition Commission of Singapore is likely to be and whether any complainants come forward concerning anti-competitive practices,” he says. “Also, the merger regime will not come into force before January 2007.”

Brick Court Chambers is also among those sending working parties to Singapore to investigate potential work opportunities. Brick Court competition specialist Nick Green QC, who acts for clients in Singapore already, visited a number of law firms on a recent trip to the island.

While some City-based competition lawyers remain sceptical about the amount of work set to be generated from the new competition laws, Green is optimistic. “There may be only four million people in Singapore, but it’s an international hub within South East Asia,” he says. “The act has just been introduced, and this means it’s likely that there will be a need for lawyers. They’re taking the new laws very seriously and, over the next five to 10 years, I think there’s going to be quite a surge in competition activity – there’s going to be a domino effect.”

Of the law firms getting in on the act, Linklaters has been a trailblazer, establishing a joint venture with Singapore giant Allen & Gledhill in 2000. When the new laws were announced in 2003, Allen & Gledhill decided to launch a competition and antitrust group.

Allen & Gledhill’s principal antitrust partner Daren Shiau spent months with Linklaters in London and Brussels to learn about European competition law and assess how the changes were likely to affect local clients in Singapore.

Since then, the group has grown to four partners and 15 associates.

“We established the competition and antitrust practice group in anticipation of the enactment of the Singapore Competition Act,” Shiau says. “It’s a multi-departmental group, consisting of partners and associates from departments such as corporate and litigation.”

Lovells is also understood to have identified Singapore’s potential via its joint venture with local firm Lee & Lee.

Competition partner Lesley Ainsworth has worked with a number of clients in the area of competition laws, and even advised the Energy Markets Authority on its powers.

She says Asian nations are increasingly putting competition on the agenda. “Competition is certainly an area that’s receiving more focus in Asia right now,” Ainsworth says. “Hong Kong is likely to be the next to introduce competition laws.”