In March 2017 Singapore enacted a raft of changes to its insolvency and restructuring laws, apparently with the intention of positioning itself as the dominant international debt restructuring jurisdiction for Asia.
There are two key components to the changes, which are operative from 23 May:
- First, a move away from a predominantly informal framework to a Chapter 11-style regime, via a mechanism that Herbert Smith Freehills describe as a ‘turbo-charged Scheme of Arrangement.’
- Secondly, adoption of the UNCITRAL Model Law on Cross-Border Insolvency, some twenty years after its introduction in 1997.
Despite its name, the Model Law does not actually prescribe an insolvency law template to apply across all jurisdictions – instead it prescribes processes for the recognition of whatever law applies in the ‘principal jurisdiction’ of an insolvent company. The end result is that the restructuring and insolvency regime of the principal jurisdiction is effectively ‘exported’ to the countries in which the business operates.
In adopting the Model Law, Singapore joins over 40 countries – a list that significantly, does not include either Hong Kong or China.
If the initiatives are successful, Singapore may displace the current incumbent – Hong Kong – as the predominant debt restructuring jurisdiction in the region. This raises the question: how can there be a choice as to which jurisdiction applies?
The answer is that the Model Law relies on an identification of the ‘centre of main interest’ (COMI) of the insolvent company, and then applies the law of the COMI jurisdiction. In a world where operations may span across several countries, with multiple administrative locations, and shareholders and directors located elsewhere, identification of ‘the’ COMI may be far less black and white than some would think, and there may be more than one COMI to choose from.
It is in this context that Singapore has moved to create a regime that facilitates restructuring. If the new restructuring regime becomes widely utilised through Asia, then there will be work opportunities for its professionals throughout the region.
Australia has just tabled legislation to implement a safe harbour protection for company directors of struggling companies and protect those companies from the risk of ipso facto termination of their contracts, discussed in more detail here. When that legislation takes effect in mid-2018, where will we fit in the Hong Kong v Singapore battle?
To US investors and lenders seeking the familiar features of the Chapter 11 approach: cram downs, debtor in possession financing, and so on; Singapore may be the most attractive option.
But there is a notable divergence between the US regime and the Singapore regime, in the protection against ipso facto clauses: clauses which provide a contractual counter-party with the option to terminate if the other party to the contract becomes insolvent. Chapter 11 provides a debtor with ipso facto protection however the Singaporean ‘turbo-scheme’ only imposes a temporary moratorium on the exercise of those rights.
The ipso facto protections in the yet-to-commence Australian regime are not just closer to the US model, in fact they will be arguably amongst the most comprehensive in the world.
For businesses where so much enterprise value is captured inside legal agreements – and therefore at risk if there is formal insolvency – that the ipso facto protection outweighs any other considerations, Australia may well be a better jurisdiction to restructure than Singapore. It won’t be a surprise to see Australian restructuring lawyers making travel plans to visit offshore investors and owners, to explain the advantages that our modified regime will offer.
* There is one shortcoming: unfortunately it seems the protection will not apply to clauses in existence before the provisions come into effect, even if they are later modified.
Thanks to Michael Murray for his assistance especially with regard to UNCITRAL, and to Rachel Burdett-Baker for her helpful input and suggestions.
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