Big Four local law firm WongPartnership (WongP) has tied up with Malaysian boutique corporate law practice Foong & Partners (FoongP), building on a decades-long informal working relationship to capitalise on business opportunities across the Causeway.
The firms have termed the tie-up a "strategic alliance", which will see them working almost exclusively with each other on deals as far as their geographical and professional expertise allows. This means that if WongP has a client who wishes to invest in Malaysia, FoongP will be the firm it uses for that portion of the deal and vice versa.
"This tie-up was driven mostly by the fact that a lot of the work we do today (corporate transactions in Singapore) tends to have a Malaysian component - whether it be an IPO (initial public offering), M&A (mergers and acquisitions) or private equity (PE) deal - because the target may have a business in Malaysia, or the clients may be interested in looking at something in Malaysia, and so on," WongP's joint managing partner, Ng Wai King, told The Business Times in an exclusive interview.
Mr Ng said that WongP has been collaborating with Malaysian lawyers on such transactions, including the Temasek Holdings and Khazanah Nasional Berhad joint development in Singapore, the IHH Healthcare Berhad IPO and the Khazanah/Fortis competing takeover offer for Parkway Holdings.
"We find that the need to work and collaborate with strong Malaysian lawyers has become more important now than ever before. Finding the right Malaysian lawyer with the right expertise is very important.
"We have worked alongside FoongP on a number of transactions, including Tune Ins Holdings Bhd's recent initial public offering, and we found a shared ethos of delivering unstinting high-quality service to our clients," Mr Ng said.
Foong Chee Meng, managing partner of FoongP, which focuses on high-end corporate commercial, capital markets and corporate finance work, added: "There are a lot of Malaysian clients who are expanding, looking to invest not just in Singapore, but in the UK and Australia, and they're very aggressive in their expansion. I find that, in most cases, I've had to help them and also refer foreign law firms to them. I've gone through quite a number of foreign law firms as well and I've always enjoyed working with WongP. It makes sense to work a lot closer than before, to have a formal association, whereby we give each other the attention, the priority and the preference.
"Instead of just saying to a client, 'Look, I think that law firm is good', I can now say, with a lot of confidence and assurance, that they will get the best service (with WongP). And, if there are any issues, I can just pick up the phone, and so can Wai King; we can call each other and resolve any issues."
FoongP's Malaysian clients can also tap WongP's expertise in China, the Middle East and the rest of Asean, where the firm has offices.
Both partners said that deals in this part of the world are increasingly cross-Asean transactions - suggesting that law firms are best served by having the expertise, or access to expertise, in these markets.
The main focus for them at this point, however, will be Malaysia.
Said Mr Ng: "Our PE clients would love to do more in Singapore, but Singapore as an economy is more mature - and so, high-profile PE buyout deals are getting harder to do here.
"When the PE clients start looking in the region outside Singapore, they find that Malaysia has a better set of regulations and a better regulatory framework compared to some other countries in the region. The certainty of execution and familiarity of regulations make it easier for PE clients to consider the opportunities in Malaysia."
Mr Foong added: "I see a lot of business opportunities and funding issues, which I see Singapore and PE funds fitting wonderfully into; there are still a lot of opportunities in Malaysia that are perhaps not known to a lot of people in Singapore or anywhere else.
"In terms of funding, in Malaysia, it seems to be concentrated in the hands of a few big banks. Clearly, there's a lot of space for mezzanine funding or even PE funding to come into play. It's just a case of putting the two parties together, making sure that each other's interests are taken care of and all the risks are mitigated. And I don't see anyone doing that at the moment, probably because everyone's busy in their own backyard."
As to why WongP chose to go with a boutique practice rather than a full-service firm, Mr Ng said that the decision depended on the firm knowing and trusting the people it worked with.
"There was a consensus among the partnership that this is the right thing to do. (It's important to) make sure you can trust that the work gets done by the right people, that the clients are happy with the product, and that the lawyers themselves are the people you want to work with," he said.