----- The Star
KUALA LUMPUR: The Government is keen on opening up the legal sector to international foreign firms particularly in specialised areas.
In an immediate response, the Bar Council said it was ready to open up in "permitted practice areas" and believed that liberalisation of the legal sector is something inevitable in today's age of globalisation.
At a press conference Monday, de facto Law Minister Datuk Zaid Ibrahim said liberalising the legal profession has been talked about for a long time but it is time now "to put more energy and urgency" into it in view of the global economy.
"We must allow the realities of the market place to be a factor in our decision to open up. How do we retain our best lawyers if we don't have international law firms in our country?
"If we can have some well known international names here, then perhaps we can keep them (our lawyers) here. We must open up. We must have a competition policy. We must have freer trade and environment," he said, urging the Bar Council to sit down and focus on this again.
Zaid said that if Malaysia wanted to bring in big foreign investments and multinationals, it was important to open up the financial services sector and the legal profession.
"It is not the number of lawyers but the skills that we need to build up this country. The big foreign MNCs and big banks normally want to use lawyers that they feel will suit their needs.
"We cannot keep thinking of our own self-interest. We have to think in terms of the interest of the country," he said, adding that countries like Singapore, Hong Kong, United Arab Emirates and Kuwait had opened up their legal sector and reaped benefits from it through huge investments.
"If we want to continue to forge ahead and develop, then we should open up," adding that joint-ventures with the foreign firms might be one of the approaches.
Zaid said local law firms should not be afraid of the liberalisation because it would not impinge on their business.
He said this was because the liberalisation would be in selected specialised areas like intellectual property, maritime law, structured finance, banking and aviation law.
"We are not saying we are going to open up everything. Most international foreign firms are not interested in the small firms' businesses.
"Local firms business will not be jeopardised in areas where our standards are high," he said, adding that when foreign law firms were operating here this would also open up employment opportunities for local lawyers and for them to gain expertise.
Bar Council president Datuk Ambiga Sreenevasan said they are prepared for foreign firms to come in particularly in corporate transactions.
"It's inevitable. There are no two ways about it," she said, adding that the Bar Council had drafted up rules on the "permitted practice areas" that could be opened up.
The areas are transactions involving international capital market, asset securitisation which goes beyond the (yet to be determined) stipulated amount, transactions governed by foreign laws and those involving the Malaysian International Islamic Financial Centre (MIFC).
She said they were keen in joint-ventures between foreign and local firms in the MIFC but Bank Negara had asked to consider allowing standalone foreign firms and "we are looking at this proposal."
She said the Bar Council was working closely with the International Trade and Industry Minister Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin in liberalising the legal sector to deal with trade negotiations like the Free Trade Agreements and the General Agreement on Trade in Services (GATS).
She said the Bar Council also reserved the right to increase the areas to be opened up.
"We are ready. We accept that we must be global," she said, adding that with the MIFC the opening up would be "faster than we think", possibly within a year.
She said the ultimate goal was to strike a balance by meeting the challenges of globalisation while at the same time promoting the interest of the local law firms.