Citation(2011) 23 SAcLJ 795
Published date01 December 2011
Date01 December 2011
AuthorWalter WOON LLB (National University of Singapore), LLM (Cambridge); Senior Counsel (Singapore); David Marshall Professor, Faculty of Law, National University of Singapore.

The Companies Act of Singapore is a patchwork quilt of provisions drawn from English and Australian legislation, with a sprinkling of sections inspired by other jurisdictions like Canada, New Zealand and Hong Kong, substantially modified by locally-drafted legislation. The Steering Committee for Review of the Companies Act was tasked with considering how the Act may be streamlined and made more coherent. After much consultation and deliberation, the Steering Committee presented its final report to the Minister of Finance in April 2011. This article describes the major reforms recommended by the Steering Committee.

I. Introduction

1 The primary source of company law in Singapore is the Companies Act.1 The current Companies Act traces its ancestry through the Malaysian Companies Act 1965 to the Companies Act 1961 of the Australian state of Victoria, which in turn drew extensively upon the UK Companies Act 1948. The present Act is something of a patchwork quilt. Various sections have been based on legislation from the UK,2 Australia,3

Canada,4 New Zealand5 and Hong Kong.6 In October 2002, the Company Legislation and Regulatory Framework Committee (“CLRFC”)7 recommended extensive amendments to the Companies Act that were progressively implemented. However, the amendments took the form of patching the quilt further rather than streamlining the Act. Indeed, since its introduction in 1967,8 it has been amended 16 times.

2 The piecemeal nature of the amendment process has led to a situation where several related sections may present inconsistencies. To give one example, there are now six sections which deal with disqualification from acting as a director: ss 148 (bankrupts), 149 (unfit directors of insolvent companies), 149A (directors of companies wound up on grounds of national security or interest), 154 (persons convicted of certain offences), 155 (persons in persistent default of delivery of documents to the Registrar) and 155A (disqualification under the Limited Partnership Acts). Some of these sections prohibit a disqualified person from participating in the management of companies, which are defined in s 4(1) to mean companies incorporated under the Act. Others prohibit management of corporations, which by the s 4(1) definition includes foreign companies. Some of the sections prohibit the disqualified person from being a promoter of a company, others do not. If there is a reason in principle for these nuances, it is not immediately apparent to the user of the legislation. Other instances of such anomalies abound.

3 The CLRFC recommended that Singapore should:9

… adopt the modern UK model as our basic framework, excise elements which are European Union driven, insert revisions that reflect Singapore's particular requirements, introduce refinements from other jurisdictions and render our structure amenable to the adoption of US models in the areas of accounting standards, financial reporting and investor protection in the framework of a disclosure based regulatory environment.

4 Unfortunately, such an approach cannot be sustained indefinitely. The system of piecemeal patches drawn from a variety of disparate sources will lead eventually to incoherence. The first strategic decision taken by the Steering Committee for Review of the Companies Act (“the Steering Committee”) was that the Act should be rewritten and not merely amended again (and again, ad infinitum). The second strategic decision was that it is undesirable to use a foreign statute as a template for the revision of the Singapore Companies Act.

5 The reason for this is that the Steering Committee did not have a tabula rasa to deal with. To copy the legislation of another country would have meant changing the underlying framework of business. Legislation does not exist in isolation; there is a whole economic ecosystem of regulations, rules and practices that will have grown up to support it. It would be unwise to abandon the old familiar system for something completely new unless there is a compelling case to do so; none was made out. In any case, the UK legislation is so far removed from what we are used to that adapting it would in effect amount to rewriting the Act. The effort involved in considering the legislative rationale for each section of the thousand-plus provisions to determine whether we should adopt it would not be commensurate with the benefit.

6 Rewriting the Companies Act does not mean abandoning the old Act completely. Things should not be changed just for the sake of change. It is undesirable to depart from wording that is well understood and with which the market is familiar just for the sake of change. An example would be the formula that a director shall “at all times act honestly and use reasonable diligence in the discharge of the duties of his office”.10 This may not be perfect, but it is well understood and has been the subject of judicial exposition. There would be little benefit in reformulating the rule along the lines of English legislation. Rewriting means consolidating sections that can be consolidated, eliminating inconsistencies, clarifying provisions which have proven problematic and deleting those that have outlived their usefulness. A certain amount of reorganisation is also necessary. The aim is to have a Companies Act that is comprehensible to the intelligent layman, if that is at all possible for modern legislation.

7 Several general principles guided the Steering Committee's work:

(a) As far as possible, the regulatory burden on businesses should be reduced. Regulatory rules should not be “hard-coded” into the legislation, but left to subsidiary legislation or even non-statutory guidelines. This will ensure that such rules can be quickly modified if they prove to be an impediment to business efficiency.

(b) The Companies Act should only contain core company law that applies to all companies. Sections that apply only to listed companies should be migrated to the Securities and Futures Act11 (or some other appropriate legislation) or set out in the SGX's Listing Rules. Examples of such provisions would be those on audit committees12 and the Central Depository.13 The provisions on winding up of companies will in future be part of the proposed Insolvency Act. In line with an early suggestion of the Steering Committee, the provisions pertaining to registration of foreign companies will be hived off into separate legislation.14 This process of de-consolidation should allow a clearer focus for the legislation and for searches; intuitively, a researcher looking for the provisions on the Central Depository would not immediately think of searching the Companies Act.15

(c) Provisions which are obsolete should be deleted. In reviewing the Act, the Steering Committee was mindful to always consider the policy rationale behind the provisions. Business practices change, but legislation does not. Like dinosaurs in a lost world, some of these obsolete sections nonetheless remain. Examples are s 170, which provides for the approval of the assignment of office of a director or manager,

and s 153, which sets an age limit for directors of public companies.

(d) Provisions which do not in practice create problems may be retained, with necessary modifications and clarifications, despite any academic or theoretical reservations. There are a certain number of sections which may not be perfect, but with which market practitioners are familiar. The prime example of this would be the provisions on registration of charges.16 The equivalent provisions have been the subject of numerous reports in the UK. Other jurisdictions have made changes to their provisions. The Steering Committee considered whether a thorough overhaul of the provisions was necessary. After consultation with market practitioners, it was concluded that while the current system is not perfect, it works. Practitioners have developed pragmatic “work-arounds” to deal with the system. To overhaul it would risk introducing unnecessary confusion as the market comes to grips with unfamiliar provisions. There is always the risk of inadvertently undermining the basis of prior commercial transactions. It was therefore decided on balance that it would be better to clarify the sections by reviewing and updating the list of registrable charges rather than change the system completely for the sake of theoretical neatness.17

(e) The fact that a major foreign jurisdiction has introduced certain changes to its legislation is a factor that is relevant but not determinative. It is unwise to adopt wholesale an innovation from abroad without considering whether it is appropriate in Singapore. Thus, for example, the codification of directors' duties introduced in the UK was considered but ultimately rejected. It was felt after discussion and consultation that such a step is unnecessary given the difference in statutory provisions and historical background.

(f) The Companies Act should facilitate business rather than prescribe rules wherever possible. While it is inevitable that there must be some prescriptive rules backed up by the prospect of criminal sanctions, legislators cannot foresee the way business will develop. The Act should provide a flexible framework for business and not prove to be an impediment to entrepreneurship.

8 Finally, it is necessary to consider whether all breaches of the provisions of the Companies Act should be treated as offences. This matter is mentioned in only a single line of the Final Report of the Steering Committee for Review of the Companies Act, but it is a crucial issue that needs to be tackled. There are penalty provisions scattered throughout the Act. Section 407 criminalises contraventions of the Companies Act for which no specific penalties are provided. Realistically, the chances of prosecution are practically nil where there has been no damage to the company or the interests of the public. Even where there has been such...

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