Lee Chin Tok, group general counsel of CIMB Group, speaks with Candy Chan about trends and challenges in the project finance market in Malaysia and his experiences with external legal counsel
Can you tell me about your company and its legal team?
I am the general counsel for CIMB Group. My division covers all businesses within CIMB as well as all the regional offices we have. Apart from Malaysia, I have legal teams in countries, depending on the size of the business in the relevant country. I have teams in Indonesia, Singapore and Thailand, which are the key markets for CIMB outside Malaysia. In addition, I have legal teams in Cambodia, Hong Kong, Shanghai and London.
Do you have a specific focus in energy and infrastructure?
In terms of projects in energy and infrastructure, the most active market for us is Malaysia. The Malaysian bond market is well-developed in terms of funding the energy sector, and so it naturally becomes an important part of our business and is a significant source of debt capital market deals for CIMB.
In terms of the funding for a particular project, we also have a very experienced project advisory team that does financial advisory work for our valued customers. The advisory team works closely with the financing and syndication teams in terms of thinking about how our clients can optimally finance a proposed energy project, not just in terms of the bond market, but also looking at the loan market as well.
Malaysia is a unique example where the Malaysia Ringgit bond market has long played a special role in funding the energy sector in Malaysia as compared to other countries in the region. For the latter, they tend to be funded through the loan market, rather than the bond market.
What are the biggest projects planned or underway in Malaysia at the moment?
In Malaysia there are going to be ongoing energy projects for replacement purposes and also planning for the future, at least for the medium term. For the last one to two years, there have been quite a number of big projects being financed, and I believe this process will continue, to meet the energy demand in the medium term.
For the infrastructure sector, the most active ones would be transportation. As you know, right now, our government is actively looking into the light rail project. That's a very significant project in terms of the size as well as the importance of elevating the traffic condition. There would be some road projects as well, particularly as you may have heard the Pan-Borneo project in East Malaysia. The other one that is much talked about is the potential high-speed rail between Kuala Lumpur and Singapore, though it is still pending the final decision of both governments.
What challenges do you typically encounter when working on projects?
As energy and infrastructure projects are usually sizable, you are expected to compete with many of the local and global banks, and that is quite common since the debt capital market space is usually very competitive. On the projects themselves, they will of course have different issues, depending on the nature of the project.
If you look at it in general, the power sector is quite a mature sector in Malaysia in the sense that the independent power producer market has been in place for some time now and the players including project sponsors as well as the off-taker, the banks as the arranger of financing, the lawyers who act for the arranger have been involved in these type of deals for a quite a number of years and so they are familiar with what needs to be done in order to fund a project.
In terms of the industry capability and capacity, it's already there and is important in coming up with a workable solution when an issue arises.
For road projects, it's subjected to the demand risk since there is no off-taker and it is therefore important to understand what the traffic projection looks like is. That would be a key analysis that we need to do in the context of a road project.
What has been your experience in dealing with external legal counsel in the energy and infrastructure sectors?
Malaysian lawyers are generally familiar with various issues with the infrastructure market in Malaysia. In the context of energy and infrastructure sector, it's less of a question about whether the legal work is to be done in-house or external. For DCM deals, there would usually be external legal counsels involved since it is an institutional investor market. And for that reason as well, for all the years Malaysia has had all of these infrastructure projects, the external legal counsels would have been involved and gained experience working alongside the banks in completing the financing of these projects. For Malaysia, it is much less of an issue on whether we can get good quality lawyers to cover these infrastructure deals with us.
So, is experience the main quality you look for when hiring external legal counsel?
Yes, but it's not so much about the law firms rather the individual lawyers themselves; i.e., whether he or she has done transactions in that sector before. Although we do not have a lot of active law firms in the DCM field in Malaysia, those who are active lawyers in that field usually have strong experience and long track records in infrastructure projects.
Being able to look at the project from a commercial perspective and also solving issues that we encounter from time-to-time would also be important criteria that we look at before appointing the lawyers.
These qualities are increasingly more important especially when the projects tend to be quite large in terms of size and the resulting significant financing amount that is required. For a large project, you would expect that you will sometimes encounter challenging issues coming from the complexity of the project itself, which may only be evident during the funding stage, and thus it would be useful if the external legal counsels have the experience and come up with a workable solution at that point together with us.
In summary, experience will come first, secondly it would be an ability to come up with a commercially workable solution when there are issues that we may encounter in a particular project, and thirdly being able to provide good service to us.
Lee Chin Tok
Group general counsel
Lee Chin Tok is the group General counsel for CIMB Group. In this role, Chin Tok provides the strategic leadership for the general counsel division and advice on legal issues.
Prior to his appointment in his current role, Chin Tok worked in the capital markets department at CIMB, where he was later made joint head of debt capital markets. In this latter role he was responsible for the debt capital markets and equity-linked origination franchises of CIMB across Southeast Asia, North Asia, Australia and Middle East.