This note has nothing to do with the official Bar Council stands or how things are really happening in the Attorney General Chamber of Malaysia. This is really my opinion on this matter. Our Prime Minister has announced this measures a few month ago and people has actually made this a topic at the dinner table as they thought finally our so-called always-playing-by-our-own-rules-and-never-wanting-to-give-in-plus-always-trying-to-stay-conservative Bar Council of Malaysia had finally gave in and play ball.
Before I write down the story that is still developeing (which might be different from what is being said or even announce by the politicians) and is in no way being endorsed by them, at all, let me just say this. Bar Council actually has wanted to open our legal profession doors since 2002 and their target date for a full liberalisation of the legal profession is in 2015, which is still achievable. Which means that all the local legal firm in Malaysia has to compete with foreign legal firm on all front. Mark my word, all front. The proposal was sent in to the government in 2004 but we were ignored (maybe not by the department which handles it, which is always very supportive of the private legal profession, but by the power that be which can really decide and make the changes in the law). Until Islamic finance came into the picture as THE saviour of all the economic turmoil in the world, according to a few scholars and economists.
When Islamic finance became important and people realised there are serious money in the middle east which can be attracted if your country managed to turn into an Islamic finance hub, the government hoisted up its flag and claim itself as one. This is in competition with London, Dubai, Bahrain, Singapore and Hong Kong, to name a few other ambitious country wanting to capitilise on this 'oil money'. Some did attained it and some faltered (and may try again). Of course, London, being one of the strongest and oldest and a lot of other '-est' economy, they have managed to be one. After all most serious money still resides in this old city. And they have the infrastructure in which the legal profession is one. So, big London firms starts to go and see what other businesses can they find in other part of the world. Much like what Malaysian construction companies are doing all over the world, where they are welcome (and not).
The government decided that they need to grasp the opportunity before Islamic finance became passe as most fads do or when there are too many hubs and makes it a moot point trying to get the middle-eastern to come. What they did is they set up a few institutions including an education and research centre (which I am a student in), invited a few middle eastern players to set up shops here and even made Malaysia a friendlier environment for middle easterners. Being a Muslim country, it is not that hard. We managed to attract them. But as we have competitions, other than these institutions which the government control directly, they also need a few other component. Among them is the legal profession to allow some liberalisation such as Islamic finance legal practitioners to be allowed to practice in Malaysia. They only want that. Lawyers (or law firms rather) to ply their trade in Islamic finance. Not in other areas.
That is one of the thing that we as lawyers felt grateful for as the government only wants one area of practice to be opened. And what we heard in a session last Wednesday from lawyers who might just be our competitors in the near future from England, they may not be so keen to set up shop here if they are only allowed to practice for that one area. Yes, on Wednesday the 8th, we were graced by the presence of a delegation from England led by the Lord Mayor of London and the British High Commissioner with a representative from their Law Society and a few lawyers who are from British legal firms which set up shop in Singapore. There was a few who really came from Britain to see the potential of Malaysia.
They have heard that the Malaysian government is going to allow 5 legal firms (not lawyers) to come to Malaysia and set up shop. I have been involved in a few of the discussions that we had with the government since they mooted the idea two years ago and there were actually no real agreement. When the Prime Minister announced it three months ago, all those who had attended the meetings were caught by surprise and asked when has an agreement been reached between Bar Council and the government on the matter. It seemed that there was none and when these British lawyers asked, they were actually asked to ask the Bar Council, which does not have any concrete answer.
The government did warned that if there will be no agreement between Bar Council and the government especially when the government wants to push Malaysia as one of the hub for Islamic finance, they might just amend the law to allow for that five firm to practice. In short, take it or loose out. That was how the meetings that we had with the government ended that few times we met them. That was also how our meeting with the British delegation that day ended too.
We did huffed and puffed. And asked them to agree to our proposal of a joint-venture model which will gradually be turned into a full equity owned foreign business venture by 2015 but they did say to us that what if our government itself imposed on us through an Act of Parliament that we allow them to practice here in Malaysia. Wouldn't we then have to accept it? We agree but we did ask them to not turn their back on us as Bar Council will still be the one which will have to administer their movements in Malaysia.
So, ready or not, Malaysia may have 5 foreign lawyers practising here which may (or may not) be confined to Islamic finance. Yes, there are some form of control like a licensing board consisting of Bar Council and Attorney General office which will oversee the license given and Bar Council still being the body which will oversee these law firms conduct. And yes, they are only allowing law firms and not lawyers to practice here. Better be ready as the future is near.