Belize has the smallest economy in Central America with total gross domestic product (GDP) of USD 1.9 billion due primarily to continued increases in tourism. Though geographically located in Central America, the former British colony has deep cultural ties to the Caribbean. Due to mounting fiscal pressures and a need to diversify and expand its economy, the Government is open to, and actively seeks, foreign direct investment (FDI). However, the small population of the country (approximately 390,000 persons), high import duties, bureaucratic delays, corruption, and occasional political interference in private disputes constitute investment challenges.
Generally, Belize has no restrictions on foreign ownership or control of companies. However, foreign investors must adhere to Central Bank of Belize regulations relating to the inflow and outflow of investment. Small and medium sized enterprises (SMEs) and tour operators wishing to benefit from certain incentives must have 51 percent local ownership. The country also continues to fare poorly in international surveys of openness and ease of opening a business.
Key legislative reforms in 2018 advanced the intellectual property regime governing copyrights and industrial designs; strengthened the financial sector with regard to anti-money laundering and counterterrorism financing; sought to secure compliance with global regulations relating to taxation, and amended the operations of the offshore sector and export processing zones.
Overall, the economic and fiscal outlook will continue to face significant challenges. The country remains highly indebted with debt to GDP at approximately 94 percent. The government managed to gain some relief in the short term with the 2017 renegotiation of the country’s major external commercial debt—the so-called “Superbond 3.0”—totaling an estimated USD 554 million. Macroeconomic and fiscal vulnerabilities are expected to continue to relate to fiscal tightening, controlling the public sector wage bill, dealing with arbitration judgments, and advancing measures to stimulate private sector growth and economic development.
The financial system can be characterized as stable but fragile. While the domestic financial system continues to recover and improve performance ratios relating to non-performing loans and capital adequacy, correspondent banking relationships remain tenuous and tend to offer fewer services at higher costs. In the international banking sector, the Central Bank of Belize revoked the license of one international bank in June 2018 and another requested support in March 2019 to wind up voluntarily.
Despite the challenges, Belize remains attractive for some investors because of the beauty of its natural resources, the relative affordability of land, proximity to the United States, English language, and the cultural diversity and warmth of its people. Investors benefit from various incentive programs in key investment sectors including agriculture, agro-processing, aquaculture and fisheries, logistics and light manufacturing, offshore outsourcing, sustainable energy, and tourism and tourism-related industries.
Table 1: Key Metrics and Rankings
1. Openness To, and Restrictions Upon, Foreign Investment
Policies Towards Foreign Direct Investment
While the Government of Belize is interested in attracting foreign direct investment, certain regulatory requirements serve to impede growth and transparency. There are no laws that explicitly discriminate against foreign investors. In practice, however, investors complain that they do not always receive the full extent of the incentives available, that land titles are not always secure, and that bureaucratic delays or corruption can hinder starting a business in Belize.
According to the International Monetary Fund (IMF), improving the business climate, reducing crime and facilitating access to credit would increase growth by one percentage point on a yearly basis. They also note that lowering the debt burden and greater climate resilience would support growth by another percentage point per year.
The Belize Trade and Investment Development Service (BELTRAIDE; www.belizeinvest.org.bz ), a statutory body, is the investment and export promotion agency. It promotes FDI through various types of incentive packages and identified priority sectors for investment as agriculture, agro-processing, fisheries and aquaculture, logistics and light manufacturing, tourism and tourism-related industries, offshore outsourcing (BPOs), and sustainable energy.
The Government created the Economic Development Council to increase the national dialogue on private sector development and better inform policies for growth and development. The Cabinet has also created a Sub–Committee on Investment composed of Ministers whose portfolios are directly involved in considering and approving investment proposals.
Limits on Foreign Control and Right to Private Ownership and Establishment
Generally, Belize has no restrictions on foreign ownership and control of companies; however, foreign investments must be registered at the Central Bank of Belize. In addition, foreigners need to apply with a Belizean partner or someone with a permanent residence to register a business name.
Some investment incentives show preference to Belizean-owned companies. For example, to qualify for a tour operator license, a business must be majority owned by Belizeans or permanent residents of Belize (http://www.belizetourismboard.org ). This qualification is negotiable particularly where a tour operation would expand into a new sector of the market and does not result in competition with local operators.
Foreign investments must be registered and obtain an “Approved Status” from the Central Bank in order to facilitate inflows and outflows of foreign currency. “Approved Status” investments will ordinarily be granted approval for repatriation of funds from profits, dividends, loan payments and interest. The Central Bank also reserves the right to request evidence-supporting applications for repatriation.
Additionally, persons seeking to open a bank account must also comply with Central Bank regulations. These may differ based on residency status and whether the individual is seeking to establish a local or foreign currency account.
The Government’s Cabinet Sub-Committee on Investment considers investment projects which do not fall within Belize’s incentive regime or which may require special considerations. For example, an investment may require legislative changes, a customized memorandum of understanding or agreement from the government, or a public–private partnership. Proposals are generally assessed based on size, scope, and the incentives requested. In addition, proposals are assessed on a five-point system that analyses socio-economic acceptability of the project, revenues to the government, employment, foreign exchange earnings and environmental considerations. The Cabinet Sub-Committee is composed of five Cabinet Minsiters, including the minister with responsibility for Investment, Trade and Commerce as Chairperson. The other members include the ministers with responsibility for Tourism and Culture; the Environment and Sustainable Development; and Natural Resources and Immigration, along with the Attorney General. There is no set timeframe for considering projects as it largely depends on the nature and complexity of the project.
When considering investment, foreign investors undertaking large capital investments must be aware of environmental laws and regulations. There is a requirement to prepare an Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) when a project meets certain land area, location, and/or industry criteria. When purchasing land or planning to develop in or near an ecologically sensitive zone, it is recommended that the EIA fully address any measures by the investor to mitigate environmental risks. Environmental clearance must be obtained prior to the start of site development. The Department of Environment website, http://www.doe.gov.bz has more information on the Environmental Protection Act and other regulations, applications and guidelines.
Other Investment Policy Reviews
In the past three years, there has been no investment policy review of Belize by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) or the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD). Belize concluded its third Trade Policy Review in the World Trade Organization (WTO) in April 2017.
Belize does not operate a single window registration process. BELTRAIDE (http://www.belizeinvest.org.bz), a statutory body of the Government of Belize, operates as the country’s investment and export promotion agency. Its investment facilitation services are open to all investors. While there are support measures to advance greater inclusion of women and minorities in entrepreneurial initiatives and training, the business facilitation measures do not distinguish by gender or economic status.
The Belize Companies Corporate Affairs Registry (tel: (501) 822 0421; email: firstname.lastname@example.org; website: www.belizecompaniesregistry.gov.bz) is responsible for the registration process of all local business and companies.
Businesses must register with the tax department to pay business and general sales tax. They must also register with their local city council or town board to obtain a trade license to operate a business. An employer should also register employees for social security. The 2019 Doing Business report (http://www.doingbusiness.org ) estimates it takes on average 43 days to start up a company in Belize. The same report ranks Belize at 162 of 190 economies on the ease of starting a business.
The government does not promote or incentivize outward investments. Domestic investors are not restricted from investing abroad. However, the Central Bank places currency controls that limit foreign currency outflows unless given prior approval.
2. Bilateral Investment Agreements and Taxation Treaties
Belize has Bilateral Investment Treaties with Austria, Cuba, El Salvador, Italy, the Netherlands, Taiwan, United Arab Emirates, and the United Kingdom. It also has a Partial Scope Agreement (PSA) with Guatemala on a small number of goods.
The country does not have a bilateral investment treaty nor is it a party to a Free Trade Agreement with the United States. It is a qualifying country under the U.S. Generalized System of Preference (GSP) as well as the U.S.-Caribbean Basin Trade Partnership Act (CBTPA). For additional information on Belize’s Bilateral Investment Treaties, see http://www.sice.oas.org
Belize has signed nineteen Tax Information Exchange Agreements (TIEA) with Australia, Belgium, Czech Republic, Denmark, Faroe Islands, Finland, France, Greenland, Iceland, India, Ireland, Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Portugal, South Africa, Sweden, Switzerland, and the United Kingdom. Belize has no bilateral taxation treaties with the United States. See https://www.world.tax/countries/belize/belize-tax-treaties .
Belize became the 86th jurisdiction to sign on to the Multilateral Convention to Implement Tax Treaty Related Measures to Prevent Base Erosion and Profit Shifting (BEPS) in January 2019. See https://www.oecd.org/tax/treaties/multilateral-convention-to-implement-tax-treaty-related-measures-to-prevent-beps.htm
3. Legal Regime
Transparency of the Regulatory System
Regulatory authority exists both at the local and national levels with national laws and regulations being most relevant to foreign businesses. Despite these measures, some investors complain that the regime for incentives did not always meet their needs, that land titles are not always reliable and secure, and that bureaucratic delays or corruption can be hindrances to doing business in Belize.
There are quasi-governmental organizations mandated by law to manage specified regulatory processes on behalf of the Government of Belize, e.g. the Belize Tourism Board, BELTRAIDE, and the Belize Agricultural Health Authority. There are no reports that these processes significantly distort or discriminate against foreign investors.
The cabinet dictates government policies that are enacted by the legislature and implemented by the various government ministries. Regulations exist at the local level, primarily relating to property taxes and registering for trade licenses to operate businesses in the municipality.
Accounting, legal, and regulatory systems are consistent with international norms. Publicly owned companies are generally audited annually and the reports are prepared in accordance with International Financial Reporting Standards and International Standards on Auditing.
The mechanism for drafting bills, regulations and enacting legislation generally apply across the board and apply to investment laws and regulations. The government publishes in the Gazette, proposed as well as enacted laws and regulations that are publicly available for a minimal fee.
Draft bills are generally open to public comment. Once introduced in the House of Representatives, they are sent to Standing Committees of the House of Representatives, which then meet and invite the public and interested persons to review, recommend changes, or object to draft laws prior to further debate. Public comments on draft legislation are not generally posted online nor made publicly available. It would be the prerogative of an interested party to attend public consultations, committee meetings, or to request the public comments from the National Assembly or relevant Ministry. Additionally, laws are sometimes passed quickly without meaningful publication, public review or public debate; as was the case with the Central Bank of Belize (International Immunities Act) and the Crown Proceedings (Amendment Act) of 2017.
Government ministries also make available policies, laws, and regulations pertinent to their portfolio available on their respective ministry websites. Since 2016, enacted laws have been published on the website of the National Assembly. There is however, a delay in updating the website.
Regulations and enforcement actions are appealable with regulatory decisions subject to judicial review. There have been no regulatory systems including enforcement reforms announced in the last year.
Information on the public finance, the government’s budget and debt obligations (including explicit and contingent liabilities) are widely accessible to the general public, with most documents available online.
International Regulatory Considerations
As a full member of the Caribbean Community (CARICOM), Belize’s foreign, economic and trade policies vis-a-vis non-members are coordinated regionally. The country’s import tariffs are largely defined by CARICOM’s Common External Tariff.
Belize is also a member of several other treaties because of its CARICOM membership. A primary example is the Economic Partnership Agreement (EPA) between CARIFORUM and the European Union (EU). In the wake of Brexit, these countries also signed a CARIFORUM – United Kingdom Economic Partnership Agreement in March 2019. The latter agreement is expected to come into effect by January 2021or soon after the UK leaves the EU.
Outside of CARICOM, Belize is a member of the Central American Integration System (SICA) at a political level, but is not a part of the Secretariat of Central American Economic Integration (SIECA) that supports economic integration of Central America.
Belize is also a member of the WTO and adheres to the organization’s agreements and reporting system. The Belize Bureau of Standards (BBS) is the national standards body responsible for preparing, promoting and implementing standards for goods, services, and processes. The BBS operates in in accordance with the WTO Agreement on Technical Barriers to Trade and the CARICOM Regional Organization for Standards and Quality. The BBS is also a member of the International Electrotechnical Commission (IEC), the International Organization for Standardization (ISO), and Codex Alimentarius.
Legal System and Judicial Independence
The Belize Constitution, is the supreme law and is founded on the principle of separation of powers with independence of the judiciary from the executive and legislative branches of government. As a former British colony, Belize follows the English Common Law legal system, which is based on established case law. Belize has a written Contract Act, supported by precedents from the national courts as well as from the wider English speaking and Commonwealth case law. Contracts are enforced through the courts.
General information relating to Belize’s judicial and legal system, including links to Belize’s Constitution, Laws and judicial decisions are available at the Judiciary of Belize website www.belizejudiciary.org . There are specialized courts that deal with family related matters including divorce and child custody, but no specialized courts to deal with commercial disputes or cases.
The current judicial process continues to face challenges including frequent adjournments, delays, and a backlog of cases. Several measures are being implemented to improve the country’s judiciary. The training of mediators and the introduction of court-connected mediation support alternative methods to dispute settlement. This effort along with better case management procedures is expected to decrease the court’s caseload, time delays, and cost particularly for smaller claim civil cases.
Regulations and enforcement actions are appealable. Regulatory decisions are also subject to judicial review. Judgments by the Belize Supreme Court and the Court of Appeal are available at http://www.belizejudiciary.org . In 2010, Belize adopted the Caribbean Court of Justice (CCJ) as its final appellate court on civil and criminal matters, replacing the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council of the United Kingdom. Judgments by the Caribbean Court of Justice, are available at http://www.caribbeancourtofjustice.org .
Laws and Regulations on Foreign Direct Investment
The country has an English Common Law legal system supplemented by local legislation and regulations. Enacted laws are generally available in the National Assembly’s website at www.nationalassembly.gov.bz . Examples of key legislation passed in 2018 include:
- Designated Processing Areas Act, 2018
- Income and Business Tax (Amendment) Act, 2018
- Stamp Duties (Amendment) Act, 2018
- International Business Companies (Amendment) Act, 2018
- Bill of Sales (Amendment) Act, 2018
- General Sales Tax (Amendment) Act, 2018
- Customs Excise Duties (Amendment), 2018
- International Financial Services Commission, 2018
The laws, rules, procedures, and reporting requirements related to investors differ depending on the nature of the investment. BELTRAIDE provides advisory services for foreign investors relating to procedures for doing business in Belize and incentives available to qualifying investors. Further information is available at the BELTRAIDE website: http://www.belizeinvest.org.bz
Competition and Anti-Trust Laws
Belize does not have any laws governing competition, but there are attempts to limit outside competition in certain industries (such as food and agriculture) by levying high import duties.
Expropriation and Compensation
The Government has used the right of eminent domain in several cases to appropriate private property, including land belonging to foreign investors. There were no new expropriation cases in 2018. However, there are allegations that several previous expropriations were done for personal or political gain. Belizean law requires that the government assess and compensate according to fair market value. Such expropriation cases can take several years to settle and there are a few cases where compensation is still pending. In the cases of expropriations, the claimants assert that the Government failed to adhere to agreements entered into by a previous administration.
The process to acquire land titles is open to abuse with numerous cases of land title manipulation involving foreigners and Belizeans. The government continues efforts at improving the land title system and in addressing delays in processing land transactions.
ICSID Convention and New York Convention
The Recognition and Enforcement of Foreign Arbitral Awards (New York Convention) was extended to Belize by an act of the United Kingdom when Belize was a colony. After independence, Belize did not ratify the Convention nor is it listed as a contracting state. Nevertheless, the Arbitration Act governs arbitration and expressly incorporates three international conventions into domestic law. These conventions include the 1923 Geneva Protocol on Arbitration Clauses; the Convention on the Execution of Foreign Arbitral Awards; and the New York Convention. A 2013 Caribbean Court of Justice judgment also upheld the Arbitration Act giving effect to the New York Convention in domestic law.
Belize signed but has not ratified the Convention on the Settlement of Investment Disputes between States and Nationals of Other States (ICSID convention). For more information visit http://sice.oas.org/dispute/comarb/icsid/w_conv1.asp
Investor-State Dispute Settlement
Belize is signatory to various investment agreements which make provisions for the settlement of investor-state disputes. Belize is also a member of the CARICOM Single Market and Economy, as well as a party to two regional Economic Partnership Agreements (EPA): 1) between CARIFORUM and the EU; and 2) CARIFORUM and the United Kingdom. These regional arrangements make provisions for the settlement of investor-state disputes.
Since Belize is not a party to any Bilateral Investment Treaty (BIT) or Free Trade Agreement (FTA) with the United States, investment disputes involving U.S. persons are taken either before the courts or before international arbitration panels.
Local courts are empowered to recognize and enforce foreign arbitral awards against the government but these are generally challenged up to the CCJ. In January 2017, the Crown Proceedings (Amendment) Act and the Central Bank of Belize (International Immunities) Act were passed, which also affect the enforcement of foreign arbitral awards against the government. Essentially, the Crown Proceedings Amendment Act provides that if a foreign judgment is entered against the government and later declared as “unlawful, void or otherwise invalid” by a court in Belize, the foreign judgement would not be enforced in or outside Belize. The Act also provides for hefty penalties of fines and/or imprisonment on a person, individual or legal, seeking to enforce the foreign judgment. The Central Bank (International Immunities) Act restates the immunity of the Central Bank of Belize assets “from legal proceedings in other states.” This Act similarly provides for penalties of fines and/or imprisonment on a person, individual or legal, which initiates any such proceedings. Despite these legislative acts, there has not been a history of extrajudicial actions against foreign investors.
Over the past decade, the Government of Belize has been involved in numerous investment disputes with one involving a U.S. company. Most cases were initially entered in arbitration panels, but were eventually appealed either before the U.S. District Court of Colombia or the CCJ. The majority of the judgements went against the Government, which has settled some and continues to settle other cases.
International Commercial Arbitration and Foreign Courts
Belize’s Arbitration Act allows the Supreme Court of Belize to support and supervise dispute settlement between private parties by arbitration. In 2013, the Supreme Court also introduced the process of court-connected mediation as an alternative method to dispute settlement between private parties and as a means of reducing costs and duration of litigation.
Local courts are empowered to recognize and enforce foreign arbitral but these are generally challenged up to the CCJ, Belize’s highest appellate court.
There are numerous instances of cases involving State Owned Enterprises (SOEs) which went before domestic courts with rulings both in favor and against the SOE.
Chapter 244 of the Laws of Belize (Bankruptcy Act) provides and allows for bankruptcy filings. The Act provides for the establishment of receivership, trustees, adjudication and seizures of the property of the bankrupt. The court may order the arrest of the debtor as well as the seizure of assets and documents in the event the debtor may flee or avoid payment to creditors. The Act also provides for imprisonment on conviction of certain specified offenses. The Director of Public Prosecutions may also institute proceedings for offenses related to the bankruptcy proceedings.
4. Industrial Policies
The legal framework authorizing and providing for investment incentives include the Fiscal Incentives Act, the Designated Processing Areas Act, the Commercial Free Zone Act, the International Business Companies Act, the Retired Persons Incentives Act, the Trusts Act, the Offshore Banking Act, and the Gaming Control Act.
The Government of Belize enacted the Designated Processing Areas Act, 2018, which replaces the Export Processing Zone incentive program. Additionally, legislative review of the Fiscal Incentives and the Commercial Free Zone programs continue. Investors seeking to take advantage of these programs should be aware of these developments when discussing investment concessions.
In exceptional circumstances, the current administration issues government guarantees from development institutions. While government policies support public private partnership, there are not recent examples of joint financing of foreign direct investment projects.
Foreign Trade Zones/Free Ports/Trade Facilitation
The Designated Processing Areas Act (DPA) was passed in 2018 to replace the former Export Processing Zone Act. While the program is being fully implemented, it remains a tool to attract local and foreign investments to boost production for export markets. Approved companies under this program receive a DPA status for a period of up to ten years and may quality for various tax exemptions. These may include exemptions from Custom and Excise duties as well as from taxes on imported goods, namely the General Sales Tax, the Environmental Tax, and the Revenue Replacement Duties. Similarly, property and land tax may be waived on the designated area. In addition, approved companies are given certain exemptions, including from the Trade Licensing Act requirements for operating in a municipality and the Supplies Control Act, in relation to the importation of raw materials for production that are not for sale in Belize. Companies may maintain a foreign currency account in a domestic or international bank located in Belize as well as sell, lease, or transfer goods and services between DPA companies. While subject to the Income and Business Tax, businesses may qualify for a preferential tax rate on chargeable income. They may also be eligible for an annual quota for fuel solely for specified uses.
A Commercial Free Zone (CFZ) is a specifically designated area for the conduct of business operations, including for example, manufacturing, commercial offices, insurance services, banking and financial services, offshore financial services, professional or related services, processing, packaging, warehousing, and the distribution of goods and services. Belize currently has two CFZs, one on the northern border with Mexico and a small zone on the western border with Guatemala. Goods originating from these free zones can only be sold into Belize’s national customs territory after the necessary duties and taxes have been assessed and paid. The Commercial Free Zone Management Agency (CFZMA) monitors and administers the free zones. Incentives include exemptions from import duties, income tax, taxes on dividends, capital gains tax, or any new corporate tax levied by the Government during the first 10 years of operation. In addition, imports and exports of a CFZ are exempt from customs duties, consumption taxes, excise taxes, or in-transit taxes, except those destined for or directly entering areas subject to the national customs territory. Additionally, CFZ businesses incurring a net loss over the five-year tax holiday may deduct losses from profits in the three years following the tax holiday period.
Performance and Data Localization Requirements
The Fiscal Incentives Act awards a qualified entity a development concession during the start-up or expansion stages to foster growth by offsetting custom duties. According to BELTRAIDE (www.belizeinvest.org.bz ), two programs are offered under this Act, the Regular Program for investments exceeding USD150,000 and the Small and Medium Enterprise (SME) program for investments of less than USD150,000. In general, the legal framework allows for full Customs Duties exemptions and Tax Holidays for up to 15 years for approved enterprises. The length and extent of a development concession are determined by several factors, including: (a) the extent of local value added; (b) the projected profitability of the enterprise; (c) foreign exchange earnings or savings; (d) transfer of skills and technology; and (e) new employment opportunities.
The Fiscal Incentives SME Program is aimed at smaller enterprises with a minimum of 51 percent Belizean ownership. The SME Program offers the same benefits of the Regular Program, with the exception of the allowable timeframe for duty exemptions. Under this program, companies are allowed a maximum of five years of development concessions, with the expectation that after this period, companies can mature into the Regular Program.
The International Business Companies (Amendment) Act was passed in December 2018 largely to satisfy OECD base erosion and profit sharing requirements (BEPS). The main change is that IBCs are no longer ring-fenced, with both residents and non-residents allowed to take part in the regime and IBCs no longer restricted from carrying on business with residents. Additionally, IBCs are now liable for both income tax and stamp duty and required to file annual returns. Another important change is that IBC companies must be conducted and controlled from Belize with least two resident directors. Certain activities are now also excluded, including those related to banking, fund management, or insurance business. See http://www.ibcbelize.com and www.ifsc.gov.bz for more information.
The Qualified Retirement Program (QRP) was created to facilitate eligible persons who have met the income requirements to permanently live and retire in Belize. The Belize Tourism Board overseas this program designed to benefit retired persons over 45 years of age. To qualify, applicants need proof of income not less than USD2,000 per month through a pension or annuity generated outside of Belize. An approved QRP is allowed to import personal effects as well as approved means of transportation, free of customs duties and taxes. All income generated outside of Belize is also free of taxes. An approved QRP is given one year to import all personal and household effects into Belize, using multiple shipments as necessary. Duty and tax-free importation of an automobile, light aircraft or boat is allowed, with vehicles allowed to be replaced every three years. Effects and items imported under this program can only be sold, given away, or leased after the appropriate payment of applicable duties and taxes. For more information, visit http://www.belizetourismboard.org
5. Protection of Property Rights
The Preamble of the Belize Constitution preserves the right of the individual to the ownership of private property and the right to operate private businesses. Private entities, whether foreign or local, have the right to freely establish, acquire, and dispose of interests in property and business enterprises. Generally, the country has no restrictions on foreign ownership and control; however, foreign investments in Belize must be registered at the Central Bank of Belize.
Mortgages and liens do exist and related real estate would be recorded with the registry of the Lands and Survey Department. There have been cases of land fraud, abuses, and corruption in the Lands and Survey Department. Investors are strongly advised to do their due diligence prior to purchasing property.
Foreign and/or non-resident investors are not allowed to acquire national lease property but may acquire titled privately owned property. Central Bank regulations require real estate transactions between residents and non-residents to be in Belize dollars. Additionally, the rate of stamp duty chargeable on land transfers involving foreign persons or a foreign controlled company is eight percent for land transfers valued in excess of USD10,000. The rate of such transactions involving Belizeans and CARICOM nationals, however, is five percent.
There are three different types of titles to freehold property in Belize: Deed of Conveyance, Transfer of Certificate of Title, and Land Certificate. Leasehold property from the government is available to Belizeans who can then apply for conversion to a fee simple title. The government is in the process of re-registering all freehold lands to achieve a uniform system of nationwide land ownership.
Squatters’ rights are only enforceable by order of the Supreme Court after having proven uninterrupted possession for at least 30 years on National and Conveyed lands or at least 12 years on registered lands.
Intellectual Property Rights
Belize is a party to the WTO and has implemented the Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property (TRIPS). Generally, Intellectual Property Rights (IPR) must be registered and enforced in Belize. IPR protections are enforceable through civil proceedings initiated by the IPR right holder. BELIPO (http://belipo.bz ) was established to administer IPR laws and functions as the country’s national intellectual property registry. Its mandate covers the protection of copyrights, industrial designs, patents, trademarks, new plant varieties, and layout designs (topographies) of integrated circuits.
In practice, however, enforcement is largely non-existent. Illegally copied CDs and DVDs are widespread and continue to be marketed throughout the country. In an effort to halt IPR infringements, Home Box Office, Inc. (HBO) concluded negotiations with cable operators in March 2019, outlining the terms for local cable providers to legally access the company’s entertainment content.
During the last year, Belize acceded to six major Intellectual Property treaties that will provide enhanced protection to copyright owners, with added impact on live performers, music producers and broadcasters. Five treaties are copyright-related and include:
- The International Convention for the Protection of Performers, Producers of Phonograms & Broadcasting Organizations (“Rome Convention”);
- The WIPO Copyright Treaty (“WCT”);
- The WIPO Performances & Phonograms Treaty (“WPPT”);
- The Beijing Treaty on Audiovisual Performances (“Beijing Treaty”); and
- The Marrakesh Treaty to Facilitate Access to Published Works for Persons who are Blind, Visually Disabled or Otherwise Print Disabled (“Marrakesh Treaty”)
The sixth treaty, the Geneva (1999) Act of the Hague Agreement concerning the International Registration of Industrial Designs, allows applications for industrial design protection to be filed into an international database.
While the Customs Department of Belize does track seizures of counterfeit goods, it does not properly document IPR and contraband seizures.
Belize is not listed in the 2018 USTR’s Special 301 report nor the 2018 notorious market report.
For additional information about national laws and points of contact at local IP offices, please see WIPO’s country profiles at http://www.wipo.int/directory/en
6. Financial Sector
Capital Markets and Portfolio Investment
Belize’s financial system is small with limited to non-existent foreign portfolio investment transactions. It does not have its own stock market and capital market operations are rudimentary. Private sector participation as both suppliers and buyers of securities in the financial market is generally not significant.
Foreign investments must be registered at the Central Bank, but the government does not restrict payments for international transactions. Additionally, credit is made available on market terms with interest rates largely set by local market conditions prevailing within the commercial banks.
The Development Finance Corporation (DFC), a state owned development bank, offers loan financing services in various sectors. To qualify for a loan from DFC, an individual must be a Belizean resident or citizen, while a company must be majority 51 percent Belizean owned. The National Bank of Belize is a state owned bank that provides concessionary credit primarily to public officers, teachers, and low income Belizeans.
Money and Banking System
The Central Bank of Belize (CBB) (https://www.centralbank.org.bz) is responsible for formulating and implementing monetary policy focusing on the stability of the exchange rate and economic growth. Belize’s financial system remains underdeveloped with a banking sector may be characterized as stable but fragile.
Non-performing loans stood at 2.7 percent of total loans at the end of 2018, significantly below the 5.0 percent threshold. Additionally, the aggregate capital adequacy ratio of domestic banks improved to 24.6 percent, well above the 9.0 percent regulatory requirement. The CBB also registered a new credit union, which commenced operations in August 2018. In the international banking sector, the Central Bank revoked the license of one bank in June 2018 and another requested support in March 2019 to wind up voluntarily.
Persons seeking to open a bank account must comply with Central Bank regulations, which differ based on residency status and whether the individual is seeking to establish a local bank account or a foreign currency account. Like many countries with fixed currency rates, the Belize banking sector is split into two branches: onshore (domestic banks that cater only to residents) and offshore (international banks intended for non-residents of Belize to freely move foreign exchange in and out of the country). The Government asserts this design is to prevent disruptions of the local economy, to maintain the peg to the US dollar and avoid large foreign exchange fluctuations.
Foreign banks and branches are allowed to operate in the country with all banks subject to Central Bank measures and regulations. While all banks have current correspondent banking relations, there is still uncertainty with regard to the longevity of those relationships, delay in transactions, and fewer services offered at higher costs.
In the last few years, Belize has enacted a number of reforms to strengthen the anti-money laundering and counterterrorism-financing regime, including amendments to the Money Laundering and Terrorism (Prevention) Amendment Act and the International Business Companies (Amendment) Act. In addition, the National Anti-Money Laundering Committee (NAMLC) is headed by the Financial Intelligence Unit with inter-agency support from key financial and law enforcement authorities.
Foreign Exchange and Remittances
There are currency controls in Belize and foreign investors seeking to convert, transfer, or repatriate funds must comply with Central Bank regulations. Foreign investments must be registered at the Central Bank to facilitate inflows and outflows of foreign currency transactions. Foreign investors must register their inflow of funds to obtain an “Approved Status” for their investment and generally are approved for repatriation of funds thereafter. The Central Bank does, however, reserve the right to request evidence supporting applications for repatriation.
The Belize dollar has been pegged to the United States Dollar since May 1976 at a fixed exchange rate of BZ USD2.00 to the USD1.00. There are reports of shortages and delays in obtaining foreign exchange.
There are no changes to investment remittance policies. As mentioned above, foreign investors should obtain an “Approved Status” for their investment and register their inflow and outflow of funds with the Central Bank.
Sovereign Wealth Funds
Belize does not have a sovereign wealth fund.
7. State-Owned Enterprises
State Owned Enterprises (SOEs) are active in the utilities sectors. The Government is the majority shareholder in the Belize Water Services Limited, the country’s sole provider of water services, the Belize Electricity Limited, the sole distributor electricity, and the Belize Telemedia Limited, the largest telecommunications provider in the country.
SOEs usually engage senior government officials, and at times include members of local business bureaus and chambers of commerce, labor organizations, and quasi-governmental agencies, as a part of their management and board of directors. The board guides the direction, policies, and decisions of the SOE that ostensibly is independent, but in practice has included high-ranking government officials as well as close relatives of government officials. Current and previous administrations are accused of nepotism in staffing as well as conflicts of interest when board members or directors are also represented in organizations that do business with the SOEs.
There is no published list of SOEs. The following are the major SOEs operating in the country. Information relating to their operations are available on their website, including their audited financial reports:
There are no third party market analysis sources that evaluate whether SOEs receive non-market advantages by the government. The Belize Electricity Limited and the Belize Water Services Limited are the only service providers in their respective sectors. The Belize Telemedia Services, on the other hand, competes with one other provider for mobile connectivity and there are multiple players that provide internet and data services. The Public Utilities Commission regulates all utilities.
The Government does not currently have a privatization program.
8. Responsible Business Conduct
Belize generally lacks general awareness of the expectations and standards for responsible business conduct (RBC). However, many foreign and local companies engage in responsible corporate behaviors, particularly from a social perspective. Companies sponsor, inter alia, educational scholarships, sports related activities, community enhancement projects, or entrepreneurship activities. There are no formal government measures or policies to promote RBC.
Several civil society agencies seek to protect individuals and address human rights, labor rights, consumer protection, and environmental concerns. For example, the Office of the Ombudsman is responsible for investigating complaints of official corruption and abuse of power. As required by law, the Ombudsman is active in filing annual reports to the National Assembly and investigating incidents of alleged misconduct, particularly of police abuses. This Office continues to be constrained by the lack of enforcement powers, political pressure, and limited resources.
In the area of environment, certain projects require the Department of the Environment’s approval for Environmental Impact Assessments or Environmental Compliance Plans. The Department of Environment website, http://www.doe.gov.bz , has more information on the Environmental Protection Act, various regulations, applications and guidelines.
There are no government measures relating to corporate governance, accounting, and executive compensation standards and RBC policies are not factored into procurement decisions.
There have been no recent cases of private sector impact on human rights and no NGOs, investment funds, worker organizations/unions, or business associations specifically promoting or monitoring RBC. In recent years, labor unions and business associations have become actively engaged in advocating for stronger measures against corruption.
Belize does not have a highly developed mineral sector and is not a conflict or high-risk country. As such, it does not adhere to the OECD Due Diligence Guidance for Responsible Supply Chains of Minerals from Conflict-Afflicted and High-Risk Areas. Belize’s extractive/mining industry is not highly developed and it does not participate in the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative (EITI) and/or the Voluntary Principles on Security and Human Rights.
Belize has anti-corruption laws that are seldom enforced. Under the Prevention of Corruption in Public Life Act, public officials are required to make annual financial disclosures. The Act also criminalizes acts of corruption by public officials and includes measures on the use of office for private gain, code of conduct breaches, the use of public funds, and bribery. Section 24 of the Act covers punishment for breach, which may include a fine of up to USD5,000, severe reprimand, forfeiture of property acquired by corruption, and removal from office. This Act also established an Integrity Commission mandated to monitor, prevent, and combat corruption by examining declarations of physical assets and financial positions filed by public officers. The Commission is able to investigate allegations of corrupt activities, including by members of the National Assembly, Mayors and Councilors of all cities, and Town Boards. In 2018, a new chair was appointed to the Commission and published 42 names of persons in public life in accordance with the Act.
The Money Laundering and Terrorism (Prevention) Act identifies “politically exposed persons” to include family members or close associates of the politically exposed person. The policies and procedures for government procurement are outlined in Belize Stores Orders and Financial Orders issued by the Ministry of Finance. There is a Manual for the Control of Public Finances that provides the framework for the registration and use of public funds to procure goods and services.
Despite these legislative and regulatory measures, many businesspeople complain that both major political parties can and do practice partisanship bias that affects businesses in terms of receiving needed licenses, winning government contracts for procurement of goods and services, and the granting of government land to private owners. Some middle-class citizens and business owners throughout the country have complained of government officials, including police and others, soliciting bribes. Additionally, there are allegations of prominent members from the two main political parties engaging in corrupt practices to acquire land. A Select Senate Committee on Immigration deliberated for most of 2017 on such allegations. It concluded its inquiry in December 2017, but has yet to publish its findings.
Private companies are not required to establish internal codes of conduct. There are few non-governmental institutions that monitor government activities; two of them are Citizens Organized for Liberty through Action (COLA) and the National Trade Union Congress of Belize (NTUCB). The first is comprised of concerned private citizens; the latter is an umbrella organization comprised of the various Belizean workers’ unions. Environmental NGOs and the Belize Chamber of Commerce and Industry often make statements regarding government policy as it affects their respective spheres of activity.
Private companies do not use internal controls, ethics or compliance programs to detect and prevent bribery of government officials.
In June 2001, the Government of Belize signed the Organization of American States (OAS) Inter-American Convention on Corruption, which undergoes periodic review as provided for under the Convention.
In December 2016, Belize acceded to the United Nations Convention Against Corruption (UNCAC) amid public pressure and demonstrations from the teachers’ unions but full implementation remains ongoing.
Bribery is officially considered a criminal act in Belize, but laws against bribery are rarely enforced. There are complaints of government corruption particularly related to customs, land, and immigration transactions.
Resources to Report Corruption
Contact for the government agency or agencies responsible for combating corruption:
Office of the Ombudsman
91 Freetown Road
Belize City, Belize
For specific complaints within the police force:
Professional Standards Branch
1902 Constitutions Drive
T: +501-822-2218 or 822-2674
10. Political and Security Environment
Belize has traditionally enjoyed one of the most stable political environments in the region, having held peaceful and transparent democratic elections since independence on September 21, 1981. In general elections, the two major political parties generally trade leadership but the current United Democratic Party has held on to power since 2008 spanning three consecutive elections. At the municipal level, elections were held in March 2018 and while the opposition People’s United Party gained ground, the ruling United Democratic Party maintained its majority in six of the nine municipalities.
Incidents including damage to projects or installations affecting investments in Belize are rare. In November 2014, the Belize Sugar Cane Farmers Association (BSCFA) and American Sugar Refineries (ASR) failed to reach a contract agreement before the harvesting season. While the dispute was eventually resolved, there were some reports of fields being burned and farmers being threatened for breaking ranks with BSCFA.
There is political insecurity because of neighboring Guatemala’s territorial claim on Belize that has existed for almost two centuries. In 2008, both countries signed a special agreement, with the facilitation of the OAS, on a process to present the matter to the International Court of Justice (ICJ). After simultaneous referenda failed to materialize in 2013, Guatemala voted to take the matter to the ICJ in April 2018. Belize was scheduled to hold its referendum in April 2019, but the process is delayed by a legal challenge. Despite efforts to increase confidence building measures between the two countries, there continue to be incursions by Guatemalan citizens along bordering areas resulting in deforestation, illegal logging and extraction of exotic hardwoods, illegal harvesting of xate palm leaves (a decorative plant used in flower arrangements), panning for gold, wildlife poaching, and agriculture development. These activities have resulted in confrontations between Guatemalan nationals and Belize law enforcement authorities on Belizean territory. Tensions have also flared along the Sarstoon River, which forms the disputed southern border. Guatemala has increased its naval presence in the area and detained or questioned Belizean citizens wishing to navigate the river.
There are also security concerns related to the high level of crime, which are mainly gang related or random targets against innocent civilians and tourists. Turf and gang related crimes are often concentrated in south side Belize City.
11. Labor Policies and Practices
According to the Statistical Institute of Belize (SIB), as of September 2018, the population is an estimated 395,882 persons of which 155,950 were in the labor force. The rate of unemployment stood at 9.4 percent percent in April 2018, representing a fall of 1.7 percent over the previous year. New entrants into the labor force for this period were primarily from urban areas and almost two-thirds of new entrants were females. Males continue to comprise the majority of the labor force, accounting for 60 percent and were generally paid more.
The Ministry of Labor is charged with enforcing the minimum wage. In May 2012, the national minimum wage was increased to BZ USD3.30 (USD1.65) per hour. The average graduate, with at least an Associate is Degree, would be paid a minimum of USD2.22 to USD3.13 an hour.
Belize is both a receiving and a sending country for migrant workers. As a receiving country, it does not have a structured temporary employment program for migrant workers, but it has an established procedure for issuing work permits. The majority of approved work permits are for Central Americans seeking seasonal employment in the agricultural industry, particularly in the banana, citrus, and sugar industries. Additionally, a number of Caribbean professionals obtain a Certificate of Recognition of CARICOM Skills Qualification, which allows them to work in Belize under the Caribbean Single Market and Economy’s free movement of skilled labor initiative.
The labor force is largely unskilled, with 52 percent of employed persons engaged in sales or other elementary work occupations. The education system continues to be poorly equipped in preparing labor force entrants to become entrepreneurs and adapt to a technology-driven global environment. Compulsory education ends at age 14.
There are several agencies seeking to provide soft skills needed to enter the labor market. BELTRAIDE hosts on-going trainings for small and micro enterprises on a wide range of basic skills related to customer service, business development, and management. Additionally, more targeted training is conducted to meet employer demand in business process outsourcing and tourism related sectors.
Foreign investors who have a development concession are permitted to bring in skilled personnel to complement their local labor force and if appropriate, training programs for Belizean nationals are established. Most of the unskilled or semi-skilled workers in commercial agriculture are recent immigrants or migrant workers from neighboring Spanish-speaking countries.
Employers in the agriculture sector tend to use temporary workers even for jobs that are not temporary in nature. These jobs may be opened to workers from Central American countries and may be attributed to a shortage of local labor force in the rural areas where these jobs are concentrated. Workers permits and other immigration related documents are processed by a labor committee, which has inter-ministerial representation from various Ministries including Labor, Immigration, and Human Development.
In general, there are no restrictions on employers adjusting their labor force in response to fluctuating market conditions. Employers are flexible in offering salary increases, which are normally justified based on cost of living and prevailing practice consideration. Severance payment is subject to local labor law, the Labor Amendment Act of 2011.
This Act differentiates between layoffs (voluntary termination and redundancy) and firing (dismissal). In the cases of voluntary termination and redundancy, the law provides for an appropriate notice period to be provided, payment in lieu of notice, severance etc. In the case of redundancy, the employer must notify where applicable the recognized trade union or workers’ representative as well as the Labor Commissioner.
The law also provides for dismissal by the employer but distinguishes between termination for “good and sufficient cause,” “termination for misconduct,” “unfair dismissal,” “constructive dismissal where the employer’s conduct makes it unreasonable to work,” and “summary dismissal where the employee commits an act of gross misconduct.”
In addition to the general Social Security system, the government maintains a National Health Insurance scheme in certain marginalized communities throughout the country. They also provide some assistance to unemployed persons who represent marginalized sectors of the community, e.g. single women, single mothers, and young unemployed persons. These services are not mandated by law.
Labor laws are not generally waived to attract or retain investment. There are no additional/ different labor law provisions for Designated Processing Areas operating in Belize.
Where employees are unionized, employers must refer to the laws relating to the operation of unions, namely the Trade Union and Employee’s Organizations Act and the Settlement of Disputes in Essential Services Act, as well as the terms of existing collective bargaining agreements between the employer and unions.
Belize has nine trade unions and an umbrella organization, the National Trade Union Congress of Belize (NTUCB). Belize has ratified 50 International Labor Organization (ILO) conventions, of which 45 are in force, including Convention 182 against the worst forms of child labor.
Trade Unions are independent of the government and employers both in practice and in law. The Ministry of Labor recognizes unions and employers’ associations after they are registered. Trade Union laws establish procedures for the registration and status of trade unions and employers’ organizations and for collective bargaining. Unions are common in the public sector (teachers, general public servants), the social security board, the utility sectors (water, telecommunications and electricity), and port stevedores.
The law allows authorities to refer disputes involving public and private sector employees who provide “essential services” to compulsory arbitration, prohibit strikes, and terminate actions. The national fire service, postal service, monetary and financial services, civil aviation and airport security services, and port authority pilots and security services are deemed essential services outside of the International Labor Organization definition. During the last year, there were no strikes that posed a risk to either local businesses or foreign investments.
Belize does have laws and regulations relating to international labor standards. There is also a system in place for labor inspectors to advocate on labor related concerns and complaints as well as to visit and inspect business facilities to ensure adherence to local labor laws.
There are several gaps identified in relation to international labor standards. Belize’s legislation does not address a situation in which child labor is contracted between a parent and the employer. While there is need for better data, it does not seem likely that the penalties, remediation, and inspections sufficiently deter violations. The penalty for employing a child below minimum age is a fine not exceeding USD10 or imprisonment not exceeding two months.
Additionally, while there are laws that prohibit a wide range of discrimination in the work place, they are not effectively enforced and do not explicitly provide protections for persons with disability or against discrimination related to sexual orientation and/or gender identity. Finally, there is anecdotal evidence that certain vulnerable sectors, particularly undocumented persons, young service workers, and agricultural laborers, were regularly paid below the minimum wage.
There were no labor related laws or regulations enacted during the last year. The passage of an Occupational Health and Safety Bill has been delayed for a number of years due to lack of consensus between tripartite stakeholders representing the government, private sector and unions.
Belize is not a party to any trade agreements with the United States. It is it is a qualifying country under the U.S. Generalized System of Preference (GSP) as well as the U.S. – Caribbean Basin Trade Partnership Act (CBTPA).
12. OPIC and Other Investment Insurance Programs
There is an Overseas Private Investment Corporation (OPIC) Agreement between Belize and the United States, which predates Belize’s independence. Additionally, OPIC was involved in two projects in Belize, one in 2002 and the other in 2006. While Belize qualifies for OPIC support under the Clean Energy Security Initiative, there are no OPIC-related projects. The country benefitted from two United States Trade and Development Agency (USTDA) projects in the last four years to investigate the potential of adopting clean energy technologies in the utilities sector.
13. Foreign Direct Investment and Foreign Portfolio Investment Statistics
Table 2: Key Macroeconomic Data, U.S. FDI in Host Country/Economy
* Source for Host Country Data: Statistical Institute of Belize, Central Bank of Belize
Table 3: Sources and Destination of FDI
Statistics on foreign direct investments in Belize by country of origin is limited, including the total invested by U.S. investors. The Central Bank of Belize recorded total inflows of FDI at USD152.48 million in 2018 and outflows at USD32.933 million in the same period. Major sources of FDI include the United States, Canada and the United Kingdom. FDI inflows are traditionally concentrated primarily in real estate, construction, reinvested earnings and the agriculture sectors.
Table 4: Sources of Portfolio Investment
Data not available.
14. Contact for More Information
Political and Economic Chief
4 Floral Park Road
4 Floral Park Road
Singapore maintains an open, heavily trade-dependent economy, characterized by a predominantly open investment regime, with strong government commitment to maintaining a free market and to actively managing Singapore’s economic development. U.S. companies regularly cite transparency and lack of corruption, business-friendly laws and regulations, tax structure, customs facilitation, intellectual property protections, and well-developed infrastructure as attractive features of the investment climate. The World Bank’s Doing Business 2018 report ranked Singapore as the world’s second-easiest country in which to do business. The Global Competitiveness Report 2018 by the World Economic Forum ranked Singapore as the second-most competitive economy globally. Singapore typically ranks as the least corrupt country in Asia and one of the least corrupt in the world, and actively enforces its robust anti-corruption laws. Transparency International’s 2018 Corruption Perception Index placed Singapore as the third least corrupt nation. The U.S.-Singapore Free Trade Agreement (USSFTA), which came into force on January 1, 2004, expanded U.S. market access in goods, services, investment, and government procurement, enhanced intellectual property protection, and provided for cooperation in promoting labor rights and environmental protections.
Singapore has a diversified economy and attracts substantial foreign investment in manufacturing (petrochemical, electronics, machinery, and equipment) and services (financial services, wholesale and retail trade, and business services). The government actively promotes the country as a research and development (R&D) and innovation center for businesses by offering tax incentives, research grants, and partnership opportunities with domestic research agencies. U.S. direct investment in Singapore in 2017 reached USD 274.3 billion, primarily in non-bank holding companies, manufacturing (particularly computers and electronic products), and finance and insurance – an increase of 7.4 percent from the previous year. The investment outlook remains positive due to regional GDP growth. In 2018, U.S. companies pledged USD 4.1 billion in future investments in Singapore’s manufacturing and services sectors.
Looking ahead, Singapore is poised to attract foreign investments in digital innovation and cybersecurity. The Government of Singapore (hereafter, “the government”) is investing heavily in automation, artificial intelligence, and integrated systems under its Smart Nation banner and seeks to establish itself as a regional hub.
In recent years, the government has tightened foreign labor policies to encourage firms to improve productivity and employ more Singaporean workers. The government introduced measures in the 2019 budget to further decrease the ratio of mid- and low-skilled foreign workers to local employees in a firm from 40 percent to 38 percent beginning January 1, 2020 and then down to 35 percent in 2021. These cuts, which target the service sector, were taken despite industry concerns about skills gaps. To address some of these concerns, the government has introduced programs that partially subsidize the cost to firms of recruiting, hiring, and training local workers.
Table 1: Key Metrics and Rankings
1. Openness To, and Restrictions Upon, Foreign Investment
Policies Towards Foreign Direct Investment
Singapore maintains a heavily trade-dependent economy characterized by an open investment regime, with some licensing restrictions in the financial services, professional services, and media sectors. The World Bank’s Doing Business 2018 report ranked Singapore as the world’s second-easiest country in which to do business. The 2018 Global Competitiveness Report ranks Singapore as the second -most competitive economy globally. The 2004 USSFTA expanded U.S. market access in goods, services, investment, and government procurement, enhanced intellectual property protection, and provided for cooperation in promoting labor rights and the environment.
The Government of Singapore is committed to maintaining a free market, but it also actively plans Singapore’s economic development, including through a network of government-linked corporations (GLCs). As of February 2019, the top three Singapore-listed GLCs accounted for 13.1 percent of total capitalization of the Singapore Exchange (SGX). Some observers have criticized the dominant role of GLCs in the domestic economy, arguing that they have displaced or suppressed private sector entrepreneurship and investment.
Singapore’s legal framework and public policies are generally favorable toward foreign investors. Foreign investors are not required to enter into joint ventures or cede management control to local interests, and local and foreign investors are subject to the same basic laws. Apart from regulatory requirements in some sectors (reference Limits on National Treatment and Other Restrictions), eligibility for various incentive schemes depends on investment proposals meeting the criteria set by relevant government agencies. Singapore places no restrictions on reinvestment or repatriation of earnings or capital. The judicial system, which includes international arbitration and mediation centers and a commercial court, upholds the sanctity of contracts, and decisions are generally considered to be transparent and effectively enforced.
Singapore’s Economic Development Board (EDB) is the lead investment promotion agency that facilitates foreign investment into Singapore (https:www.edb.gov.sg). EDB undertakes investment promotion and industry development and works with international businesses, both foreign and local, by providing information and facilitating introductions and access to government incentives. The government maintains close engagement with investors through the EDB, which provides feedback to other government agencies to ensure that infrastructure and public services remain efficient and cost-competitive.
Exceptions to Singapore’s general openness to foreign investment exist in telecommunications, broadcasting, the domestic news media, financial services, legal and accounting services, and ports and airports sectors, as well as property ownership. Under Singapore law, articles of incorporation may include shareholding limits that restrict ownership in corporations by foreign persons.
Since 2000, the Singapore telecommunications market has been fully liberalized. This move has allowed foreign and domestic companies seeking to provide facilities-based (e.g. fixed line or mobile networks) or services-based (e.g. local and international calls and data services over leased networks) telecommunications services to apply for licenses to operate and deploy telecommunication systems and services. Singapore Telecommunications (SingTel) – a GLC that is majority owned by Temasek, a state-owned investment company with the Singapore Minister for Finance as its sole shareholder – faces competition in all market segments. However, its main competitors, M1 and StarHub, are also GLCs. In December 2018, Australian telco TPG Telecom announced a limited, free mobile service to run through 2019. TPG offers only subscriber identity module (SIM) services in Singapore. In the past three years, four Singapore start-ups offering mobile virtual network operator services (MVNOs) have also entered the market. The three established Singapore telecommunications competitors are expected to strengthen their partnerships with the MVNOs in a defensive move against TPG’s entry.
As of November 2018, Singapore has 69 facilities-based operators and 257 services-based (individual) operators offering prepaid services. Since 2007, SingTel has been exempted from dominant licensee obligations for the residential and commercial portions of the retail international telephone services. SingTel is also exempted from dominant licensee obligations for wholesale international telephone services, international managed data, international IP transit, leased satellite bandwidth (VSAT, DVB-IP, satellite TV Downlink, and Satellite IPLC), terrestrial international private leased circuit, and backhaul services. The info-communications Media Development Authority (IMDA) granted Singtel’s exemption after assessing that the market for these services had effective competition.
In April 2017, Singapore held a General Spectrum Auction for mobile airwaves, the largest such auction in 16 years, allocating additional blocks of spectrum to accommodate increasing demand for mobile data services. Singtel, Starhub, M1, and TPG paid a combined total of USUSD 870 million (SUSD 1.15billion) in this heavily-bid auction for additional frequency bands. To facilitate 5G technology and service trials, IMDA has waived frequency fees for companies interested in conducting 5G trials for equipment testing, research, and assessment of commercial potential.
Singapore’s IMDA operates as both the regulatory agency and the investment promotion agency for the country’s telecommunications sector. IMDA conducts public consultations on major policy reviews and provides decisions on policy changes to relevant companies.
The local free-to-air broadcasting, cable, and newspaper sectors are effectively closed to foreign firms. Section 44 of the Broadcasting Act restricts foreign equity ownership of companies broadcasting in Singapore to 49 percent or less, although the Act does allow for exceptions. Individuals cannot hold shares that would make up more than five percent of the total votes in a broadcasting company without the government’s prior approval. The Newspaper and Printing Presses Act (NPPA) restricts equity ownership (local or foreign) of newspaper companies to less than five percent per shareholder and requires directors to be Singapore citizens. Newspaper companies must issue two classes of shares, ordinary and management, with the latter available only to Singapore citizens or corporations approved by the government. Holders of management shares have an effective veto over selected board decisions.
Singapore regulates content across all major media outlets. The government controls the distribution, importation, and sale of any newspaper and has curtailed or banned the circulation of some foreign publications. Singapore’s leaders have also brought defamation suits against foreign publishers, which have resulted in the foreign publishers issuing apologies and paying damages. Several dozen publications remain prohibited under the Undesirable Publications Act, which restricts the import, sale, and circulation of publications that the government considers contrary to public interest. Examples include pornographic magazines, publications by banned religious groups, and publications containing extremist religious views. Following a routine review in 2015, the then-Media Development Authority lifted a ban on 240 publications, ranging from decades-old anti-colonial and communist material to adult interest content.
Singaporeans generally face few restrictions on the internet. However, the IMDA has blocked various websites containing material that the government deems objectionable, such as pornography and racist and religious hatred sites. Online news websites that report regularly on Singapore and have a significant reach are individually licensed, which requires these sites to submit a bond of USD 40,000 (SGD 50,000) and to adhere to requirements to remove prohibited content within 24 hours of notification from IMDA. Some view this regulation as a way to censor online critics of the government. In December 2018 authorities charged the editor of an online news site with criminal defamation following the publication of a contributor’s allegedly defamatory letter, although the editor had removed the post when advised to do so by the authorities.
In April 2019, the government introduced legislation in Parliament to counter “deliberate online falsehoods.” The legislation, called the Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Bill, would require websites to run corrections alongside “online falsehoods” and would impose penalties on sites or individuals that spread “misinformation,” as determined by the government.
MediaCorp TV is the only free-to-air TV broadcaster and is 100 percent owned by the government via Temasek Holdings (Temasek). Local Pay-TV providers are StarHub and Singtel, which are both partially owned by Temasek or its subsidiaries. Local free-to-air radio broadcasters are MediaCorp Radio Singapore, which is also owned by Temasek Holdings, SPH Radio, owned by the publically-held Singapore Press Holdings, and So Drama! Entertainment, owned by the Singapore Ministry of Defense. BBC World Services is the only foreign free-to-air radio broadcaster in Singapore.
To rectify the high degree of content fragmentation in the Singapore pay-TV market, and shift the focus of competition from an exclusivity-centric strategy to other aspects such as service differentiation and competitive packaging, the MDA implemented cross-carriage measures in 2011 requiring pay-TV companies designated by MDA to be Receiving Qualified Licensees (RQL) – currently SingTel and StarHub – to cross-carry content subject to exclusive carriage provisions. Correspondingly, Supplying Qualified Licensees (SQLs) with an exclusive contract for a channel are required to carry that content on other RQL pay-TV companies. In February 2019, the IMDA proposed to continue the current cross-carriage measures. The Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) has expressed concern that this measure restricts copyright exclusivity. Content providers consider the measures an unnecessary interference in a competitive market that denies content holders the ability to negotiate freely in the marketplace, and an interference with their ability to manage and protect their intellectual property. More common content is now available across the different pay-TV platforms, and the operators are beginning to differentiate themselves by originating their own content, offering subscribed content online via PCs and tablet computers, and delivering content via fiber networks.
Streaming services have entered the market, which MPAA has found leads to a significant reduction in intellectual property infringements. StarHub and Singtel have both partnered with multiple content providers, including U.S. companies, to provide streaming content in Singapore and around the region.
Banking and Finance
The Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS) regulates all banking activities as provided for under the Banking Act. Singapore maintains legal distinctions between foreign and local banks and the type of license (i.e. full service, wholesale, and offshore banks) held by foreign commercial banks. As of March 2019, 28 foreign full-service licensees and 97 wholesale banks operated in Singapore. An additional 27 merchant banks are licensed to conduct corporate finance, investment banking, and other fee-based activities. Offshore and wholesale banks are not allowed to operate Singapore dollar retail banking activities. Only Full Banks and “Qualifying Full Banks” (QFBs) can operate Singapore dollar retail banking activities but are subject to restrictions on the number of places of business, ATMs, and ATM networks. Additional QFB licenses may be granted to a subset of full banks, which provide greater branching privileges and greater access to the retail market than other full banks. As of March 2019, there are ten banks operating QFB licenses.
Except in retail banking, Singapore laws do not distinguish operationally between foreign and domestic banks. Currently, all banks in Singapore are required to maintain a Domestic Banking Unit (DBU) and an Asian Currency Unit (ACU), separating international and domestic banking operations from each other. Transactions in Singapore dollars can be booked only in the DBU whereas transactions in foreign currency are typically booked in the ACU. The ACU is an accounting unit that the banks use to book all their foreign currency transactions conducted in the Asian Dollar Market (ADM). This enables additional prudential requirements to be imposed on banks’ domestic businesses in Singapore, while also avoiding undue restrictions on the offshore activities of banks. Following public consultations, MAS initiated a 30-month implementation timeline from February 2017 for the removal of the DBU-ACU divide, which will be aligned with the revisions made to MAS 610 (Submission of Statistics and Returns).
The government initiated a banking liberalization program in 1999 to ease restrictions on foreign banks and has supplemented this with phased-in provisions under the USSFTA, including removal of a 40 percent ceiling on foreign ownership of local banks and a 20 percent aggregate foreign shareholding limit on finance companies. The Minister in charge of the Monetary Authority of Singapore must approve the merger or takeover of a local bank or financial holding company, as well as the acquisition of voting shares in such institutions above specific thresholds of five percent, 12 percent, or 20 percent of shareholdings.
Although Singapore’s government has lifted the formal ceilings on foreign ownership of local banks and finance companies, the approval of controllers of local banks ensures that this control rests with individuals or groups whose interests are aligned with the long-term interests of the Singapore economy and Singapore’s national interests. Of the 29 full-service licenses granted to foreign banks, three have gone to U.S. banks. U.S. financial institutions enjoy phased-in benefits under the USSFTA. Since 2006, U.S.-licensed full-service banks that are also QFBs, which is only one as of March 2019, have been able to operate at an unlimited number of locations (branches or off-premises ATMs) versus 25 for non-U.S. full-service foreign banks with QFB status. U.S. and foreign full-service banks with QFB status can freely relocate existing branches and share ATMs among themselves. They can also provide electronic funds transfer and point-of-sale debit services and accept services related to Singapore’s compulsory pension fund. In 2007, Singapore lifted the quota on new licenses for U.S. wholesale banks.
Locally and non-locally incorporated subsidiaries of U.S. full-service banks with QFB status can apply for access to local ATM networks. However, no U.S. bank has come to a commercial agreement to gain such access. Despite liberalization, U.S. and other foreign banks in the domestic retail-banking sector have reported to still face barriers. Under the enhanced QFB program launched in 2012, MAS requires QFBs it deems systemically significant to incorporate locally. If those locally incorporated entities are deemed “significantly rooted” in Singapore, with a majority of Singaporean or permanent resident members, Singapore may grant approval for an additional 25 places of business, of which up to ten may be branches. Local retail banks do not face similar constraints on customer service locations or access to the local ATM network. As noted above, U.S. banks are not subject to quotas on service locations under the terms of the USSFTA. Holders of credit cards issued locally by U.S. banks incorporated in Singapore cannot access their accounts through the local ATM networks. They are also unable to access their accounts for cash withdrawals, transfers, or bill payments at ATMs operated by banks other than those operated by their own bank or at foreign banks’ shared ATM network. Nevertheless, full-service foreign banks have made significant inroads in other retail banking areas, with substantial market share in products like credit cards and personal and housing loans.
In January 2019, MAS announced the passage of the Payment Services Bill after soliciting public feedback for design of the bill. The bill requires more payment services such as digital payment tokens, dealing in virtual currency and merchant acquisition, to be licensed and regulated by MAS. It also limits the amount of money stored in personal mobile wallets and how much can be transferred to another user’s bank accounts in a year. Regulations are tailored to the type of activity preformed and address issues related to terrorism financing, money laundering, and cyber risks.
Singapore has no trading restrictions on foreign-owned stockbrokers. There is no cap on the aggregate investment by foreigners regarding the paid-up capital of dealers that are members of the SGX. Direct registration of foreign mutual funds is allowed provided MAS approves the prospectus and the fund. The USSFTA has relaxed conditions foreign asset managers must meet in order to offer products under the government-managed compulsory pension fund (Central Provident Fund Investment Scheme).
The Legal Services Regulatory Authority (LSRA) under the Ministry of Law oversees the regulation, licensing, and compliance of all law practice entities and the registration of foreign lawyers in Singapore. Foreign law firms with a licensed Foreign Law Practice (FLP) may offer the full range of legal services in foreign law and international law but cannot practice Singapore law except in the context of international commercial arbitration. U.S. and foreign attorneys are allowed to represent parties in arbitration without the need for a Singapore attorney to be present. To offer Singapore law, FLPs require either a Qualifying Foreign Law Practice (QFLP) license, a Joint Law Venture (JLV) with a Singapore Law Practice (SLP), or a Formal Law Alliance (FLA) with a SLP. The vast majority of Singapore’s 127 foreign law firms operate FLPs, while QFLPs and JLVs each number in the single digits.
The QFLP licenses allow foreign law firms to practice in permitted areas of Singapore law, which excludes constitutional and administrative law, conveyancing, criminal law, family law, succession law, and trust law. As of March 2019 there are nine QFLPs in Singapore, including five U.S. firms. In January 2019, the Ministry of Law announced the deferral to 2020 of the decision to renew the licenses of five QFLPs, which were set to expire in 2019 so that the government can better assess their contribution to Singapore along with the other four firms whose licenses were also extended to 2020. Decisions on the renewal considers the firms’ quantitative and qualitative performance such as the value of work that the Singapore office will generate, the extent to which the Singapore office will function as the firm’s headquarter for the region, the firm’s contributions to Singapore, and the firm’s proposal for the new license period.
A Joint Law Venture (JLV) is a collaboration between a Foreign Law Practice and Singapore Law Practice, which may be constituted as a partnership or company. The Director of Legal Services in the Legal Services Regulatory Authority (LSRA) will consider all the relevant circumstances including the proposed structure and its overall suitability to achieve the objectives for which JLV are permitted to be established. There is no clear indication on the percentage of shares that each JLV partner may hold in the JLV.
Law degrees from designated U.S., British, Australian, and New Zealand universities are recognized for purposes of admission to practice law in Singapore. Under the USSFTA, Singapore recognizes law degrees from Harvard University, Columbia University, New York University, and the University of Michigan. Singapore will admit to the Singapore Bar law school graduates of those designated universities who are ranked among the top 70 percent of their graduating class or have obtained lower-second class honors (under the British system).
Engineering and Architectural Services
Engineering and architectural firms can be 100 percent foreign-owned. Engineers and architects are required to register with the Professional Engineers Board and the Board of Architects, respectively, to practice in Singapore. All applicants (both local and foreign) must have at least four years of practical experience in engineering or two years of practical training in architectural works, and pass written and oral examinations set by the respective Board.
Accounting and Tax Services
Major international accounting firms operate in Singapore. Registration as a public accountant under the Accountants Act is required to provide public accountancy services (i.e. the audit and reporting on financial statements and other acts that are required by any written law to be done by a public accountant) in Singapore, although registration as a public accountant is not required to provide other accountancy services, such as accounting, tax, and corporate advisory work. All accounting entities that provide public accountancy services must be approved under the Accountants Act and their supply of public accountancy services in Singapore must be under the control and management of partners or directors who are public accountants ordinarily resident in Singapore. In addition, if the accounting entity firm has two partners or directors, at least one of them must be a public accountant. If the business entity has more than two partners or directors, two-thirds of the partners or directors must be public accountants.
Singapore further liberalized its gas market with the amendment of the Gas Act and implementation of a Gas Network Code in 2008, which were designed to give gas retailers and importers direct access to the onshore gas pipeline infrastructure. However, key parts of the local gas market, such as town gas retailing and gas transportation through pipelines remain controlled by incumbent Singaporean firms. Singapore has sought to grow its supply of Liquefied Natural Gas (LNG), and BG Singapore Gas Marketing Pte Ltd (acquired by Royal Dutch Shell in February 2016) was appointed in 2008 as the first aggregator with an exclusive franchise to import LNG to be sold in its re-gasified form in Singapore. In October 2017, Shell eastern Trading Pte Ltd and Pavilion Gase Pte Ltd were awarded import licenses to market up to 1 Million Tonnes Per Annum (Mtpa) or for three years, whichever occurs first. This also marked the conclusion of the first exclusive franchise awarded to BG Singapore Gas Marketing Pte Ltd.
In November 2018, Singapore began a progressive launch of an Open Electricity Market that will be completed in May 2019. Over 1.4 million households and business accounts will have the option of buying electricity from a retailer licensed by the Energy Market Authority (EMA). To participate in the Open Electricity Market licensed retailers must satisfy additional credit, technical, and financial requirements set by EMA in order to sell electricity to households and small businesses. There are two types of electricity retailers: Market Participant Retailers (MPRs) and Non-Market Participant Retailers (NMPRs). MPRs have to be registered with the Energy Market Company (EMC) to purchase electricity from the National Electricity Market of Singapore (NEMS) to sell to contestable consumers. NMPRs need not register with EMC to participate in the NEMS since they will purchase electricity indirectly from the NEMS through the Market Support Services Licensee (MSSL). As of April 2019, there were 13 firms in the market, including foreign and local.
Limits on Foreign Control and Right to Private Ownership and Establishment
Foreign and local entities may readily establish, operate, and dispose of their own enterprises in Singapore subject to certain requirements. A foreigner who wants to incorporate a company in Singapore is required to appoint a locally resident director; foreigners may continue to reside outside of Singapore. Foreigners who wish to incorporate a company and be present in Singapore to manage its operations are strongly advised to seek approval from the Ministry of Manpower (MOM) before incorporation. Except for representative offices (where foreign firms maintain a local representative but do not conduct commercial transactions in Singapore) there are no restrictions on carrying out remunerative activities. As of October 2017, foreign companies may seek to transfer their place of registration and be registered as companies limited by shares in Singapore under Part XA (Transfer of Registration) of the Companies Act. Such transferred foreign companies are subject to the same requirements as locally-incorporated companies.
All businesses in Singapore must be registered with the Accounting and Corporate Regulatory Authority (ACRA). Foreign investors can operate their businesses in one of the following forms: sole proprietorship, partnership, limited partnership, limited liability partnership, incorporated company, foreign company branch or representative office. Stricter disclosure requirements were passed in March 2017 requiring foreign company branches registered in Singapore to maintain public registers of their members, while locally incorporated companies. Foreign company branches registered in Singapore as well as limited liability partnerships will be required to maintain registers of controllers (generally defined as individuals or legal entities with more than 25 percent interest or control of the companies and foreign companies) aimed at preventing money laundering.
While there is currently no cross-sectional screening process for foreign investments, investors are required to seek approval from specific sector regulators for investments into certain firms. These sectors include energy, telecommunications, broadcasting, the domestic news media, financial services, legal services, public accounting services, ports and airports, and property ownership. Under Singapore law, Articles of Incorporation may include shareholding limits that restrict ownership in corporations by foreign persons.
Singapore does not maintain an investment screening mechanism for inbound foreign investment. There are no reports of U.S. investors being especially disadvantaged or singled out relative to other foreign investors.
Other Investment Policy Reviews
Singapore underwent a trade policy review with the World Trade Organization (WTO) in July 2016. No major policy recommendations were raised. This was the country’s only policy review in the past three years. (https://www.wto.org/english/tratop_e/tpr_e/tp443_e.htm)
The OECD and United Nations Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO) released a joint report in February 2019 on the ASEAN-OECD Investment Program. The Program aims to foster dialogue and experience sharing between OECD countries and Southeast Asian economies on issues relating to the business and investment climate. It is implemented through regional policy dialogue, country investment policy reviews, and training seminars. (http://www.oecd.org/countries/singapore/seasia.htm )
The OECD released a Transfer Pricing Country Profile for Singapore in June 2018. The country profiles focus on countries’ domestic legislation regarding key transfer pricing principles, including the arm’s length principle, transfer pricing methods, comparability analysis, intangible property, intra-group services, cost contribution agreements, transfer pricing documentation, administrative approaches to avoiding and resolving disputes, safe harbors and other implementation measures. (http://www.oecd.org/countries/singapore/transfer-pricing-country-profile-singapore.pdf )
The OECD released a peer review report in March 2018 on Singapore’s implementation of internationally agreed tax standards under Action Plan 14 of the base erosion and profit shifting (BEPS) project. Action 14 strengthens the effectiveness and efficiency of the mutual agreement procedure, a cross-border tax dispute resolution mechanism.
The UNCTAD has not conducted an IPR of Singapore.
Singapore’s online business registration process is clear and efficient and allows foreign companies to register branches. All businesses must be registered with the Accounting & Corporate Regulatory Authority (ACRA) through Bizfile, its online registration and information retrieval portal (http://bizfile.gov.sg ), including any individual, firm or corporation that carries out business for a foreign company. Applications are typically processed immediately after the application fee is paid, but may take between 14 days to two months if the application is referred to another agency for approval or review. The process of establishing a foreign-owned limited liability company in Singapore is among the fastest of the countries surveyed by IAB.
ACRA provides a single window for business registration. However, additional regulatory approvals (e.g. licensing or visa requirements) are obtained via individual applications to the respective Ministries or Statutory Boards. Additional information and business support on registering a branch of a foreign company is available through the EDB (https://www.edb.gov.sg/en/how-we-help/setting-up.html ). Furthermore, GuideMeSingapore by corporate services firm Hawskford provides details on setting up a business in Singapore (https://www.guidemesingapore.com/).
Foreign companies may lease or buy privately or publicly held land in Singapore, though there are some restrictions on foreign ownership of property. Foreign companies are free to open and maintain bank accounts in foreign currency. There is no minimum paid-in capital requirement, but at least one subscriber share must be issued for valid consideration at incorporation.
At GER (ger.co), Singapore’s online business registration process scores 7/10 in Online Single Windows (https://www.bizfile.gov.sg/).
Business facilitation processes provide for fair and equal treatment of women and minorities, and there are no mechanisms that provide special assistance to women and minorities.
Singapore places no restrictions on domestic investors investing abroad. The government promotes outward investment through Enterprise Singapore, a statutory board under the Ministry of Trade and Industry (MTI). It provides market information, business contacts, and financial assistance and grants for internationalizing companies. While it has a global reach and runs overseas centers in major cities across the world, a large share of its overseas centers are located in major trading and investment partners and regional markets like China, India, and ASEAN.
2. Bilateral Investment Agreements and Taxation Treaties
Singapore has 33 bilateral investment treaties (BIT) currently in force. These agreements mutually protect nationals or companies of either economy against non-commercial risks of expropriation and nationalization. It has signed an additional eight BITs that have yet to be implemented, including some that were signed several years ago.
Singapore has 13 bilateral and ten regional free trade agreements (FTA) currently in force. Singapore has signed free trade or economic cooperation agreements that include investment chapters with ASEAN, Australia, Canada, Chile, Mexico, China, the European Free Trade Association (Switzerland, Norway, Liechtenstein, and Iceland), India, Japan, New Zealand, Panama, Peru, South Korea, Costa Rica, the United States, Turkey, Sri Lanka, and Chinese Taipei. Singapore also has agreements with Jordan and the Gulf Cooperation Council (comprising Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates), but these agreements do not contain investment chapters. Singapore is a member of ASEAN, which has in force FTAs with Australia and New Zealand, China, India, South Korea, and a Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement with Japan. Singapore also has a Trans-Pacific Strategic Economic Partnership Agreement with Brunei, Chile, and New Zealand.
Singapore and the European Union signed a bilateral FTA in October 2018, which is awaiting ratification. Singapore also signed the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP). Singapore is actively negotiating FTAs with the Eurasian Economic Union (including Russia, Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan) and the Pacific Alliance (Chile, Colombia, Mexico, and Peru). ASEAN is currently negotiating FTA extensions with Japan, China, and Australia, as well as the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), which includes ASEAN members plus Australia, China, India, Japan, New Zealand, and South Korea.
Singapore has signed Avoidance of Double Taxation Agreements (DTAs) with 90 countries, but Singapore does not have a comprehensive Avoidance of Taxation Agreement with the United States. U.S. financial regulations do not restrict foreign banks’ ability to hold accounts for U.S. citizens. U.S. citizens are encouraged to alert the nearest U.S. Embassy of any practices they encounter with regard to the provision of financial services. No tax disputes have been reported.
In November 2018, Singapore signed a Tax Information Exchange Agreement and a reciprocal Foreign Account Tax Compliance Act Model 1 Intergovernmental Agreement with the United States. The new reciprocal Intergovernmental Agreement will supersede the current non-reciprocal one (entered into force in 2015) upon ratification.
In November 2018, Singapore’s parliament passed a bill to apply the goods and services tax (GST) to digital service supplies beginning January 1, 2020. The current GST rate of seven percent is scheduled to increase to nine percent between 2021 and 2025. Currently, GST is not applied to services provided by a foreign-based digital service supplier with no presence in Singapore. Other recent changes in Singapore’s taxation regime include an extension of the Writing Down Allowance for acquisition of qualifying Intellectual Property Rights. In the 2019 budget, Singapore revised the quantum of GST import relief for travelers for the value of goods bought overseas. Singapore plans to initiate a carbon tax in 2019 by pricing carbon at approximately USD 3.61 (5 Singaporean dollars) per metric ton of greenhouse gas emissions from 2019 to 2023. The initial pricing level for the first five years was designed to provide companies with a transition period to adjust to the law. Singapore will review the rate by 2023 and intends to increase the pricing level between USD 7.30 to USD 10.95 (10 to 15 Singaporean dollars) per metric ton by 2030. At that time, Singapore will take into account its economic competitiveness, international environmental developments and Singapore’s progress towards its environmental goals. Instead of imposing differing taxes on specific sectors, Singapore opted for a simple carbon tax with no exemptions. Despite new tax announcements, the Government of Singapore pledged to “extend and strengthen” tax incentives to enhance business competitiveness.
3. Legal Regime
Transparency of the Regulatory System
Transparency Policies and Non-Discrimination:
The government establishes clear rules that foster competition. The USSFTA enhances transparency by requiring regulatory authorities to consult with interested parties before issuing regulations, and to provide advance notice and comment periods for proposed rules, as well as to publish all regulations. Singapore’s legal, regulatory, and accounting systems are transparent and consistent with international norms.
Formal Regulatory Authority and Processes:
Rule-making authority is vested in the Parliament to pass laws that determine the regulatory scope, purpose, rights and powers of the regulator and the legal framework for the industry. Regulatory authority is vested in government statutory boards, which are organizations that have been given autonomy to perform an operational function by legal statutes passed as Acts in parliament, and report to a specific Ministry. Local laws give regulatory bodies wide discretion to modify regulations and impose new conditions, but in practice agencies use this positively to adapt incentives or other services on a case-by-case basis to meet the needs of foreign as well as domestic companies. Acts of Parliament also confer certain powers on a Minister or other similar persons or authorities to make rules or regulations in order to put the Act into practice; these rules are known as subsidiary legislation.
National-level regulations are the most relevant for foreign businesses. Singapore, being a city-state, has no local or state regulatory layers.
Before a ministry instructs the Attorney-General’s Chambers (AGC) to draft a new bill or make an amendment to a bill, the ministry has to seek in-principle approval from the Cabinet for the proposed bill. The Legislation Division of AGC advises and helps vet or draft bills in conjunction with policymakers from relevant ministries. Proposed draft legislative amendments are released for public or private consultation. Thereafter, approval from the Ministry of Law is required, followed by the Cabinet’s approval, before the bill can be introduced in Parliament. All Bills passed by Parliament (with some exceptions) must be forwarded to the Presidential Council for Minority Rights (PCMR) for scrutiny, and thereafter presented to the President for assent. Only after the President has assented to the Bill does the Bill become law (i.e. an Act of Parliament).
While ministries or regulatory agencies do conduct internal impact assessments of proposed regulations, there are no criteria used for determining which proposed regulations are subjected to an impact assessment, and there are no specific regulatory impact assessment guidelines. There is no independent agency tasked with reviewing and monitoring regulatory impact assessments and distributing findings to the public. The Ministry of Finance publishes a biennial Singapore Public Sector Outcomes Review (http://www.mof.gov.sg/Resources/Singapore-Public-Sector-Outcomes-Review-SPOR). It focuses on broad outcomes and indicators rather than policy evaluation. Results of scientific studies or quantitative analysis conducted in review of policies and regulations are not made publicly available.
Informal Regulatory Processes:
Industry self-regulation occurs in several areas, including advertising and corporate governance. Advertising Standards Authority of Singapore (ASAS), an advisory council under the Consumers Association of Singapore, administers the Singapore Code of Advertising Practice, which focuses on ensuring that advertisements are legal, decent, and truthful. Listed companies are required under the Singapore Exchange (SGX) Listing Rules to describe in their annual reports their corporate governance practices with specific reference to the principles and provisions of the Code. Listed companies must comply with the principles of the Code, and, if their practices vary from any provisions of the Code, they must note the reason for the variation and explain how the practices they have adopted are consistent with the intent of the relevant principle. The SGX plays the role of a self-regulatory organization (SRO) in listings, market surveillance, and member supervision to uphold the integrity of the market and ensure participants’ adherence to trading and clearing rules. There have been no reports of discriminatory practices aimed at foreign investors.
Accounting, legal, and regulatory procedures:
Singapore’s legal and accounting procedures are transparent and consistent with international norms and rank similar to the U.S. in international comparisons (http://worldjusticeproject.org/rule-of-law-index ). The prescribed accounting standards for Singapore-incorporated companies listed on the Singapore Exchange or SFRS(1), Singapore Financial Reporting Standards, are identical to those of the International Accounting Standards Board (IASB). Non-listed Singapore-incorporated companies can voluntarily apply for SFRS(1). Otherwise, they are required to comply with Singapore Financial Reporting Standards (SFRS), which are aligned with those of IASB. For the use of foreign accounting standards, the companies are required to seek approval of the Accounting and Corporate Regulatory Authority (ACRA).
For foreign companies with primary listings on the Singapore Exchange, the SGX Listing Rules allow the use of alternative standards such as International Financial Reporting Standards (IFRS) or the U.S. Generally Accepted Accounting Principles (U.S. GAAP). Accounts prepared in accordance with IFRS U.S. GAAP need not be reconciled to SFRS(1). Companies with secondary listings on the Singapore Exchange need only reconcile their accounts to SFRS(1), IFRS, or U.S. GAAP.
Notices of proposed legislation to be considered by Parliament are published, including the text of the laws, the dates of the readings, and whether or not the laws eventually pass. The government has established a centralized Internet portal (www.reach.gov.sg) to solicit feedback on selected draft legislation and regulations, a process that is being used with increasing frequency. There is no stipulated consultative period. Results of consultations are usually consolidated and published on relevant websites. As noted in the “Openness to Foreign Investment” section, some U.S. companies, in particular in the telecommunications and media sectors, are concerned about the government’s lack of transparency in its regulatory and rule-making process. However, many U.S. firms report they have opportunities to weigh in on pending legislation that affects their industries. These mechanisms also apply to investment laws and regulations.
Online Regulatory Disclosure:
The Parliament of Singapore website (https://www.parliament.gov.sg/publications/bills-introduced ) publishes a database of all Bills introduced, read, and passed in Parliament in chronological order as of 2006. The contents are the actual draft texts of the proposed legislation/legislative amendments. All statutes are also publicly available in the Singapore Statutes Online website (https://sso.agc.gov.sg ). However, there is no centralized online location where key regulatory actions are published. Regulatory actions are published separately on websites of Statutory Boards.
Transparency Enforcement Mechanisms:
Enforcement of regulatory offences is governed by both Acts of Parliament and subsidiary legislation. Enforcement powers of government statutory bodies are typically enshrined in the Act of Parliament constituting that statutory body. There is accountability to Parliament for enforcement action through Question Time, where Members of Parliament may raise questions with the Ministers on their respective Ministries’ responsibilities.
Singapore’s judicial system and courts serve as the oversight mechanism in respect of executive action (such as the enforcement of regulatory offences) and dispense justice based on law. The Supreme Court is made up of the Court of Appeal and the High Court, and hears both civil and criminal matters. The Chief Justice heads the Judiciary. The President appoints the Chief Justice, the Judges of Appeal and the Judges of the High Court if he, acting at his discretion, concurs with the advice of the Prime Minister.
No systemic regulatory reforms or enforcement reforms relevant to foreign investors have been announced. The Monetary Authority of Singapore stated focus in enforcement is on timely disclosure of corporate information, business conduct of financial advisors, compliance with anti-money laundering/combatting the financing of terrorism requirements, deterring stock market abuse, and insider trading as of March 2019. In March 2019, MAS published its inaugural Enforcement Report that details enforcement actions over previous periods.
International Regulatory Considerations
Singapore was the 2018 chair of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). ASEAN is working towards the 2025 ASEAN Economic Community (AEC) Blueprint aimed at achieving a single market and production base, with a free flow of goods, services, and investment within the region. While ASEAN is working towards regulatory harmonization, there are no regional regulatory systems in place; instead, ASEAN agreements and regulations are enacted through each ASEAN Member State’s domestic regulatory system.
The WTO’s 2016 trade policy review notes that Singapore’s guiding principle for standardization is to align national standards with international standards, and Singapore is an elected member of the International Organization of Standardization (ISO) and International Electrotechnical Commission (IEC) Councils. Singapore encourages the direct use of international standards whenever possible. Singapore Standards (SS) are developed when there is no appropriate international standard equivalent, or when there is a need to customize standards to meet domestic requirements. At the end of 2015, Singapore had a stock of 553 SS, about 40 percent of which were references to international standards. Enterprise Singapore, the Agri-Food and Veterinary Authority and the Ministry of Trade and Industry are the three national enquiry points under the TBT Agreement. There are no known reports of omissions in reporting to TBT.
A non-exhaustive list of major international norms and standards referenced or incorporated into the country’s regulatory systems include Base Erosion and Profit Shifting (BEPs) project, Common Reporting Standards (CRS), Basel III, EU Dual-Use Export Control Regulation, 27 International Labor Organization (ILO) conventions on labor rights and governance, UN conventions, and WTO agreements.
Singapore is signatory to the Trade Facilitation Agreement (TFA). The WTO reports that Singapore has fully implemented the TFA (https://www.tfadatabase.org/members/singapore ).
Legal System and Judicial Independence
Singapore’s legal system has its roots in English common law and practice and is enforced by courts of law. The current judicial process is procedurally competent, fair, and reliable. In the 2019 Rule of Law Index by World Justice Project, it is ranked overall 13th in the world, 1st on order and security, 3rd on regulatory enforcement, 3rd in absence of corruption, 5th on civil and criminal justice, 27th on constraints on government powers, 25th on open government, and 30th on fundamental rights. Singapore’s legal procedures are ranked 2nd in the world in the World Bank’s 2018 Ease of Doing Business sub-indicator on contract enforcement which measures speed, cost, and quality of judicial processes to resolve a commercial dispute. The judicial system remains independent of the executive branch and the executive does not interfere in judiciary matters.
Laws and Regulations on Foreign Direct Investment
Singapore strives to promote an efficient, business-friendly regulatory environment. Tax, labor, banking and finance, industrial health and safety, arbitration, wage, and training rules and regulations are formulated and reviewed with the interests of both foreign investors and local enterprises in mind. Starting in 2005, a Rules Review Panel, comprising senior civil servants, began overseeing a review of all rules and regulations; this process will be repeated every five years. A Pro-Enterprise Panel of high-level public sector and private sector representatives examines feedback from businesses on regulatory issues and provides recommendations to the government.
The Cybersecurity Act, which came into force in August 2018, establishes a comprehensive regulatory framework for cybersecurity. The Act provides the Commissioner of Cyber Security with powers to investigate, prevent, and assess the potential impact of cyber security incidents and threats in Singapore. These can include requiring persons and organizations to provide requested information, requiring the owner of a computer system to take any action to assist with cyber investigations, directing organizations to remediate cyber incidents, and, if safeguards have been met, authorizing officers to enter premises, and installing software and take possession of computer systems to prevent serious cyber-attacks in the event of severe threat. The Act also establishes a framework for the designation and regulation of Critical Information Infrastructure (CII). Requirements for CII owners include a mandatory incident reporting regime, regular audits and risk assessments, and participation in national cyber security stress tests. In addition, the Act will establish a regulatory regime for cyber security service providers and required licensing for penetration testing and managed security operations center (SOC) monitoring services. U.S. business chambers have expressed concern about the effects of licensing and regularly burdens on compliance costs, insufficient checks and balances on the investigatory powers of the authorities, and the absence of a multidirectional cyber threat sharing framework that includes protections from liability.
Competition and Anti-Trust Laws
The Competition and Consumer Commission of Singapore (CCCS) is a statutory board under the Ministry of Trade and Industry (MTI) and is tasked with administering and enforcing the Competition Act. The Act contains provisions on anti-competitive agreements, decisions, and practices; abuse of dominance; enforcement and appeals process; and mergers and acquisitions. The Competition Act was enacted in 2004 in accordance with U.S-Singapore FTA commitments, which contains specific conduct guarantees to ensure that Singapore’s GLCs will operate on a commercial and non-discriminatory basis towards U.S. firms. GLCs with substantial revenues or assets are also subject to enhanced transparency requirements under the FTA.
In September 2018, CCCS issued an infringement decision against Grab and Uber in relation to the sale of Uber’s Southeast Asia business to the private-hire transport company Grab, which led to a substantial lessening of competition in the provision of ride-hailing platform services in Singapore. Combined financial penalties of USD 9.5 million were imposed on Grab and Uber. A spokesperson for Uber said it believed the decision was based on an “inappropriately narrow definition of the market.” Uber will also be required to sell its car rental business to any rival that makes a reasonable offer and will not be allowed to sell those vehicles to Grab. Uber will have its appeal of the ruling heard in the second half of 2019.
In January 2018 CCCS imposed record financial penalties of USD 14.8 million (SUSD 19.6 million) against five Japanese capacitor manufacturers for price-fixing and the exchange of confidential sales, distribution and pricing information for Aluminum Electrolytic Capacitors.
Expropriation and Compensation
Singapore has not expropriated foreign owned property and has no laws that force foreign investors to transfer ownership to local interests. Singapore has signed investment promotion and protection agreements with a wide range of countries. These agreements mutually protect nationals or companies of either country against certain non-commercial risks, such as expropriation and nationalization and remain in effect unless otherwise terminated. The USSFTA contains strong investor protection provisions relating to expropriation of private property and the need to follow due process; provisions are in place for an owner to receive compensation based on fair market value. No disputes are pending.
ICSID Convention and New York Convention
Singapore is party to the Convention on the Settlement of Investment Disputes (ICSID convention) and the convention on the Recognition and Enforcement of Foreign Arbitration Awards (1958 New York Convention). Singapore passed an Arbitration (International Investment Disputes) Act to implement the ICSID convention in 1968. Singapore acceded to the 1958 New York Convention in August 1986 and gave effect to it via the International Arbitration Act (IAA). The 1958 New York Convention is annexed to the IAA as the Second Schedule. Singapore is bound to recognize awards made in any other country that is a signatory to the 1958 New York Convention. (http://www.lexology.com/library/detail.aspx?g=3f833e8e-722a-4fca-8393-f35e59ed1440 )
Domestic arbitration in Singapore is governed by the Arbitration Act (Cap 10). The Arbitration Act was enacted to align the laws applicable to domestic arbitration with the Model Law.
Investor-State Dispute Settlement
After Singapore’s accession to the New York Convention of 1958 on August 21, 1986, it re-enacted most of its provisions in Part III of the IAA. By acceding to this Convention, Singapore is bound to recognize awards made in any other country that is a signatory to the Convention. Singapore is a member of the Commonwealth of Nations and, under the Reciprocal Enforcement of Commonwealth Judgments Act (RECJA), recognizes judgments made in the United Kingdom, as well as jurisdictions that are part of the Commonwealth and with which Singapore has reciprocal arrangements for the recognition and enforcement of judgments. The Act lists the countries with which such arrangements exist, and of the 53 countries that are members of the Commonwealth, nine have been listed. (http://www.lawgazette.com.sg/2001-8/Aug01-focus4.htm ) Singapore also has reciprocal recognition of foreign judgements with Hong Kong Special Administrative Region of the People’s Republic of China.
Singapore is party to the Convention on the Settlement of Investment Disputes between States and Nationals of Other States (ICSID Convention). Singapore passed an Arbitration (International Investment Disputes) Act to implement the ICSID Convention in 1968. ICSID Convention has an enforcement mechanism for arbitration awards rendered pursuant to ICSID rules that is separate from the 1958 arbitration awards rendered pursuant to ICSID rules that is separate from the 1958 New York Convention. Investor-State dispute settlement provisions in Singapore’s trade agreements, including the USSFTA, refer to ICSIID rules as one of the possible options for resolving disputes. Investor-State arbitration under rules other than ICSID’s would result in an arbitration award that may be enforced using the 1959 New York Convention.
Singapore has had no investment disputes with U.S. persons or other foreign investors in the past ten years that have proceeded to litigation. Any disputes settled by arbitration/mediation would remain confidential. There have been no claims made by U.S. investors under the USSFTA. There is no history of extrajudicial action against foreign investors.
International Commercial Arbitration and Foreign Courts
Dispute resolution (DR) institutions include the Singapore International Arbitration Centre (SIAC), Singapore International Mediation Centre (SIMC), Singapore International Commercial Court (SICC), and the Singapore Chamber of Maritime Arbitration (SCMA). Singapore’s extensive dispute resolution institutions and integrated dispute resolution facilities at Maxwell Chambers have contributed to its development as a regional hub for alternative disputes mechanisms. The SIAC is the major arbitral institution and its increasing caseload reflects Singapore’s policy of encouraging the use of alternative modes of dispute resolution, including arbitration. On average, it takes approximately eight weeks to enforce an arbitration award rendered in Singapore, from filing an application to a writ of execution attaching assets (assuming there is no appeal), and seven weeks for a foreign award.
Arbitral awards in Singapore, for either domestic or international arbitration, are legally binding and enforceable in Singapore domestic courts, as well as in jurisdictions that have ratified the 1958 New York Convention.
The International Arbitration Act (IAA) regulates international arbitrations in Singapore. Domestic arbitrations are regulated by the Arbitration Act (AA). The IAA is heavily based on the United Nations Commission on International Trade Law (UNCITRAL) Model Law, with a few significant differences. For example, arbitration agreements must be in writing. This requirement is deemed to be satisfied if the content is recorded in any form, including electronic communication, regardless of whether the arbitration agreement was concluded orally, by conduct, or by other means (e.g. an arbitration clause in a contract or a separate agreement can be incorporated into a contract by reference). The AA is also primarily based on the UNCITRAL Model Law. There have been no reported complaints about the partiality or transparency of court processes in investment and commercial disputes.
Singapore has bankruptcy laws allowing both debtors and creditors to file a bankruptcy claim. Singapore is ranked number 27 for resolving insolvency in the World Bank’s 2018 Doing Business index. While Singapore performed well in recovery rate and time and cost of proceedings, it did not score highly in the creditor participation and reorganization sub-indexes. In particular, the insolvency framework does not require approval by the creditors for sale of substantial assets of the debtor or approval by the creditors for selection or appointment of the insolvency representative.
Singapore has made several reforms to enhance corporate rescue and restructuring processes, including features from Chapter 11 of the U.S. Bankruptcy Code. Amendments to the Companies Act, which came into force in May 2017, include additional disclosure requirements by debtors, rescue financing provisions, provisions to facilitate the approval of pre-packaged restructurings, increased debtor protections, and cram-down provisions that will allow a scheme to be approved by the court even if a class of creditors oppose the scheme, provided the dissenting class of creditors are not unfairly prejudiced by the scheme.
In October 2018, the Insolvency, Restructuring and Dissolution Act was passed and will go into effect in the first half of 2019. It updates the insolvency legislation and introduces a significant number of new provisions, particularly with respect to corporate insolvency. It mandates licensing, qualifications, standards, and disciplinary measures for insolvency practitioners. It also includes standalone voidable transaction provisions for corporate insolvency and, a new wrongful trading provision. The Act allows ‘out of court’ commencement of judicial management, permits judicial managers to assign the proceeds of certain insolvency related claims, restricts the operation of contractual ‘ipso facto clauses’ upon the commencement of certain restructuring and insolvency procedures, and modifies the operation of the scheme of arrangement cross class ‘cram down’ power.
Two MAS-recognized consumer credit bureaus operate in Singapore: the Credit Bureau (Singapore) Pte Ltd and DP Credit Bureau Pte Ltd. U.S. industry advocates enhancements to Singapore’s credit bureau system, in particular, adoption of an open admission system for all lenders, including non-banks. Bankruptcy is not criminalized in Singapore. https://www.acra.gov.sg/CA_2017/
4. Industrial Policies
Singapore’s Economic Development Board (EDB) is the lead investment promotion agency facilitating foreign investment into Singapore (https://www.edb.gov.sg ). EDB undertakes investment promotion and industry development, and works with international businesses, both foreign and local, by providing information, connection to partners, and access to government incentives for their investments. The Agency for Science, Technology, and Research (A*STAR) is Singapore’s lead public sector agency focused on economic-oriented research to advance scientific discovery and innovative technology. (https://www.a-star.edu.sg ) The National Research Foundation (NRF) provides competitive grants for applied research through an integrated grant management system, (https://researchgrant.gov.sg/pages/index.aspx ). Various government agencies (including Intellectual Property Office of Singapore (IPOS), NRF, and EDB,) provide venture capital co-funding for startups and commercialization of intellectual property.
Foreign Trade Zones/Free Ports/Trade Facilitation
Singapore has nine free-trade zones (FTZs) in five geographical areas operated by three FTZ authorities. The FTZs may be used for storage and repackaging of import and export cargo, and goods transiting Singapore for subsequent re-export. Manufacturing is not carried out within the zones. Foreign and local firms have equal access to the FTZ facilities.
Performance and Data Localization Requirements
Performance requirements are applied uniformly and systematically to both domestic and foreign investors. Singapore has no forced localization policy requiring domestic content in goods or technology. The government does not require investors to purchase from local sources or specify a percentage of output for export. There are no rules forcing the transfer of technology. There are no requirements for foreign IT providers to turn over source code and/or provide access to encryption. The industry regulator is the Info-communications Media Development Authority (IMDA), a statutory board under the Ministry of Communications and Information (MCI).
The industry regulator is the Info-communications Media Development Personal data matters are independently overseen by the Personal Data Protection Commission, which administers and enforces the Personal Data Protection Act (PDPA) of 2012. The PDPA governs the collection, use, and disclosure of personal data by the private sector and covers both electronic and non-electronic data.
Singapore is currently reviewing the PDPA to ensure that it keeps pace with the evolving needs of businesses and individuals in a digital economy such as introducing an enhanced framework for the collection, use, and disclosure of personal data and a mandatory breach notification regime.
Singapore does not have a data localization policy. Singapore participates in various regional and international frameworks that promote interoperability and harmonization of rules to facilitate cross-border data flows. The ASEAN Framework on Digital Data Governance is one example. Another is Singapore’s participation in the APEC Cross-Border Privacy Rules (CBPR) and Privacy Recognition for Processors (PRP) systems, to facilitate data transfers for certified organizations across APEC economies.
5. Protection of Property Rights
Property rights and interests are enforced in Singapore. Residents have access to mortgages and liens, with reliable recording of properties. In the 2018 World Bank Doing Business Report, Singapore ranks first in the world in enforcing contracts and number 21st in registering property.
Foreigners are not allowed to purchase public housing (HDB) in Singapore, and prior approval from the Singapore Land Authority is required to purchase landed residential property and residential land for development. Foreigners are allowed to purchase non-landed, private sector housing (e.g. condominiums or any unit within a building) without the need to obtain prior approval, however they are not allowed to acquire all the apartments or units in s development without prior approval. These restrictions also apply to foreign companies.
There are no restrictions on foreign ownership of industrial and commercial real estate. In December 2011, the government enacted an additional effective ten percent tax, or Additional Buyer’s Stamp Duty (ABSD), on foreigners who purchase homes in Singapore. In July 2018 the government raised the ABSD to 20 percent; however, U.S. citizens are accorded national treatment under the FTA, meaning only second and subsequent purchases of residential property will be subject to 12 and 15 percent ABSD, equivalent to Singaporean citizens.
The availability of covered bond legislation under MAS Notice 648 has provided an incentive for Singapore financial institutions to issue covered bonds. Under Notice 648, only a bank incorporated in Singapore may issue covered bonds. The three main Singapore banks: DBS, OCBC, and UOB, all have in place covered bond programs, with the majority of issues being private placements. The banking industry has made suggestions to allow the use of covered bonds in repo transactions with the central bank and to increase the encumbrance limit, currently at four percent. (http://www.mas.gov.sg/regulations-and-financial-stability/regulations-guidance-and-licensing/commercial-banks/notices/2013/notice-648-issuance-of-covered-bonds-by-banks-incorporated-in-singapore.aspx )
Intellectual Property Rights
Singapore has developed one of the strongest intellectual property rights (IPR) regimes in Asia and has brought its IPR laws in line with international standards. However, some businesses have expressed concern in certain areas such as business software piracy, online piracy, and enforcement.
The Patents (Amendment) Act will close the foreign route for examination which allows granting of a patent based on a search and examination results of a foreign patent office with effect from January 1, 2020. All patent applications must be fully examined by Intellectual Property Office of Singapore (IPOS) to ensure that granted patents fully satisfy Singapore’s patentability criteria. The Registered Designs (Amendment) Act broadens the scope of registered designs to include virtual designs and color as a design feature, and will stipulate the default owner of designs to be the designer of a commissioned design, rather than the commissioning party.
The USSFTA ensures that government agencies will not grant regulatory approvals to patent- infringing products, but Singapore does allow parallel imports. Under the Patents Act, with regards to pharmaceutical products, the patent owner has the right to bring an action to stop an importer of “grey market goods” from importing the patent owner’s patented product, provided that the product has not previously been sold or distributed in Singapore. If the conditions are met, the importation results in a breach of contract between the proprietor of the patent and any person licensed by the proprietor of the patent to distribute the product outside Singapore and the importer has knowledge of such.
The USSFTA ensures protection of test data and trade secrets submitted to the government for regulatory approval purposes. Disclosure of such information is prohibited. Such data may not be used for approval of the same or similar products without the consent of the party who submitted the data for a period of five years from the date of approval of the pharmaceutical product and ten years from the date of approval of an agricultural chemical. Singapore has no specific legislation concerning protection of trade secrets. Instead, it protects investors’ commercially valuable proprietary information under common law by the Law of Confidence as well as legislation such as the Penal Code (e.g. theft) and the Computer Misuse Act (e.g., unauthorized access to a computer system to download information). U.S. industry has expressed concern that this provision is inadequate.
Singapore is a member of the WTO and a party to the Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS). It is a signatory to other international intellectual property rights agreements, including the Paris Convention, the Berne Convention, the Patent Cooperation Treaty, the Madrid Protocol, and the Budapest Treaty. The World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) Secretariat opened a regional office in Singapore in 2005 (http://www.wipo.int/about-wipo/en/offices/singapore/ ). Amendments to the Trademark Act, which were passed in January 2007, fulfill Singapore’s obligations in WIPO’s revised Singapore Treaty on the Law of Trademarks.
Singapore ranked 10th out of 50 in the world in the 2019 U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s International IP Index. The index noted that Singapore’s key strengths include an advanced national IP framework and efforts to accelerate patent examination and grants. The index also lauded Singapore as a global leader in online copyright enforcement. Despite a decrease in estimated software piracy from 35 percent in 2009 to 27 percent in 2019, the Index noted that piracy levels remain high for a developed high-income country. Lack of transparency and data on customs seizures of IP-infringing goods was also noted as a key area of weakness.
Singapore does not publicly report statistics on seizures of counterfeit goods, and does not score highly on enforcement of physical counterfeit goods, online sales of counterfeit goods or digital online piracy, according to the 2018 U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s International IP Index. Singapore is not listed in USTR’s Special 301 report, or the notorious market report. For additional information about national laws and points of contact at local IP offices, see WIPO’s country profiles at http://www.wipo.int/directory/en/
6. Financial Sector
Capital Markets and Portfolio Investment
The government takes a favorable stance towards foreign portfolio investment and fixed asset investments. While it welcomes capital market investments, the government has introduced macro-prudential policies aimed at reducing foreign speculative inflows in the real estate sector since 2009. The government promotes Singapore’s position as an asset and wealth management center, and asset under management grew 7 percent in 2016 to USUSD 2.1 trillion (SUSD 2.7 trillion)– the latest year for which data are available.
The Government of Singapore facilitates the free flow of financial resources into product and factor markets, and the Singapore Exchange (SGX) is Singapore’s stock market. An effective regulatory system exists to encourage and facilitate portfolio investment. Credit is allocated on market terms and foreign investors can access credit, U.S. dollars, Singapore dollars (SGD), and other foreign currencies on the local market. The private sector has access to a variety of credit instruments through banks operating in Singapore. The government respects IMF Article VIII by refraining from restrictions on payments and transfers for current international transactions.
Money and Banking System
Singapore’s banking system is sound and well regulated by the Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS), and it serves as a financial hub for the region. Banks have a very high domestic penetration rate, and according to World Bank Financial Inclusion indicators, over 97 percent of persons held a financial account in 2017 (latest year available). According to a 2014 McKinsey Asia Personal Financial Services Survey, the average number of banking products held by the customer is 5.72, while 94 percent of respondents used internet banking via PC or smartphone. Local Singapore banks saw net profits rise 27 percent in the last quarter of 2019. Banks are statutorily prohibited from engaging in non-financial business. Banks can hold 10 percent or less in non-financial companies as an “equity portfolio investment.” As of 2018Q4, the non-performing loans ratio (NPL ratio) of the three local banks averaged 1.5 percent, down from the NPL ratio of 1.7in 2017 Q4. The World Bank records Singapore’s banking sector overall NPL ratio at 1.22 in 2016.
Foreign banks require licenses to operate in the country. The tiered licenses, for Merchant, Offshore, Wholesale, Full Banks and Qualifying Full Banks (QFBs) subject banks to further prudential safeguards in return for offering a greater range of services. U.S. financial institutions enjoy phased-in benefits under the USSFTA. Since 2006, U.S.-licensed full service banks that are also QFBs have been able to operate at an unlimited number of locations (branches or off-premises ATMs) versus 25 for non-U.S. full service foreign banks with QFB status.
Under the OECD Common Reporting Standards (CRS) which has been in effect since January 2017, Singapore-based Financial Institutions (SGFIs) – depository institutions such as banks, specified insurance companies, investment entities, and custodial institutions – are required to establish the tax residency status of all their account holders, collect and retain CRS information for all non-Singapore tax residents in the case of new accounts and report to tax authorities the financial account information of account holders who are tax residents of jurisdictions with which Singapore has a Competent Authority Agreement (CAA) to exchange the information.
U.S. financial regulations do not restrict foreign banks’ ability to hold accounts for U.S. citizens. U.S. Citizens are encouraged to alert the nearest U.S. Embassy of any practices they encounter with regard to the provision of financial services.
Fintech investments in Singapore doubled in 2018 to USD 365 million. To strengthen Singapore’s position as a global Fintech hub, MAS has created a dedicated Fintech Office as a one-stop virtual entity for all FinTech-related matters to enable FinTech experimentation and promote an open-API (Application Programming Interfaces) in the financial industry. According to Research and Markets, the Singapore mobile wallet and payment market is expected to be worth over USD 40 billion by 2025.
MAS also aims to be a regional leader in the implementation of blockchain technologies to position Singapore as a financial technology center. MAS and the Association of Banks in Singapore are prototyping the use of Distributed Ledger Technology (DLT) for inter-bank clearing and settlement of payments and securities. Two phases have been completed, including a proof-of-concept project for inter-bank payments and software prototypes for decentralized inter-bank payment and settlements. Two spin-off projects are currently under development. (http://www.mas.gov.sg/Singapore-Financial-Centre/Smart-Financial-Centre/Project-Ubin.aspx ).
Alternative financial services include retail and corporate non-bank lending via finance companies, co-operative societies, and pawnshops; and burgeoning financial technology-based services across a wide range of sectors: crowdfunding, Initial Coin Offerings, payment services and remittance, which remains a small but growing sector. In January 2019, the Payment Services Bill went into effect which will require all cryptocurrency service providers to be licensed with the intent to provide more user protection. Smaller payment firms will receive a different classifications from larger institutions and will be less heavily regulated. Key infrastructures supporting Singapore’s financial market include interbank (MEP), Foreign exchange (CLS, CAPS), retail (SGDCCS, USDCCS, CTS, IBG, ATM), securities (MEPS+-SGS, CDP, SGX-DC) and derivatives settlements (SGX-DC, APS).
Please consult http://www.mas.gov.sg/Singapore-Financial-Centre/Payment-and-Settlement-Systems/Clearing-and-Settlement-Systems.aspx and https://www.bis.org/cpmi/publ/d97.htm to read about to find additional information regarding payment, clearing/ and settlement systems that are used in Singapore.
Foreign Exchange and Remittances
The USSFTA commits Singapore to the free transfer of capital, unimpeded by regulatory restrictions. Singapore places no restrictions on reinvestment or repatriation of earnings and capital, and maintains no significant restrictions on remittances, foreign exchange transactions and capital movements.
Singapore’s monetary policy has been centered on the management of the exchange rate since 1981, with the stated primary objective of promoting medium term price stability as a sound basis for sustainable economic growth. As described by MAS, there are three main features of the exchange rate system in Singapore. MAS operates a managed float regime for the Singapore dollar with the trade-weighted exchange rate allowed to fluctuate within a policy band. The Singapore dollar is managed against a basket of currencies of its major trading partners. The exchange rate policy band is periodically reviewed to ensure that it remains consistent with the underlying fundamentals of the economy.
There are no time or amount limitations on remittances. No significant changes to investment remittance was implemented or announced over the past year.
Sovereign Wealth Funds
The Government of Singapore has three key investment entities. GIC Private Limited (GIC) is the sovereign wealth fund in Singapore that manages the government’s substantial investments, fiscal, and foreign reserves, with the stated objective to achieve long-term returns and preserve the international purchasing power of the reserves. Temasek is a holding company wholly owned by the Singapore Minister for Finance. Under the Singapore Minister for Finance (Incorporation) Act, the Minister for Finance is a corporate body. The MAS, as the central bank of Singapore, manages the Official Foreign Reserves, and a significant proportion of its portfolio is invested in liquid financial market instruments.
GIC does not publish the size of the funds under management, but some industry observers estimate its managed assets exceed USD 390 billion. GIC does not invest domestically, but manages Singapore’s international investments, which are generally passive (non-controlling) investments in publicly traded entities. The United States is its top investment destination, accounting for 32 percent of GIC’s portfolio as of March 2018, while Asia ex-Japan accounts for 19 percent, the Eurozone 13 percent, Japan 13 percent, and UK 6 percent. Investments in the United States are diversified and include industrial and commercial properties, student housing, power transmission companies, and financial, retail and business services. Although not required by law, GIC has published an annual report since 2008.
Temasek began as a holding company for Singapore’s state-owned enterprises, now GLCs, but has since branched to other asset classes, and often holds significant stake in companies. As of March 2018, Temasek’s portfolio value reached USD 235 billion, and its asset exposure to Singapore was 27 percent; 41 percent in the rest of Asia, and 13 percent in North America. As set out in the Temasek Charter, Temasek delivers sustainable value over the long term for its stakeholders. Temasek formerly focused on managing industries to promote economic development, but has since shifted its emphasis to commercial objectives. Temasek has published a Temasek Review annually since 2004. The statements only provides consolidated financial statements, which aggregate all of Temasek and its subsidiaries into a single financial report. Temasek Group’s annual statutory financial statements are audited by a major international audit firm. GIC and Temasek uphold the Santiago Principles for sovereign investments. Singapore is a member of the International Forum of Sovereign Wealth Funds.
Other investing entities of government funds include EDB Investments Pte Ltd, Singapore’s Housing Development Board, and other government statutory boards with funding decisions driven by goals emanating from the central government.
7. State-Owned Enterprises
Singapore has an extensive network of government-linked corporations (GLC) that are fully or partially owned by Temasek Holdings, a holding company with the Singapore Minister for Finance as its sole shareholder. Singapore GLCs play a substantial role in Singapore’s domestic economy, especially in strategically important sectors including telecommunications, media, healthcare, public transportation, defense, port, gas, electricity grid, and airport operations. In addition, the GLCs are also present in many other sectors of the economy, including banking, subway, airline, consumer/lifestyle, commodities trading, oil and gas engineering, postal services, infrastructure, and real estate.
The Government of Singapore is generally opposed to the term GLC and prefers to use the term State-Owned Enterprises (SOEs). The government emphasizes that whether referring to GLCs or SOEs, the entities operate on an equal basis with both local and foreign businesses without exception. Consolidated figures of total assets, net income, and numbers employed in SOEs) are not publicly available, but Temasek’s domestic asset ownership stake in SOEs is estimated at USD 64 billion. There is no published list of SOEs.
Temasek’s annual report notes that its portfolio companies are guided and managed by their respective boards and management, and Temasek does not direct their business decisions or operations. However, as a substantial shareholder, corporate governance within GLCs typically are guided or influenced by policies developed by Temasek. There are differences in corporate governance disclosures and practices across the GLCs, and GLC boards are allowed to determine their own governance practices, with Temasek advisors occasionally meeting with the companies to make recommendations. GLC board seats are not specifically allocated to government officials, although it “leverages on its networks to suggest qualified individuals for consideration by the respective boards”, and leaders formerly from the armed forces or civil service are often represented on boards and fill senior management positions. Temasek exercises its shareholder rights to influence the strategic directions of its companies but does not get involved in the day-to-day business and commercial decisions of its firms and subsidiaries.
GLCs operate on a commercial basis and compete on an equal basis with private businesses, both local and foreign. Singapore officials highlight that the government does not interfere with the operations of GLCs or grant them special privileges, preferential treatment or hidden subsidies, asserting that GLCs are subject to the same regulatory regime and discipline of the market as private sector companies. Observers, however, have been critical of cases where GLCs have entered into new lines of business or where government agencies have “corporatized” certain government functions, in both circumstances entering into competition with already-existing private businesses. Some private sector companies have said they encountered unfair business practices and opaque bidding processes that appeared to favor incumbent, government-linked firms. In addition, they note that the GLC’s institutional relationships with the government give them natural advantages in terms of access to cheaper funding and opportunities to shape the economic policy agenda in ways that benefit their companies.
The USSFTA contains specific conduct guarantees to ensure that GLCs will operate on a commercial and non-discriminatory basis towards U.S. firms. GLCs with substantial revenues or assets are also subject to enhanced transparency requirements under the USSFTA. In accordance with its USSFTA commitments, Singapore enacted the Competition Act in 2004 and established the Competition Commission of Singapore in January 2005. The Act contains provisions on anti-competitive agreements, decisions, and practices, abuse of dominance, enforcement and appeals process, and mergers and acquisitions.
The government has privatized GLCs in multiple sectors and has not publicly announced further privatization plans, but is likely to retain controlling stakes in strategically important sectors, including telecommunications, media, public transportation, defense, port, gas, electricity grid, and airport operations. The Energy Market Authority (EMA) is in the midst of fully opening up, from 2018 to the first half of 2019, extending the liberalization of the retail market from commercial and industrial consumers with an average monthly electricity consumption of at least 2,000 kWh to households and smaller businesses. The Electricity Act and the Code of Conduct for Retail Electricity Licensees govern licensing and standards for electricity retail companies.
8. Responsible Business Conduct
The awareness and implementation of corporate social responsibility (CSR) in Singapore has been increasing since the formation of the Global Compact Network Singapore (GCNS) under the United Nations Global Compact (UNGC) network, with the goals of encouraging companies to adopt sustainability principles related to human and labor rights, environmental conservation, and anti-corruption. GCNS facilitates exchanges, conducts research, and provides training in Singapore to build capacity in areas including sustainability reporting, supply chain management, ISO 26000, and measuring and reporting carbon emissions.
KPMG’s 2017 Corporate Responsibility Reporting survey showed that 84 percent of the largest companies in Singapore are fulfilling their corporate responsibility and sustainability reporting responsibilities, which is higher than the global average at 72 percent. KPMG’s survey also noted that climate and environment risks are not adequately recognized or addressed by Singapore companies. Only 17 percent of Singapore companies have set carbon-reduction targets, lower than the global rate of 50 percent. The Government of Singapore notes that in 2018 as part of the Year of Climate Action, the Ministry of Environment and Water Resources received more than 500 pledges from companies that have made public commitments toward taking climate action. A 2017 World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) survey showed a lack of transparency by Singapore companies in disclosing palm oil sources. However, awareness is growing and the Southeast Asia Alliance for Sustainable Palm Oil (Saspo) has received additional pledges in 2018 by companies to adhere to standards for palm oil sourcing set by the Roundtable for Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO). A group of F&B, retail and hospitality companies announced in January 2019 what the WWF calls “the most impactful business response to-date on plastics.” The pact, initiated by WWF and supported by Singapore’s National Environment Agency, is a commitment to significantly reduce plastic production and usage by 2030.
In January 2019, Singapore’s Ministry of Environment and Water Resources and MAS released a joint statement welcoming the formation of the Asia Sustainable Finance Initiative. With WWF as secretariat, the initiative seeks to shift Asia’s financial flows towards sustainable economic, social, and environmental outcomes.
In June 2016, the Singapore Exchange (SGX) introduced mandatory, comply-or-explain, sustainability reporting requirements for all listed companies, including material environmental, social and governance practices, from the financial year ending December 31, 2017 onwards. The Singapore Environmental Council (SEC) operates a green labeling scheme, which endorses environmentally-friendly products, numbering over 3,000 from 29 countries. The Association of Banks in Singapore (ABS) issued voluntary guidelines to banks in Singapore in October 2015 encouraging them to adopt sustainable lending practices, including the integration of environmental, social and governance (ESG) principles into their lending and business practices. Singapore-based banks have been listed in a 2018 Market Forces report on contributions to regional coal-financing.
Singapore has not developed a National Action Plan on business and human rights, but promotes responsible business practices, and encourages foreign and local enterprises to follow generally accepted CSR principles. The government does not explicitly factor responsible business conduct (RBC) policies into its procurement decisions.
The host government effectively and fairly enforces domestic laws with regard to human rights, labor rights, consumer protection, environmental protections, and other laws/regulations intended to protect individuals from adverse business impacts. The private sector’s impact on migrant workers and their rights, and domestic migrant workers in particular (due to the latter’s exemption from the Employment Act which stipulates the rights of workers), remains an area of advocacy by civil society groups. The government has taken incremental steps to improve the channels of redress and enforcement of workers’ rights; however, key concerns about legislative protections remain unaddressed for domestic migrant workers. The government generally encourages businesses to comply with international standards. However, there are no specific mentions of the host government encouraging adherence to the OECD Due Diligence Guidance, or supply chain due diligence measures.
The Companies Act principally governs companies in Singapore. Key areas of corporate governance covered under the act include separation of ownership from management, fiduciary duties of directors, shareholder remedies, and capital maintenance rules. Limited liability partnerships are governed by the Limited Liability Partnerships Act. Certain provisions in other statutes such as the Securities and Futures Act are also relevant to listed companies. Listed companies are required under the Singapore Exchange Listing Rules to describe in their annual reports their corporate governance practices with specific reference to the principles and provisions of the Code of Corporate Governance (the code). Listed companies must comply with the principles of the Code and if their practices vary from any provision in the Code, they must explain the variation and demonstrate the variation is consistent with the relevant principle. The Code of Corporate Governance was revised in 2018 and will impact Annual Reports covering financial years beginning on January 1, 2019. The revised code encourages board renewal, strengthens director independence, increases transparency of remuneration practices, enhances board diversity, and encourages communication with all stakeholders. MAS also established an independent Corporate Governance Advisory Committee (CGAC) to advocated good corporate governance practices in February 2019. The CGAC monitors companies’ implementation of the code and advises regulators on corporate governance issues.
There are independent NGOs promoting and monitoring responsible business conduct (RBC). Those monitoring or advocating around RBC are generally able to do their work freely within most areas. However, labor unions are tightly controlled and legal rights to strike are granted with restrictions under the Trade Disputes Act.
Singapore has no oil, gas, or mineral resources and is not a member of the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative (EITI). A small sector processes and rare minerals, and complies with responsible supply chains and conflict mineral principles. Under the new Anti-Money Laundering and Countering Financing of Terrorism (AML/CFT) framework introduced in 2014, it is a requirement for Corporate Service Providers to develop and implement internal policies, procedures and controls to comply with Financial Action Task Force (FATF) recommendations on combating of money laundering and terrorism financing.
Resources to Report Corruption
Singapore actively enforces its strong anti-corruption laws and corruption is not cited as a concern for foreign investors. Transparency International’s 2018 Corruption Perception index ranks Singapore 3rd of 175 countries globally, the highest ranking for an Asian country. The Prevention of Corruption Act (PCA), and the Drug Trafficking and Other Serious Crimes (Confiscation of Benefits) Act provide the legal basis for government action by the Corrupt Practices Investigation Bureau (CPIB), which is the only agency authorized under the PCA to investigate corruption offences and other related offences. These laws cover acts of corruption within Singapore as well as those committed by Singaporeans abroad. When cases of corruption are uncovered, whether in the public or private sector, the government deals with them firmly, swiftly, and publicly. The anti-corruption laws extend to family members of officials, and to political parties. The CPIB is effective and non-discriminatory. Singapore is generally perceived to be one of the least corrupt countries in Asia and the world, and corruption is not identified as an obstacle to FDI in Singapore. Singapore is a signatory to the UN Anticorruption Convention, but not the OECD Anti-Bribery Convention.
Resources to Report Corruption
Contact at government agency or agencies are responsible for combating corruption:
Corrupt Practices Investigation Bureau
2 Lengkok Bahru, Singapore 159047
+65 6270 0141
10. Political and Security Environment
Singapore’s political environment is stable and there is no history of incidents involving politically motivated damage to foreign investments in Singapore. The ruling People’s Action Party (PAP) has dominated Singapore’s parliamentary government since 1959 and currently controls 83 of the 89 regularly contested parliamentary seats. Singapore opposition parties, which currently hold six regularly contested parliamentary seats and three additional seats reserved to the opposition by the constitution, do not usually espouse views that are radically different from the mainstream of Singapore political opinion.
11. Labor Policies and Practices
As of June 2018, Singapore’s labor market totaled 3.68 million workers; this includes about 1.37 million foreigners, of whom about 84 percent are basic skilled or semi-skilled workers. The labor market continues to be tight, with overall unemployment rate averaging at 2.0 percent the first half of 2018. Local labor laws allow for relatively free hiring and firing practices. Either party can terminate employment by giving the other party the required notice. The Ministry of Manpower (MOM) must approve employment of foreigners.
Since 2011, the government has introduced policy measures to support productivity increases coupled with reduced dependence on foreign labor. In Budget 2019, MOM announced a decrease in the foreign worker quota ceiling from 40 percent to 38 percent on January 1, 2020 and to 35percent on January 1, 2021. The quota reduction does not apply to those on Employment Passes which are high skilled workers making above USD 32,000 per year. Singapore’s labor force did not change in size in 2018 and is expected to face significant demographic headwinds from an aging population and low birth rates, alongside restrictions on foreign workers. Singapore’s local workforce growth is slowing, heading for stagnation over the next ten years.
In November 2018, the Infocommunications and Media Development Authority announced a new program to support and scale start-ups in Singapore.
To address concerns over an aging and shrinking workforce, MOM has expanded its training and grant programs to more than 15. In Budget 2019, MOM raised the work-life grant budget from USD 22.2 million to USD 73.8 million. An example of an existing program is SkillsFuture, a government initiative managed by SkillsFuture Singapore (SSG), a statutory board under the Ministry of Education, designed to provide all Singaporeans with enhanced opportunities and skills-capacity building. SSG also administers the Singapore Workforce Skills Qualifications (WSQ), a national credential system that trains, develops, assesses and certifies skills and competencies for the workforce.
All foreigners must have a valid work pass before they can start work in Singapore, with Employment Pass (for professionals, managers and executives), S Pass (for mid-level skilled staff), and Work Permits (for semi-skilled workers), among the most widely issued. Workers need to have a job with minimum fixed monthly salary and acceptable qualifications to be eligible for the Employment Pass and S Pass. The minimum monthly salary eligibility thresholds for S Pass will be raised from USD 1,667 to USD 1,819 from January 1 2020. The government further regulates the inflow of foreign workers through the Foreign Worker Levy (FWL) and the Dependency Ratio Ceiling (DRC). The DRC is the maximum permitted ratio of foreign workers to the total workforce that a company is allowed to hire, and serves as a quota on the hiring of foreign workers. The DRC varies across sectors. Employers of S Pass and Work Permit holders are required to pay a monthly FWL to the government. The FWL varies according to the skills, qualifications and experience of their employees. The FWL is set on a sector-by-sector basis and is subject to annual revisions. FWLs have been progressively increased for most sectors since 2012.
MOM requires employers to consider Singaporeans before hiring skilled professional foreigners. The Fair Consideration Framework (FCF), implemented in August 2014, affects employers who apply for Employment Passes (EP), the work pass for foreign professionals working in professional, manager, and executive (PME) posts. Companies have noted inconsistent and increasingly burdensome documentation requirements and excessive qualification criteria to approve EP applications. Under the rules, firms making new EP applications must first advertise the job vacancy in a new jobs bank administered by Workforce Singapore (WSG) for at least 14 days. The jobs bank will be free for use by companies and job seekers and the job advertisement must be open to all Singaporeans. Employers are encouraged to keep records of their interview process as proof that they have done due diligence in trying to look for a Singaporean worker. If an EP is still needed, the employer will have to make a statutory declaration that a job advertisement with the national jobs bank had been made. Smaller firms with 10 or fewer employees and jobs, which pay a fixed monthly salary of USD 8,857 or more, are exempt from the requirements, which were newly tightened and took effect from July 2018.
Consistent with Singapore’s WTO obligations, intra-corporate transfers (ICT) are allowed for managers, executives, and specialists who had worked for at least one year in the firm before being posted to Singapore. ICT would still be required to meet all EP criteria, but the requirement for an advertisement in the jobs bank would be waived. In April 2016, MOM outlined measures to refine the work pass applications process, looking not only at the qualifications of individuals, but at company-related factors. Companies found not to have a “healthy Singaporean core, lacking a demonstrated commitment to developing a Singaporean core, and not found to be essential to Singapore’s economy and society, will be labeled “triple weak” and put on a watch list. Companies unable to demonstrate progress may have work pass privileges suspended after a period of scrutiny. Approximately 500 companies were placed on the watch-list from 2016 to 2018, and 150 companies exited it after compliance with requirements.
The Employment Act covers all employees under a contract of service, and under the act, employees who have served the company for at least two years are eligible for retrenchment benefits, and the amount of compensation depends on the contract of service or what is agreed collectively. Employers have to abide by notice periods in the employment contract before termination, and stipulated minimum guidelines in the absence of a notice period previously agreed upon, or provide salary in lieu of notice. Dismissal on grounds of wrongful conduct by the employee is differentiated from retrenchments in the labor laws, and is exempted from the above requirements. Employers must notify MOM of retrenchments within five working days after they notify the affected employees to enable the relevant agencies to help affected employees find alternative employment and/or identify relevant training to enhance employability. Singapore does not provide unemployment benefits, but provides training and job matching services to retrenched workers.
Labor laws are not waived in order to attract or retain investment in Singapore. There are no additional or different labor law provisions in free trade zones.
Collective bargaining is a normal part of labor-management relations in all sectors. As of 2016 about 20 percent of the workforce is unionized. Foreign workers constituted approximately 15 percent of union members. Almost all unions are affiliated with the National Trades Union Congress (NTUC), the sole national federation of trade unions in Singapore, which has a close relationship with the PAP ruling party and the government. The current NTUC Secretary General is also a Minister in the Prime Minister’s Office. Given that nearly all unions are NTUC affiliates, the NTUC has almost exclusive authority to exercise collective bargaining power on behalf of employees. Union members may not reject collective agreements negotiated between their union representatives and an employer. Although transfers and layoffs are excluded from the scope of collective bargaining, employers consult with unions on both problems, and the Tripartite Panel on Retrenched Workers issues guidelines calling for early notification to unions of layoffs. Data on coverage of collective bargaining agreements is not publicly available. The Industrial Relations Act (IRA) regulates collective bargaining. The Industrial Arbitration Courts must certify any collective bargaining agreement before it is deemed in effect and can deny certification on public interest grounds. Additionally, the IRA restricts the scope of issues over which workers may bargain, excluding bargaining on hiring, transfer, promotion, dismissal, or reinstatement of workers.
Most labor disagreements are resolved through conciliation and mediation by MOM. Since April 2017 the Tripartite Alliance for Dispute Management (TADM) under MOM has provided advisory and mediation services, including mediation for labor disputes. Where the conciliation process is not successful, the disputing parties may submit their dispute to the IAC for arbitration. Depending on the nature of the dispute, the Court may be constituted either by the President of the IAC and a member of the Employer and Employee Panels, or by the President alone. The Employment Claims Tribunals (ECT) was established under the Employment Claims Act (2016). To bring a claim before the ECT, parties must first register their claims at the TADM for mediation. Mediation at TADM is compulsory. Only disputes which remain unresolved after mediation at TADM may be referred to the ECT.
The ECT hears statutory salary-related claims, contractual salary-related claims and claims for salary in lieu of notice of termination by all employers. There will be a limit of SGD USD 30,000 on claims for cases with union involvement, and SGD USD 20,000 for all other claims. Prior to April 2017, TADM arbitration was available only to those employees covered under the Employment Act who earned less USD USD 3,180 per month for cases of salary arrears, breach of individual employment contracts and payment of retrenchment benefits. In March 2019, MOM announced that 85 percent of salary claims had been resolved by TADM. Salary-related disputes that are not resolved by mediation are covered by the Employment Claims Tribunals under the State Courts. Disputing parties
Industrial disputes may also submit their case be referred to the tripartite Industrial Arbitration Court (IAC). The IAC composed has two panels: an employee panel and a management panel. For a majority of dispute hearings, a Court is constituted comprising the President of the IAC and a member each from the employee and employer panels’ representatives and chaired by a judge. In some situations, the law provides for compulsory arbitration. The court must certify collective agreements before they go into effect. The court may refuse certification at its discretion on the ground of public interest.
The legal framework in Singapore provides for some restrictions in the registration of trade unions, labor union autonomy and administration, the right to strike, who may serve as union officers or employees, and collective bargaining. Under the Trade Union Act (TUA), every trade union must register with the Registrar of Trade Unions, which has broad discretion to grant, deny, or cancel union registration. The TUA limits the objectives for which unions can spend their funds, including for contributions to a political party or for political purposes, and allows the Registrar to inspect accounts and funds “at any reasonable time.” Legal rights to strike are granted with restrictions under the Trade Disputes Act. The law requires more than 50 percent of affected unionized workers to vote in favor of a strike by secret ballot, as opposed to 51 percent of those participating in the vote. Strikes cannot be conducted for any reason apart from a dispute in the trade or industry in which the strikers are employed, and it is illegal to conduct a strike if it is “designed or calculated to coerce the government either directly or by inflicting hardship on the community.” Workers in “essential services” are required to give 14 days’ notice to an employer before conducting a strike. Although workers, other than those employed in the three essential services of water, gas and electricity, may strike, no workers did so since 1986 with the exception of a strike by bus drivers in 2012. The TUA bars non-citizens from serving as union officers or employees, unless prior written approval is received from the Minister for Manpower.
The Employment Act, which prohibits all forms of forced or compulsory labor and the Prevention of Human Trafficking Act (PHTA), strengthens labor trafficking victim protection, and governs labor protections. Labor laws set the standard legal workweek at 44 hours, with one rest day each week, and establish a framework for workplaces to comply with occupational safety and health standards, with regular inspections designed to enforce the standards. MOM effectively enforces laws and regulations establishing working conditions and comprehensive occupational safety and health (OSH) laws, and implements enforcement procedures and promoted educational and training programs to reduce the frequency of job-related accidents. Changes to the Employment Act took effect on April 1, including for extension of core provisions to managers and executives, increasing the monthly salary cap, transferring adjudication of wrongful dismissal claims from MOM to the ECT, and increasing flexibility in compensating employees working during public holidays (for more detail see https://www.mom.gov.sg/employment-practices/employment-act ). All workers, except for public servants, domestic workers and seafarers are still excluded from the Employment Act, and additional time-based provisions for more vulnerable employees.
Singapore has no across the board minimum wage law, although there are some exceptions in certain low skill industries. Generally, the government follows a policy of allowing free market forces to determine wage levels. In specific sectors where wages have stagnated and market practices such as outsourcing reduce incentive to upskill workers and limit their bargaining power, the government has implemented Progressive Wage Models to uplift wages. These are currently implementing in the cleaning, security, and landscape sectors. The National Wage Council (NWC), a tripartite body comprising representatives from the government, employers and unions, recommends non-binding wage adjustments on an annual basis. The NWC recommendations apply to all employees in both domestic and foreign firms, and across the private and public sectors. While the NWC wage guidelines are not mandatory, they are published under the Employment Act and form the basis of wage negotiations between unions and management. The NWC recommendations apply to all employees in both domestic and foreign law firms, and across the public and private sectors. The level of implementation is generally higher among unionized companies compared to non-unionized companies.
MOM is responsible for combating labor trafficking and improving working conditions for workers, and generally enforces anti-trafficking legislation, although some workers in low-wage and unskilled sectors are vulnerable to labor exploitation and abuse. PHTA sets out harsh penalties (including up to nine strokes of the cane and 15 years’ imprisonment) for those found guilty of trafficking, including forced labor, or abetting such activities. The government developed a mechanism for referral of forced labor, among other trafficking-in-persons activities, to the interagency taskforce, co-chaired by the Ministry of Home Affairs and the Ministry of Manpower. Some observers note that the country’s employer sponsorship system made legal migrant workers vulnerable to forced labor, because they cannot change employers without the consent of the current employer. MOM effectively enforces laws and regulations pertaining to child labor. Penalties for employers that violated child labor laws were subject to fines and/or imprisonment, depending on the violation. Government officials assert that child labor is not a significant issue. The incidence of children in formal employment is low, and almost no abuses are reported.
The U.S.-Singapore Free Trade Agreement came into effect on January 1, 2004 and includes a chapter on labor protections. The chapter contains a statement of shared commitment by each party that the principles and rights set forth in Article 17.7 of the ILO Declaration on Fundamental Principles and Rights at Work and its Follow-up are recognized and protected by domestic law, and each party shall strive to ensure it does not derogate protections afforded in domestic labor law as an encouragement for trade or investment purposes. The chapter includes the establishment of a labor cooperation mechanism, which promotes the exchange of information on ways to improve labor law and practice, and the advancement of effective implementation of the principles reflected in the ILO Declaration on Fundamental Principles and Rights at Work and its Follow-up.
See the U.S. State Department Human Rights Report (https://www.state.gov/reports-bureau-of-democracy-human-rights-and-labor/country-reports-on-human-rights-practices/) as well as the U.S. State Department’s Trafficking in Persons Report (https://www.state.gov/trafficking-in-persons-report/)
12. OPIC and Other Investment Insurance Programs
Under the 1966 Investment Guarantee Agreement with Singapore, the Overseas Private Investment Corporation (OPIC) offers insurance to U.S. investors in Singapore against currency inconvertibility, expropriation, and losses arising from war. Singapore became a member of the Multilateral Investment Guarantee Agency (MIGA) in 1998. In March 2019, Singapore and the United States signed a MOU aimed at strengthening collaboration between the infrastructure agency of Singapore, Infrastructure Asia, and OPIC. According to MTI, both countries will work together on information sharing, deal facilitation, structuring and capacity building initiatives in sectors of mutual interest such as energy, natural resource management, water, waste, transportation, and urban development. The aim is to enhance Singapore-based and U.S. companies’ access to project opportunities, while building on Singapore’s role as an infrastructure hub in Asia.
In June 2018, OPIC committed to USD 100 million investment in Singapore-headquartered Quadria Capital, which is an Asian healthcare-focused private equity firm.
Singapore’s domestic public infrastructure projects are funded primarily via Singapore government reserves or capital markets, reducing the scope for direct project financing subsidies by foreign governments.
13. Foreign Direct Investment and Foreign Portfolio Investment Statistics
Table 2: Key Macroeconomic Data, U.S. FDI in Host Country/Economy
||Host Country Statistical Source*
||USG or International Statistical Source
||USG or International Source of Data:
BEA; IMF; Eurostat; UNCTAD, Other
|Host Country Gross Domestic Product (GDP) ($M USD)
|Foreign Direct Investment
||Host Country Statistical Source*
||USG or International Statistical Source
||USG or International Source of Data:
BEA; IMF; Eurostat; UNCTAD, Other
|U.S. FDI in partner country ($M USD, stock positions)
||BEA data available at https://www.bea.gov/international/direct-investment-and-multinational-enterprises-comprehensive-data
|Host country’s FDI in the United States ($M USD, stock positions)
||BEA data available at https://www.bea.gov/international/direct-investment-and-multinational-enterprises-comprehensive-data
|Total inbound stock of FDI as % host GDP
||UNCTAD data available at
* Data taken from www.singstat.gov.sg . Note: Exchange rate of SGD$1/US$0.7381
Table 3: Sources and Destination of FDI
|Direct Investment From/in Counterpart Economy Data
|From Top Five Sources/To Top Five Destinations (US Dollars, Millions)
|Inward Direct Investment
||Outward Direct Investment
|British Virgin Islands
|“0” reflects amounts rounded to +/- USD 500,000.
Outward investment not available from CDIS. Data taken from www.singstat.gov.sg .
Table 4: Sources of Portfolio Investment
|Portfolio Investment Assets
|Top Five Partners (Millions, US Dollars)
||Total Debt Securities
|Republic of Korea
||Republic of Korea
14. Contact for More Information
Economic Unit Chief
27 Napier Road