Indonesia’s population of 270 million, Gross Domestic Product (GDP) over USD 1 trillion, growing middle class, abundant natural resources, and stable economy all serve as very attractive features to U.S. investors; however, a range of stakeholders note that investing in Indonesia remains challenging. Since 2014, the Indonesian government under President Joko (“Jokowi”) Widodo, now in his second and final five-year term, has prioritized boosting infrastructure investment and human capital development to support Indonesia’s economic growth goals. The COVID-19 pandemic has accelerated the Indonesian government’s efforts to pursue major economic reforms through the issuance of the 2020 Omnibus Law on Job Creation (Omnibus Law). The law and its implementing regulations aim to improve Indonesia’s economic competitiveness and accelerate economic recovery by lowering corporate taxes, reforming rigid labor laws, simplifying business licenses, and reducing bureaucratic and regulatory barriers to investment. The regulations also provide a basis to liberalize hundreds of sectors, including healthcare services, insurance, power generation, and oil and gas. Sectoral or technical regulations may still present obstacles. Regardless of the outcome of these positive reforms and their implementation, factors such as a decentralized decision-making process, legal and regulatory uncertainty, economic nationalism, trade protectionism, and powerful domestic vested interests in both the private and public sectors can contribute to a complex investment climate. Other factors relevant to investors include: government requirements, both formal and informal, to partner with Indonesian companies, and to manufacture or purchase goods and services locally; restrictions on some imports and exports; and pressure to make substantial, long-term investment commitments. Despite recent limits placed on its authority, the Indonesian Corruption Eradication Commission (KPK) continues to investigate and prosecute corruption cases. However, investors still cite corruption as an obstacle to pursuing opportunities in Indonesia.
Other barriers to foreign investment that have been reported include difficulties in government coordination, the slow rate of land acquisition for infrastructure projects, weak enforcement of contracts, bureaucratic inefficiency, and delays in receiving refunds for advance corporate tax overpayments from tax authorities. Businesses also face difficulty from changes to rules at government discretion with little or no notice and opportunity for comment, and lack of stakeholder consultation in the development of laws and regulations at various levels. Investors have noted that many new regulations are difficult to understand and often not properly communicated, including internally. The Indonesian government is seeking to streamline the business license and import permit process, which has been plagued by complex inter-ministerial coordination in the past, through the establishment of a “one stop shop” for risk-based licenses and permits via an online single submission (OSS) system at the Indonesia Investment Coordinating Board (BKPM).
In February 2021, Indonesia introduced a priority list consisting of sectors that are open for foreign investment and eligible for investment incentives to replace the 2016 Negative Investment List. All sectors are at least partially open to foreign investment, with the exception of seven closed sectors and sectors that are reserved for the central government. Companies have reported that energy and mining still face significant foreign investment barriers.
Indonesia established the Indonesian Investment Authority (INA), also known as the sovereign wealth fund, upon the enactment of the Omnibus Law, aiming to attract foreign equity and long-term investment to finance infrastructure projects in sectors such as transportation, oil and gas, health, tourism, and digital technologies.
Indonesia began to abrogate its more than 60 existing Bilateral Investment Treaties (BITs) in 2014, allowing some of the agreements to expire in order to be renegotiated, including through ongoing negotiations of bilateral trade agreements. In March 2021, Indonesia and Singapore ratified a new BIT, the first since 2014. The United States does not have a BIT with Indonesia.
Despite the challenges that industry has reported, Indonesia continues to attract significant foreign investment. Singapore, the Netherlands, the United States, Japan, and Malaysia were among the top sources of foreign investment in the country in 2019 (latest available full-year data). Private consumption is the backbone of Indonesia’s economy, the largest in ASEAN, making it a promising destination for a wide range of companies, ranging from consumer products and financial services, to digital start-ups and franchisors. Indonesia has ambitious plans to continue to improve its infrastructure with a focus on expanding access to energy, strengthening its maritime transport corridors, which includes building roads, ports, railways and airports, as well as improving agricultural production, telecommunications, and broadband networks throughout the country. Indonesia continues to attract U.S. franchises and consumer product manufacturers. UN agencies and the World Bank have recommended that Indonesia do more to grow financial and investor support for women-owned businesses, noting obstacles that women-owned business sometimes face in early-stage financing.
Malaysia continues to focus on economic recovery following its deepest recession in 20 years, brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic and restrictions on domestic travel and business operations intended to curb the spread of the virus. Under Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin, the government has spent an estimated USD 82 billion in stimulus measures since the start of the pandemic. Despite these setbacks, Malaysia’s economy is expected to rebound in 2021, buoyed by manufacturing export sector growth and public initiatives to increase digital investments and construction activity. Malaysia’s finance ministry and central bank have noted the pace of the recovery will also be impacted by the government’s vaccine rollout, which has experienced delays.
On April 21, the government announced the National Investment Aspirations, a framework intended to reform Malaysia’s investment policies. Among the goals of the new investment framework are to expand and integrate Malaysia’s linkages with regional and global supply chains and further develop economic clusters tied to key sectors, including advanced manufacturing and technology (broadly referred to in Malaysia as the electrical and electronics, or E&E, sector). On February 19, the government announced the MyDigital initiative, intended to add 500,000 jobs and grow Malaysia’s digital economy to nearly one-quarter of GDP by 2030.
On January 12, Prime Minister Muhyiddin announced a six-month state of emergency intended to strengthen the government’s ability to respond to the pandemic. However, the resulting suspension of parliament has also contributed to political uncertainty in Malaysia since a change in government in March 2020, the second in a two-year period.
The Malaysian government has traditionally encouraged foreign direct investment (FDI), and the Prime Minister and other cabinet ministers have signaled their openness to foreign investment since taking office. In its 2021 budget, the government proposed tax incentives which include extensions of existing relocation incentives for the manufacturing sector (including a zero-percent tax rate for new companies or a 100-percent investment tax allowance for five years) and extensions of existing tax incentives for certain industrial sectors.
The business climate in Malaysia is generally conducive to U.S. investment. Increased transparency and structural reforms that will prevent future corrupt practices could make Malaysia a more attractive destination for FDI in the long run. The largest U.S. investments are in the oil and gas sector, manufacturing, technology, and financial services. Firms with significant investment in Malaysia’s oil and gas and petrochemical sectors include ExxonMobil, Caltex, ConocoPhillips, Hess Oil, Halliburton, Dow Chemical, and Eastman Chemicals. Major semiconductor manufacturers, including ON Semiconductor, Texas Instruments, Intel, and others have substantial operations in Malaysia, as do electronics manufacturers Western Digital, Honeywell, and Motorola.
Despite challenges posed by the COVID-19 pandemic, the Philippines is committed to improving its overall investment climate. Sovereign credit ratings remain at investment grade based on the country’s sound macroeconomic fundamentals. Foreign direct investment (FDI), however, still remains relatively low when compared to the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) figures; the Philippines ranks sixth out of ten ASEAN countries for total FDI in 2020. FDI declined by almost 25 percent in 2020 to USD 6.5 billion from USD 8.7 billion in 2019, according to the Bangko Sentral ng Pilipinas (the Philippine’s Central Bank), mainly due to the disruptive impact of the pandemic on global supply chains and weak business outlook that affected investors’ decisions. The majority of FDI investments included manufacturing, real estate, and financial/insurance activities. (https://www.bsp.gov.ph/SitePages/MediaAndResearch/MediaDisp.aspx?ItemId=5704)
Foreign ownership limitations in many sectors of the economy constrain investments. Poor infrastructure, high power costs, slow broadband connections, regulatory inconsistencies, and corruption are major disincentives to investment. The Philippines’ complex, slow, and sometimes corrupt judicial system inhibits the timely and fair resolution of commercial disputes. Traffic in major cities and congestion in the ports remain a regular cost of business. Recently passed tax reform legislation (Corporate Recovery and Tax Incentives for Enterprises — CREATE) will reduce the corporate income tax from ASEAN’s highest rate of 30 percent to 25 percent in 2020 and eventually to 20 percent by 2025. CREATE could be positive for business investment, although some foreign investors have concerns about the performance-based and time-bound nature of the incentives scheme adopted in the measure.
The Philippines continues to address investment constraints. In late 2018, President Rodrigo Duterte updated the Foreign Investment Negative List (FINL), which enumerates investment areas where foreign ownership or investment is banned or limited. The latest FINL allows 40 percent foreign participation in construction and repair of locally funded public works, up from 25 percent. The FINL, however, is limited in scope since it cannot change prior laws relating to foreign investments, such as Constitutional provisions which bar investment in mass media, utilities, and natural resource extraction.
There are currently several pending pieces of legislation, such as amendments to the Public Service Act, the Retail Trade Liberalization Act, and the Foreign Investment Act, all of which would have a large impact on investment within the country. The Public Service Act would provide a clearer definition of “public utility” companies, in which foreign investment is limited to 40 percent according to the 1987 Constitution. This amendment would lift foreign ownership restrictions in key areas such as telecommunications and energy, leaving restrictions only on distribution and transmission of electricity, and maintenance of waterworks and sewerage systems. The Retail Trade Liberalization Act aims to boost foreign direct investment in the retail sector by changing capital thresholds to reduce the minimum investment per store requirement for foreign-owned retail trade businesses from USD 830,000 to USD 200,000. It also would reduce the quantity of locally manufactured products foreign-owned stores are required to carry. The Foreign Investment Act would ease restrictions on foreigners practicing their professions in the Philippines and give them better access to investment areas that are currently reserved primarily for Philippine nationals, particularly in sectors within education, technology, and retail.
While the Philippine bureaucracy can be slow and opaque in its processes, the business environment is notably better within the special economic zones, particularly those available for export businesses operated by the Philippine Economic Zone Authority (PEZA), known for its regulatory transparency, no red-tape policy, and one-stop shop services for investors. Finally, the Philippines plans to spend more than USD 82.6 billion through 2022 to upgrade its infrastructure with the Administration’s aggressive Build, Build, Build program; many projects are already underway.
Thailand is an upper middle-income country with a half-trillion-dollar economy, pro-investment policies, and well-developed infrastructure. General Prayut Chan-o-cha was elected by Parliament as Prime Minister on June 5, 2019. Thailand celebrated the coronation of King Maha Vajiralongkorn May 4-6, 2019, formally returning a King to the Head of State of Thailand’s constitutional monarchy. Despite some political uncertainty, Thailand continues to encourage foreign direct investment as a means of promoting economic development, employment, and technology transfer. In recent decades, Thailand has been a major destination for foreign direct investment, and hundreds of U.S. companies have invested in Thailand successfully. Thailand continues to encourage investment from all countries and seeks to avoid dependence on any one country as a source of investment.
The Foreign Business Act (FBA) of 1999 governs most investment activity by non-Thai nationals. Many U.S. businesses also enjoy investment benefits through the U.S.-Thai Treaty of Amity and Economic Relations, signed in 1833 and updated in 1966. The Treaty allows U.S. citizens and U.S. majority-owned businesses incorporated in the United States or Thailand to maintain a majority shareholding or to wholly own a company, branch office, or representative office located in Thailand, and engage in business on the same basis as Thai companies (national treatment). The Treaty exempts such U.S.-owned businesses from most FBA restrictions on foreign investment, although the Treaty excludes some types of businesses. Notwithstanding their Treaty rights, many U.S. investors choose to form joint ventures with Thai partners who hold a majority stake in the company, leveraging their partner’s knowledge of the Thai economy and local regulations.
The Thai government maintains a regulatory framework that broadly encourages investment. Some investors have nonetheless expressed views that the framework is overly restrictive, with a lack of consistency and transparency in rulemaking and interpretation of law and regulations.
The Board of Investment (BOI), Thailand’s principal investment promotion authority, acts as a primary conduit for investors. BOI offers businesses assistance in navigating Thai regulations and provides investment incentives to qualified domestic and foreign investors through straightforward application procedures. Investment incentives include both tax and non-tax privileges.
The government passed laws on cybersecurity and personal data protection in 2019; as of April 2021, they are still in the process of drafting implementing regulations. The government unveiled in January 2021 a Made In Thailand initiative that will set aside 60 percent of state projects for locally made products.
Gratuity payments to civil servants responsible for regulatory oversight and enforcement remain a common practice, though some government agencies enforce strict “gift” bans. Firms that refuse to make such payments can be placed at a competitive disadvantage to other firms that do engage in such practices. The government launched its Eastern Economic Corridor (EEC) development plan in 2017. The EEC is a part of the “Thailand 4.0” economic development strategy introduced in 2016. Many planned infrastructure projects, including a high-speed train linking three airports, U-Tapao Airport commercialization, and Laem Chabang Port expansion, could provide opportunities for investments and sales of U.S. goods and services. In support of its “Thailand 4.0” strategy, the government offers incentives for investments in twelve targeted industries: next-generation automotive vehicles; intelligent electronics; advanced agriculture and biotechnology; food processing; tourism; advanced robotics and automation; digital technology; integrated aviation; medical hub and total healthcare services; biofuels/biochemical; defense manufacturing; and human resource development.
Vietnam continues to welcome foreign direct investment (FDI), and the government has policies in place that are broadly conducive to U.S. investment. Factors that attract foreign investment include recently-signed free trade agreements, political stability, ongoing economic reforms, a young and increasingly urbanized population, and competitive labor costs. Vietnam has received USD 231 billion in FDI from 1988 through 2020, per the Ministry of Public Affairs (MPI), which oversees foreign investments.
Vietnam’s exceptional handling of the COVID-19 pandemic, which has included proactive management of health policy, fiscal stimulus, and monetary policy, combined with supply chain shifts, contributed to Vietnam receiving USD 19.9 billion in FDI in 2020 – almost as much as the USD 20.3 billion received in 2019. Of the 2020 investments, 48 percent went into manufacturing – especially in the electronics, textiles, footwear, and automobile parts industries; 18 percent in utilities and energy; 15 percent in real estate; and smaller percentages in assorted industries. The government approved the following significant FDI projects in 2020: Delta Offshore’s USD 4 billion investment in the Bac Lieu liquified natural gas (LNG) power plant; Siam Cement Group’s (SCG) USD 1.8 billion investment in the Long Son Integrated Petrochemicals Complex; a Daewoo-led, South Korean consortium’s USD 774 million investment in the West Lake Capital Township real estate development in Hanoi; and Taiwan-based Pegatron’s USD 481 million investment in electronics production.
Vietnam recently moved forward on free trade agreements that will likely make it easier to attract future FDI by providing better market access for Vietnamese exports and encouraging investor-friendly reforms. The EU-Vietnam Free Trade Agreement (EVFTA) came into force August 1, 2020. Vietnam signed the UK-Vietnam Free Trade Agreement on December 31, 2020, which will come into effect May 1, 2021. On November 15, 2020, Vietnam signed the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP). While these agreements lower certain trade and investment barriers for companies from participating countries, U.S. companies may find it more difficult to compete without similar advantages.
In February 2021, the 13th Party Congress of the Communist Party approved a ten-year economic strategy that calls for shifting foreign investments to high-tech industries and ensuring those investments include provisions relating to environmental protection. On January 1, 2021, Vietnam’s Securities Law and new Labor Code Law, which the National Assembly originally approved in 2019, came into force. The Securities Law formally states the government’s intention to remove foreign ownership limits for investments in most industries, and the new Labor Code provides more contract flexibility – including provisions that make it easier for an employer to dismiss an employee and allow workers to join independent trade unions – although no such independent trade unions yet exist in Vietnam. On June 17, 2020, Vietnam passed a revised Investment Law and a new Public Private Partnership Law, both designed to encourage foreign investment into large infrastructure projects, reduce the burden on the government to finance such projects, and increase linkages between foreign investors and the Vietnamese private sector.
Despite a comparatively high level of FDI inflow as a percentage of GDP – 7.3 percent in 2020 – significant challenges remain in Vietnam’s investment climate. These include corruption, weak legal infrastructure, poor enforcement of intellectual property rights (IPR), a shortage of skilled labor, restrictive labor practices, and the government’s slow decision-making process.