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The election of May 2018 constituted Malaysia’s first real change of government in six decades. Lawyers’ general jubilation at the result has been tempered by a market that is very much in “wait and see” mode, as a result of the Mahathir administration’s more cautious approach. The current stasis is best embodied by the temporary suspension of one of the country’s most high-profile projects, the Kuala Lumpur–Singapore high-speed rail project, which will not be ready until at least 2031. Domestic bank liquidity remains healthy, with around half of all major financings being done through Islamic structures, but international investors are watching developments cautiously. As a result, major M&A, IPOs and real estate deals have been quiet since the election was announced and have not picked up despite the change in government.

However, certain sectors of the economy are busier than ever: aviation finance, healthcare and technology, especially fintech, continue to grow, and oil prices have remained relatively stable. There have been some headline mergers: Asia Finance Bank was bought by Malaysian Building Society to form MBSB Bank, which has assets totalling nearly RM50bn. Relations with the Inland Revenue have improved considerably, though many firms are assisting their clients with obtaining tax refunds following unfair applications of Goods & Services Tax, which has since been replaced by the Sales & Services Tax.

The current Attorney General, Tommy Thomas, is the country’s first to come from private practice. Several large firms dominate the legal market: Lee Hishammuddin Allen & Gledhill, Christopher & Lee Ong (a member of Singaporean outfit Rajah & Tann Singapore LLP’s regional network), Wong & Partners (a member firm of Baker McKenzie International) and Zain & Co (which recently merged with Dentons) are among the firms with strong cross-border links. Other domestic full-service firms include Raja, Darryl & Loh, Rahmat Lim & Partners, Shearn Delamore & Co, Shook Lin & Bok and Skrine; the only international firms based in Malaysia are Herbert Smith Freehills LLP and Trowers & Hamlins LLP. Recent law firm mergers included Cheang & Ariff and Chooi & Company combining to form Chooi & Company + Cheang & Ariff, and Adnan Sundra & Low absorbing Putri Norlisa Chair. The legal market in two or three years may be rather different; it remains to be seen how firms close to Razak’s government will fare in the new political climate.

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