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Out to prove S'pore is not a tax haven

Mr Leow will be focusing on cross-border structuring at Dentons Rodyk, dealing with big corporates and advising high-net worth individuals and wealthy families on legitimate tax planning.
Mr Leow will be focusing on cross-border structuring at Dentons Rodyk, dealing with big corporates and advising high-net worth individuals and wealthy families on legitimate tax planning.ST PHOTO: WONG KWAI CHOW

Former judicial commissioner Edmund Leow is back practising the branch of law he loves

Former judicial commissioner Edmund Leow found the past three years on the Bench serving the public, unencumbered by commercial interests, the most inspiring experience any lawyer could have.

"The most satisfying thing about being on the Bench is you are serving the country - unlike in private practice, where you worry about finding more clients and fees, and protecting your clients' interest. For a lawyer, it is quite inspiring to be free from commercial pressure and just do what you think is right.

"The judges are the ones upholding the rule of law. So every decision you make, you are concerned if your decision will improve the reputation of the legal system," Mr Leow said.

While it was a great honour to be asked to serve as judicial commissioner - and he has presided over cases ranging from commercial disputes to traffic accidents and divorce cases during his stint - the tax and trusts lawyer could not ignore his true calling.

"It was a great experience on the Bench, but I felt it is still better to practise in my own area," he said.

Mr Leow, 54, joined Dentons Rodyk & Davidson's tax practice on Jan 1 this year. A founding partner of local law firm Wong & Leow, which tied up with global giant Baker & McKenzie in 1996, he has 30 years of legal experience, advising multinational organisations on cross-border tax planning, transfer pricing and tax disputes. He also has expertise in World Trade Organisation and free-trade agreements.

Tax issues have become more controversial in recent years, not only in Singapore but globally. The authorities around the world have made headlines for their efforts to claw back tax revenues from corporate giants - notable cases are Apple versus the European Union, Google v Indonesia and Starbucks v Britain.

SPEAKING UP

Singapore needs people who can stand up and say we are not a tax haven. We are a legitimate business centre... Singapore needs a voice, and that's an area I want to try to make some contribution.

MR EDMUND LEOW

Singapore, with its 17 per cent corporate income tax rate - among the lowest in the world - is widely perceived as a tax haven. Indonesian tax authorities are now pursuing Google over what they allege are unpaid taxes on millions of dollars in advertising revenue. Some of the revenue from Google's operations in Indonesia is booked through its Asia-Pacific headquarters in Singapore, whose corporate tax rate is lower than Indonesia's 25 per cent.

"Singapore needs people who can stand up and say we are not a tax haven. We are a legitimate business centre. Income tends to be booked here because companies have substantial operations and senior executives here. And they are the ones making big decisions and creating value for the company," Mr Leow said. "Singapore needs a voice, and that's an area I want to try to make some contribution. As a serving judge, I cannot comment on a lot of issues. That's the downside."

Asked why he chose to join Dentons Rodyk & Davidson as senior partner instead of returning to Baker & McKenzie.Wong & Leow, where he had spent a majority of his 30-year career before going on the Bench, Mr Leow said he "wanted to make a fresh start".

With partner Wong Kien Keong, Mr Leow helped found Wong & Leow, and it became one of the first local law firms to tie up with a foreign practice here. They did that in order to practise Singapore law while at Baker.

A Cambridge graduate, Mr Leow said Dentons Rodyk chief executive Philip Jeyaretnam, an old friend and classmate, asked him to join the firm upon finding out Mr Leow was stepping down from the Bench.

"Dentons Rodyk didn't have much of an international tax practice here, and they've been looking for someone to set up a tax practice. A lot of tax lawyers here are focused on domestic tax disputes.

"At Baker, I was focused on cross- border structuring, and that's what Dentons wants to do. My practice deals with big corporates and advising high-net worth individuals and wealthy families on legitimate tax planning. There are major issues facing both groups. For big corporates like Apple and Google, many are under attack by governments and criticised for their tax planning, which is not entirely justified.

"Wealthy individuals who have been relying on banking secrecy... are now discovering they cannot hide anymore. Not all of them are crooks. Some do have legitimate reasons for maintaining confidentiality.

"I also advise private banks and trust companies that have been helping customers hide assets, but can't do that anymore. There are legal ways to do tax planning," he said. Reacquainting himself with private practice is keeping him busy these days. While his stint on the Bench has been rewarding, Mr Leow said it hasn't always been easy to determine what is the right decision.

A partner likened going on the Bench to "entering the priesthood".

"Three years later, I think there is some truth to it.In a priesthood, you have to be very careful about what you do and say. A lot of highly confidential information comes to you that you can't disclose to anyone. But I've been in private practice before, so it isn't difficult getting back to it. Everyone wants to be respected, but that respect has to be earned. It can't be demanded merely because of your appointment. I'm very comfortable being an ordinary person."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 27, 2017, with the headline 'Out to prove S'pore is not a tax haven'. Print Edition | Subscribe