M1 takeover bid leaves Malaysia's Axiata in a bind

Wireless giant has less than three weeks to decide whether to exit decade-long investment in telco

Malaysian wireless giant Axiata Group is caught in a bind as it weighs whether to exit its decade-long investment in Singapore operator M1.

Axiata, M1's biggest shareholder, has less than three weeks left to decide whether to tender its stock into a takeover offer valuing the target at $1.9 billion.

The Malaysian company held a board meeting last week to discuss the merits of the bid from Keppel Corp and Singapore Press Holdings (SPH), according to sources.

Axiata sees that there is not enough time left to pull together its own counteroffer, the sources said.

The Malaysian company also considers it unlikely that a rival bidder will emerge at this point, one source said. Still, Axiata plans to wait until close to the Feb 18 deadline before making a final decision to accept the offer, the source said, asking not to be identified because the information is private.

Ultimately, Axiata may have little choice as to which path to take.

Keppel and SPH have a waiver from the Singapore bourse, allowing them to take M1 private if the free float falls below 10 per cent.

If Axiata rejects the offer, it could get stuck holding 28.7 per cent of an unlisted company languishing in last place among Singapore's wireless carriers.

Keppel and SPH, which hold a combined 32.8 per cent of M1, said last week that they will not increase their bid of $2.06 per share "under any circumstances whatsoever."

They extended the closing date for the offer by two weeks to Feb 18, giving investors more time to consider tendering their shares.

"Given the sensitivity of the timing of the situation, and that whatever we state may unnecessarily influence the market or be misconstrued, we will not be commenting," Axiata said in a statement in response to queries.

Axiata management has already had a first chance to say what it thinks of the offer. Last week, M1 board members urged investors to accept the current offer after an independent financial adviser declared the terms "fair and reasonable".

Axiata chief executive Jamaludin Ibrahim, the Malaysian company's representative on the M1 board, was among the independent directors recommending the offer.

Things were looking a lot rosier for Axiata just a couple of years ago, when it was working with M1's two other major holders to solicit bids for the company.

At the time, M1 attracted interest from China Broadband Capital, Chinese coal miner Shanxi Meijin Energy Co and Singapore Internet provider MyRepublic. The plan was abandoned four months later after potential suitors dropped out.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 31, 2019, with the headline 'M1 takeover bid leaves Malaysia's Axiata in a bind'. Print Edition | Subscribe