The passing of the Malaysian Companies Bill 2015 (Companies Act 2016), which will replace the Companies Act 1965 (Companies Act 1965), marks the most comprehensive legislative change in Malaysia’s corporate law in 50 years.
The Companies Act 2016 also makes some significant changes to Malaysia’s corporate insolvency regime, as it introduces two new insolvency processes: judicial management and voluntary administration. It also modifies the existing law relating to schemes of arrangement.
The Companies Act 2016 is anticipated to come into effect in late 2017.
Overview of the insolvency reforms made by the Companies Act 2016
Under existing Malaysian insolvency laws, the usual outcome in the event of corporate insolvency is receivership or liquidation. Neither has the rehabilitation of the debtor company as its objective.
Under the existing corporate insolvency framework in Malaysia, a company in financial distress can only restructure by a scheme of arrangement under section 176 of the Companies Act 1965. The use of the scheme of arrangement became synonymous with corporate rescue measures in the 1997 financial crisis in Malaysia when financially distressed companies frequently used the restraining order provisions in section 176 to secure extended judicial protection from creditor actions.
The application for a restraining order became open to abuse by companies without any viable proposal for a scheme of arrangement, whether by way of a deferred payment plan or a compromise. Section 176 also allows the existing management to continue in management without adequate protection for creditors against dissipation of assets and inappropriate application of cash resources.
Recognizing the inadequacy of existing provisions to facilitate the rehabilitation of companies, reforms in the Companies Act 2016 include the introduction of two key features:
- judicial management and corporate voluntary arrangement as new corporate rescue mechanisms and
- additional controls on court sanctioned schemes of arrangement to make this process more effective as a means of effecting a corporate debt restructuring.
The other provisions affecting insolvency law and practice in the Companies Act 2016 codify certain established common law principles applicable in insolvency and increase penalties and threshold amounts.
Detailed discussion of the insolvency reforms made by the Companies Act 2016
Judicial management allows a company, its directors or a creditor, to apply to the Court to place the management of the company in the hands of a qualified insolvency practitioner known as a “judicial manager.”
A judicial management order directs that the affairs, business and property of the company be managed by the judicial manager for the period in which the order is in force, which is 6 months with the possibility of a further 6 month extension. From the time the application is made and for the duration of any judicial management order made, a moratorium will be in force to prevent any winding up order or any other legal proceedings against the company without leave of court, including enforcement proceedings by secured creditors.
The role of the judicial manager is to prepare and present a restructuring plan for creditor approval, and upon approval by 75% in value of creditors whose claims have been accepted by the judicial manager, to oversee its implementation. The judicial manager has certain powers akin to those of a liquidator in a winding up, and like a liquidator, he or she is also subject to a degree of control and supervision by the Court.
The application for a judicial management order will be allowed if the company is or will be unable to pay its debts and there is a reasonable probability of rehabilitating the company, preserving all or part of its business as a going concern, or otherwise serving the interests of creditors better than in a winding up.
Secured creditors have the power to veto an application for a judicial management order and seek instead to proceed with the appointment of a receiver or receiver and manager, subject to the following:
- the overriding discretion of the Court to make a judicial management order if public interest requires it and, if appropriate, to appoint an interim judicial manager and
- the moratorium that would be in place from the time an application is made for a judicial management order until the grant or dismissal of the order.
There is no definition of “public interest” and no indication yet how the phrase will be construed by the Courts in Malaysia.
Certain institutions regulated by the Central Bank of Malaysia and the Capital Markets and Services Act 2007, such as financial institutions, insurance companies and asset management companies, will be unable to access the judicial management regime.
Corporate Voluntary Arrangement
The corporate voluntary arrangement is conceptually similar to the current scheme of arrangement mechanism where the existing management of a financially distressed company remains in control during the restructuring. The fundamental difference is that the implementation of the debt restructuring proposal will be supervised by an insolvency practitioner with minimal court supervision.
The corporate voluntary arrangement is procedurally straightforward. However, its practical use is likely to be limited because it will not apply to public companies or any company with charged property, as well as certain institutions regulated by the Central Bank of Malaysia and Capital Markets and Services Act 2007.
The proposal for a corporate voluntary arrangement has to be accompanied by a statement of an insolvency practitioner who has agreed to act as a nominee indicating whether or not, in his or her opinion, the debt restructuring proposal has a reasonable prospect of being approved and implemented and whether the company is likely to have sufficient funds available for the company during the proposed moratorium to enable the company to carry on its business.
The process of corporate voluntary arrangement commences when the applicant, who may be the directors of the company, the liquidator or a judicial manager, lodges a proposal for the voluntary arrangement with the Court, whereupon a moratorium on actions by creditors commences automatically.
A meeting of creditors and members must then be convened by the nominee and the required majority to approve a proposal is 75% of the total value of creditors present and voting, and a simple majority of the members present and voting, either by a show of hands or by poll, if demanded.
Once approved, the proposal becomes binding on all creditors and members, and the nominee or another insolvency practitioner functions as the supervisor of the voluntary arrangement to see to its implementation.
The statute does not impose a time frame for implementation of a voluntary arrangement, but the moratorium ends on the day the meeting of creditors is called and can only continue to remain in place for a period of up to 60 days with the consent of 75% majority in value of creditors present at the meeting of creditors. The voluntary arrangement may also end prematurely if it has not been or cannot be fully implemented.
Improvements to the scheme of arrangement procedure
The only formal corporate rescue process currently available in Malaysia is the scheme of arrangement under section 176 of the Companies Act 1965. The provisions in section 176 are not confined to debt restructuring of companies in financial distress, but, generally, are available to adjust the rights of members and creditors, reorganize the share capital of the company or perform a reconstruction or merger in the case of a group of companies.
A debt restructuring scheme under section 176 of the Companies Act 1965 generally involves a compromise proposed between a company and its creditors or any class of them. If the scheme does not also involve any arrangement between the company and its members, there is no requirement for a vote by the members.
Procedurally, the company first applies to the Court to convene a meeting of the creditors or classes of creditors. If a majority in number representing 75% in value of the creditors or class of creditors present and voting approves the scheme, the company may then report this result to the Court in a subsequent application to the Court for approval of the scheme. Once approved by the Court, it becomes binding on all scheme creditors, including dissenting creditors.
In many cases, however, the scheme does not progress beyond the first stage application for court convened meetings due to lack of a viable scheme to be presented to creditors. Not surprisingly, it is also at this stage of proceedings that a company may seek an ex-parte order to restrain creditor actions, and this provision was for a time, notoriously misused to achieve temporary reprieve from creditor actions.
Although section 176 of the Companies Act 1965 was amended in 1998 by the introduction of a new subsection which imposed stricter requirements, there were still major shortcomings.
The scheme of arrangement procedure in the Companies Act 2016 imposes two key improvements to prevent the abuse of the moratorium provisions :
- limiting the maximum duration for a restraining order to 3 months with extensions of up to a further 6 months only and
- allowing the Court to appoint an approved liquidator to assess the viability of the scheme of arrangement proposed and prepare a report for submission to the meeting of creditors and members. This is on the basis that an independent liquidator will be able to adopt a more objective assessment of the commercial viability of a proposed scheme, and accordingly provide necessary assistance to the Court.
Some reflections on the insolvency reforms
Given the substantial overhaul of the Companies Act 1965 and the protracted period of consultation before the Companies Act 2016 was finally passed, the Companies Act 2016 does represent a missed opportunity for an even more comprehensive update of the corporate insolvency framework in Malaysia.
For example, in the consultation paper released by the Corporate Law Reform Committee prior to the drafting of the Companies Act 2016, there was no consideration as to whether Malaysia ought to adopt some form of the UNCITRAL Model Law on Cross Border Insolvency, which would have made it one of the first countries in this region to do so.
That said, in drafting the bill that culminated in the Companies Act 2016, the Companies Commission of Malaysia had set out to achieve many objectives, and the introduction of alternative corporate rescue mechanisms as one of the 19 policy statements and guiding principles is certainly welcome.
It will remain to be seen whether the judicial management and corporate voluntary arrangement regimes will be successful in rehabilitating ailing companies in Malaysia.
An early criticism of the corporate voluntary arrangement is its limited application. In particular, the exclusion of companies with charged assets from recourse to the corporate voluntary arrangement regime (presumably to protect secured creditor rights), is a limitation that will substantially diminish its impact as an alternative corporate rescue mechanism. The right of secured creditors to veto applications for judicial management orders further diminishes the effectiveness of the new regimes in rehabilitating distressed companies.