Guest Blog: The Role of Independent Directors in Contemporary Asia

Written by: Joseph Black (CAPLUS law student intern, 2021)

On 26 October 2021 the Contemporary Asia International Forum Series coordinated a timely panel event entitled ‘The Role of Independent Directors in Contemporary Asia’. The panel was moderated by Dr Edith I Tzu Su, Associate Professor at the National Chung Hsing University in Taiwan, the host institution. The event was supported by the Centre for Asian and Pacific Law at the University of Sydney. Panelists were Dr Indraijt Dube, Professor of Intellectual Property Law at the Indian Institute of Technology Kharagpur; Dr Anil Hargovan, Associate Professor at the University of New South Wales; Dr Luke Nottage, Professor of Comparative and Transnational Business Law at the University of Sydney; and Dr Chun-Ren Chen, Professor at the National Cheng Kung University in Taiwan. We had the opportunity to explore key and original themes: the roles of independent directors in India; the roles of independent directors in Southeast Asia; and more. A few major questions reverberated throughout the session: are independent directors (although not executives or employees) de facto part of a wider managerial team; what are the implications of transplanting non-Asian laws and norms into Asian contexts (with a stronger blockholder tradition even in listed companies) and how are Asian companies distinguished from non-Asian companies? What made the webinar particularly interesting is that speakers had diverse insights and answers to these very topical and pressing questions.

After Dr Su commenced the session and introduced speakers, and Dean Chang Yen Li of the National Chung Hsing University delivered a cordial welcome, Dr Nottage commenced the discussion on corporate governance and independent directors, sketching the growth of sharemarkets in ASEAN and other parts of Asia, focusing on Malaysia and more briefly Cambodia. He proposed comparisons focusing on why and when independent director requirements are introduced, how this happens, what they are, and where they actually or potentially have impacts. Dr Nottage noted that Malaysia presents interesting data on independent directors given its peculiar history. Amid and after the Asian financial crisis in 1997, the World Bank and IMF encouraged (without requiring) changes and new corporate governance regulations in Malaysia. Notably, Malaysia was an early leader calling for independent directors (implementing requirements before Australia), but commentators have wondered wonders if this was ‘window dressing’ to lure back foreign investors (and regain foreign investors who had fled after the financial crisis). While they may have tried to introduce independent director requirements, it is critical to consider that there are always problems with legal transplants. Malaysia developed (like Thailand[1]) a three-tiered system of mandatory listing rules, ‘comply or explain’ Corporate Governance Code higher standards, and even higher independent director requirements that listed companies can voluntary disclose (but for which they do not need to explain non-compliance). A particular innovation – somewhat paralleling Indian corporate law reforms in 2013 – is is to require a two-tier vote (including a majority of the minority) for directors serving more than 12 years.

By contrast, Cambodia has a much newer and smaller sharemarket, with a less well-resourced regulator, so relies just on mandatory minimum standards. Those exclude from independent directors any individuals serving in competing firms, as in Thailand, perhaps reflecting the weakness of competition law and enforcement.[2] It will be interesting to observe how the country changes and independent director requirements start to be tightened in an effort to make them more functional. Following Dr Nottage, Dr Dube’s discussion largely focused on the role of independent directors in contemporary India. Dr Dube posed interesting questions – such as whether Indian corporate governance needs to be ‘Indianised’ – and explored the emergence of diverse laws in tandem with growing conceptualisations of independent directors in the Indian context. Dr Dube seemed to use a very interesting word – calibrating – to define continuity and change in this area in India in recent years. Dr Dube discussed the mandatory appointment of women independent directors; declaration of independence; auditing independence; the theory that independent directors played significant roles in raising market size, profitability, and sustainability; and evidence-based research finding a positive correlation between influences of independent directors and companies’ policies on health, safety, and environmental audits. Dr Dube noted the Tata Group Supreme Court case in 2016 (regarding the removal of then chairman Cyrus Mistry from office and later the company’s board) and implications (i.e., normalising independent directors in this context?).

Later, Dr Hargovan and Dr Chen posed as commenters and critically appraised Dr Nottage and Dr Dube. Dr Chen particularly analysed the concept of novel law on independent directors as window dressing to attract foreign investment, whether independent directors are supposed to serve as managers or a check against managers, tensions in boardrooms, incumbent directors refusing independent directors access to certain corporate data in Taiwan, seemingly inevitable conflicts between majority and minority shareholders, and implications of declaring independence (i.e., is it just a declaration?). Dr Hargovan referred to minority interests in family-dominated companies in Asia, independence from whom and for what (definitional issues), the perils of the legal transplant, optimal board composition (taking into account local conditions and cultures), characteristics of Asian companies (tangential to varieties of capitalism), the Kotak Committee Report in India (2017), and indicia of independence (interestingly similar between say Australia and India). Dr Hargovan noted that listed companies in Asia are more likely to be controlled by promoters than in Australia, where ownership is typically more diffused and the participation of institutional investors in corporate ownership follows a different pattern. Dr Hargovan closed by noting that the Anglo-Australian model is not guaranteed to be successfully transplanted to Asian countries; a lot depends on the economy and other factors, as illustrated by his recent article on Indian developments.[3]

Dr Nottage and Dr Dube closed with a few short words in response, although time was limited. To view the recording and for further Contemporary Asia International Forum Series events, please contact Dr Edith I Tzu Su at edithsu@nchu.edu.tw.

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Joseph Black is a Juris Doctor student at the University of Sydney and anticipates commencing his Masters of International Law program from February 2022. Joseph is an intern with the CAPLUS and is interested in Japanese Law, Chinese Law, Indonesian Law, East Asian Studies, and other fields.


[1] Nottage, Luke R., Independent Directors and Corporate Governance in Thailand: A New Frontier (May 13, 2020). Journal of Transnational Law and Policy, 31 (Forthcoming, early 2022), Sydney Law School Research Paper No. 20/26, Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=3599705

[2] Nottage, Luke R., Fledgling Corporate Governance and Independent Directors in Cambodia’s Securities Market (November 14, 2019). Australian Journal of Corporate Law, 35, 2020, pp. 208-234, Sydney Law School Research Paper No. 19/60, Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=3459361

[3] Hanrahan P; Hargovan A, 2020, ‘Legislating the concept of the independent company director: Recent Indian reforms seen through Australian eyes’, Oxford University Commonwealth Law Journal, vol. 20, pp. 86 – 114, http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/14729342.2020.1773018

Author: Luke Nottage

Prof Luke Nottage (BCA, LLB, PhD VUW, LLM Kyoto) is founding co-director of the Australian Network for Japanese Law (ANJeL), Associate Director (Japan) of the Centre for Asian and Pacific Law at the University of Sydney (CAPLUS), and Professor of Comparative and Transnational Business Law at Sydney Law School. He specialises in international dispute resolution, foreign investment law, contract and consumer (product safety) law.