Tuesday 29 July 2014

Independent directors: use different approach

I have highlighted several times the issue of independent directors, not speaking up for the minority investors (for instance in the case of related party transactions), not trying to unlock value in a company (for instance in the case of privatisation), not voting down (relatively) high wages for the management, etc.

Mak Yuen Teen wrote a letter to The Business Times (Singapore) "Independent directors: use different approach", which is also relevant in the Malaysian context. Some snippets:

.... The question I posed was in response to a discussion about the "nine-year" guideline on independent directors in the 2012 Code of Corporate Governance, under which the independence of directors should be subjected to a "particularly rigorous review" after nine years. In addition to the lack of clear guidance on how a "particularly rigorous review" is to be conducted, I was concerned about relying solely on the nominating committee or the board to determine if a director who has served beyond nine years should continue to be considered to be independent. This is because of the inherent conflict faced by the nominating committee and the board in this.

In fact, the nominating committee and the board are also conflicted in the initial and ongoing assessment of independence of directors, and in other issues such as recommending board appointments and re- election/retirement of directors. In the case of the latter issues, a check-and-balance is having shareholders vote on the election or re-election of directors.

In countries such as Malaysia and Hong Kong, the code of corporate governance recommends that the independence of directors should be subject to a separate shareholders' vote after nine years. If shareholders vote against the independence of the directors in this separate vote, then the company can still choose to retain the director as a non-executive director, but should not label him as an independent director. Alternatively, the board can just redesignate the director as a non-independent, non-executive director, without seeking a shareholders' vote.

At the forum, I had expressed doubt about whether such a shareholders' vote would be effective, if all shareholders get to vote on the continuing independence of the directors after nine years. After all, those who are familiar with our corporate landscape would know that there are many independent directors who have an inter-dependent relationship with controlling shareholders. If the vote is to be meaningful, then controlling shareholders should not vote.

David Webb said about this subject:

Another key issue in Asia is the lack of truly independent directors. "You have tycoons appointing their cronies and golf buddies as ‘independent directors'," notes Webb.

"There are very few really independent directors in Asia who are not tied to management or owners and who are willing to ask difficult questions," he says. "It is important that independent directors be elected by minority shareholders, with controlling shareholders forced to abstain from voting."

He adds that independent directors should be answerable to minority shareholders; so, if they fail to do a decent job, they can be quickly replaced.

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