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Special Economic Zones in ASEAN: An Introduction for Foreign Investors
  • ASEAN member states actively promote the development of special economic zones (SEZ) to attract foreign investment.
  • SEZs offer various incentives for investors ranging from tax exemptions to streamlining business permit applications.
  • Foreign investors looking to invest in this industry will need a strong market understanding.

To consolidate its emergence as a powerful trading bloc, ASEAN member states have been promoting special economic zones (SEZ) as a cornerstone for efforts to encourage more foreign investment.

SEZs – which include industrial parks, special export processing zones, technology parks, and innovation areas – gained increasing prominence after the establishment of the ASEAN Economic Community (AEC) in 2015, and more so now as a tool to attract investors seeking to diversify supply chains because of the US-China trade war.

However, investors looking to take advantage of SEZs in ASEAN should seek to develop a base understanding before assessing factors that may impact their business. SEZs in each country comes with their own strengths and weaknesses; investors need to understand the profile of SEZs in each country, before conducting a comparative analysis and site visits.


In 2015, Thailand commenced the development of 10 SEZs located across border areas contiguous to Myanmar, Malaysia, Laos, and Cambodia. The aim of the initiative was to take advantage of increasing border trade between these neighbours, which was valued at 1 trillion Thai Baht (US$32 billion) in exports in 2018. The government has claimed that total investments into its SEZs have reached US$23 billion since 2015.

The government has targeted 13 priority sectors to be developed through the SEZs, which include the agro-industry, manufacturing of engines and vehicle parts, and the manufacture of textiles and garments, among many others. Businesses that setup in SEZs are offered a variety of incentives ranging from eight years corporate income tax (CIT) exemption and an additional 50 percent CIT reduction for five years.

There are also further tax incentives through the recently issued ‘Thailand Plus’ policy. Part of this policy encourages the development of the STEM industry, vital for the advancement of the many manufacturing activities in the SEZs.

Additionally, the government aims to develop new SEZs catering specifically for the defense technology industry. However, it is still unclear at this time how these policies will link to the current SEZ policy.

The full list of the targeted sectors can be found on page 34 of the SEZ Investment Guide, issued by the Thailand Board of Investment (BOI).


The country currently operates 11 SEZs located throughout the vast archipelago, offering growing opportunities for investments in manufacturing, agriculture, natural resources, and tourism.

Three were launched in 2019 with one being in East Kalimantan province – the proposed site for the new capital – and an additional seven SEZs are currently in the development phase for 2020, as it aims to attract more than US$50 billion in investments into its SEZs over the next decade. As of October 2019, the total investments into Indonesia’s SEZs reached US$6 billion, still far below that of neighbours such as Thailand.

In acknowledging that it has failed to attract major investments, in particular from the spillover of the US-China trade war, Indonesia is set to simplify current rules on tax holidays for investors looking to build facilities on its SEZs. Furthermore, the country will launch more tax incentives such as CIT breaks for 20 years for investments worth more than US$1.4 billion, as well as expanded incentives for export-orientated industries operating in SEZs.

However, investors will have to wait for the impending regulations to come into effect to know the full extent of what is provided by these reform initiatives.


The Philippines has 12 SEZs or free port areas, 22 specific agri-business zones and a further 300 proclaimed economic zones spread throughout the country. These economic zones are classified into manufacturing, tourism, digital parks, and medical tourism parks.

There are seven main investment promotion agencies (IPAs) with the largest being the Philippine Economic Zone Authority (PEZA). Each IPA has the authority to grant its own financial and non-financial incentives. These have ranged from tax- and duty-free importation of raw materials to 100 percent exemption of CIT and visa facilitation services for foreign investors and their dependents.

This will change with the introduction of CITIRA, a new law aimed at rationalizing specific tax incentives issued by IPAs. This means IPAs will no longer be given the authority to issue their own individual incentives and will have to follow new rules set out by CITIRA. This means investors interested in setting up in an IPA may need to monitor for further developments to understand how CITIRA reforms will play out in IPAs.


Singapore is the world’s largest port by shipping volume. but is too small to have space for zones of its own. Instead, it has partnered with the Government of Malaysia to create the Iskander SEZ in nearby Johore Baru and with Indonesia to create the Batam Export Processing Zone.

Both are highly successful, particularly for Singaporean companies, which now use these zones as bases for factory extensions of their manufacturing operations to sell across Asia and beyond.

Indonesia has recently eased business license processing in Batam, and the authorities are going to reclaim 8 thousand hectares of idle land to create small enclaves of SEZs. The Batam Indonesia Free Trade Authority says this project could attract a potential US$60 billion worth of investments – with Singaporean companies at the forefront.


Vietnam has begun to expand its development zone policy to include 18 coastal economic zones and 325 state-supported industrial parks. These economic zones offer their own incentives from free tariffs to low personal income tax.

The country’s parliament has delayed issuing the Special Zone Act, which would see the creation of three new SEZs across the country. Located in the provinces of Quang Ninh and Khanh Hoa, and the island of Phu Quoc, these SEZs are set to provide foreign investors a 99-year land in addition to other incentives.

Additional export-processing facilities, and possibly SEZs, may develop along Vietnam’s long eastern seaboard as it seeks to compete with South China for foreign investment.


Malaysia has five investment corridors (a new type of SEZ): the East Coast Economic Region (ECER), Iskandar Regional Development Authority (IRDA) for Iskandar Malaysia in Southern Johor; North Corridor Implementation Authority (NCIA) for the North Corridor Economic Region (NCER).

In 2018, the investment corridors had created close to 2 million jobs and have attracted investments worth RM788 billion (US$188 billion). The Iskander SEZ has positioned Malaysia’s east coast as a key area for the development of ASEAN free trade, having realized the largest investments in 2018 totalling RM150 billion (US$35 billion). Since its inception in 2006, the region has doubled in size and is on track to achieve its investment target of US$91 billion by 2025.

The ECER, which is the other main SEZ, aims to attract 120,000 new jobs and 70 billion Ringgits (US$16 billion) in investments by 2025. The ECER offers competitive incentives to investors such as income tax exemption of 100 percent for 10 years and stamp duty exemption on land or building purchased for development.


Cambodia has 31 SEZs across the country covering four zones, namely, the Phnom Penh zone, Sihanoukville zone, the Manhattan zone, and the Tai Seng Bavet zone.

The authority responsible for Cambodia’s SEZs is the Cambodia Special Economic Zone Board, which operates under the umbrella of the Council for the Development of Cambodia. Various tax incentives are available under these zones ranging from 100 percent CIT exemption for up to nine years to exemption of import and export duties.

One of the first notable investors into Cambodia’s SEZ was Coca-Cola, which opened a US$100 million plant at the Phnom Penz SEZ (PPSEZ) in 2016. Since then, other brands such as Apple, Timberland, Puma, and IBM have established a presence at the PPSEZ. By 2018, there were some 340 projects valued at US$2 billion in the country’s SEZs.


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