NEPTUNE Orient Lines (NOL) and three other Singapore shipping companies have successfully applied for tax breaks under the Approved International Shipping Enterprise (AIS) scheme. NOL, Pacific International Lines, Regional Container Lines and Pacific Carriers are the first local companies to come under the AIS scheme, which is designed to provide shipowners-cum-operators with an added incentive to operate from Singapore. Under the scheme, foreign shipping companies enjoy tax exemption on profits from the operations of non-Singapore flag vessels in international waters, and local shipping companies benefit in terms of tax exemption on their incomes earned from freight andcharter hire outside Singapore. Local shipping companies' profits from operating Singapore-flag vessels are already tax-free. So far, 15 international shipping companies, including the four from Singapore, have been awarded the AIS status, the Trade Development Board (TDB), which administers the scheme said. Hongkong-based International Maritime Carriers was the first to gain AIS status. The other 10 foreign AIS-designated shipowners comprise three from China, two from Asean, one from Europe and four from Hongkong. All the foreign companies have just established units in Singapore. David Chin, TDB's director of international trading and services, declined to name the 10 foreign companies ''because they have yet to tell their employees they will be operating from here, which means some of them have to move here.'' Under the AIS scheme, the 15 companies will operate a total of 87 vessels from Singapore, said Mr Chin. These include tankers, bulk carriers and container liners plying routes all over the world. The TDB, which is processing applications for another 14 vessels (including some from Japan and China), is confident that it can meet its initial target of bringing in about 100 ships by the end of this year. NOL chief operating officer Lim How Teck said that AIS status enables NOL ''to give a better overall shipping package to customers by chartering vessels from the market when our own are not available to fulfil our contractual obligations.'' Prior to acquiring AIS status, NOL had to pay tax on income earned from charter hire in order to ship the goods from one place to another. This income is now tax-free. Mr Lim said chartering becomes more important as the number of contracts the company signs with customers increases. More deals mean a greater chance of the company's own vessels not being able to meet all the obligations, he explained. Meanwhile, NOL has expanded its feeder services network in Malaysia and Indonesia to strengthen its operations. The Jakarta-based PT Pul International Line started calling once a week at Johore port from September with its vessel Dragon Java, which sails from Jakarta on to Singapore before calling at the Malaysian port. The vessel was redeployed from the Singapore/Semarang-Surbaya/Singapore loop.