Last updated: September 2017
From an economy dominated by the production of raw natural resource materials, such as tin and rubber, even as recently as the 1970s, Malaysia today has a diversified economy and has become a leading exporter of electrical appliances, electronic parts and components and natural gas. After the Asian financial crisis of 1997-1998, Malaysia continued to post solid growth rates, averaging 5.5 percent per year from 2000-2008. Malaysia was hit by the Global Financial Crisis in 2009 but recovered rapidly, posting growth rates averaging 5.7 percent since 2010.
Less than 1 percent of Malaysian households live in extreme poverty, and the government’s focus has shifted toward addressing the well-being of the poorest 40 percent of the population (“the bottom 40”). This low-income group remains particularly vulnerable to economic shocks as well as increases in the cost of living and mounting financial obligations. Income inequality in Malaysia remains high relative to other East Asian countries, but is gradually declining. For example, from 2009 to 2014 the real average household incomes of the bottom 40 grew at 11.9 percent per year, compared to 7.9 percent for the total population of Malaysia, thus narrowing income disparities. Following the removal of broad-based subsidies, the government has gradually moved toward more targeted measures to support the poor and vulnerable, mainly in the form of cash transfers to low-income households.
Malaysia’s near-term economic outlook remains favorable, reflecting a well-diversified and open economy that has successfully weathered the impact of external shocks. Domestic demand is expected to continue to anchor economic growth, supported by continued income growth and a stable labor market, while an improving external environment would contribute positively to demand for Malaysia’s tradable goods and services. Accelerating structural reforms to enhance public sector performance and boost the productivity of public spending will be vital to sustain robust growth in a challenging external environment.
While significant, Malaysia’s productivity growth over the past 25 years has been below those in several global and regional comparators. As factor accumulation is expected to slow, accelerating productivity growth is the main path for Malaysia to achieve convergence with high-income economies. Accelerated implementation of productivity-enhancing reforms to increase the quality of human capital and create more competition in the economy will be key for Malaysia to secure a lasting place among the ranks of high-income economies.