Last updated: April 2020
Since gaining independence in 1957, Malaysia has successfully diversified its economy from one that was initially agriculture and commodity-based, to one that now plays host to robust manufacturing and service sectors, which have propelled the country to become a leading exporter of electrical appliances, electronic parts and components.
Malaysia is one of the most open economies in the world with a trade to GDP ratio averaging over 130% since 2010. Openness to trade and investment has been instrumental in employment creation and income growth, with about 40% of jobs in Malaysia linked to export activities. After the Asian financial crisis of 1997-1998, Malaysia’s economy has been on an upward trajectory, averaging growth of 5.4% since 2010, and is expected to achieve its transition from an upper middle-income economy to a high-income economy by 2024.
However, the COVID-19 (coronavirus) pandemic has had a major economic impact on Malaysia, particularly on its vulnerable households. With less than 1% of Malaysian households living in extreme poverty (according to the official national poverty line), the government’s focus has shifted toward addressing the well-being of the poorest 40% 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. While income growth for the bottom 40 has outpaced the top 60 over much of the last decade, the absolute gap across income groups has increased, contributing to widespread perceptions of the poor being “left behind.” 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 will be more dependent than usual on government measures to sustain private sector activity as the shock of COVID-19 reduces export-led growth, and as a depleted fiscal space limits public investment-led expansion. Over the longer term, as Malaysia converges with high-income economies, incremental growth will depend less on factor accumulation and more on raising productivity to sustain higher potential growth. While significant, Malaysia’s productivity growth over the past 25 years has been below that of several global and regional comparators. Ongoing reform efforts to tackle key structural constraints will be vital to support and sustain Malaysia’s development path.
According to the World Bank’s Human Capital Index, Malaysia ranks 55th out of 157 countries. To fully realize its human potential and fulfil the country’s aspiration of achieving the high-income and developed country status, Malaysia will need to advance further in education, health and nutrition, and social protection outcomes. Key priority areas include enhancing the quality of schooling to improve learning outcomes, rethinking nutritional interventions to reduce childhood stunting, and providing adequate social welfare protection for household investments in human capital formation.