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Since gaining independence in 1957, Malaysia has undergone a profound economic transformation, transitioning from a predominantly agricultural and commodity-based economy to a robust manufacturing and service sector. This evolution has positioned Malaysia as a leading exporter of electrical appliances, parts, and components, driving remarkable growth that elevated the nation from low- to upper-middle-income status within a single generation.

Key indicators, such as Gross National Income (GNI) per capita, have demonstrated impressive growth, averaging 6.9% annually between 1960 and 2017. Moreover, Malaysia has achieved notable success in poverty reduction, with less than 1% of its population living below the international extreme poverty line of US$1.90 a day and only 2.7% below the average poverty line among its upper-middle-income peers at US$5.50. Additionally, the country boasts extensive global trade connections, engaging with 90% of countries worldwide, surpassing many of its regional counterparts.

Furthermore, improvements in healthcare have led to a steady increase in life expectancy, rising from 59 years in the 1960s to 75 years in 2019. Malaysia's openness to trade and investment has driven employment creation and income growth, with approximately 40% of jobs linked to export activities. Despite facing challenges such as the Asian financial crisis of 1997-1998, Malaysia has maintained an upward economic trajectory, averaging a growth rate of 5.4% since 2010. 

These achievements can be attributed to strategic development policies focusing on outward-oriented, labor-intensive growth, investments in human capital, and credible economic governance to ensure macroeconomic stability. However, as Malaysia prepares for its high-income transition, it confronts new challenges.

The current economic landscape is marked by slower growth, heightened inequality, and a lower proportion of high-skilled employment compared to its peers. Indicators such as labor compensation, tax collection, social spending, environmental management, and corruption control are areas that require attention, as they fall short of benchmarks set by high-income OECD countries. Domestically, there is a growing sense that the middle class's aspirations are not being adequately met, with concerns over job quality and equitable wealth distribution. These challenges are crucial to understand as Malaysia prepares for its high-income transition.

To address these challenges and compete effectively on the global stage, Malaysia must shift its focus toward broader economic development, emphasizing the quality over quantity of growth. Income inequality remains a significant issue, albeit gradually declining, and targeted measures, such as cash transfers to low-income households, are being implemented to alleviate poverty and support vulnerable populations.

Last updated: April 2024


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Kuala Lumpur
Level 3, Sasana Kijang, No. 2, Jalan Dato’ Onn, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia 50480
Tel: +603-2263-4900
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1818 H Street NW, Washington, DC 20433
Tel: +1-202-473-4709