Last updated: March 2019
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 services sectors, that have propelled it 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 percent since 2010. Openness to trade and investment have been instrumental in employment creation and income growth, with about 40 percent 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 percent since 2010, and is expected to achieve its transition from an upper middle-income economy to a high-income economy by 2024.
With less than 1 percent of Malaysian households living 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 will be more dependent on government measures to sustain private sector activity as an increasingly challenging external environment reduces opportunity for export-led growth, and reduced fiscal space limits the scope for 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 the level of productivity to sustain higher potential growth. While significant, Malaysia’s productivity growth over the past 25 years has been below those 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 high-income and developed country status, Malaysia will need to make further advances 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 to enable households to invest in human capital formation.