Malaysia’s EU trade negotiations in spotlight

With the end of an agreement granting Malaysia preferential access to the EU market looming, all eyes are on ongoing negotiations between Kuala Lumpur and Brussels aimed at securing a replacement free trade pact.

Malaysia currently benefits from the EU’s generalised system of preferences (GSP) scheme, which provides developing countries with generous tariff reductions on exports. However, the World Bank’s decision to award the South-east Asian state upper-middle-income-nation status will end its eligibility for the lower levies from January 2014.

While EU representatives are confident that a new free trade agreement (FTA) will deepen economic integration between its member states and Malaysia, local business representatives have questioned whether they can remain competitive once the lower tariffs are withdrawn.

Strong bilateral trade

The EU is a major importer of Malaysia’s goods. Figures show its members purchased 13%, or 2.22m tonnes, of the country’s palm oil exports in 2012, and spend more than $1.3bn each year on Malaysian timber. On October 22, the Malaysia External Trade Development Corporation (MATRADE) said it expected total bilateral trade to reach RM120bn ($38.2bn) in 2013. Results so far this year suggest this is an attainable goal, with exports to the EU for the first eight months amounting to RM41bn ($13bn), while imports stood at RM45bn ($14bn).

Susila Devi, the senior director of MATRADE’s Strategic Planning Division, told reporters that Europe offered Malaysia a broad range of business and investment opportunities across the industries. “It also includes information communication technology, chemicals, automotives, renewable energy, logistics, agro food processing, pharmaceuticals and financial services,” she commented.

FTA negotiations

Business leaders, however, have highlighted the significant impact that the end of GSP status is set to have on trade and investment.

The GSP scheme provides duty reductions of up to 66% on sales to the EU. Malaysia’s exports to Europe under the initiative were valued at RM13.5bn ($4.3bn) in 2011, or 17% of its overseas shipments, according to a report published by the EdgeMalaysia in April.

Tan Sri Lee Oi Hian, CEO of Kuala Lumpur Kepong, a Malaysia conglomerate with interests in the palm oil industry, warned in March that without the GSP, the tax rate on some Malaysian oleochemicals heading for the EU would be between 4% and 6%. “We will just not be competitive,” he said at a Global Malaysia Series workshop.

Lee, together with other business leaders, said the impending withdrawal of the GSP scheme heightened the need for the government to secure an FTA with Europe. The loss of the GSP could be “another nail in the coffin” for the local palm oil industry, he said.

The EU and Malaysia first entered into discussions on a FTA in late 2010, with the next round of negotiations scheduled for the fourth quarter of this year. The ambassador and head of the EU delegation to Malaysia, Luc Vandebon, told Bernama in June that if the next round of talks is held before the end of 2013, then “it should be possible to conclude negotiations in late 2014/early 2015”.

The EU delegation’s former ambassador to Malaysia, Vincent Piket, said last year that an FTA would boost the country’s GDP by 8% by 2020.

“The conclusion of the FTA would be a landmark step in the fostering of bilateral trade between the two partners and deepen economic integration,” he said.

Looking long term

FTA supporters say a deal will, over time, increase market access for goods and services, facilitate trade and investment flows, enable mutual recognition of standards and qualifications, and increase joint capacity-building programmes.

However, not all Malaysians feel that an EU trade pact, at least in its current proposed form, is the best path for securing long-term economic growth.

In a report published in late 2012 by the IFRI Centre for Asian Studies, part of a French think tank, author Tham Siew Yean noted that the proposed FTA was in conflict with key interests of Malaysia. Tham raised particular concerns about the impact of intellectual property rules on the pharmaceutical sector.

“A small trading economy such as Malaysia’s is keen to lock in its market access to other countries. … [But] Malaysia’s focus has always been in the ASEAN as well as the wider East Asian market. In this scenario, ASEAN agreements, including Malaysia’s commitments in extra-ASEAN-wide agreements, will hold more weight than an agreement with the EU,” he wrote.

Concerns have been raised that with regional competitors also vying for the EU market, Malaysia could be tempted to negotiate a deal with the union from a position of weakness or sign an agreement lacking transparency. Many Malaysians, it would seem, are keen to avoid landing an unbalanced deal that fails to dovetail with the country’s broader vision for growth.

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Malaysia: Banks shift lending patterns

With an election looming and uncertainty over the state of the global economy, Malaysia’s banks may have to work hard to maintain earning levels amid predictions of lower rates of household borrowing growth.

Many analysts are tipping a slowing of loan growth in 2013. The results of a study by Alliance Research, a division of Alliance Investment Bank, points to loan growth of between 7% and 9% in 2013, down from the 11% for 2012 and 13.6% in 2011, respectively, in part due to net interest margin compression and higher provisions for non-performing loans.

The report, released at the beginning of January, also said even the lower levels of growth could be optimistic – at least in the first part of the year – if consumers became more cautious in their spending patterns ahead of the general election, scheduled for the end of April at the latest. Consumer activity, and subsequently bank lending, could also be negatively affected by the possible introduction of new taxes and higher utilities tariffs following the election, the report noted.

While individual lending could slow, this may not apply to the business sector, at least according to an investors’ note issued by HwangDBS Vickers Research, a division of a local investment bank by the same name, in early January. The report says there should be increased demand for finance from firms looking to benefit from the Economic Transformation Programme (ETP), a government initiative to develop the country into a high-income economy by the end of the decade.

With the ETP aiming to more than double per capita income by 2020 and create 3.3m new jobs, the government is encouraging private sector investment in key areas. The private sector in turn is looking to the banks to help finance the retooling, infrastructure and expansion needed to take part in the state-backed projects. These borrowing requirements could boost bank-lending activity during the year, HwangDBS said.

Wong Yin Ching, co-head of financial institution ratings at RAM Ratings, a domestic credit ratings agency, told local media in early January, “We anticipate stronger financing demand from corporations as well as small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs), underscored by the rollout of projects under the ETP and the 10th Malaysia Plan”.

These views were backed by a report prepared by the research unit of MIDF Amanah Investment Bank in early January, which noted the ETP projects would drive demand for corporate loans debt-capital fundraising, again with strong calls for funding from SMEs.

While the elections and unsteady global markets could impact the Malaysian economy, an investor note issued at the end of December by RHB Research Institute said it was maintaining its overweight outlook for the banking sector, which it described as robust and “safe”.

“We think the sector’s ‘defensive’ qualities will help tide investors through the volatile first half on even keel,” RHB said. “As macro conditions improve after that, we see the banks as one of the major beneficiaries.”

While the reduced rate of growth for banks’ loan portfolios could see a lower level of earnings across the sector, there was potential for revenue-generating expansion elsewhere. According to Asian Development Bank economist Jayant Menon, the opening up of the Myanmar economy to outside investment, along with the development of the economies in Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam, held out the promise of growth for Malaysian banks.

“There is also a lot of potential for banks to increase their sales and revenues in these new frontier markets,” he said in an interview with state news agency Bernama in late December.

RHB Bank board member Tan Sri Azlan Zainol said recently RHB would explore opportunities in Myanmar. This, along with a move into the Indonesian market, was part of RHB’s strategy to expand its overseas earnings from 5% of revenue to 30% by 2020, he said in mid-January.

Though loan activity may slow this year, the economy is predicted to expand by around 4.8% in 2013. With a rebound in Asia in 2014 forecast, the country’s lenders should be well placed to boost revenue in the medium term.

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Malaysia: In search of broader tourist base

A focus to attract more tourists from growing regional markets will spearhead Malaysia’s efforts to boost visitor numbers in 2013. However, efforts to increase arrivals from certain key segments may not be enough to drive visitor figures up across the board.

Despite ranking as one of the world’s top 10 tourist destinations, the market base remains narrow, with more than half the visitors coming from neighbouring Singapore. This year will see Malaysia focus on broadening its reach to tap into emerging markets that are demonstrating significant growth, such as India.

Final figures still to be published are expected to show that despite global economic uncertainty, visitor numbers to Malaysia from India rose 36% in 2012, according to international media in mid-January.

A total of 514,926 tourists entered Malaysia from India in the first three quarters of 2012, already up 2.6% on full-year visitor numbers for 2011, according to the Tourist Development Corporation of Malaysia (TDC). Zulkifly Md Said, the director of the international marketing division for South Asia, East Asia and Africa at the Malaysia Tourism Promotion Board (MTPB), told reporters he expected the country to have met or topped its target of welcoming around 700,000 arrivals from India in 2012. Malaysia aims to push the number up to 780,000 this year, Said added.

The rise in visitor numbers from India is thought to be due to a combination of improved connectivity between the two countries and an increase in the range of packages and products being offered to Indian tourists. Reports also suggest that India’s population, especially its affluent middle class, are increasingly looking at medium-haul destinations, such as Malaysia, which remain more affordable than Europe and North America, long popular with the Indian elite.

Zulkifly said Malaysia was benefitting from well-formulated packages aimed at targeted groups in the Indian market, including families and honeymooners. The country also offered quicker visa processing, a wide range of tourist attractions and affordable food and travel costs, he added. With the world economy still struggling, and many tourists from emerging-markets on tight budgets, officials have suggested that Malaysia’s relatively low costs are also giving the country an important competitive advantage.

Air connectivity has risen to meet growing demand, with Malaysia Airlines (MAS), the country’s flag carrier, increasing capacity between India and Malaysia by 25% in 2012. The airline expects to continue expanding its routes to India this year. Malaysia’s low-cost AirAsia, which has strengthened its regional presence in recent years, is also looking to increase the frequency of flights to the Indian cities it serves.

China is another growing market that offers potential for Malaysia’s tourism industry in both the leisure and business segments. The TDC set a target of attracting 1.5m visitors from China in 2012, up by 20% on 2011’s figures. As of end-September 2012, 1.18m Chinese tourists had visited Malaysia, up from 933,540 in the same nine months of 2011. The country hopes to break the 2m-barrier by 2014.

Boosting visitor numbers from emerging markets forms a key component of Malaysia’s bid to maintain its position as one of the world’s leading destinations. The country attracted 24.7m international visitors in 2011, placing ninth in the world, according to the UN World Tourism Organisation (UNWTO), just below Turkey, which received 29.3m visitors from abroad, and the UK, with 29.2m. France topped the list, registering 79m international arrivals.

However, the total number of international tourists in 2011 was only up 0.4% from 2010 figures, which reached 24.6m. This figure was a 4% rise on the number of visitor arrivals in 2009, when Malaysia received 23.6m international tourists. Over the same period, earnings from tourism also increased, rising from $15.8bn in 2009 to $18.2bn in 2010 and reaching $18.3bn in 2011.

But broadening its narrow market base remains a challenge for the country. Visitors from Singapore are expected to continue dominating numbers in 2013 and 2014, according to officials. In the first six months of 2012, the top 10 markets, including Singapore, China and India, accounted for 87.55% of the 11.6m arrivals.

Tourism industry leaders in the private sector are keen for the TDC to continue broadening its promotional activities, targeting both emerging markets, including Russia, the Middle East and Eastern European countries, alongside well-established outbound segments such as France and the US. Plans to boost arrivals from diverse sources should also stand the tourism industry in good stead, despite its remaining sensitive to fluctuations in the international economy.

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Malaysia: Rolling out plans for ICT

The government is moving forward with one of its flagship projects, an initiative that aims to make the information and communications technology (ICT) sector – already a major contributor to the Malaysian economy – one of its largest components. However, if the state is to achieve its goals there are several issues to be addressed.

Currently, the industry represents around 10% of GDP, a figure the government is keen to increase as it pushes to achieve developed nation status by 2020. That plan was given a boost in early July, when one of the government’s lead agencies in its drive to develop the sector unveiled the first major projects in the Digital Malaysia programme, which was initiated by the prime minister, Najib Razak, last October.

According to Badlisham Ghazali, CEO of Multimedia Development Corporation (MDeC), eight of the scheme’s projects have already been approved and will be rolled out in stages. These and other initiatives will generate $10bn in investment value based on a public-private partnership model and will increase ICT’s input to GDP to 17% – $94bn – by 2020, Badlisham announced on July 5. “The investments will be used to create 160,000 jobs, besides providing an additional $2300 in annual income for 350,000 citizens via digital income by 2020,” he added.

Among the projects that have cleared the approval stage are an “Asian e-fulfilment hub”, which seeks to develop Malaysia into a regional centre for servicing cross-border e-commerce shipments and e-payment services for micro-, small and medium-sized enterprises.

At the core of Digital Malaysia is the aim of moving the industry from a supply-focused approach to a demand-focused one; shifting behaviour from being centred on consumption to production; and helping local talent form a high-knowledge, innovative workforce.

According to Fadillah Yusof, the deputy minister at the Ministry of Science, Technology and Innovation, Digital Malaysia will help develop a cohesive digital ecosystem. “These thrusts include initiating more demand-focused activities to leverage on the supply, encouraging internet users to come up with products or services while they consume from digital technologies, and increasing the development of local talent in key industries,” he said. “Previously, our focus was just to drive the industry. Today, our role has evolved to empowering citizens and businesses to use digital technology to enhance their lives and businesses.”

Though the government and its agencies will need to provide more detail on many of the programmes that are in the pipeline, and on how it intends to attract private investment to those initiatives, moving to flesh out Digital Malaysia should encourage the ICT sector.

According to a statement issued by MDeC on July 2, the outlook for that industry should remain positive for the rest of the year, driven by strong domestic demand and higher consumer spending. This prognosis was supported by a recent forecast by the National ICT Association of Malaysia, which predicted growth of 8-10% for the sector in 2012.

One cloud on the horizon is the weakening health of the global economy, exacerbated by the ongoing crisis in the eurozone and the slowdown in China. While domestic demand is expected to remain strong in the near term, Malaysia’s overseas markets for ICT goods and services could experience a contraction in the latter half of this year and into 2013. Depending on how severe this reduction in demand is, the ICT sector’s growth rate may slow, perhaps significantly.

Another possible pothole is the shortage of skilled engineers and entrepreneurs, many of whom chose to live and work overseas, according to Pua Khein Seng, the chairman and CEO of Taiwan-based Phison Electronics. “There is potential in the IT industry in Malaysia; we have talents but many of them are overseas,” Pua said in an interview with the Borneo Post in July. “In Taiwan, we often hear stories of our seniors becoming successful entrepreneurs after graduating, and these instil the belief that ‘I might stand a chance to succeed if I choose to be an entrepreneur.’ In Malaysia, we don’t have these kinds of success stories.”

If the government can attract the sort of investment it is expecting and is able to do more to facilitate entrepreneurial endeavours, the ICT sector may yet be able to write a few stories of its own in the years ahead.

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Malaysia: Manufacturing growth

Malaysian officials are confident the country’s manufacturing sector will continue to post strong growth throughout this year and beyond, on the back of an increasing swell of both foreign and domestic investment. There are some suggestions, however, that a general slowing of the global economy and the prospect of sharp wage increases could take some of the momentum from industrial expansion.

According to data issued by the Malaysian Industrial Development Authority (MIDA), the manufacturing sector accounted for just over half of all foreign direct investment (FDI) inflows last year, almost double the 27% drawn in by the services sector. With FDI in 2011 increasing by 12.3% to around $11bn, manufacturing’s share of that total came to around $5.5bn.

Total investments in the sector also surged in 2011, with 846 manufacturing projects carrying a total value of $18.57bn approved last year, a 19% increase over the $15.6bn recorded in 2010. Of these investments, locals’ contributions numbered $7.3bn, or 39% of the total, while the balance came from FDI. A full third of new projects approved were in the electrical and electronic industry, followed by basic metal products, and chemicals and chemical products.

Commenting on the latest manufacturing sector figures, the international trade and industry minister, Mustapa Mohamed, said investors were upbeat over the opportunities in Malaysian manufacturing.

“Foreign and domestic investors continue to respond positively to the government’s initiatives to invest in new growth areas and emerging technologies, high value-added industries, high technology and capital-intensive industries, and research and development activities,” he said.

While Malaysia is well placed to post solid growth this year, there are some signs that the national economy, and with it the manufacturing sector, could be easing back a gear. Total exports in January 2012 came to $18.2bn, the lowest level in a year, according to data released in early March. The year-on-year rate of growth for the manufacturing sector as of December 2011 was 4.5%, somewhat better than the 4% recorded in the previous month but a long way off the 8.2% of September or the 6.2% in October.

The long-running uncertainty over the state of Europe’s economy also ate into January’s export figures, which were released on March 7. Shipments to the EU plunged by 14.5% to $1.6bn, with falling demand for electrical and electronic goods and metal products being cited as the main factors in the slump. Though the decline was slightly less dramatic, exports to China also dropped in January, down 12.2% year-on-year, again with electrical and electronics products leading the retreat.

Overall, Malaysia’s economy expanded by a creditable 5.1% last year, in line with the rate of expansion of the manufacturing sector but below the 7.2% posted in 2010. The 2011 result was one that some analysts saw as stemming from the easing in overseas demand for Malaysian exports, a trend that will probably continue through the first half of 2012 but start to reverse itself mid-year and beyond.

According to Lee Heng Guie, the head of economic research at CIMB Investment Bank, it was the volatile external environment that resulted in stagnant demand for consumer electronics, though this could be offset to some degree by domestic demand.

“The question is how sustainable is consumption going to be and this will depend on key drivers such as commodity prices and income,” Lee said in an interview with The Star in Malaysia late February.

Many manufacturers are also somewhat wary of the government’s plans to increase the minimum wage at a time when there is uncertainty over sales abroad and growing competition from other regional producers. There have been calls for the raise, which will see the base wage increase from $215 to between $265 and $330 a month, to be implemented in stages, rather than all at once so as to lessen the impact on the manufacturing sector.

On March 6, Lim Kok Boon, the president of the Malaysian Plastic Manufacturers Association, said at a press conference that the government had to consider what the impact of a sudden implementation of minimum wage would have on the manufacturing sector.

“Almost all manufacturing companies in Malaysia rely on the export market and when we offer a higher price to our export market, they will not absorb our access cost and will look at other countries for cheaper supply,” Lim said.

While suggestions that up to 4m jobs, the majority of which are in manufacturing, could be put at risk by the wage increase may be somewhat alarmist, employers’ concerns are real. Mindful of the importance of the sector to the national economy, Mukhriz Mahathir, the deputy minister for international trade and industry, said on March 8 that a balance needed to be struck between the expectations of workers and industry.

“The minimum wage policy has become an ongoing debate, and the important thing is, the ability of the government to strike a balance between increasing the income of the people and ensuring higher productivity,” he said.

How the government will achieve this balance has yet to be determined. If an increase in manufacturing output can be assured, the result would offset higher labour costs, though something of a question mark remains over whether there are markets for the stepped up production the government is hoping for.

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