Moving ahead with Malaysia’s trade pacts

Malaysia’s leadership is forging ahead with plans for entry to the US-led Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) despite domestic concerns that the multilateral trade agreement will negatively impact some domestic sectors and international concerns over delays in its progress.

Prime Minister Najib Razak said in May the agreement would be ratified by the end of this year, though only on “Malaysia’s terms” with the content being more important than the deadline, he noted.

This has led to some speculation that regional and bilateral trade deals may give Malaysia more tailored and long-term benefits than sweeping global arrangements, even though the changes are taking place on a smaller scale.

Compromises

The free trade agreement (FTA), which involves 12 countries including Australia, Brunei, Canada, the US and Vietnam, would strengthen Malaysia’s ties with the wider world with the aim of expanding trade and market access in terms of economic and investment growth, said Razak.

His remarks came after anti-TPP rallies were held in the region, in response to a visit by US President Barack Obama in April. Opposition leaders in Kuala Lumpur warned that Washington would use pressure tactics to get Kuala Lumpur’s approval for the deal.

“The US might offer security enhancement as a trade-off if Malaysia compromises on its red lines in the TPP. The US regime has always used trade and security hand-in-hand to twist arms of nations to accept its economic hegemony,” Parti Sosialis Malaysia treasurer A Sivarajan said.

Malaysia is reluctant to accept changes to its government procurement policies that could result from the deal, while domestic critics say it will impact on equality initiatives such as pro-ethnic Malay affirmative action introduced after 1969 race riots.

“[Joining the proposed TPP agreement] may mean disruption of our effort to reduce national tension caused by economic disparities,” the former Malaysian Prime Minister and recently-appointed chairman of the automotive manufacturer Proton, Mahathir Mohamad, told the Nikkei Asian Review. He added that retaining some trade barriers was necessary to protect local industries. “To ask us to compete with fully developed countries, that is a task that is almost impossible.”

Proponents of the TPP say it will help dismantle non-tariff barriers and enforce best practice, while obliging countries with closed economies to tackle domestic monopolies. But even its supporters claim its free trade principles are being diluted as divergent economies such as those of Australia and Vietnam demand changes.

Small may be best

Critics have suggested that potential signatories to the TPP, such as Malaysia, would benefit more from focusing on smaller-scale, bilateral or regional free trade agreements rather than joining global initiatives which include economies on the scale of the US and Japan.

The Asian Development Bank (ADB) said in May that the time spent on negotiating “mega” trade deals such as the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) would be better spent consolidating more bilateral trade agreements.

“Whether or not countries wish to pursue mega-regional agreements, in the meantime they should simply pick the lowest tariff among their myriad agreements and adopt this single measure. The solution would also apply to many non-tariff barriers, and would have clear economic benefits, in addition to furthering the cause of global free trade,” Jayant Menon, lead economist for trade and regional co-operation at ADB, told Emerging Markets.

In this vein, the Malaysian and Turkish governments signed an FTA in April that is expected to boost trade to $5bn by 2018 by providing preferential market access for Malaysian goods entering the Turkish market and vice-versa. It also included key bilateral conditions such as reducing the tariff on crude palm oil exports to 20% from 31%.

Under the provisions of the FTA, which took several years to negotiate, Malaysia and Turkey will co-operate in areas encompassing small and medium-sized enterprises, halal-related areas, agriculture and food industry, research development and innovation, health, energy, e-commerce, and automation.

Malaysia already has existing free trade agreements with China, South Korea, Japan, India and Australia and New Zealand.

Export growth

Such preferential agreements have helped Malaysian exports hit a sweet spot this year, accelerating at their fastest pace in four years to nearly 19% year-on-year (y-o-y) growth in April and charging ahead of analysts’ expectations.

This marked the 10th consecutive month of expanding exports, following five successive months of contraction. The institute said this was due to a sharp rise in the shipments of electrical and electronic (E&E) products (32% share of total exports) and commodity (19% share) during the month. At a regional level, observers also point out the advantages of the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), which includes Malaysia and the other nine members of the Association of South-east Asian Nations.

“While the TPP aims to be a high-quality preferential trade agreement… the RCEP… sets the bar low and accepts that countries will reduce trade barriers at different rates – especially among less-developed members – and also makes limited demands for regulatory harmonisation,” wrote the Australian Strategic Policy Institute in April 2013.

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Malaysia braced for austerity challenge

While rising domestic demand in Malaysia helped reassure investors after last summer’s regional downturn, concerns remain that the country is displaying an over-reliance on high domestic consumption levels to prop up growth.

According to the World Bank’s latest projections, Malaysia is expected to achieve 4.3% GDP growth in 2013, despite substantial capital outflows and a nearly 10% depreciation in the ringgit during the second half of the year.

Domestic demand’s key role

The significant contribution that strong domestic demand has made to Malaysia’s economic resilience is widely acknowledged, with officials, including Zeti Akhtar Aziz, the governor of Bank Negara Malaysia, the central bank, highlighting its impact.

“The domestic sector has been solid and the anchor to drive our growth during this more challenging period,” Zeti told Bloomberg in November. “Global trade slowed down very significantly [in 2013], and of course, that affected us because of the openness of our economy. But had we not rebalanced our economy, we would have had 1-2% growth.”

In the same month, Bank Negara Malaysia announced domestic demand grew 8.3% year-on-year in the third quarter of 2013.

High household debt

In December ratings agency Standard & Poor’s, said increasing levels of household debt in Malaysia, which now exceed 80% of GDP, would be “problematic” if the country’s growth rate slowed. The agency had cut its credit outlook for four Malaysian lenders in the preceding weeks over concerns stemming from a rise in home prices and consumer leverage.

Just two weeks earlier, Nancy Shukri, the minister in the prime minister’s department, said that 16,306 people, or an average of 60 Malaysians daily, had been declared bankrupt in the first nine months of 2013.

Malaysia has one of the highest ratios of household debt to disposable income in the world, with its current level of 140% outstripping even that of the US (123%).

In a move to slow consumer credit growth, in July the central bank introduced certain restrictions on lending, including a ten-year ceiling on personal loans, a maximum tenure of 35 years on property mortgages and a ban on pre-approved personal finance products.

However, conditions may not be as dire as some have made them out to be. As Zeti pointed out in September, less than 2% of household loans were non-performing as of that time.

Effect of new budget

While national efforts to rein in spending are taking shape, they follow a wave of populist interventions, including wage hikes for civil servants introduced ahead of last May’s elections, which almost certainly boosted domestic consumption.

However, Malaysia has been more generally moving to tighten its fiscal position. Under the 2014 budget introduced in October, the government will reduce certain subsidies this year and introduce a new goods and services tax (GST) in 2015. Everyday goods and services will be subjected to a 6% levy, although basic food items and some methods of transport are to be exempt.

International critics have urged Malaysia to break the cyclical nature of spending patterns, suggesting that a new strategy would improve investor sentiment in the long term.

“The new government elected in May must consolidate its credibility by meeting its commitments to reduce the public debt without reneging on its electoral promises,” wrote BNP Paribas in an October analysis. “The prime minister also said the 2014 budget would be marked by austerity … [But] these measures … will only stabilise the public debt ratio at best, without reducing it.”

Public debt stands at around 54% of GDP. According to Douglas McWilliams, economic advisor to the Institute of Chartered Accountants in England and Wales, keeping this figure under 60% is important in terms of maintaining investor confidence and, with reforms in place, is an attainable goal.

“The fast growth is helping taxation revenues and government’s budgetary consolidation, particularly on subsidies but also GST, which means Malaysia’s debt ratio will be below 60%,” he told the local media in December.

The national drive to slow lending to consumers and keep government spending in check has been given a largely positive reception. However, accelerating initiatives and increasing their impact may well help the country in its efforts to attract investors and allay their concerns.

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Malaysia moves to target broadband speeds

A drive to bring Malaysia’s internet services up to speed is gathering pace, with ICT infrastructure earmarked for an investment boost next year and longer-term solutions, which could include a fibre optic network roll-out, under discussion.

Malaysia currently lags behind several of its peers when it comes to download speeds, while demand for faster broadband is set to rise significantly in the coming years.

Increasing ICT’s contribution to growth forms a key part of the government’s master plan for the economy. Under its Malaysia Digital Economy initiative, the administration expects the industry to contribute 17% to GDP by 2020. The leadership is also targeting a compound annual growth rate of 9.8% in five key sub-sectors – ICT services, e-commerce, ICT manufacturing, ICT trade, and content and media – over the next seven years.

Boosting broadband

Communications and Multimedia Minister Ahmad Shabery Cheek told reporters in late November that the government was looking at undertaking an in-depth study into ways of boosting broadband speeds to between 40 and 50 Mbps by the year 2020.

According to the minister, there is a rising demand for faster data transfer speeds, with one study showing that Malaysians will want a service operating at 49 mbps by 2018. To achieve this, Ahmad Shabery said, would require significant investment and a shift away from wireless technology. “It requires the installation of fibre optics which is not cheap and cannot be carried out within a short time,” he said.

At present, Malaysia offers a limited fibre optic internet service, with operations restricted to key urban areas, mainly in the capital.

Proposals to construct a fibre optic network, providing a backbone service across the country, have already been submitted by the private sector. However, the project would have limitations and require feeder-link connections to be put in place for wide-ranging access to be made available.

A fibre optic roll-out would produce extensive opportunities for ICT service providers, while the faster rates offered by a new grid should also open doors for firms to market more advanced technology suited to higher speeds. However, the cost of achieving near-total connectivity through fibre optics would make any project a long-term initiative.

Strengthening existing services

In the meantime, Malaysia is focusing on strengthening its existing information and communications backbone.

The recent national budget, handed down at the end of October, allocated funds for several projects aimed at widening the reach of the net and boosting operating speeds.

Among the new initiatives is a $566m joint public-private project, which will expand high-speed broadband coverage. The budget also set aside $571.6m to construct 1000 telecommunication transmission towers over the next three years, which will help increase internet coverage in rural areas, while access in Sabah and Sarawak is set to be improved through the laying of undersea cables.

Peer pressure

National broadband penetration currently stands at 70%, up from 30% in 2006, according to data from the Malaysian Communications and Multimedia Commission.

However, research shows that Malaysia lags behind several of its South-east Asian peers when it comes to broadband speeds.

Data compiled by web analytics firm Net Index put Malaysia’s average broadband download speed at 4.56 Mbps when tested over a 30-day period. While marginally higher than the Philippines (4.55 Mbps), Malaysia’s average broadband speed was lower than that of Brunei (4.69 Mbps), Vietnam (11.70 Mbps), Thailand (12.47 Mbps) and Singapore (39.90 Mbps).

Malaysia placed 112th globally for broadband speed on the index, which was compiled using data from the broadband connection analysis website Speedtest.net. The Philippines ranked 114th, while Thailand placed 54th.

The country gave a stronger performance, however, in the second edition of the World Wide Web Foundation’s comparative study of international web penetration, empowerment and socio-economic impact, which was released in late November.

In its first appearance on the index, Malaysia placed 37th out of the 81 countries assessed, leading the emerging nations, and clinching second position among ASEAN members, behind Singapore.

However, the survey also identified areas where Malaysia could improve, including freedom and openness. In addition, the index highlighted issues around safety, online privacy and information protection.

The foundation’s results confirm that Malaysia would benefit from faster, cheaper and easier access to the web. The government will be hoping that a combination of investment during the coming years, supported by longer-term solutions, will help the country meet demand through faster internet speeds, closing the gap on its peers.

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Malaysia’s tourism sector targets niche markets

A tourism leader in the region, Malaysia has seen its position challenged in recent years as nearby rivals have stepped up efforts to attract more visitors.

Official statistics show that just over 25m visitors arrived in 2012, a rise of around 300,000 compared to the prior year. Despite this increase, Malaysia saw its ranking fall on the 2012 UN World Tourism Organisation (UNWTO) list of most-visited countries, published in August. The country dropped one place on the UNWTO ladder to 10th, being overtaken by Russia.

The sector nonetheless remains a major source of foreign currency earnings, second only to the manufacturing industry, as well as the seventh-largest overall contributor to the national economy. The 2013 World Travel and Tourism Council report noted that tourism employs 1.7m people, or 13.6% of all jobs, when taking into account positions indirectly supported by the industry.

While the 1.3% increase in the number of visitors was a modest improvement on the 0.6% rise recorded in 2011, growth in the market has been slow in comparison to Malaysia’s neighbours. Thailand saw arrivals go up 16% last year, and fast-movers Cambodia and Vietnam posted increases of 24% and 14%, respectively, though both are coming off a far lower base.

In terms of arrivals, Malaysia remains number one in the South-east Asian region, but it faces challenges when it comes to capitalising on arrivals volume. Though it attracted just over half as many visitors, Singapore generated similar revenue from its tourism sector, while Thailand received almost 3m fewer visitors than Malaysia in 2012, but earned 50% more from them, according to UNWTO data.

This suggests that Malaysia needs to do more to encourage greater spending by tourists. The country may also need to look further afield when expanding its client base, with around 75% of all arrivals coming from neighbouring states such as Singapore, Indonesia, Thailand, Brunei and the Philippines, with Singaporeans making up well over one-third of all arrivals.

One of Malaysia’s appeals as a tourism destination for fellow members of the ASEAN bloc is its proximity, Tan Kok Liang, a vice-president of the Malaysian Association of Tour and Travel Agents, told the local press on August 6. By not having to endure long-haul flights, ASEAN visitors can easily take short breaks in Malaysia, he said. However, Tan also acknowledged that the predominance of tourists from nearby countries also has a downside.

“Because many of these are still developing countries, tourists’ purchasing power will be lower than those from developed countries,” he said.

One answer to the comparatively low per-capita earnings power of the Malaysian tourism industry is to develop high-spending niche markets. On August 15, Prime Minister Najib Razak told delegates attending an international insurance congress in Kuala Lumpur that such events would become increasingly important for the tourism industry. Najib said inbound business tourist numbers are set to rise from the present level of 1.2m to 2.9m by 2020, with the government’s Malaysia Convention and Exhibition Bureau aiming to have the country recognised as a leading business destination.

Other niche segments that have been targeted under the government’s development programme are medical, spa and wellness tourism, as well as shopping and duty free sales, though regional rivals are also offering similar projects, potentially narrowing the scope for Malaysia to fully capitalise on these markets.

Despite strong government support and a solid improvement in arrivals this year – inbound tourists numbered 6.5m for the first quarter of 2013, compared to 5.5m for the same three months last year – it may be difficult to achieve some of the goals set by the state, which has identified the sector as one of its 12 National Key Economic Areas. Tourism Malaysia, the agency tasked with promoting the country as a travel destination, has targeted 26.8m inbound visitors this year and 28m in 2014, rising to 36m by 2020.

In the shorter term, the slowing of the economy in China – the third-largest source market for Malaysia – could have a negative impact on the sector, both in terms of a reduction in the number of Chinese visitors as well as any knock-on effects on regional economies. Further down the track, the increased competition posed by other south-east Asian nations could also cut into Malaysia’s tourism growth unless it is able to broaden its appeal.

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Malaysia: Keeping the economy running

The central bank in Malaysia is keeping an eye on macroeconomic stability at a time when a cooling external environment is putting pressure on growth. While international factors are starting to affect overall economic performance, domestic demand remains relatively robust, supported by consumer spending and public investments.

On July 11, the Bank Negara Malaysia (BNM), the central bank, announced it would be maintaining its key policy rate on hold for the 13th consecutive month. The bank kept its benchmark overnight rate at 3%, as analysts surveyed by Bloomberg had expected.

The BNM decision balanced concerns of both a slowdown in the economy and rising personal debt. Malaysia’s year-on-year GDP growth has dropped below 5% for the first time in seven quarters, while household borrowing has been increasing at an annual average 12% for five years.

In a statement, the bank noted that slow global growth had begun to act as a drag on the Malaysian economy, as in other emerging markets, despite healthy domestic demand. Domestic consumption has helped Malaysia and many of its neighbours weather the economic turbulence of recent years, with the rebalancing of the economy helping reduce dependence on exports, which have proved susceptible to slowdowns in Europe and the US.

“For the Malaysian economy, domestic demand has continued to support growth amid the continued moderation in external demand,” the bank said. “The sustained weakness in the external sector may, however, affect the overall growth momentum.”

Even so, the bank retains a positive outlook. It expects private consumption to stay steady, led by income growth and a stable labour market, and capital investment both from domestic-oriented industries and government infrastructure projects to help maintain economic momentum. Malaysia is in the process of rolling out the government’s Economic Transformation Programme (ETP), a wide-ranging package of projects, including infrastructure schemes, designed to boost productivity and increase the private sector’s ability to drive growth.

The BNM is also comfortable with Malaysia’s inflation outlook. Inflation averaged 1.6% in the first five months of the year –low given the rate of economic growth. And while the central bank expects the rate to pick up in the second half of the year, it does not foresee inflation becoming a serious risk factor.

Despite low inflation and slowing growth, the BNM avoided cutting rates, keeping a wary eye on rising debt in an economic climate that has become more volatile in recent months. Malaysia’s experience in the 1997 Asian financial crisis makes policy-makers particularly aware of the need for financial and macroeconomic stability.

In early July, the BNM tightened regulations on lending, cutting the maximum repayment terms on personal loans to 10 years and property loans to 35 years, down from 25 year and 45 years, respectively. Some analysts quoted in the international press suggest that the bank may become more hawkish on interest rates as well towards the end of the year, if growth remains resilient.

Following a period of strong capital flows to emerging markets, there has been a cooling off recently in the wake of signs from the US Federal Reserve that it would not push forward its quantitative easing (QE) policy. QE, a strategy of stimulating the economy through expansion of the monetary base, had boosted inflows to emerging markets as investors sought higher returns than those available in developed economies. Malaysia, with its macroeconomic and political stability and stable growth rate, proved particularly attractive: by February, foreigners held almost half the country’s outstanding sovereign debt.

With QE now likely to be phased out and signs of a slowdown in major emerging markets such as China (a key export market for Malaysia), investor appetite for Malaysian assets are expected to abate. However compared to advanced economies Malaysia along with the rest of South East Asia will continue to enjoy a higher rate of growth thanks to relatively stable domestic demand and investment.

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Malaysia: Retail optimism tempered by caution

A gradually improving economic climate is expected to support continued retail growth in Malaysia in 2013. However, downside risks from the international environment and political uncertainty may affect economic expansion before the year is through.

In January, local press reports suggested the retail market would grow by 5-6% this year. The sector is expected to track or even outstrip broader economic growth, which official estimates suggest will come in at 4.5-5.5%.

Retail Group Malaysia, a local retail consulting firm, said in a recent report the sector would grow by 6% in 2013, following growth of 6.9%, 5.9%, 4.8% and 5.7% in the four quarters of 2012. The organisation said the market would receive a fillip in the first quarter of 2013 from the second round of the government’s 1Malaysia People’s Aid (Bantuan Raykat), which began in January.

Segments that are expected to benefit include electrical and electronics, largely due to a RM200 ($65) rebate on smartphone purchases for 21-30-year-olds who have monthly incomes that do not exceed RM3000 ($965); and bookshops capitalising on the RM250 ($80) book tokens to be given to all university students.

Spending associated with Chinese New Year should also have provided another boost at the beginning of 2013. Retailers often offer promotions during the holiday period, adding momentum during what is already a busy time of year. However, the holiday is usually followed by a dip in sales.

At the beginning of the year, Yen Global, a Malaysian clothes manufacturer, wholesaler and retailer, said the fashion and lifestyle segment had grown by a “modest” 5% in 2012. However, the company considers the outlook good enough to undertake significant investments in expansion, extending its branch network, revamping its products and providing incentives for frontline staff.

“Retail companies that want to chart a growth path will need to expand cautiously, and with the right timing and location in order to rise above the competition,” said Goh Kok Beng, executive chairman of Yen Global, in the company’s annual report.

Similarly, CapitaMalls Malaysia Trust, a real estate investment trust, said in January that it was continuing to look into mall acquisitions, expecting 6% retail growth in 2013 after a successful 2012. The fund focuses on suburban “neighbourhood” malls in which people do day-to-day shopping, a model that has become increasingly popular in recent years as the “destination mall” market has become more saturated.

The single-biggest reason for optimism among retailers, wholesalers and mall investors is Malaysia’s continued strong economic performance, despite a difficult international situation coloured by the eurozone crisis and the US’s debt troubles. Consumer confidence is currently at a two-year high. Momentum is being maintained by a variety of factors, including high prices for Malaysia’s commodity exports, but more importantly, domestic demand supported by investment, a favourable interest rate environment and low inflation.

Public and private investments under the Economic Transformation Programme (ETP), which seeks to boost value-added in the economy and put the private sector at the forefront of growth, is particularly important. The ETP, which involves a raft of investments and reforms, is being rolled out through to 2020 as part of Malaysia’s ambition to become a high-income country by the end of the decade.

Meanwhile, inflation in 2012 averaged 1.6%, half the level recorded in 2011. Analyst surveys forecast that the central bank will keep rates on hold until the second half of the year.

While these factors mean there is good reason to be upbeat about the outlook, there are a number of downside risks to take into account. First and foremost is the broader economy, which could take a hit if the global situation worsens. Significant softening in commodity prices, a worsening in the eurozone crisis affecting the international economy or other unforeseen challenges (such as an oil price spike caused by conflict in the Middle East) could all cool growth in Malaysia.

Another factor that retailers are taking into account is the general election, which is expected by June. Opinion is divided about the impact of the run-up to the poll on the sector; while some expect there to be little effect, others are already reporting a degree of caution among shoppers, particularly regarding big-ticket purchases. Depending on the result of the election, uncertainty after the vote could cause both investor and customer sentiment to dip.

The Malaysian retail sector performed well in 2012, and looks set for another good year in 2013. However, a number of factors, both internal and external, could have a dramatic impact on growth as the year unfolds.

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Malaysia: Gas imports to strengthen growth

Rising domestic demand for energy, fuelled by industrialisation and a growing population, has prompted Malaysia to take on a new role of major gas importer as it looks to augment its own extensive reserves.

The government’s decision to boost gas imports forms part of a shift in energy-related economic policy that will see Malaysia’s long-standing power subsidies phased out by 2016.

While the new pricing structure for energy has been in the pipeline for some time, it is almost sure to prove unpopular, as consumers may well bear the brunt of sharp increases passed on by producers.

Malaysia has long been finalising its plans to begin using imported gas as a driver of economic growth. In 2009, Petroliam Nasional, the state-owned oil and gas company more commonly known as Petronas, signed an agreement with Gladstone LNG of Australia to buy 2m metric tonnes of liquid natural gas (LNG) annually for a 20-year term, from 2014 onwards.

The agreement, which included an option to purchase an additional 1m tonnes, was part of Petronas’s plans to secure adequate supplies for the domestic market. Since then, Malaysia has struck similar deals with other producers, including Statoil of Norway, France’s GDF Suez and Qatargas.

Petronas is currently developing a receiving and regasification plant at the Sungai Udang Port, Melaka, which will process imported LNG. In a statement issued to Bursa Malaysia in late November, the company said that although the project is behind schedule, the facility was expected to be commissioned by the second quarter of 2013. Once fully operational, the plant will have the capacity to process 3.8m tonnes of gas annually.

On November 26, Malaysia LNG, a production subsidiary of Petronas, announced that the German engineering firm Linde Group had won a tender to design, build and deliver a new boil-off gas re-liquefaction facility that will be constructed at the Bintulu LNG complex in Sarawak, East Malaysia. The plant will have a daily capacity of processing 670,000 tonnes of gas annually and should be up and running by the end of 2014.

The shift to imported gas will signal the end of an era for Malaysian consumers who have long benefitted from the subsidies policy, which the government was able to maintain thanks to ample quantities of cheap, locally-produced stock.

The government is believed to have subsidised gas prices by approximately $6.6bn in 2011, half of which was channelled into the electricity segment. The subsidies, which formed part of a government drive to keep down electricity costs and promote industrial growth, are expected to be phased out by 2016, when gas prices should be fully deregulated.

While Malaysia is laying the foundations for gas imports, it continues to work on maximising output from its existing fields, exploring how it can use extraction enhancement technology to extend production life.

Malaysia’s gas reserves remain extensive, with its proven deposits of around 2.4tr cubic metres earning it a 13th -place global ranking for untapped holdings. Existing reserves should allow Malaysia to maintain production at its present rate of around 63bn cubic metres for years to come, although projected increases in domestic usage are likely to speed up a reduction in the life expectancy of its fields. Much of the increased demand will come from industries dependent on gas for feedstock, such as manufacturers of plastics, chemical fertilisers and other petrochemical products.

Efforts are also being channelled into identifying and developing new reserves. In November, Petronas and its partners announced a number of new finds in offshore fields, although the full extent of reserves and their quality have yet to be determined.

While new fields will help prolong the lifespan of gas production, Malaysia’s rising demand for gas is set to grow at a rate easily outstripping domestic output. Despite concerns that higher energy bills will irk consumers and could push up inflation, foreign gas looks set to play a growing role in powering Malaysia’s economy.

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Malaysia: A farmer’s market

Recent efforts to upgrade Malaysia’s agricultural sector that include increased incentives for farmers to learn new techniques and adopt advanced technology are expected to lead to greater harvest yields and help meet rising domestic demand for food products.

While the sector contributes around 12% of GDP and provides employment to some 16% of the national workforce, most of this is concentrated in two key segments, palm oil and rubber production. The contribution of the rest of the agricultural sector is estimated at 4%, though its share of employment is higher, as much of Malaysia’s farming is still labour-intensive. At present, the input of the non-oil and rubber farming sectors is approximately $6.5bn a year, but the government wants to see this more than double by 2020 to $16bn.

To achieve this, Malaysia is trying to adopt smarter farming techniques. Agriculture was one of 12 separate National Key Economic Areas (NKEAs) identified under the Economic Transformation Programme (ETP), launched in late 2010 as part of the government’s efforts to increase national income to more than $500bn by 2020 and achieve developed nation status. The ETP made a clear distinction between agriculture and the palm oil and rubber industries, which fall under a separate NKEA.

The ETP set out a number of initiatives to boost the sector, including a growing focus on export cash crops (tropical fruits), tapping into the global herbal products market and increasing the usage of advanced technology to improve yields.

Though the government’s master plan for agriculture foresees a doubling of revenue, it only projects a modest increase in employment, with technology replacing labour-intensive practices and a shift in rural employment structures. While it is unlikely that agriculture employment levels will lift substantially over the coming decade, the growing pool of rural labour is expected to be taken up by a rise in food-processing operations, with the value-added component of agriculture seen as one of the segments to record the highest level of expansion.

On April 5, Muhyiddin Yassin, the deputy Prime Minister, said it was important for farmers to explore value-added agriculture activities, rather than just limiting themselves to cash-crop production. Farmers should look at venturing into food processing or producing material from by-products to earn extra money, he said during the opening of a fertiliser plant.

“To move forward, farmers must find new opportunities to enable them to earn long-term income,” Muhyiddin said.

In early April, Noh Omar, the minister of agriculture and agro-based industry, stated that the government was trying to create an environment in which farmers become businessmen and view agriculture as an industry, rather than merely growing produce.

“Our role is to facilitate the process and invest in capacity building in order to grow the agri-industry to become a key contributor to the nation’s economic wealth,” he said when speaking with the New Straits Times. “This has created opportunities for farmers to practice high-value agriculture and reach markets at all levels.”

Another opportunity recently unveiled by the government aims to protect local fruit and vegetable growers. In late March, the state announced that as of 2015, farmers’ markets and National Agribusiness Terminal (Teman) outlets will no longer be allowed to sell imported fresh produce.

According to data issued in late March by the Ministry of Agriculture and Agro-based Industry, some 40% of vegetables sold at the Teman outlets – centres set up by the state to market agricultural products – are imported from neighbouring countries.

As most of these vegetables are grown in Malaysia, the move by the government may not encourage the development of new product ranges, but it should help growers by reducing competition and giving them a stable market. A possible downside of the new policy, however, especially if it was extended to restrict fresh food imports beyond the limited scope of the farmers markets and Teman outlets, is that retail prices could be pushed up, as some of Malaysia’s neighbours have lower production and labour costs.

This could be offset to a large degree by improvements in economies of scale and efficiency, with higher production and turnover, as well as technological advances, helping to push down costs. These savings could then be passed on to the consumer.

Over the past 50 years, the Malaysian economy has become far more diverse, moving away from a time when agriculture accounted for 30% of GDP and provided employment for half the workforce.

While the government wants to see agricultural output increase, it is likely that other sectors of the economy will continue to outstrip rural production. By promoting smarter farming, and seeking to supply niche markets, Malaysia will come closer to achieving food security and increasing earnings.

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