Malaysia’s tourism sector aims to blow past headwinds

A strong showing by Malaysia’s tourism industry in the first three months of the year may be offset by an expected drop-off in arrivals from China. But officials and travel bodies remain confident that any cooling in sentiment from the mainland will ease by the latter part of the year, giving the sector a lift in the final quarter.

The tourism industry posted arrivals up 10% year-on-year for the first quarter of the year, with just over 7m visitors, up from 6.5m for the same period in 2013, according to data issued by the Immigration Department of Malaysia in mid-June.

Fellow ASEAN members continued to provide the bulk of Malaysia’s inbound visitors, contributing 72% of the total – 5.1m arrivals – with Vietnam, Thailand, Cambodia, the Philippines and Singapore all showing double-digit increases for the quarter. Indonesia, the second-largest source of tourists, delivered 676,000 passengers that represented a 7.3% increase.

Malaysia will need to maintain this rate of growth if it is to reach the aim of 36m annual arrivals set by the government for 2020, more than 10m up on the 25.7m arrivals recorded last year. The government is also looking to greatly expand tourism revenue, targeting earnings of $52bn annually by the end of the decade, more than two and a half times the 2013 total of $20.3bn.

Headwinds cooling Chinese interest

Despite the good performance, the real proof of the resilience of the tourism sector will come with the release of the second quarter figures, with a number of factors set to have a negative impact on performance.

The disappearance of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 on a flight from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing in March, with 239 passengers and crew – many of the former being Chinese nationals – combined with the kidnapping of a number of Chinese nationals in Sabah recently, has hurt Malaysia’s standing as a tourism destination in the eyes of many potential travellers from China. Some estimates put the drop in arrivals from mainland China at around 40% since the incidents, putting at risk the industry’s target of hosting 2m Chinese tourists this year compared with 1.4m arrivals in 2013.

Tourism and Culture Minister Datuk Seri Nazri Aziz told Parliament in June that a total of 76 flights to Kota Kinabalu, the capital of Sabah, from China were cancelled recently in response to three kidnapping cases on the east coast of the Malaysian state in three months.

Another factor that could impact Chinese visitor numbers is the simmering tension between Beijing and a number of countries in the region, including Malaysia, relating to territorial disputes in the South China Sea and elsewhere. These tensions have seen at times violent anti-Chinese protests in Vietnam and while sentiment in Malaysia is not as heated, some Chinese tourists may look further when planning their holidays, away from any states in which their government is at odds.

Promotional push

Malaysia is now moving to shore up its Chinese market, having curtailed promotional activity in the wake of the Flight 370 disaster. Tourism authorities are again starting to increase advertising activities and attend trade fairs.

Speaking in Hong Kong in early June, Azizan Noordin, the deputy director-general of promotions for Tourism Malaysia, said he remained confident Chinese arrivals would hit 2m this year, representing a 15% increase year-on-year. Echoing these comments, the Malaysia-Chinese Tourism Association, a group representing Malaysian Chinese travel agents, predicts that arrivals from China are likely to rebound in the third quarter and into the last three months of the year while officials are confident year-end targets will be met.

But it remains unclear how deeply the loss of Flight 370 and the kidnappings in Sabah impact Chinese sentiment in the second quarter and beyond.

In for the long haul

Visitor numbers from China may well fall short of expectations for 2014, but this gap may be bridged by holidaymakers from other countries seeking an alternative to troubled Thailand.

Malaysia’s tourism appeal is spreading further with visitors from countries such as Australia a target. Though only representing a fraction of the overall total, long-haul visitors from countries in Europe or North America added significantly to Malaysia’s arrival numbers, with 500,000 landing in the first three months of the year, according to the Immigration Department. While only 8% of all arrivals, these long-haul markets represent an area of strong growth potential, one that has been given increased support by improved flight connections to Europe in particular.

Another more distant market that both the government and operators are working to expand is in the Middle East and other predominantly Muslim markets. Muslim visitors to Malaysia were estimated to account for a fifth of the total last year. This amounted to 5.2m according to the Islamic Tourism Center, an almost four-fold increase on the 2000 figure. By building on its credentials as a Muslim-friendly destination, Malaysia should be able to further broaden its tourism base.

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Malaysia looks to EEVs for car manufacturing boost

Efforts to position Malaysia as a regional centre for energy efficient vehicle (EEV) production took a key step forward in January, with news that the government intends to hand out its first green car manufacturing licence in the coming weeks.

Malaysia’s plans to develop the EEV industry feature strongly in its newly introduced National Automotive Policy 2014 (NAP 2014), the latest iteration of the government’s strategic roadmap for the sector. However, competition from other South-east Asian countries, which are also targeting vehicle assembly growth, could hinder Kuala Lumpur’s ambitions.

International Trade and Industry Minister Mustapa Mohamed told reporters on February 6 the government expected to issue its first EEV manufacturing licence in April. There has already been strong interest from overseas car makers, with production likely to start on EEV lines within three years, he said. According to the minister, Malaysia is looking to license 3-4 manufacturers of EEVs by 2018.

Launched on January 20, the NAP 2014 is the government’s blueprint for the automotive industry for the next decade and beyond. At its core is a vision that Malaysia will be one of the world’s leading manufacturers of EEVs, with up to 85% of vehicles rolling off the production lines by 2020 to be energy efficient. Goals include annual exports of 200,000 EEVs by the end of the decade, as well as car component sales of $3bn each year.

Incentives and exemptions

Under the NAP 2014, manufacturers will be encouraged to bring out a range of EEVs, powered by various energy sources, such as compressed natural gas, liquefied petroleum gas, biodiesel, ethanol, hydrogen and fuel cells.

The policy offers a number of new incentives aimed at attracting EEV manufacturers to Malaysia, including an easing of rules governing production for international players, which will now be able to manufacture smaller-sized-engine vehicles without having to partner with local companies. Foreign firms operating alone were previously restricted to producing cars with 1.8-litre engines or above.

Grants and soft loans of $600m are also being made available. Other incentives include pioneer status, investment tax allowance, grants for research and development infrastructure facilitation and reduced tax rates.

The immediate beneficiaries of the policy are expected to be foreign automakers already active in the country, including Honda, which has a hybrid car production facility in Malaysia, as well as Nissan, which manufactures conventional cars there.

Other brands have indicated interest, including Toyota, which assembles and distributes conventional vehicles in Malaysia. In January, the president of the Japanese automaker’s local unit said the company had submitted to the government a plan for building a hybrid production facility.

However, some industry leaders have expressed doubts about the NAP 2014. While praising the government’s efforts to broaden its definition of EEV, Gerhard Pils, CEO of BMW Group Malaysia, said additional details on incentives would be required.

Further discussions between industry representatives and the government are necessary to “clarify what the actual exemptions to EEVs assembled in Malaysia will be, as only from there will firm business decisions regarding the market be made,” the CEO said.

Regional competition

As it looks to expand its EEV production, Malaysia will face challenges from established South-east Asian car manufacturing centres such as Thailand and Indonesia, which have more liberal policies when it comes to foreign investment in the auto industry, as well as better-developed networks of local components suppliers.

Malaysia’s small domestic market may also deter some investors. In January, the head of Toyota’s Thai unit told Reuters that Thailand was “still in a better position given the size of the market”. The Japanese automaker sold 445,000 units in Thailand in 2013, compared to 100,000 in Malaysia. Around 650,000 cars were sold last year in Malaysia, more than half of which were manufactured by domestic producers Proton and Perodua.

This suggests that Malaysia may have a tough row to hoe as it looks to build up its local automobile manufacturing sector, but a good first step would be offering additional guidance on the types of incentives that it will provide, as well as encouraging locals to buy energy efficient cars.

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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 plans for new taxes

Preparations in Malaysia are well under way for the rolling out of a new goods and services tax (GST) in April 2015, but opinions differ on how effective the levy will be in boosting revenue and critics have voiced concern that the tax could feed inflation.

Under the new plans, which were mapped out by Prime Minister Najib Razak on October 25 in his 2014 budget speech, a 6% tax will be levied on most purchases or transactions.

The GST forms a key part of a national drive to boost state income and reduce the fiscal deficit, which stands at 4% of GDP this year.

The government hopes that the new, broad-based consumption tax, which is set to replace a number of other tariffs, including the sales and services tax (SST), will streamline revenue gathering.

The state currently earns between $5bn and $5.3bn from the SST, which is applied to only some transactions. The Malaysian Customs Department said on November 21 that it expected to garner an additional $1.5bn in revenue each year as a minimum, once the GST replaces other tariffs, bringing the new tax’s expected total earnings annually to around $6.5bn.

Targets and exemptions

With GST exemptions not yet finalised, questions remain unanswered about which items and services will be taxed.

In mid-November, Deputy Finance Minister Ahmad Maslan told local media that exports would remain outside of the GST umbrella, in a move seen as offering support to Malaysia’s manufacturing industries. The Customs Department later issued a clarification, saying exporters would be able to recover GST paid on raw materials and components used in final export products.

The government has also said that health services will be exempt from the GST, although it remains unclear whether this will include all associated costs. In early November, the Ministry of Health said talks with the Ministry of Finance were ongoing to “minimise the effects of GST in increasing healthcare cost”, suggesting there could be ripple effects from the tax.

The final drafting of GST legislation will be completed by early 2014 at the latest, according to officials, while the infrastructure required for implementation, such as computer networks, is almost complete.

Persuading the public

This is not the first time that the government has tried to introduce a broad-based consumption tax. An initial plan, floated back in 2005, had targeted a 2007 GST roll-out, which failed to materialise. While the tax was put back on the agenda in 2009, strong opposition in parliament, which was mirrored across a significant part of the population, led to the government eventually shelving the draft legislation in 2010, a year before its planned launch.

Winning broad public support remains a challenge today, with widespread scepticism. Opponents are concerned the new tax could trigger price hikes, although the senior assistant director for GST at the Malaysian Customs Department, Mohd Sabri Saad, moved to allay such concerns at a media briefing on the tax.

“The implementation should not burden the people as it is not a new tax but a replacement of SST,” he said. “Only those goods and services which were not taxed before will have a one-off impact in terms of prices.”

Some analysts have suggested that the GST could spark a rise of up to 10% in real estate costs. The government has proposed an exemption for residential properties, but Jerry Chan, the chairman of the Penang Real Estate and Housing Developers Association, warned contractors will likely fail to set up systems to recover taxes paid on inputs, and instead pass the cost on to developers and customers.

Keen to soften the implementation of the tax, the government said the GST would be offset by a reduction in income tax of 1-3%, which will run alongside other support measures planned for low-income families. However, critics counter that only 1.34m of Malaysia’s 14m-strong workforce earn enough to be liable for income tax.

The government has given itself almost 18 months to work out the fine details of the GST and to sell its plan to the public. While the new levy could streamline tax procedures, too many exemptions and concessions risk limiting the GST’s effectiveness. The final drafting of the legislation for the GST will indicate the depth of the new tax regime and how committed the government is to standing firm against opposition to its policy and reducing the fiscal deficit.

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Malaysia: Infrastructure investments to drive loan growth

With Malaysia’s economy expected to post growth of just above 5% in 2013, investors expect further increases in lending to the private sector. While rising household debt remains a concern in the medium term, domestic bank capitalisation leaves some room for further growth in their portfolios.

On May 15, Moody’s announced it was maintaining a stable outlook on the Malaysian banking sector for the next 12 to 18 months. The ratings agency said its assessment was based on an expectation of favourable operating conditions, as well as high levels of capitalisation.

Moody’s has projected that loan portfolios will rise by 10% in 2013, in part driven by a 5% increase in GDP. Economic expansion will be supported by government investment in infrastructure projects and pro-growth monetary policy, both domestically and internationally. With interest rates in developed countries at historic lows, investors are drawn by Asia’s growth markets, with Malaysia attracting particular attention due to its economic stability.

As the IMF noted in a February report, Malaysia’s economy has continued to grow as domestic demand, driven by public and private investment, has offset a weak external environment. Low inflation – averaging 1.7% in 2012 – has allowed the central bank to maintain a loose monetary policy stance for a sustained period.

The IMF also expressed a favourable view on Malaysia’s financial system, noting that it is “robust, highly capitalised and underpinned by a sound supervisory and regulatory framework”. Similarly, stress tests carried out by Moody’s indicate that banks have built up substantial loss-absorbing buffers, allowing them to withstand a possible deterioration in asset quality without their capital levels falling below regulatory minimums. Moreover, as lenders work to implement Basel III, capital requirements will increase further, “locking in” these buffers, the ratings agency said. Liquidity is also ample – the loan-to deposit ratio stands at 79%, and banks have access to global debt markets to raise capital.

However, both Moody’s and the IMF warn that the outlook is not risk-free. The IMF mentions the growth of unsecured consumer lending, while Moody’s “cautions over the looming risk posed by the twin trends of household leveraging and house price appreciation”.

The ratings agency asserts that risks are low for its forecast period, although it says an increase in interest rates would have an adverse effect on certain types of loans, including high loan-to-valuation mortgages, credit extended to export-oriented businesses and consumer debt held by highly leveraged households. However, these asset classes account for less than one-fifth of total loans in the banking system, it added.

Moreover, the bulk of growth in lending in the near term is expected to come from business loans, not consumers. In the wake of the recent victory of the ruling Barisan Nasional (BN) party, big-ticket projects linked to the government’s Economic Transformation Programme (ETP) are more likely to be implemented. In addition, businesses that had been holding back investments while waiting to see how the political landscape took shape after the election may now also push forward. Indeed, in a report issued in May, Kuala Lumpur-based RHB Research said that loans to businesses, particularly government-linked companies, slowed in recent months as firms adopted a “wait and see” approach.

Meanwhile, consumers are expected to borrow less, in part the result of stricter regulations put in place in 2012, Nor Zahidi Alias, chief economist at the Malaysian Rating Corp, said in an interview with local media. This is a “welcome development” he added, as the level of household debt is at historically high levels, equivalent to 80.5% of GDP. Nonetheless, he said, “We do not foresee a significant drop in the overall loan growth, as robust economy activity and stiff competition in the banking sector would continue to support loan growth in 2013.”

The challenge for banks, however, may be declining profitability, as competition for loans drives down net interest margins. Nonetheless, with the rate of non-performing loans low, ample liquidity in the system and high demand in certain sectors associated with the ETP, now may be the time for banks to expand their loan books.

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Malaysia: Economic outlook bright despite election uncertainty

While a fiercely fought general election could send ripples through Malaysia’s economy in the next few months, the country otherwise looks set for another year of solid growth on the back of strong domestic demand and higher private investment driven by a number of public sector initiatives.

Experts are divided on whether the forthcoming election, which may prove to be the closest in Malaysia’s history, is likely to have anything more than a minor impact on capital flows and the ringgit, with consensus suggesting the economy is strong enough to weather a spell of uncertainty or change of government despite recent depreciation in the local currency.

In a move aimed at encouraging growth, the Bank Negara, Malaysia’s central bank, opted earlier this month to leave its benchmark overnight policy rate at 3%. Malaysia’s consumer price index was running at 1.3% in January, year-on-year (y-o-y), although there is a risk that the low lending rate could push up inflation in the coming months.

However, the central bank said it was confident that continuing strong investment activity and higher private consumption would steer the economy forward through 2013. “The Monetary Policy Committee considers the current stance of monetary policy to be appropriate given the outlook for inflation and growth,” the bank said in a statement issued on March 7.

The reserve’s confidence is echoed in the latest assessment on the country from the IMF, which left its forecast of 5.1% growth for 2013 unchanged. The figure marks a slight drop on last year’s economic expansion, which Bank Negara put at 5.6% in data it released in late February.

The IMF pointed to Malaysia’s sound fiscal policy, saying home-grown economic activity, strong investment and high domestic consumption should continue to drive growth.

It warned, however, that external factors, such as slower-than-expected expansion in the US or China, along with the threat of continued recession in the eurozone, could weigh on the economy. In a separate note issued in late February, the agency also cautioned that the forthcoming general election could cause “some market volatility”.

Malaysia’s parliament must be dissolved on April 28 at the latest and elections held within the ensuing 60 days. Politicians have already begun courting voters, with the election manifesto of the Pakatan Rakyat opposition coalition, led by Anwar Ibrahim, focusing heavily on economic issues. The opposition has pledged to boost employment, in part by reducing the numbers of foreign workers, and increase the basic wage. Its manifesto includes a promise to lower the cost of utilities, fuel and state services, while creating a $643m fund to help small and medium-sized businesses deal with the impact of its proposed salary hikes.

Critics of the opposition have described the programme as unsustainable in the present economic climate, adding that it lacked details on how the policies would be funded. The governing Barisan Nasional bloc has yet to release its own policy platform, although Prime Minister Najib Razak has called for a further term to complete the economic reforms initiated over the past five years.

Most pundits are anticipating one of Malaysia’s tightest elections to date, with some contrarians predicting that the Barisan Nasional could lose power for the first time since independence. While international analysts remain largely positive about the economy’s prospects for 2013, a number have joined the IMF in pointing to the forthcoming general election as a possible cause for concern.

In an investors’ note issued in late February, financial services group Credit Suisse warned a change of government could prompt disturbances in the market while money managers come to terms with the new situation. “An opposition victory would likely be disruptive to capital flows and the ringgit, not because it would necessarily be a ‘bad’ outcome, but because after decades of Barisan Nasional rule, it would create significant uncertainty for investors about the direction of policy and the structure of business in Malaysia,” the group’s report said.

However, other experts, including Kenneth Akintewe, fund manager with Aberdeen Asset Management, were confident that long term, Malaysia’s economy would weather a temporary disruption. “The reform agenda may be somewhat deflected in the near term but we think there’s enough momentum behind that process that it’s not going to come to a complete standstill,” he said in an interview with Bloomberg on March 4. “We would look for opportunities if the market overreacts to the election risk to actually reposition in the currency market.”

Gundy Cahyadi, an economist with Singapore-based bank OCBC, said he was confident any disturbances in the economy would dissipate soon after the polls close. “A lot of market players have been talking about the elections. Once that is over and done with, sentiment will shift back to the fundamentals of the economy,” he told Reuters news agency on March 7.

While the election could produce a degree of uncertainty in the coming weeks, experts have suggested that an awareness across the political divide of the need for Malaysia to continue its economic expansion and attract further investment, is likely to play a key part in future policy-making.

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Malaysia: New year looks bright for construction industry

While 2013 will produce a number of challenges for Malaysia’s construction sector, including a degree of uncertainty surrounding the approaching election and a shortage of workers, the industry is still expected to post a decent performance this year.

Malaysia goes to the polls in June at the latest, with most pundits predicting a win for Prime Minister Najib Razik’s ruling Barisan Nasional and his coalition allies, although there have been suggestions that the race could be close.

Analysts remain divided, however, about whether nerves among investors prompted by the forthcoming election will produce knock-on effects of any significance across the construction industry.

In an advisory note to investors issued in mid-December, market analyst Nomura International said it remained bullish on construction, energy and banking. The firm’s confidence was shared by Alliance Research, which on December 17 gave a buy recommendation to construction shares.

JP Morgan Securities, however, was more cautious, placing a neutral buy advisory on Malaysia, due to what the firm’s executive director of equity research, Mak Hoy Kit, called election overhang. “Investors will be worried if the opposition wins. When there is uncertainty, investors typically act negatively,” Mak said on December 12. An opposition victory could leave question marks hanging over the current government’s infrastructure programmes, he said, which would likely go ahead as planned if the Barisan Nasional is returned to power.

A similar muted warning was also sounded by the government, when, at the end of November, Deputy Finance Minister Datuk Donald Lim said that although the construction sector’s contribution to the economy would remain significant, the new year would bring a slight reduction in activity.

Construction’s contribution to GDP is expected to fall to 13.5% in 2013 from 15% in 2012, with tourism and the services industry earmarked for a bigger role. “In 2013, we believe domestic demand will still be there but we expect the construction sector to slow down a little. Other industries would contribute to our growth,” Lim said.

The minister said that the slight drop in construction activity could be attributed to the completion of key, large-scale projects, which the government drove through to help the economy recover from a flat patch caused by the global financial crisis.

The industry is set to receive a further boost from a wave of new developments earmarked for 2013, including rail projects worth an estimated $52bn that should be launched in the coming year, prompting some analysts to suggest that while growth in other sectors will largely drive Malaysia’s economy, the construction sector’s contribution to GDP could still remain stable. Malaysia’s GDP is forecast to grow by at least 4.5% this year.

However, while the construction sector is expected to have a solid 2013, it remains hampered by a shortage of skilled labourers, with rapid growth in recent years triggering a drain on its workforce. In late November, the Master Builders Association Malaysia (MBAM) called on the government to do more to facilitate the training of building workers or run the risk of supply-side bottlenecks delaying new projects.

MBAM’s president, Matthew Tee, said that with over a third of the industry’s existing workforce approaching the age of 50, measures needed to be taken to replenish the ranks of the sector. Suggestions include the association’s proposal that the government set up vocational schools that would train construction workers. However, a programme will take time to produce results, and cooperation with the private sector would also be essential for providing work experience and training to students.

In the short term, the government is acting on a proposal floated by MBAM and other industry groups to bring in foreign workers to bolster the ranks of Malaysia’s construction sector workforce. At the beginning of December, the government announced the signing a memorandum of understanding (MOU) with Dhaka that set out the terms for Bangladeshi workers to be employed in Malaysia. The first wave of foreign labourers is due to arrive in February.

If, as is widely expected, Malaysia’s current government wins the forthcoming election, the country’s construction firms should benefit from a wave of new, state-backed infrastructure projects which, combined with rising demand for residential properties, suggests that predictions of a bright 2013 for the sector appear to be well founded.

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Malaysia: Speculation over real estate levies

With the aim of maintaining real estate prices at a reasonable level and to rein in any property speculation, the government is considering the use of tighter fiscal policies that have met with a mixed response from industry players.

Speaking on the sidelines of the 15th National Housing and Property Summit, held in Petaling Jaya on August 28, Chor Chee Heung, the minister of housing and local government, said there was a strong need for better government policies to maintain reasonable and affordable property prices, and to ensure sustainability in the real estate sector as Malaysian property prices steadily increase.

“The government has to mitigate excessive investment and speculative activity in the property market so as to prevent a property bubble,” said Chor. “To ensure sustainable housing development, all parties – including the state government, developers and government-linked companies – must keep abreast of real demand and the affordability level of locals for housing, especially in the Klang Valley.”

One of the tools the government has at its disposal to cool the real estate market is the Real Property Gain Tax (RPGT). As of January 1, charges under the RPGT were set at 10% on profits for real estate owned for two years or less and 2% for those owned between two and five years, with no tax on gains for properties sold after that term. Previously, a 5% tax was imposed if a property was sold within five years, with no tax levied on the capital gains if the sale was made following five years of ownership.

The tax on capital gains from property sales has undergone several adjustments in recent years. Prior to 2007, when the tax rate was cut to 5%, it reached as high as 30% for sales conducted within the first two years of ownership.

Jeffrey Cheah, the chairman of Sunway, a local property developer, said it was important for the government and the real estate industry to work together, adding that it was vital the government did not implement drastic measures that could slow down the property market.

“The government should not increase the RPGT. I also hope it will not further restrict lending to the property sector or introduce new measures that will make it more difficult for home buyers to purchase properties,” Cheah said at the end of August.

Unlike some in the industry, who are concerned that Malaysia’s real estate sector is overheating, Cheah said he was confident that no bubble was emerging. “Our property prices are still affordable compared with neighbouring cities in the region,” he said.

Another organisation to urge caution is the Real Estate and Housing Developers Association (REHDA), which said that the capital gains tax on property should either be left untouched or be lowered to its former level.

“Under the current market conditions, such as the softening market, early signs of better growth of the economy, and the uncertainties of the US and eurozone economies, we urge the government not to interfere with the existing policies, which are business friendly,” REHDA said in a statement in The Malaysian Star on August 21.

The Malaysian Developers’ Association (MDC) also spoke out against any increase in the RPGT or in stamp duty – another policy option available for use by the government – stating that much of the rise in property prices could be attributed to higher materials costs, rather than speculation.

“Increases in basic building materials, which are major components of construction, land and compliance costs, will ultimately lead to higher selling prices of homes,” the MDC said in a statement issued in early August.

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Malaysia: Investing in health

Investment in human capital has been identified as a key driver in boosting the quality of Malaysia’s health care standards while seeing growing economic returns from the industry. However, underinvestment in health services continues to pose a risk.

Under its Economic Transformation Programme (ETP), unveiled in September 2010, the government aims to transform the country into a high-income economy bracket by 2020, with the health sector targeted as central to this plan. As one of the 12 national key economic areas (NKEAs), health care is targeted to become a significant economic enabler by generating revenue through health tourism, as well as manufacturing drugs and equipment. The sector also aims to create 180,000 new positions in health care and attract up to 1m overseas health tourists annually by the beginning of the next decade.

To achieve that goal, however, spending in the sector will need a significant boost. Currently, Malaysia dedicates the equivalent of 4.7% GDP on health services. This is lower than most middle-income nations’ spend, which averages 6.5%, according to the World Health Organisation.

One of the core areas for that increased investment is human capital. The Health Ministry has set a series of targets to increase the ratios of health sciences professionals to the general public. Once the ETP has completed its term by 2020, officials believe Malaysia will have one doctor for every 400 citizens, compared with the present rate of around 1:800, and one nurse for every 200 people, up from the current level of 1:384.

To achieve this, Malaysia is boosting its health education training schemes. In late July, Muhyiddin Yassin, the deputy prime minister, said the government was planning to increase the number of higher education institutions in the field of health science to 150,000 by 2020, up from the present 55,000.

According to Muhyiddin, who is also Malaysia’s education minister, “I believe Malaysia can play a central role in answering the need for more health professionals in the region. As such, health sciences students, who are considered highly skilled and employable, can expect a brighter future in this field.”

On July 14, in a speech delivered on her behalf at a graduation ceremony at a health training institute in Sabah, Rosnah Abdul Rashid Shirlin, the deputy health minister, said the government was moving to accelerate the pace of improvements in sectoral education. The ministry was committed to ensuring that graduates have the knowledge and skills required, as well as providing training institutions equipped with modern facilities and qualified teaching staff.

“If we see the development of global health at present, the world needs specialists to develop public health,” Rosnah said.

The minister of health, Liow Tiong Lai, recently acknowledged that the task of increasing the number of specialists was a difficult one. Health education is a rapidly evolving segment, meaning the health sector and educators must move quickly to keep pace with needs of the industry.

“Although the system has been quite successful, we must not rest on our laurels but work tirelessly to ensure that our medical staff will be able to meet the demands of the market, which can change quite rapidly,” Liow said at an international health care conference in Kuala Lumpur on July 17. “However, quantity alone is no longer sufficient because quality also matters in the industry to achieve the excellence in not only curing but also caring.”

There are many challenges that Malaysia’s heath sector faces, including rising costs and more demanding and knowledgeable consumers, Liow said. One of the answers to these challenges will be the industry’s ability to train, attract and retain qualified personnel.

The issue of retention is a vital one, according to Dr Ismail Merican, the former director-general of health, as is the ongoing process of improving the skills base of those already in the system. In particular, Merican told local media, the government needs to step up investments in the public health care sector, strengthen its teaching role and ensure professionals are better compensated to keep them within the local system.

If Malaysia is to achieve its goals, it will need a strong health sector to underpin growth, both to ensure the wellness of society but also as a foundation for sectoral expansion. Increased spending, as well as further encouraging the already active private health services sector to ramp up investments along the training and development chain, will be required.

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Malaysia: Investing in health

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Malaysia: Going for green

Malaysia has announced plans to boost its automotive sector through the production of electric cars, hoping to both develop a lucrative export trade while actively combating carbon emissions at home. The industry will face competition, however, from other countries in the region whose green automotive initiatives are more developed.

At present, there are 11 completely electric vehicles on Malaysia’s roads, according to government figures. Hybrid cars – which use both conventional fuel and an alternative power source for their engines – are more popular, with around 8000 hybrid vehicles currently on the roads.

This is set to change, however, with the government planning to announce a major policy shift that will promote the production and domestic use of electric vehicles. The highly anticipated revision of the National Automotive Policy (NAP), the government’s long-term plan for the industry, will introduce several new reforms and regulations.

Since late 2011, the Malaysian government has been promoting the establishment of a local electric vehicle manufacturing capacity. Both the government and industry lobby groups believe such a move will help broaden the base of the sector.

According to projections from the Malaysia Automotive Institute (MAI), reforms to the industry, coupled with higher local and international demand, will see the sector’s contribution to the economy triple by 2020. In a statement issued in early May, the MAI said it expected the industry’s share of GDP to rise from the present rate of 2.4% to 6.8%, largely due to an increased focus on the production of electric and other energy-efficient vehicles. This growth would be underpinned by a higher level of foreign direct investment and government efforts to encourage original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) to set up operations in Malaysia.

“Meeting vehicle standards for energy-efficient vehicles in Malaysia means bringing new technologies into the country,” Madani Sahari, the CEO of the MAI, told OBG. “As a result, OEMs are being targeted. Before this happens, however, the sector must be liberalised by allowing both local and foreign OEMs to qualify for manufacturing licences, which is expected to happen with the pending second revision of the NAP.”

While there is the potential for Malaysia to break into the regional and international market with a locally produced electric car, it will face stiff competition from both China and Thailand, which have established automotive sectors that include electric car production plants.

With this in mind, Malaysian officials are aware of the need to develop a domestic market for electric cars and their hybrid counterparts. In early May, Mustapa Mohamed, the minister of international trade and industry, announced that the government would offer incentives to Malaysians to buy electric or hybrid vehicles. While there is already a 100% import duty exemption for electric or hybrid cars below 2200 cu centimetres, the minister said additional measures would be enacted to promote the use of electric vehicles.

“We will continue to introduce incentives to accelerate the move towards zero-emission mobility,” Mustapa said. “Our goal is to increase the number of hybrid and electric cars on our roads by 10% by 2020. By then, we hope to be living in a much cleaner and greener environment.”

The government is also encouraging private firms to put in place the necessary infrastructure for these vehicles to operate. On May 29, Peter Chin, the minister of energy, green technology and water, said his department was developing regulations and standards for firms that plan to set up charging stations for electric vehicles. Such measures are needed to create an environment that would generate an interest in the use of alternatively powered cars.

“Until we have charging stations, we are not ready. Once the infrastructure is up, then people will be tempted to buy electric vehicles,” Chin said. “If we want to make it commercial, certain infrastructure must be in place, such as credit card facilities for consumers to pay for charging services.”

The minister also said that an electric vehicle infrastructure plan to enable pilot demonstration projects would be a part of the new NAP.

Local and international manufacturers are likely to wait until the latest version of the NAP is released before making any decisions on whether or not to tap into the electric vehicle sector. However, Malaysia-based vehicle producer Proton and Japan-based Nissan and Mitsubishi are all running trials of battery-powered cars in the country to raise awareness of the plug-in option and test their viability.

If Malaysia is to achieve its ambitious target of cutting emissions by 40%, it will need to move quickly to generate industry interest and acceptance of the new product among the public.

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Malaysia: Going for green

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