Malaysia moves to maintain halal edge

The halal industry in Malaysia is fast becoming a magnet for international investment, as major players move to acquire a share of a growing global market.

Malaysia is carving a niche as a key producer and exporter of halal products. However, with regional competition growing, its domestic players have been urged to seek out new opportunities beyond their borders, in line with a national drive to boost growth and transform the industry into a pillar of the local economy.

New facilities to open

US food manufacturer, Kelloggs, announced plans in January to build a $130m halal facility in Malaysia which will create 300 jobs when the first phase is completed in the middle of next year.

The news comes after international dairy giant Nestle said it planned to expand its operations in Malaysia by opening a plant in Shah Alam in mid 2014. US confectionery firm Hershey also outlined plans in 2013 to construct a $250m plant next year in Johor.

The emergence of new players is a welcome boost for the Halal Industry Development Corporation (HDC), which is looking to position the country as an international player in the market.

The Department of Islamic Development Malaysia (Jakim), the industry regulator, hopes that a bid to have Malaysia’s M1500: 2009 Halal standard adopted as a global benchmark will raise the country’s profile across the industry.

A total of 73 organisations, comprising 57 NGOs and 16 government bodies, have been granted permission to carry the Jakim certification, which verifies the traceability of ingredients and raw materials. Muslims are required to eat, drink and take medicinal halal products in accordance with religious requirements.

“Globally Jakim is the leader in promoting halal and its standards. Its counterparts in Dubai and Indonesia are also establishing their own standards,” Mohamed Hazli Mohamed Hussain, group CEO of DagangHalal, told OBG.

DagangHalal is a digital marketplace for halal products as well as a repository of halal certificates that works closely with Jakim and international certification bodies, matching Malaysian small and medium-sized businesses with buyers around the world. The company also provides a platform for halal applicants to find alternative suppliers and download the corresponding halal certificates.

Competition on the rise

According to government figures, Malaysia exported RM32.84bn ($9.86bn) worth of halal products in 2013, making it one of the largest suppliers in the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation, an international group with 57 members.

However, regional competitors are also ramping up their activities in the sector. Indonesia, which has the world’s largest Muslim population, revealed plans last October to establish a centre for the halal industry by 2015. The market is also expanding in Thailand, where more than a quarter of food factories are now participating in halal production.

Speaking in January, HDC managing director, Jamil Bidin, suggested that local manufacturers would need to look beyond Malaysia’s borders if the country is to retain its competitive edge.

Companies based in Malaysia should invest in overseas operations to take advantage of the procurement of raw materials and the proximity of markets to catapult the export industry onto the global stage, he told the local media.

Bidin said countries such as China, India, Bangladesh and Indonesia not only offered huge potential as markets for Malaysia’s halal products, but could also provide raw materials.

However, critics believe domestic producers will need to increase their focus on developing marketing strategies if they are to compete globally.

A 2013 report published in the Malaysia Journal of Society and Space concluded that some halal food suppliers were insufficiently informed about the legal, social and cultural environment of importing countries. “They are not able to identify consumer needs accurately in terms of taste and preferences,” it said. “They enjoy little strategic and long term alliances with importers or distributors or private market agents to promote their products.”

Any marketing weaknesses are likely to be exposed further as Malaysia steps up its efforts to expand the halal industry.

Plans include a push to attract non-Muslim consumers to halal foods as healthier and higher-quality options. The strategy is already proving successful in Asia, where food scares have sparked major fears.

“Halal is no longer about religion, but rather about safety, hygiene and quality,” Hussain told OBG.

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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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Oxford Business Group | Budget shake-up for Malaysian real estate

The Malaysian government has taken steps to cool speculation in the property market by imposing a capital gains levy on real estate sales, tightening up regulations governing developers and raising the price bar for foreign investors, moves that have won mixed reviews from analysts.

On October 25 Prime Minister Najib Tun Razak tabled the draft budget for 2014, which has a strong emphasis on raising state revenue and cutting spending. According to the plan, subsidies will be restructured in the coming years and public debt – currently at 53% of GDP – will be lowered.

Among the revenue-generating proposals are a number of new taxes, including a real property gains tax (RPGT), which is also intended to ease property speculation and reduce inflation in housing. Under the new provisions, set to come into effect on January 1, a tax of 30% is to be imposed on gains from real estate sales on properties owned for three years or less, with the rate sliding to 20% if the property is sold in the fourth year of ownership and 15% in the fifth. Any sales after the fifth year will not be charged a capital gains levy. Previously, the capital gains tax on property sales had been set at 10% when introduced in 2010 and later increased to 15%, and applied to sales within two years of purchase.

For foreign property buyers, a different tax scale will be applied, with non-citizens required to pay a tax of 30% on the capital gains for a property sold at any time over the first five years of ownership, after which the rate falls to 5%.

Another move, one seen as even more likely to cool speculation, was the banning of developer interest bearing schemes (DIBS). As their name suggests, developers that offer DIBS agree to pay any interest on home loans during the construction period, making the purchase more attractive to potential buyers. The new provisions also prevent commercial lenders from involving themselves in DIBS-related projects. This measure will probably result in a slowing of off-plan sales by developers, while also reducing the property lending component of some of Malaysia’s larger banks.

While many in the sector have said banning DIBS was a positive move, one that would directly target speculation, others believed it would make it more difficult for first-home buyers to enter the market. One critic of the reform was Michael KC Yam, the president of the Real Estate and Housing Developers Association. Yam told the local media on October 25 that DIBS had been of benefit to many.

“We think that innovative home financing packages such as the DIBS offered by developers of high premium properties should be encouraged to facilitate financing and promote home ownership,” he said.

The RPGT also had its supporters and opponents, with Foo Gee Jen, managing director at property consultancy CH Williams Talhar and Wong, describing the increased levy as a measure that would boost stability in the market.

“The increase in RPGT is a wake-up call for flippers,” he told the local media on November 6. “Investors will have to go back to investing in property fundamentals, such as location and yield.”

However, some analysts have queried whether speculation is as rife in the sector as has been suggested, saying that the higher tax rate on capital gains will do little to reduce price increases for residential properties, one of the stated aims of the bolstered levy.

Foreigners eased out of the low end of the market

The budget also lifts the minimum value of a property that foreign investors can buy from the current RM500,000 ($161,000) to RM1,000,000 ($322,000), a move that may cool some of the speculation by overseas players.

Given the still relatively low price and solid value of Malaysian property, even the increased threshold may not curb foreign interest, though Chang Kim Loong, the honorary secretary-general of the National House Buyers Association, believed the higher ceiling will ease pricing pressures for Malaysian buyers.

“Foreigners must be prevented from snapping up property meant for the lower- and middle-income and thus artificially inflating property prices and creating a domino effect which can result in higher property prices across the industry,” he said in a statement issued the day after the budget was handed down.

Boost for low-cost residential segment

The budget also lays out a plan to add 223,000 new residential units to the national accommodation stocks in 2014, with both the government and the private sector expected to play a role.

The state will directly provide funding for the construction of low-cost housing, while at the same time offering a subsidy of $6000 per unit to private developers that build homes directed at low- and middle-income buyers.

It will be well into the new year before the full impact of the 2014 budget articles dealing with real estate will become apparent. To some degree at least, the buoyancy of the property market will depend on the strength of the Malaysian economy. The government has predicted growth of 5-5.5% in 2014, though ratings agencies and analysts are predicting GDP expansion may fall somewhat short of this target, at 4-4.5%. It could be that a relatively sluggish economy, rather than any increased tax, could slow activity in the property market.

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Malaysia 2020 targets elusive at current rates

Despite a low inflation rate and relatively stable sovereign and corporate balance sheets, Malaysia is set to miss the targets set out in its Vision 2020. As part of a long-term analysis of the South-east Asian country, Oxford Business Group recently contributed an article entitled ‘The Malaysian Quandary’ to local media website FMT, looking at the basis for this assessment and calling into question the private sector’s reliance on the government.

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Malaysia: IPO tide rising

Return of confidence after Malaysia’s general election has seen a surge in companies declaring their intention to go public, with more than $2bn worth of initial public offerings (IPOs) launched or mooted for the weeks following the poll.

In the months leading up to the May 5 election, IPO activity had been sluggish, with Malaysia having dropped from fifth globally in terms of funds generated by floats last year, to fifth in its region, according to international media reports. Most firms looking to tap the markets chose to hold off until after the poll, with concerns over potential political and economic instability weighing down sentiment. Now, with Prime Minister Najib Razak’s coalition returned to power, though with a reduced majority, confidence has returned, with a swathe of new IPOs either launched or flagged in the weeks following the ballot.

According to a recent Reuters report, the latest entrant into the IPO race is port operator Westports Malaysia, with the news agency citing sources as saying the firm is planning to list on the Bursa Malaysia in October. Westports, which operates Port Klang – Malaysia’s busiest export hub – is aiming to raise some $500m through the float, which is being arranged by Goldman Sachs, Credit Suisse and Maybank.

The Westports offering is likely to be popular with investors, as its Klang facility is expected to see an increase in container traffic of 7% annually for the next five years as trade between fellow ASEAN member states gains momentum in the lead-up and beyond the launch of the ASEAN Economic Community (AEC) in 2015.

Maritime transporter Maybulk is also going to the markets, with the shipping line intended to float it partially owned subsidiary PACC Offshore Services Holdings (POSH) by the end of this year or early in 2014. However, Maybulk CEO Kuok Khoon Kuan said in mid-May the listing of POSH, which provides support vessel services to the offshore oil and gas industry, could be on the Singapore exchange, saying a final decision would depend on market conditions.

In mid-May, IOI Corporation – one of Malaysia’s leading palm oil producers, announced it would be spinning off the holding’s property arm through an IPO planned for September. The float, valued at around $635m, rolls back IOI’s move in 2009 to take its real estate business private. The corporation’s chairman, Lee Shin Cheng, said the relisting was aimed at unlocking IOI Property’s true value, though some of the funds raised through the float, and a subsequent offer of shares to existing stakeholders, would be used to buy down the firm’s debt ahead of further expansion.

While the subdued activity in the first third of the year may hold back the 12-month total for IPOs, meaning the year-end figure could fall short of the number completed in 2012, Zulkifli Hamzah, head of Kuala Lumpur-based MIDF Research, believes trading will be brisk for the forthcoming offerings.

“We expect the Malaysian IPO market to remain healthy, with strong underlying demand,” he told Reuters in an interview on May 30. “There is a tremendous amount of liquidity in the system to support any offering.”

Though there is more confidence after the election and high levels of liquidity, some observers remain wary, including M&A Securities dealer Ooi Chin Hock, who cautioned that the market may not be as welcoming as some have forecast.

“It really is not a great time,” he said in an interview with AFP on May 17. “Things will turn defensive. But things could improve late in the year, and next year should be good.”

This caution may have influenced construction and utilities firm MMC Corp, which on May 13 announced it was postponing the IPO of its power unit Malakoff until next year. Initially MMC had planned to return Malakoff to the exchange’s boards in the second half of 2013, having taken it private in 2006.

While the company cited the need to improve its assets through maintenance work at one of its power stations, MMC is also looking to build up value by adding to Malakoff’s holdings, with the firm bidding on the tender for a new coal fired-power station in its home market and other projects abroad. Should these bids be successful, these additions could push its IPO worth past the $1bn that was predicted for the now-delayed float.

Early indications in the post-election period are that the market has an appetite for IPOs, with the float of property developer Matrix Concepts, which closed in mid-May, being oversubscribed more than 11 times. On its Bursa Malaysia debut, the firm’s shares gained 24%, a healthy return for its investors and a result that could encourage other companies to list.

Though the market may stage a correction some time this year, those companies that have announced they are looking to list are strong performers that can be judged by their financial soundness rather than general market sentiments. Indeed, rather than coming in on the end of a extended period of growth, the new wave of IPOs could help sustain the market’s upward climb.

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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: Easing business practices

Malaysia has been one of the big movers in the latest World Bank survey on the ease of doing business, moving up six rungs on the international ladder to be ranked 12th overall. However, making it easier to obtain construction permits and start a business, two areas signalled out for improvement, will help the country achieve its goal of breaking into the top 10.

The annual study aims to provide an objective measure of business regulations for local firms and give an indication of the progress in facilitating private sector development. In the 2013 edition, released on October 23, Malaysia further consolidated its reputation for economic reform, building on its performance in 2011 when it moved from 23rd to 18th place. The improvement in the rankings puts Malaysia behind only Singapore, Hong Kong and South Korea in Asia, and ahead of regional heavyweights Japan and China.

The survey, titled “Doing Business 2013”, saw Malaysia improve its competitiveness in a number of areas, including registering property and trading across borders. The country continues to be ranked first globally in terms of gaining access to credit, and it also won accolades for the judicial network protecting investors, where it came in fourth among the 185 countries surveyed.

Recognition of the strong performance will help to further promote development and investment, said Annette Dixon, the country director for Malaysia at the World Bank. “This will help the private sector drive growth, particularly if Malaysia can build on its success by continuing to tackle long-term challenges, such as improving the quality of education,” Dixon said in a statement accompanying the release of the report.

According to Yeah Kim Leng, the group chief economist at RAM Holdings, a financial research firm, the improved business environment will help maintain Malaysia’s high profile as a prime investment destination. “It enhances business sentiment and confidence,” he said on October 24. “If the improvement is sustained, what we will likely see is an increase in business dynamism and a higher level of business activity.”

Mustapa Mohamed, the minister of international trade and industry, said that the findings of the study confirmed Malaysia’s competitiveness as an economy, and reflected the successful implementation by the government to improve the business environment, making it conducive for sustained economic growth. The next step, according to the minister, is putting in place further reforms that should move Malaysia even higher up the rankings. He did acknowledge, however, that the task would be a difficult one, given the competitive nature of the global economy.

“Our objective is to achieve a top-10 position in the World Bank’s rankings. Getting there will strengthen our position as a destination of choice for local and foreign investors,” Mustapa said. “This is with new competitors constantly emerging and economic uncertainties globally. It is apparent that more needs to be done in the shortest time possible if we are to stay ahead.”

While the study very much stressed the positives, it also detailed a few areas of improvement that will have to be dealt with before Malaysia can break into the higher rankings. Despite the government making it easier to obtain construction permits, it still placed only 96th overall in this category. There is also room for improvement in the ease of starting a business, in which was Malaysia ranked 54th this year.

Two state agencies, the Special Taskforce to Facilitate Business (Pemudah) and the Performance Management Delivery Unit (Pemandu), have been tasked with addressing these issues, as well as developing strategies to promote best bureaucratic and administrative practices, with Pemudah in particular working closely with the private sector to cut red tape.

In an opinion piece carried by The Malay Mail on October 26, Ramon Navaratnam, the chairman of the Centre of Public Policy Studies, an independent think tank within the Asian Strategy and Leadership Institute, said the World Bank study did not cover issues such as public services or the non-business sectors of society. Improvements in the provision of services in areas such as health, education and social welfare also need to be addressed when considering the state of the economy.

“The best way forward is for the public sector to adopt further best practices, forced by global competition to perform more competitively all the time or face the prospects of losing its profits and business opportunities for growth,” he said.

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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: Forecasting growth in insurance

The insurance sector is forecast to see substantial growth in the next few years as continued diversification, consolidation and international activity spur rising premiums and uptake of new services. Moderate GDP growth for the rest of the year, however, could pose a challenge to growth as the effects of a weakening global economy trickle down to private consumers.

Gross direct premiums are expected to reach RM14.3bn ($4.48bn) in 2012 and rise to RM17.5bn ($5.49bn) in 2015, according to the Malaysia Rating Corporation (MARC), a full-service ratings agency, which released its forecasts in a research note in June. This represents a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 7%, which is likely to outstrip broader economic growth.

MARC expects new business premiums in the life insurance segment to reach RM10.2bn ($3.19bn) this year, rising to RM13bn ($4.08bn) by 2015. The non-life (general) segment is also forecast to grow from RM4.1bn ($1.29bn) in 2012 to RM4.5bn ($1.41bn) in five years’ time.

The agency said that the life insurance market would benefit from rising incomes, as well as increased deployment of “new and innovative products”. General insurance would see growth stimulated by the implementation of mega-projects, leading to greater demand in a number of segments, including workers’ compensation, employer liability, contractor risk and engineering. The medical and personal accident segments will also continue to perform well, MARC said.

Other observers are even more upbeat about the sector’s outlook. In May, the local press reported that the Life Insurance Association of Malaysia (LIAM) said the life sector could grow by 10% in 2012. Growth would be driven by “the large and growing middle-income population in the region with higher levels of disposable income and who are also financially literate,” Donald Joshua Jaganathan, the assistant governor of Bank Negara Malaysia, the central bank, has said.

The market’s recent growth and promising outlook have led several major international players enter the market. In 2009, the government lifted the ceiling on foreign ownership of insurers to 70% from 49%, allowing greater participation from international firms, which have brought an increased level of dynamism to the industry.

Competition is expected to rise further following the pending auction of the insurance joint venture between the UK’s Aviva and Malaysia’s CIMB Bank. Aviva is selling its 49% share in the local firm as it withdraws from non-core markets, partly to raise cash to offset its exposure to the eurozone crisis. CIMB may also sell a substantial portion of its 51% stake in the venture.

Competition, greater international participation and a new risk-based capital (RBC) framework are also driving consolidation in the industry, as players look to pool resources and capitalise on economies of scale and strategic fits. The RBC regulations require firms to have a minimum 130% of supervisory capital-adequacy ratio (CAR).

According to Matt Harris, the CEO of Chartis Malaysia, the local branch of the international insurer, “RBC implementation helped accelerate the pace of consolidation, with seven mergers and acquisitions taking place in 2011. Many of the local conglomerates took RBC as an opportunity to consolidate. It is widely known that other existing players in the market would entertain potential suitors if approached, so more consolidation is expected.”

Harris told OBG that he expects the sharia-compliant Islamic insurance segment – known as takaful – to continue to grow strongly. In June, the local press reported that Etiqua Insurance & Takaful, the insurance branch of Maybank, the country’s largest bank, has forecast that the family takaful market, which accounted for 80% of the Malaysian takaful segment in 2010, could grow to RM7.2bn ($2.26bn) in two to three years from the current RM4.2bn ($1.32bn).

CAR regulations for the takaful segment similar to those rolled out for conventional insurance are being introduced and are expected to be in effect by the beginning of 2013. While the Malaysian Takaful Association is confident that existing industry players will be able to meet the new requirements, Tunku Dato’ Ya’acob Bin Tunku Tan Sri Abdullah, the CEO of MAA Group (MAAG), which has interests in the takaful sector, told OBG that he expected the new legislation to catalyse mergers and acquisitions in the segment.

According to Abdullah, conventional insurance firms owned by banks have survived better since the CAR regulations were tightened, as the high profits of the banking divisions have funded the increased capital requirements of the insurance business. The insurance divisions, which tend to make a smaller contribution to profits, are not able to meet the significant increase in CAR themselves.

With the insurance market in the process of dynamic change, due to rising demand and regulatory changes that aim both to increase solidity and allow greater international participation, consolidation, diversification and the rise of the takaful segment look set to transform the sector over the coming years.

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Malaysia: Forecasting growth in insurance

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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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