Media Statement by Dr. Ong Kian Ming, Member of Parliament for Bangi and Assistant Political Education Director for the Democratic Action Party (DAP) on the 5th of February, 2021

“Highest ever” trade surplus is actually a sign of a weak domestic economy in Malaysia

There has been some recent media coverage on Malaysia achieving its “highest ever” trade surplus in history in 2020.[1] This was one of the highlights of the media statement by MITI Minister, Azmin Ali, on the 30th of January, 2021.[2] In reality, this “achievement” is nothing to be proud of. In fact, it points to a very weak domestic economy, which is likely to remain lackluster in 2021. Hence, there is no need to be over-optimistic about ever high trade surpluses including in 2021.

Malaysia’s overall trade (exports + imports) decreased by RM67.3 billion or 3.6% from RM1.845 trillion in 2019 to RM1.777 trillion in 2020. Malaysia’s total exports in 2020 decreased by 1.4% or RM14.1 billion compared to 2019. The main reason why Malaysia was able to increase its trade surplus by 26.9% from RM145.7 billion in 2019 to RM184.8 in 2020 is that total imports experienced a large decrease of 6.3% or RM53.2 billion from RM849 billion in 2019 to RM 796.2 billion in 2020. (See Table 1 below).

It was encouraging that Malaysia’s total exports managed to weather the COVID-19 economic uncertainties in 2020. But it would be wrong to ‘boast’ about Malaysia’s highest ever trade surplus that was caused by a large fall in our imports. Lower imports mean that the domestic economic demand was very weak in 2020. This means fewer purchases at the local shopping malls of both imported and locally produced goods which has a negative impact on our retailers. Lower demand for imports is also a leading indicator of weak local economic conditions in the near future. For example, lower imports of machinery and construction materials such as iron and steel mean that the construction industry is likely to remain weak in 2021.

A healthy economy should experience growing exports and also imports which are growing at around the same level as exports (and perhaps slightly more). While trade under the Pakatan Harapan (PH) government did shrink by 2.5% in 2019, this was not accompanied by negative GDP growth. In fact, the GDP grew by 4.3% under PH in 2019 while it is expected to contract by at least 4% in 2020 under the Perikatan Nasional (PN) government.

With the ongoing MCO 2.0, local demand in Q1 2021 will continue to remain weak. So don’t be too happy when you see MITI announcing another “highest ever” trade surplus in the next few months. We are in for a challenging 2021 despite the optimistic GDP growth projection by the Ministry of Finance of between 6.5% to 7.5% for the year.

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Media Statement by Dr. Ong Kian Ming, Member of Parliament for Bangi and Assistant Political Education Director for the Democratic Action Party (DAP) on the 1st of February, 2021

Is Malaysia in danger of being the new ‘sick man’ of South East Asia?

In the 1970s and 1980s, the Philippines was known as the ‘sick man’ of Asia because of its poor economic record and unwillingness of foreign companies to invest in the country under the dictatorship of Ferdinand Marcos. Even after the fall of Marcos in 1986, it took the Philippines decades before foreign investors returned to the country. Is Malaysia in danger of going down the same path and be seen as the new ‘sick man’ of Asia in the 2020s because of political ineptitude and the inability to manage the COVID crisis under the Perikatan Nasion (PN) government?

The inability of the PN government to manage the 3rd wave of COVID cases has resulted in the 2nd Movement Control Order (MCO) at the start of 2021. At the same time, new data has emerged which shows a significant decline in foreign investor confidence in Malaysia. According to the January 2021 issue of the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD), it was reported that FDI inflows to South East Asia fell by 31% to US$107 billion in 2020. While a fall in FDI inflows into the region in 2020 was not surprising given the impact of the COVID pandemic, what was shocking was the fact that FDI inflows to Malaysia fell by 68% compared to Singapore (-37%), Indonesia (-24%), Indonesia (-10%) and Thailand (-50%). FDI into the Philippines, no longer the sick man of Asia, actually rose by 29% in 2020.[1]

These figures are ACTUAL FDI inflows to the respective countries unlike the FDI figures announced by the Minister of Finance, Tengku Zafrul, earlier this year, which are only approved investments and not realized investments.

Malaysia’s poor performance in terms of actual FDI inflows in 2020 was reported by many local publications and would no doubt have been picked up by the foreign press. At the same time, reports on some multinational companies moving their regional Headquarters (HQs) out of Malaysia to places like Indonesia have also created the image that Malaysia is no longer an attractive place for foreign investors. These reports play in a part in building the larger narrative that Malaysia is lagging behind our neighbours on many fronts – not being able to manage the COVID crisis, plagued by political instability, having an incompetent cabinet and flip flopping on government policies in ways which damage the business environment.

While these negative reports have been circulating for the past week, the Minister of International Trade and Industry (MITI) have not issued any statements to address this issue or to counter this negative narrative which is plaguing the country’s image domestically and internationally. Just as he was inept at managing his portfolio when he was the Minister of Economic Affairs (MEA) in the Pakatan Harapan (PH) government, he is proving himself equally (if not more) inept in his current responsibility as MITI Minister. With this kind of economic and political leadership under the PN government, it would not be surprising if Malaysia finds itself being labelled as the new ‘sick man’ of Asia.