With the news the Malaysian economy expanded by 5.6% over the first quarter of 2023 (Q1 2023), Putrajaya is being lured into a bubble of complacency over the economy.
After all, Bank Negara Malaysia (BNM) unexpectedly raised the OPR to 3.9%, consistent with the data showing strengthening economic performance.
However, gross exports declined by 17.4% year-on-year over April 2022, for the first time in two years.
This is a potential indicator of dark storm clouds over Malaysia’s economic horizon, with commodity price earnings and poor global growth prospects for the rest of 2023.
This has also brought Malaysia’s trade surplus down to RM 12.9 billion, from RM 26.7 billion in March, the lowest trade surplus for a year.
BNM is forecasting Malaysia’s economic growth between 4-5% this year. However, BNM’s recent interest rate hike might be part of the problem in restricting liquidity.
The stock market is sluggish, the ringgit is still sliding, the cost of living is still rising, especially within the food sector, and bankruptcies still remain high, even though there were amendments to regulations to keep the numbers down.
Most importantly, Malaysia’s middle-class is getting poorer, struggling to pay for food, rent and debt.
It appears that the BNM has raised interest rates based upon economic data without looking further beyond the figures.
Malaysia will continue to feel the spillover effects from the supply chain disruptions occurring from the Russia-Ukraine war.
Accompanied by the weakening of the US financial sector, the flip of Europe and the United States into recession, and the weakening of demand from China, this will all add to the woes of Malaysians.
The ability of households to cope with continuing rise in the cost of living is becoming much more difficult, as the majority of households have already depleted their savings during the Covid MCOs and have yet to recover.
Much of the middle-class is finding it very difficult to meet their monthly budget requirements.
The rate of poverty is still on the increase. However, as the World Bank has pointed out, data on this indicator requires a major update.
Many of the international forecasting and reporting agencies are in the process of modifying their forecasts for Malaysia.
There is a probability Malaysia could slip into some form of hybrid stagflation, where the definitions and solutions have not yet been written up in any university textbooks.
Malaysia potentially faces a downturn in economic activity in both external and domestic sectors, with a renewed bout of inflation and erosion of household incomes.
Malaysia has no fewer than four ministries responsible for economic matters. These include the finance ministry, economy, international trade and industry, and domestic trade and cost of living.
All these four are run by senior ministers, including the prime minister who doubles as the minister of finance.
Below these ministries are wall-to-wall economic advisors and consultants. Some are ex-politicians, some are senior people from the banking and finance industry, mostly recycled people who think along establishment lines.
We saw the limitations in establishment thinking with the BNM interest decision, which has increased hardship on the majority of households and SMEs in the country.
The economic solutions must be creative. The policies required to steer Malaysia out of the way of a coming storm will have to be novel. This is going to require very wise and out-of-the-box thinking.
The concern is whether the current set of advisors and consultants can come up with the necessary solutions without hurting Malaysians even more.
The recent federal budget forecast a deficit of 5.5% of the GDP. This makes the budget expansionary, and raises the government debt/GDP ration to 73.3% for the year, high in relative terms to other countries.
Debt repayment is the second highest item in the budget, where 18.5% has been allocated just for repaying public debt.
Shortfalls in income collection, economic growth and leakages will increase this deficit.
The money supply is still growing, and many countries have put the brakes on money supply growth to try to curb inflationary pressure. This is partly the result of an expansionary budget and growing public debt.
The decline in exports is a potential indicator of storm clouds over Malaysia’s economic horizon.
Public sector spending must be curtailed, and public institutions made more efficient and productive.
Government-linked companies must be scrutinized for their efficiency, productivity, profits, and benefits to the people.
Those which don’t meet these criteria should be immediately shut down or sold off on the open market.
The civil service has been bloated by successive administrations using this institution to absorb employment.
Many institutions carry out ineffective activities that have no public benefit.
The whole public sector should be placed under the scrutiny of zero-based budgeting to force efficiency.
Ministers and advisors not taking salaries or working pro bono is just virtue signaling. The whole public sector must be subjected to zero-based budgeting if the virtue signaling is to be sincere.
The government must come up with a plan to free up the economy from regulation and monopolies that benefit only selected groups.
These government interventions are policies of the 50s and 60s and best left for central command economies or communist countries to practice.
Malaysia must embrace a free market to promote improvements in productivity rather than trying to legislate and set up agencies to achieve.
Crony capitalism must be broken up. Crony capitalism is the largest form of corruption in the country.
The government must walk the talk on a minimum safety net for Malaysians. This was the policy of both Pakatan Harapan and Umno before the election. The government must come good with this promise at a time Malaysians are in need of it.
Go back to the farm
Malaysia must have a “great leap forward” in food production.
Malaysia is currently 60% dependent upon food imports. Many of these food items are subject to import taxes levied customs. Items such as rice are subject to a monopoly controlled by Bernas.
The federal government in conjunction with state governments, which control land, must develop schemes to promote food production by entrepreneurs and SMEs.
In the past, schemes promoting food production have been proposed and implemented for years with few positive results.
Food production should be the highest priority for this government. New innovative and streamlined schemes need to be developed to put people on the land to create viable farms and businesses.
Agricultural institutes should be enhanced to dramatically increase short-term vocational farming programs.
It is of primary importance for BNM to reset the OPR back to 2.75% to minimize damage to households and small businesses.
The government could look at introducing a supplementary budget to introduce programs needed to cope with the coming storm clouds.
(Murray Hunter has been involved in Asia-Pacific business for the last 40 years as an entrepreneur, consultant, academic and researcher. He was an associate professor at Universiti Malaysia Perlis.)