Since an unexpected political transition in March, Malaysia’s new government under Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin has focused its attention on the unprecedented set of challenges facing Malaysia in 2020, including the COVID-19 pandemic and a sharp drop in global oil prices. In response to the economic damage wrought by COVID-19 restrictions, the Malaysian government has approved over USD 60 billion in stimulus measures designed to protect Malaysian citizens and businesses, and has laid out plans to prioritize the country’s economic recovery following the lockdown period for the remainder of 2020 and into 2021.
The Malaysian government has traditionally encouraged foreign direct investment (FDI), and the Prime Minister and many cabinet ministers have signaled their openness to foreign investment since taking office. Government officials have called for investments in high technology and research and development, focusing on artificial intelligence, Internet of Things device design and manufacturing, smart cities, electric vehicles, automation of the manufacturing industry, telecommunications infrastructure, and other “catalytic sub-sectors,” such as aerospace. The government also seeks to further develop traditional sectors such as oil and gas; palm oil and rubber; wholesale and retail operations, including e-commerce; financial services; tourism; electrical and electronics (E&E); business services; communications content and infrastructure; education; agriculture; and health care.
Under the previous administration, inbound FDI had been steady in nominal terms, though Malaysia’s performance in attracting FDI relative to both earlier decades and the rest of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) had slowed. According to the 2013 Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) Investment Policy Review of Malaysia, FDI to Malaysia began to decline in 1992, and private investment overall started to slide in 1997 following the Asian financial crises. In the intervening years, domestic demand has increasingly been the source of Malaysia’s economic performance, with foreign investment receding as a driver of GDP growth. The OECD concluded in its Review that Malaysia’s FDI levels in recent years had reached record high levels in absolute terms but were at low levels as a percentage of GDP. The current government estimates that GDP will shrink 0.5 percent in 2020.
The business climate in Malaysia is generally conducive to U.S. investment. Increased transparency and structural reforms that will prevent future corrupt practices could make Malaysia a more attractive destination for FDI in the long run. The largest U.S. investments are in the oil and gas sector, manufacturing, and financial services. Firms with significant investment in Malaysia’s oil and gas and petrochemical sectors include ExxonMobil, Caltex, ConocoPhillips, Hess Oil, Halliburton, Dow Chemical and Eastman Chemicals. Major semiconductor manufacturers, including ON Semiconductor, Texas Instruments, Intel, and others have substantial operations in Malaysia, as do electronics manufacturers Western Digital, Honeywell, St. Jude Medical Operations (medical devices), and Motorola. In recent years Malaysia has attracted significant investment in the production of solar panels, including from U.S. firms. Many of the major Japanese consumer electronics firms (Sony, Fuji, Panasonic, Matsushita, etc.) have facilities in Malaysia.
|TI Corruption Perceptions Index||2019||51 of 183||http://www.transparency.org/
|World Bank’s Doing Business Report||2019||12 of 190||http://www.doingbusiness.org/en/rankings|
|Global Innovation Index||2019||35 of 129||https://www.globalinnovationindex.org/
|U.S. FDI in partner country ($M USD, historical stock positions)||2018||$13,581||https://www.bea.gov/system/
|World Bank GNI per capita||2018||$10,591||http://data.worldbank.org/
1. Openness To, and Restrictions Upon, Foreign Investment
Policies Towards Foreign Direct Investment
Historically, the Malaysian government has welcomed FDI as an integral component of its economic development. Over the last decade, the gradual liberalization of the economy and influx of FDI has led to the creation of new jobs and businesses and fueled Malaysia’s export-oriented growth strategy. The Malaysian economy is highly dependent on trade. According to World Bank data, the value of Malaysia’s imports and exports of goods and services as a share of GDP held steady at roughly 130 percent in 2018, more than double the global average.
In October 2019, the government introduced measures in its 2020 budget designed to streamline and further incentivize foreign investment, with special emphasis on investments being redirected from China as a result of shifting global supply chains. The Malaysian government established the China Special Channel for the purpose of attracting these investments, an initiative being managed by InvestKL, an investment promotion agency under the Ministry of International Trade and Industry. The government also established the National Committee on Investment, an investment approval body jointly chaired by the Minister of Finance and the Minister of International Trade and Industry, to expedite the regulatory process with respect to approving new investments.
Prior to the government transition in March, the previous government had announced plans to overhaul its existing incentive framework, including a revamp of the Promotion of Investments
Act of 1986 and incentives under the Income Tax Act of 1967. It is unclear whether the new government will continue with this plan.
Malaysia has various national, regional, and municipal investment promotion agencies, including the Malaysian Investment Development Authority (MIDA) and InvestKL. These agencies can assist with business strategy consultations, area familiarization, talent management programs, networking, and other post-investment services.
Limits on Foreign Control and Right to Private Ownership and Establishment
Foreign and domestic private entities can establish and own business enterprises and engage in all forms of remunerative activity, with some exceptions. Although Malaysia has taken steps to liberalize policies concerning foreign investment, there continue to exist requirements for local equity participation within specific sectors. In 2009, Malaysia repealed Foreign Investment Committee (FIC) guidelines that limited transactions for acquisitions of interests, mergers, and takeovers of local companies by foreign parties. However, certain business sectors, including logistics, industrial training, and distributive trade, are required to limit foreign equity participation when applying for operating licenses, permits and approvals. Due to residual economic policies, this limitation most commonly manifests as a 70-30 equity split between foreign investors (maximum 70 percent) and Bumiputera (i.e., ethnic Malays and indigenous peoples) entities (minimum 30 percent).
Foreign investment in services, whether in sectors with no foreign equity caps or controlled sub-sectors, remain subject to review and approval by ministries and agencies with jurisdiction over the relevant sectors. A key function of this review and approval process is to determine whether proposed investments meet the government’s qualifications for the various incentives in place to promote economic development goals. The Ministerial Functions Act grants relevant ministries broad discretionary powers over the approval of investment projects. Investors in industries targeted by the Malaysian government can often negotiate favorable terms with the ministries or agencies responsible for regulating that industry. This can include assistance in navigating a complex web of regulations and policies, some of which can be waived on a case-by-case basis. Foreign investors in non-targeted industries tend to receive less government assistance in obtaining the necessary approvals from various regulatory bodies and therefore can face greater bureaucratic obstacles.
Malaysia’s 2011-2020 Financial Sector Blueprint has produced partial liberalization within the financial services sector; however, it does not contain specific market-opening commitments or timelines. For example, the services liberalization program that started in 2009 raised the limit of foreign ownership in insurance companies to 70 percent. However, Bank Negara Malaysia, Malaysia’s central bank, would allow a greater foreign ownership stake if the investment is determined to facilitate the consolidation of the industry. The latest Blueprint helped to codify the case-by-case approach. Under the Financial Services Act passed in late 2012, issuance of new licenses will be guided by prudential criteria and the “best interests of Malaysia,” which may include consideration of the financial strength, business record, experience, character and integrity of the prospective foreign investor, soundness and feasibility of the business plan for the institution in Malaysia, transparency and complexity of the group structure, and the extent of supervision of the foreign investor in its home country. In determining the “best interests of Malaysia,” BNM may consider the contribution of the investment in promoting new high value-added economic activities, addressing demand for financial services where there are gaps, enhancing trade and investment linkages, and providing high-skilled employment opportunities. BNM, however, has never defined criteria for the “best interests of Malaysia” test, and no firms have qualified.
While there has been no policy change in terms of the 70 percent foreign ownership cap for insurance companies, the government did agree to let one foreign owned insurer maintain a 100 percent equity stake after that firm made a contribution to a health insurance scheme aimed at providing health coverage to lower income Malaysians.
BNM currently allows foreign banks to open four additional branches throughout Malaysia, subject to restrictions, which include designating where the branches can be set up (i.e., in market centers, semi-urban areas and non-urban areas). The policies do not allow foreign banks to set up new branches within 1.5 km of an existing local bank. BNM also has conditioned foreign banks’ ability to offer certain services on commitments to undertake certain back office activities in Malaysia.
Information & Communication
In 2012, Malaysia authorized up to 100 percent foreign equity participation among application service providers, network service providers, and network facilities providers. An exception to this is national telecommunications firm Telekom Malaysia, which has an aggregate foreign share cap of 30 percent, or five percent for individual investors.
Malaysia permits up to 100 percent foreign equity participation for new manufacturing investments by licensed manufacturers. However, foreign companies can face difficulties obtaining a manufacturing license and often resort to incorporating a local subsidiary for this purpose.
Oil and Gas
Under the terms of the Petroleum Development Act of 1974, the upstream oil and gas industry is controlled by Petroleum Nasional Berhad (PETRONAS), a wholly state-owned company and the sole entity with legal title to Malaysian crude oil and gas deposits. Foreign participation tends to take the form of production sharing contracts (PSCs). PETRONAS regularly requires its PSC partners to work with Malaysian firms for many tenders. Non-Malaysian firms are permitted to participate in oil services in partnership with local firms and are restricted to a 49 percent equity stake if the foreign party is the principal shareholder. PETRONAS sets the terms of upstream projects with foreign participation on a case-by-case basis.
Other Investment Policy Reviews
Malaysia’s most recent Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) investment review occurred in 2013. Although the review underscored the generally positive direction of economic reforms and efforts at liberalization, the recommendations emphasized the need for greater service sector liberalization, stronger intellectual property protections, enhanced guidance and support from Malaysia’s Investment Development Authority (MIDA), and continued corporate governance reforms.
Malaysia also conducted a WTO Trade Policy Review in February 2018, which incorporated a general overview of the country’s investment policies. The WTO’s review noted the Malaysian government’s action to institute incentives to encourage investment as well as a number of agencies to guide prospective investors. Beyond attracting investment, Malaysia had made measurable progress on reforms to facilitate increased commercial activity. Among the new trade and investment-related laws that entered into force during the review period were: the Companies Act, which introduced provisions to simplify the procedures to start a company, to reduce the cost of doing business, as well as to reform corporate insolvency mechanisms; the introduction of the goods and services tax (GST) to replace the sales tax; the Malaysian Aviation Commission Act, pursuant to which the Malaysian Aviation Commission was established; and various amendments to the Food Regulations. Since the WTO Trade Policy Review, however, the new government has already eliminated the GST, and has revived the Sales and Services Tax, which was implemented on September 1, 2018.
The principal law governing foreign investors’ entry and practice in the Malaysian economy is the Companies Act of 2016 (CA), which entered into force on January 31, 2017 and replaced the Companies Act of 1965. Incorporation requirements under the new CA have been further simplified and are the same for domestic and foreign sole proprietorships, partnerships, as well as privately held and publicly traded corporations. According to the World Bank’s Doing Business Report 2019, Malaysia streamlined the process of obtaining a building permit and made it faster to obtain construction permits; eliminated the site visit requirement for new commercial electricity connections, making getting electricity easier for businesses; implemented an online single window platform to carry out property searches and simplified the property transfer process; and introduced electronic forms and enhanced risk-based inspection system for cross-border trade and improved the infrastructure and port operation system at Port Klang, the largest port in Malaysia, thereby facilitating international trade; and made resolving insolvency easier by introducing the reorganization procedure. These changes led to a significant improvement of Malaysia’s ranking per the Doing Business Report, from 24 to 15 in one year.
In addition to registering with the Companies Commission of Malaysia, business entities must file: 1) Memorandum and Articles of Association (i.e., company charter); 2) a Declaration of Compliance (i.e., compliance with provisions of the Companies Act); and 3) a Statutory Declaration (i.e., no bankruptcies, no convictions). The registration and business establishment process takes two weeks to complete, on average. The new government repealed GST and installed a new sales and services tax (SST), which began implementation on September 1, 2018.
Beyond these requirements, foreign investors must obtain licenses. Under the Industrial Coordination Act of 1975, an investor seeking to engage in manufacturing will need a license if the business claims capital of RM2.5 million (approximately USD 641,000) or employs at least 75 full-time staff. The Malaysian Government’s guidelines for approving manufacturing investments, and by extension, manufacturing licenses, are generally based on capital-to-employee ratios. Projects below a threshold of RM55,000 (approximately USD 14,100) of capital per employee are deemed labor-intensive and will generally not qualify. Manufacturing investors seeking to expand or diversify their operations need to apply through MIDA.
Manufacturing investors whose companies have annual revenue below RM50 million (approximately USD12.8 million) or with fewer than 200 full-time employees meet the definition of small and medium size enterprises (SMEs) and will generally be eligible for government SME incentives. Companies in the services or other sectors that have revenue below RM20 million (approximately USD5.1 million) or fewer than 75 full-time employees also meet the SME definition.
- – The Malaysian Investment Development Authority’s starting point for prospective foreign investors. Select the “General Guidelines and Facilities” tab.
- – The Malaysian Companies Commission homepage for registering sole proprietorships, partnerships, and companies.
- – The Malaysia Digital Economy Corporation (MDEC) is responsible for governing the Multimedia Super Corridor (MSC), the initiative to attract investment in information and communications technologies.
- – The Malaysian Communications and Multimedia Commission’s page for requirements in the communications sector.
- – The Ministry of Health’s FAQs on liberalization of medical services.
While the Malaysian government does not promote or incentivize outward investment, a number of Government-Linked companies, pension funds, and investment companies do have investments overseas. These companies include the sovereign wealth fund of the Government of Malaysia, Khazanah Nasional Berhad; KWAP, Malaysia’s largest public services pension fund; and the Employees’ Provident Fund of Malaysia. Government owned oil and gas firm Petronas also has investments in several regions outside Asia.
4. Industrial Policies
The Malaysian Government has codified the incentives available for investments in qualifying projects in target sectors and regions. Tax holidays, financing, and special deductions are among the measures generally available for domestic as well as foreign investors in the following sectors and geographic areas: information and communications technologies (ICT); biotechnology; halal products (e.g., food, cosmetics, pharmaceuticals); oil and gas storage and trading; Islamic finance; Kuala Lumpur; Labuan Island (off Eastern Malaysia); East Coast of Peninsular Malaysia; Sabah and Sarawak (Eastern Malaysia); Northern Corridor.
Foreign Trade Zones/Free Ports/Trade Facilitation
The Free Zone Act of 1990 authorized the Minister of Finance to designate any suitable area as either a Free Industrial Zone (FIZ), where manufacturing and assembly takes place, or a Free Commercial Zone (FCZ), generally for warehousing commercial stock. The Minister of Finance may appoint any federal, state, or local government agency or entity as an authority to administer, maintain and operate any free trade zone. Currently there are 13 FIZs and 12 FCZs in Malaysia. In June 2006, the Port Klang Free Zone opened as the nation’s first fully integrated FIZ and FCZ, although the project has been dogged by corruption allegations related to the land acquisition for the site. The government launched a prosecution in 2009 of the former Transport Minister involved in the land purchase process, though he was later acquitted in October 2013.
The Digital Free Trade Zone (DFTZ) is an initiative by the Malaysian Government, implemented through MDEC, launched in November 2017 with the participation of China’s Alibaba. DFTZ aims to facilitate seamless cross-border trading and eCommerce and enable Malaysian SMEs to export their goods internationally. According to the Malaysian government, the DFTZ consists of an eFulfilment Hub to help Malaysian SMEs export their goods with the help of leading fulfilment service providers; and an eServices Platform to efficiently manage cargo clearance and other processes needed for cross-border trade.
Raw materials, products and equipment may be imported duty-free into these zones with minimum customs formalities. Companies that export not less than 80 percent of their output and depend on imported goods, raw materials, and components may be located in these FZs. Ports, shipping and maritime-related services play an important role in Malaysia since 90 percent of its international trade by volume is seaborne. Malaysia is also a major transshipment center.
Goods sold into the Malaysian economy by companies within the FZs must pay import duties. If a company wants to enjoy Common External Preferential Tariff (CEPT) rates within the ASEAN Free Trade Area, 40 percent of a product’s content must be ASEAN-sourced. In addition to the FZs, Malaysia permits the establishment of licensed manufacturing warehouses outside of free zones, which give companies greater freedom of location while allowing them to enjoy privileges similar to firms operating in an FZ. Companies operating in these zones require approval/license for each activity. The time needed to obtain licenses depends on the type of approval and ranges from two to eight weeks.
Performance and Data Localization Requirements
Fiscal incentives granted to both foreign and domestic investors historically have been subject to performance requirements, usually in the form of export targets, local content requirements and technology transfer requirements. Performance requirements are usually written into the individual manufacturing licenses of local and foreign investors.
The Malaysian government extends a full tax exemption incentive of fifteen years for firms with “Pioneer Status” (companies promoting products or activities in industries or parts of Malaysia to which the government places a high priority), and ten years for companies with “Investment Tax Allowance” status (those on which the government places a priority, but not as high as Pioneer Status). However, the government appears to have some flexibility with respect to the expiry of these periods, and some firms reportedly have had their pioneer status renewed. Government priorities generally include the levels of value-added, technology used, and industrial linkages. If a firm (foreign or domestic) fails to meet the terms of its license, it risks losing any tax benefits it may have been awarded. Potentially, a firm could lose its manufacturing license. The New Economic Model stated that in the long term, the government intends gradually to eliminate most of the fiscal incentives now offered to foreign and domestic manufacturing investors. More information on specific incentives for various sectors can be found at www.mida.gov.my.
Malaysia also seeks to attract foreign investment in the information technology industry, particularly in the Multimedia Super Corridor (MSC), a government scheme to foster the growth of research, development, and other high technology activities in Malaysia. However, since July 1, 2018, the Government decided to put on hold the granting of MSC Malaysia Status and its incentives, including extension of income tax exemption period, or adding new MSC Malaysia Qualifying Activities in order to review and amend Malaysia’s tax incentives. While the MSC Malaysia Status Services Incentive was published on December 31, 2018, the MSC Malaysia Status IP Incentive policy is still under review. For further details on incentives, see www.mdec.my. The Malaysia Digital Economy Corporation (MDEC) approves all applications for MSC status. For more information please visit: .
In the services sector, the government’s stated goal is to attract foreign investment in regional distribution centers, international procurement centers, operational headquarter research and development, university and graduate education, integrated market and logistics support services, cold chain facilities, central utility facilities, industrial training, and environmental management. To date, Malaysia has had some success in attracting regional distribution centers, global shared services offices, and local campuses of foreign universities. For example, GE and Honeywell maintain regional offices for ASEAN in Malaysia. In 2016, McDermott moved its regional headquarters to Malaysia and Boston Scientific broke ground on a medical device manufacturing facility.
Malaysia seeks to attract foreign investment in biotechnology but sends a mixed message on agricultural and food biotechnology. On July 8, 2010, the Malaysian Ministry of Health posted amendments to the Food Regulations 1985 [P.U. (A) 437/1985] that require strict mandatory labeling of food and food ingredients obtained through modern biotechnology. The amendments also included a requirement that no person shall import, prepare, or advertise for sale, or sell any food or food ingredients obtained through modern biotechnology without the prior written approval of the Director. There is no ‘threshold’ level on the labeling requirement. Labeling of “GMO Free” or “Non-GMO” is not permitted. The labeling requirements only apply to foods and food ingredients obtained through modern biotechnology but not to food produced with GMO feed. The labeling regulation was supposed to go into force in 2014, but remains to date with no date announced. A copy of the law and regulations respectively can be found at: , and .
Malaysia has not implemented measures amounting to “forced localization” for data storage. Bank Negara Malaysia has amended its recent Outsourcing Guidelines to remove the original data localization requirement and shared that it will similarly remove the data localization elements in its upcoming Risk Management in Technology framework. The government has provided inducements to attract foreign and domestic investors to the Multimedia Super Corridor but does not mandate use of onshore providers. Companies in the information and communications technology sector are not required to hand over source code.
13. Foreign Direct Investment and Foreign Portfolio Investment Statistics
|Direct Investment from/in Counterpart Economy Data|
|From Top Five Sources/To Top Five Destinations (US Dollars, Millions)|
|Inward Direct Investment||Outward Direct Investment|
|Total Inward||152,510||100%||Total Outward||118,886||100%|
|China, P.R.: Hong Kong||17,954||12%||Cayman Islands||7,244||6%|
|The Netherlands||10,345||7%||United Kingdom||5,925||5%|
|“0” reflects amounts rounded to +/- USD 500,000.|
|Portfolio Investment Assets|
|Top Five Partners (Millions, current US Dollars)|
|Total||Equity Securities||Total Debt Securities|
|All Countries||95,283||100%||All Countries||72,518||100%||All Countries||22,765||100%|
|United States||19,567||21%||United States||14,688||20%||United States||4,879||21%|
|China P.R.: Hong Kong||6,541||7%||China, P.R.: Hong Kong||5,679||8%||Cayman Islands||1,971||9%|
|United Kingdom||5,592||6%||China, P.R.: Mainland||4,545||6%||Australia||1,788||8%|
|China, P.R. Mainland||5,123||5%||United Kingdom||4,485||6%||Indonesia||1,425||6%|