Malaysia's economic growth better than neighbours': Azmin

KUALA LUMPUR (The Straits Times/ANN) - But 4.3 per cent growth dips below forecast, leading to calls for government to better manage economy.

Economic Affairs Minister Azmin Ali yesterday made the pitch that while economic growth last year was lower than the official forecast, Malaysia had done better than some of its neighbours.

He said the 4.3 per cent growth, which fell short of the government's 4.8 per cent forecast, is due to the slowdown in the global economy which grappled with weak trade throughout last year.

He also stressed that the country's foreign reserves and domestic demand remain strong, while inflation and unemployment are low.

"The government is aware of the current economic slowdown and will continue to monitor to ensure that the welfare of the people is not compromised," said Datuk Seri Azmin in a statement.

On Wednesday, the central bank said the country's gross domestic product growth moderated to 4.3 per cent last year and slipped to 3.6 per cent in the fourth quarter, the lowest since 2009, due to supply disruptions, especially in the commodity sector.

Said Bank Negara Malaysia governor Nor Shamsiah Mohd Yunus at a media briefing: "Had we not suffered a supply disruption, our fourth-quarter numbers could be as strong as 4.3 per cent. And for the whole of the year, instead of the 4.3 per cent... it could be as high as 4.7 per cent."

Following the announcement, the Pakatan Harapan government faced calls to better manage the economy, with Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR) lawmaker Wong Chen describing the numbers as very bad and demanding to know the steps to be taken by the ruling coalition, of which PKR is a member party.

"In the near future, we are going to face a problematic first quarter this year due to low palm oil production and the coronavirus. The Minister of Economic Affairs should explain next steps," he wrote on Twitter.

Economists said the government would need to spend on stimulus measures.

Kenanga Investment Bank head of economic research Wan Suhaimie Wan Mohd Saidie told The Straits Times: "It is inevitable that the government needs to spend more to support the economy, especially following the adverse impact brought by the coronavirus epidemic."

The coronavirus outbreak has hit the tourism sector to the tune of RM3 billion (S$1 billion) in losses from hotel, flight and trip cancellations.

The government said on Tuesday it is planning an economic stimulus package to counter the impact by rolling out measures to spur domestic spending.

Mr Suhaimie said the central bank could also cut interest rates.

The Institute for Democracy and Economic Affairs, a local think-tank, said the government needed to provide a clear direction for the country's economy.

"It is clear that political uncertainty and a lack of a coherent economic strategy is undermining sentiment among private business, which is needed to drive economic growth. The government needs to move beyond the focus on politics and provide a clear direction for the Malaysian economy," said the think-tank's chief executive Ali Salman, as quoted by the Free Malaysia Today news site.

Meanwhile, opposition MP Khairy Jamaluddin took issue with Finance Minister Lim Guan Eng's declaration in November that the country could achieve economic growth of 4.7 per cent.

"Mr Lim should have already known in November the country's economic performance for last year," he said.