1. Openness To, and Restrictions Upon, Foreign Investment
Policies Towards Foreign Direct Investment
Malaysia has one of the world’s most trade-dependent economies with exports and imports of goods and services reaching about 130 percent of annual GDP according to the World Trade Organization. The Malaysian government values foreign investment as a driver of continued national economic development, but has been hampered by restrictions in some sectors and an at-times burdensome regulatory regime. Some of these restrictions may be lifted by the new government in an effort to attract FDI.
In 2009, Malaysia removed its former Foreign Investment Committee (FIC) investment guidelines, enabling transactions for acquisitions of interests, mergers, and takeovers of local companies by domestic or foreign parties without FIC approval. Although the FIC itself still exists, its primary role is to review of investments related to distributive trade (e.g., retail distributors) as a means of ensuring 30 percent of the equity in this economic segment is held by the bumiputera (ethnic Malays and other indigenous ethnicities in Malaysia).
Since 2009, the government has gradually liberalized foreign participation in the services sector to attract more foreign investment. Following removal of certain restrictions on foreign participation in industries ranging from computer-related consultancies, tourism, and freight transportation, the government in 2011 began to allow 100 percent foreign ownership across the following sectors: healthcare, retail, education as well as professional, environmental, and courier services. Some limits on foreign equity ownership remain in place across in telecommunications, financial services, and transportation.
Foreign investments in services, whether in sectors with no foreign equity limits 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. Nevertheless, the Ministerial Functions Act grants relevant ministries broad discretionary powers over the approval of specific investment projects. Investors in industries targeted by the Malaysian government often can negotiate favorable terms with ministries, or other bodies, regulating the specific 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 the various regulatory bodies and therefore can face greater bureaucratic obstacles.
Limits on Foreign Control and Right to Private Ownership and Establishment
The legal framework for foreign investment in Malaysia grants foreigners the right to establish businesses and hold equity stakes across all parts of the economy. However, despite the progress of reforms to open more of the economy to a greater share of foreign investment, limits on foreign ownership remain in place across many sectors.
Malaysia began allowing 100 percent foreign equity participation in Applications Service Providers (ASP) in April 2012. However, for Network Facilities Providers (NFP) and Network Service Provider (NSP) licenses, a limit of 70 percent foreign participation remains in effect. In certain instances, Malaysia has allowed a greater share of foreign ownership, but the manner in which such exceptions are administered is non-transparent. Restrictions are still in force on foreign ownership allowed in Telekom Malaysia. The limitation on the aggregate foreign share is 30 percent or five percent for individual investors.
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.
Malaysia’s 10-year Financial Sector Blueprint envisages further opening to foreign institutions and investors, but 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, Malaysia’s Central Bank (Bank Negara Malaysia (BNM)), would allow a greater foreign ownership stake if the investment is determined to facilitate the consolidation of the industry. The latest Blueprint, 2011-2020, 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 a 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.
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 (ie, company charter); 2) a Declaration of Compliance (ie, compliance with provisions of the Companies Act); and 3) a Statutory Declaration (ie, 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 will 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 will 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.