Try a MAFTA with your laksa, Malaysia’s superhighway to success


My first connection with Malaysia, like Singapore started with University. Just as Lee Kuan Yew had sent a lot of Singaporeans would-be Oxford rocket scientists to Adelaide to study Economics, there were also a variety of Malaysians studying with me in South Australia.

And it was all about the food as well as food for thought as we spent late nights sharing noodles and laksa and then they took me to the various Malaysian restaurants in Adelaide of Chinese, Indian and Malay varieties.

This continued when I visited Malaysia too, to see my friends Mark Kulasingham, Karen Abraham and Ow Wai Cheng. Wai Cheng and I travelled around in search of the best Malaysian cuisine. We went to Kajang, a small town, outside Kuala Lumpur (KL) where the satay is the best in all Malaysia and similar visits for the best laksa and iced kajang.

Wai Cheng’s dad had a furniture factory, in Sentul, then largely an Indian area, although Mr Ow himself was a successful Chinese furniture entrepreneur. Sentul was still semi-rural as sacred cows would wander the streets near the factory and the area was still to see the rapid urbanisation and development that transformed KL into the modern sophisticated city that it is today.

We spent a lot of time on the road to Genting highlands (Mr Ow’s family loved the casino) and I also took the train that I had caught from Singapore and KL up to Penang (Butterworth) on my way further through Southern Thailand to Bangkok.

Of course, then, three decades ago, Malaysia was still a developing country, but now it’s such a contrast. Under the long leadership of Prime Minister Dr Mohammad Mohammed (who returned to the premiership in his nineties in an upset victory in 2018) Malaysia invested in world class infrastructure, attracted investment in electronics industries and built highways not only for cars but also in the digital world – the multimedia superhighway! Dr Mahathir moved Malaysia away from relying solely on its traditional industries, like petroleum, LNG, rubber and timber into electronics, healthcare, aerospace and other advanced industries.

Now Malaysia aims to be an advanced middle-income country, with over 60 per cent of its population to reach middle or upper-middle income status by 2020. It’s already getting close to that kind of benchmark as it is already the world’s 27th largest economy growing in the 4-6 per cent range over the past 5 years or so. Not the neck breaking speed of the early years of development but a solid rate of growth as it improves its status with low inflation and low unemployment.

According to Yuni Lee Heathcote, Malaysia country manager for Telstra, the country is well on its way up the income ladder thanks to the multimedia superhighway and the Malaysia and Global Innovation and Creativity Centre (MaGIC) that helps promote Malaysia’s information age image.

According to Yuni: “The new generation in Malaysia are tech savvy, have growing spending power and want a ‘premium’ lifestyle in terms of health and well-being.”

According to Tyson Hackwood head of Asia Braintree a PayPal service, Malaysia is a good place to do business as: “Malaysian tariffs and taxes are easy to navigate, and advertising is very mature.”

He believes Malaysia’s commitment to the digital world helps as “International merchants can take advantage of Malaysia’s strong social media presence. “but warns that it is important to: “Understand your logistics, understand your contact methodology, understand your communication channels and understand that your customers use messaging apps not traditional email.”

Of course when doing business in Malaysia it is important to be mindful that Malaysia has a very diverse population split mainly into three main groups – the Malay or ‘Bumiputra’ who make up 69 per cent of the population the Chinese who make up 23 per cent and the Indian community who comprise 7 per cent. That means companies like Australian healthcare specialist Blackmores, look at Malaysia very unique demographics when formulating their marketing and distribution strategy. Blackmores country manager Eddy Ong explains that: “Blackmores already done well with Chinese now the potential is with the Malay customer, hence the need for halal certification.”

Blackmores is one of 300 Australian companies with an actual presence in Malaysia, along with BHP, BlueScope, SEEK, Harvey Norman, Boost Juice and Cotton On. Plus, there are 3800 Australian exporters exporting goods to Malaysia plus services, so according to Yuni “Telstra is kept very busy in it’s Malaysian office!” But whilst Malaysia has ethnically distinct groups, it is also very diverse in terms of industry too. According to Yuni: “Foreign businesses looking to invest should look to Penang for electronics, Malacca for biotech and Johore Baru (JB) for assembly, given their location next to the supply chains of Singapore.

According to Leigh Howard of the Malaysia Australian Business Council (MABC):

“Australian companies often look to base themselves in KL because of the get world class infrastructure, English-speaking well-educated work force but at much cheaper operating costs in a city like Singapore or Hong Kong.”

According to Leigh Howard, despite their economic success and the fast pace of KL, Malaysia is still a family orientated, relaxed place.

“Here, you need to get know business partner socially before you do business do you have to be fast to issue an invitation to a business partner to dine and you must never refuse such an invitation from a local. This is a food city in a food country that takes meals very seriously as part and parcel of doing a business deal,” he explains.

So even now, instead of the sacred cow roaming the streets, now when the airport economist goes to KL, I can get on the KLIA express straight to KLCC under the Petronas Towers, and take advantage of every highway and superhighway real or digital, but at the end of the day it’s all about the food. And even in my hometown of Adelaide, our own home-grown chef of Malaysian Chinese heritage, Poh Ling Yeow, show’s how it’s done whether it be South Australia or in the heart of South East Asia.


Many Australians get their first taste of Laksa and satay at University given the large presence of Malaysian students in Australia. In fact, education and people links is the key to Malaysian- Australian ties as Malaysia becomes a middle-income country and launches its next drive for economic transformation.

  • Government badge matters in Malaysia so get to know Austrade and MATRADE, Malaysia’s trade and investment agency.
  • Malaysia is multicultural – made up of three key communities – the Malay (Bumiputra), the Chinese and South Asian (Indian and Sri Lankan background). Learn about each culture and how they have forged a modern nation together.
  • Malays are predominantly Muslim so respect local religious customs.
  • There’s East Malaysia too – don’t forget Sabah and Sarawak
  • As all Malaysians will tell you – enjoy the food!

*Tim Harcourt is the J.W.Nevile Fellow in Economics at UNSW Sydney and host of The Airport Economist TV show and The Airport Economist Podcast: