Malaysia can grow 5% and handle its debts, says Guan Eng

Finance Minister Lim Guan Eng.

HONG KONG: Finance Minister Lim Guan Eng said today that Malaysia can sustain 5% annual economic growth as its new administration reviews mega projects and copes with hefty debts left by the previous government.

In August, Malaysia cut its 2018 growth forecast to 5%, from 5.5-6.0% and reported much slower second-quarter expansion of 4.5%, compared to the previous period’s 5.4%.

Slower growth also signals the economic risks facing 93-year-old Dr Mahathir Mohamad after his stunning election win in May that brought him prime-ministership in Southeast Asia’s third-largest economy.

Lim, a former banker and chartered accountant, told the CLSA Investors’ Forum in Hong Kong that there was an urgent need to review expensive development projects because Malaysia does not have “enough money to pay for them”.

“We want to see reductions (in debt) over the course of three years and at the same time we are able to service these debts, we will not be in default,” Lim said.

“When we are talking about belt-tightening, cost rationalisation, then we are doing it.”

Before being named finance minister in May, Lim was chief minister of Penang, a popular tourist destination. Earlier this month, he was acquitted of corruption charges brought against him two years ago when he was a senior opposition leader.

Lim will oversee the new administration’s first budget in November, which he said today would not run a deficit.

After taking over, Mahathir repealed an unpopular goods and services tax. He has also pushed to review major infrastructure projects launched by the past administration.

About the need for tough fiscal measures, Lim said: “It’s painful, but it’s necessary… I’m willing to be the most unpopular finance minister in Malaysian history.”

He also said Malaysia would not be a victim of the contagion effects from emerging markets due to its strong trade and current account surpluses and high foreign-exchange reserves.

“I think that would put Malaysia off the radar as far as being victim of the contagion effects from… so-called emerging markets currency risk. I’m still confident that we should be able to ride out the storm, if any.”