Tougher times ahead for Malaysians

Pedestrians walking past the Bursa Malaysia Bhd. headquarters in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.
Pedestrians walking past the Bursa Malaysia Bhd. headquarters in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.PHOTO: BLOOMBERG

Ms Sherene Meetha Pillai works as a project manager on weekdays, a tuition teacher on weekends - and also sells jewellery online.

Even so, the 29-year-old Malaysian, who plans to get married soon, finds it hard to live comfortably.

"I already adjusted my spending last year - I must find ways to adjust further this year," she told The Straits Times.

She is not alone.

Stories of struggling Malaysians have become an online media staple in the past few months, with officials often quickly offering to help after the bleak accounts went viral.

The most recent reports were about "starving" university students, who claimed they were unable to afford basic meals. One public university student in Kuala Lumpur said her intestines ruptured from starvation. In response, Higher Education Minister Idris Jusoh pledged to take responsibility to ensure that poor students get help.

Deputy Trade Minister Ahmad Maslan was widely panned after he said Malaysians should get a second job to tackle higher living costs.

The overwhelming public response: Dear minister, many of us already are doing two jobs.

Malaysia - South-east Asia's third-largest economy after Indonesia and Thailand - had a rocky year last year.

Just three weeks into the new year, economists are already lining up to say that the country's outlook is anything but rosy.

Bank of America Merrill Lynch economist Chua Hak Bin expects a rough time ahead for Malaysians because "consumers will face tighter finances as the ringgit weakens, job prospects dim and property prices slide".

Oil prices hit a new 12-year low this month - bad news for a government accustomed to using national oil firm Petronas to fund its needs.

Also, China - Malaysia's largest trading partner - is suffering a slowdown, which cranks up the external stress for the South-east Asian nation. It sells commodities ranging from palm oil to bauxite to the world's second-largest economy, and counts on income from tens of thousands of Chinese tourists who visit local attractions.

The ringgit, which has lost more than 20 per cent since the start of last year, weakened further against the greenback this month because of China's weak economy and concerns over the slide in oil prices.

A much lower Malaysian currency, while good for exports, means higher prices for imports, including automotive goods. Even national carmaker Proton is affected by the ringgit's decline as some parts that it uses are priced in United States dollars.

"The market is definitely slowing, and Proton cars are already cheaper than other brands," Proton salesman Steven Chow told The Straits Times. "Most potential buyers earn too little to get a loan, so sales have been down."

The firm's sales have been falling since August last year, and prices are going to be marked up this year.

Meanwhile, Malaysian households - the most indebted in South-east Asia - are feeling the pinch from the 6 per cent consumption tax implemented in April last year. Research houses forecast that consumers are likely to remain cautious when spending, in view of the financial volatility.

Adding to the bleak news, ratings agency Moody's downgraded the country's sovereign rating outlook from positive to stable last week, citing deteriorating growth and limited improvement in public debt levels.

For Ms Pillai, having an idyllic wedding is now something she can only dream about.

"I can't afford to host it in a hotel," she said. "I have to figure it out somehow. Life is already difficult - I can't have a lousy wedding."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 18, 2016, with the headline 'Tougher times ahead for Malaysians'. Print Edition | Subscribe