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Economy

Mahathir revives high-profile council to boost growth

Malaysia's GDP accelerates for first time in 5 quarters

The government led by Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad maintained its growth forecast for this year at 4.9%.    © AP

KUALA LUMPUR -- Malaysia's economy expanded 4.7% on an annual basis in the final quarter of 2018, ending the quarterly falls that began a year ago, as private spending resumed after the historic change of government last May.

But the government led by Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad remained cautious about the growth outlook, partly due to uncertainties surrounding the ongoing trade war between China and the U.S. It recently set up a high-profile committee to tackle economic issues, including the high cost of living.

Gross domestic product growth slowed to 4.7% in 2018, from the 5.9% recorded in 2017. Despite the slowdown, the economy was supported by spendings in the private sector, which grew 7.2%, Bank Negara Malaysia, the central bank, said on Thursday.

Apart from net exports, which increased 13.4%, growth was also driven by all economic sectors except mining and the palm plantation-dominated agriculture sector that dropped to negative.

The government on Thursday maintained its growth forecast for this year at 4.9%, reflecting the ongoing concerns over the trade war and the debacle surrounding the U.K.'s exit from the European Union.

"I don't think there will be a global crisis," said central bank Gov. Nor Shamsiah Yunus, adding that domestic growth will be sustained by new oil production facilities and ongoing infrastructure projects.

Economists said the 4.7% quarterly growth did not reflect a recovery yet, citing weak investment numbers and the global slowdown, even if the trade war is resolved.

"Hopes of a sustained rebound in growth are slim," said London-based Capital Economics, which cut Malaysia's GDP to 4.0% this year from 4.7% in 2017.

ING Group economist Prakash Sakpal said the 2018 numbers reflected "a return to a normal growth path," and not a material slowdown.

On Monday the government set up an Economic Action Council meant to formulate remedies to drive growth. The council, headed by Mahathir as chairman, includes 15 other members of his cabinet, as well as people from the private sector.

The government has enlisted Rafidah Aziz, a former trade minister who currently chairs the board of long-haul budget airline AirAsia X, and Tay Ah Lek, CEO of Public Bank, hoping to tap their expertise on issues affecting ordinary people, in particular the high cost of living, poverty and homeownership.

The concept of an economic council, which some see it as usurping the role of the cabinet, is nothing new to Mahathir. He set up such a council during his first stint as leader from 1981 to 2003. He used a similar model to deal with the Asian financial crisis in 1998, setting up the National Economic Action Council to handle the impact on growth from the currency devaluation.

Such setups help the nation overcome the crises, Mahathir claimed in his memoir "A Doctor in the House."

At present, the country's problems stem from internal issues, including an economy that has been reliant on commodities, as well as lack of clarity over the status of infrastructure projects backed by China, critics say.

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