The Malay Peninsula and has been a centre for trade for centuries. Various items such as porcelain and spice were actively traded even before Malacca and Singapore rose to prominence. The Malacca Sultanate controlled the Straits of Malacca from its founding in 1402 to the 1511 invasion by Portugal. All the trade in the Straits, and especially the spices from the Celebes and the Moluccas, moved under its protection and through its markets.
In the 17th century, porcelain and spices were found in several Malay states and were actively traded. Large deposits of tin were found in several Malay states. Later, as the British started to take over as administrators of Malaya, rubber and palm oil trees were introduced for commercial purposes. Instead of relying on the local Malays as a source of labour, the British brought in Chinese and Indians to work in the mines and plantations and provide professional expertise. Although many of them returned to their respective home countries after their agreed tenure ended, some remained in Malaysia and settled permanently. These three commodities along with other raw materials firmly set Malaysia's economic tempo well into the mid-20th century. As Malaya moved towards independence, the government began implementing economic five-year plans, beginning with the First Malayan Five Year Plan in 1955. Upon the establishment of Malaysia, the plans were re-titled and renumbered, beginning with the First Malaysia Plan in 1965.
Malaysia´s economic development was remarkable, given its troubled beginnings in the early 1960s and the ethnic partitions that were inherited from centuries of segmented economic development.
In the 1970s, Malaysia began to imitate the four Asian Tiger economies (South Korea, Taiwan, the then British Crown Colony of Hong Kong, and Singapore) and committed itself to a transition from being reliant on mining and agriculture to an economy that depends more on manufacturing. In the 1970s, the predominantly mining and agricultural based Malaysian economy began a transition towards a more multi-sector economy. Since the 1980s the industrial sector has led Malaysia's growth. High levels of investment played a significant role in this. With Japanese investment, heavy industries flourished and in a matter of years, Malaysian exports became the country's primary growth engine. Malaysia consistently achieved more than 7% GDP growth along with low inflation in the 1980s and the 1990s.
Central planning has been a major factor in the Malaysian economy, as government expenditure was often used to stimulate the economy. Since 1955, with the commencement of the First Malayan Five Year Plan, the government has used these plans to intervene in the economy to achieve such goals as redistribution of wealth and investment in, for instance, infrastructure projects.
A legacy of the British colonial system was the division of Malaysians into three groups according to ethnicity. The Malays were concentrated in their traditional villages, focusing mainly on agricultural activities, while the Chinese dominated Malaysian commerce. Educated Indians took up professional roles such as those of doctors or lawyers, while the less better-off worked the plantations. Chinese businesses in Malaysia developed as part of the larger bamboo network, a network of overseas Chinese businesses operating in the markets of Southeast Asia that share common family and cultural ties. The Reid Commission which drafted the Malaysian Constitution made a provision for limited affirmative action through Article 153, which gave the Malays special privileges, such as 60% of university entrance (quota). However, after the May 13 incident of racial rioting in the federal capital of Kuala Lumpur, the government initiated more aggressive programmes aimed at actively establishing a Malay entrepreneurial class through direct intervention in the economy, aimed at alleviating poverty. This was done with the controversial New Economic Policy (NEP). Its main objective was the elimination of the association of race with economic function, and the first five-year plan to begin implementing the NEP was the Second Malaysia Plan. The success or failure of the NEP is the subject of much debate, although it was officially retired in 1990 and replaced by the National Development Policy (NDP).
Current GDP per capita grew 31% in the Sixties and 358% in the Seventies, but this proved unsustainable and growth scaled back sharply to 36% in the Eighties. It rose again to 59% in the Nineties led primarily by export-oriented industries. This increase in GDP was brought about due to a shift from the traditional agricultural and resource based economy to one based on manufactured goods. From 1988 to 1996, Malaysia's economy expanded at 8 per cent, the second fastest after China, resulting in manufactured goods such as microchips and semiconductors making up 80 per cent of exports. Per capita income doubled from 1990 to 1996. Infrastructure projects were greatly increased in this time. Other countries looked to Malaysia at the time as an example for economic reform.
The rate of poverty in Malaysia also fell dramatically over the years. However, its precipitous drop has been questioned by critics who suggest that the poverty line has been drawn at an unreasonably low level. The rapid economic boom led to a variety of supply problems. Labour shortages soon resulted in an influx of millions of foreign workers, many illegal. Cash-rich PLCs and consortia of banks eager to benefit from increased and rapid development began large infrastructure projects.
This is a chart of trend of gross domestic product of Malaysia at market prices estimated by the International Monetary Fund with figures in millions of Malaysian Ringgit.
For purchasing power parity comparisons, the US Dollar is exchanged at 1.71 Ringgit only. Mean wages were $6.95 per man-hour in 2009.
From 1988 to 1997, the Malaysian economy experienced a period of broad diversification and sustained rapid growth averaging 9% annually.
By 1999, nominal per capita GDP had reached $3,238. New foreign and domestic investment played a significant role in the transformation of Malaysia's economy. Manufacturing grew from 13.9% of GDP in 1970 to 30% in 1999, while agriculture and mining which together had accounted for 42.7% of GDP in 1970, dropped to 9.3% and 7.3%, respectively, in 1999. Manufacturing accounted for 30% of GDP (1999). Major products include electronic components – Malaysia is one of the world's largest exporters of semiconductor devices – electrical goods and appliances.
During the same period, the government tried to eradicate poverty with a highly controversial race-based program called New Economic Policy (NEP). First established in 1971 following race riots, commonly known in Malaysia as the May 13 Incident, it sought to eradicate poverty and end the identification of economic function with ethnicity. In particular, it was designed to improve the distribution of wealth among the country's population. The NEP formally ended in 1991, however, much of it remains in effect through other governmental policies.
The influx of foreign investment led to the KLSE Composite index trading above 1,300 in 1994 and the Ringgit trading above 2.5 in 1997. At various times the KLSE was the most active exchange in the world, with trading volume exceeding even the NYSE. The stock market capitalisation of listed companies in Malaysia was valued at $181,236 million in 2005 by the World Bank.
Some of the more visible projects from that period are Putrajaya, a new international airport (Kuala Lumpur International Airport), a hydroelectric dam (Bakun dam), the Petronas Towers and the Multimedia Super Corridor. Proposals that were eventually cancelled include the 95 km Sumatra–Malaysia bridge (would have been world's longest), the Mega International Sea and Air port on reclaimed land in Kedah (would have been world's biggest) and the KL Linear City (would have been the world's longest mall and the world's first city built over a river).
Concerns were raised during the time about the sustainability of the rapid growth and the ballooning current account. The mainstream opinion prevalent at that time was that the deficit was temporary and would reverse once imported equipment started producing for export. In spite of that, measures were taken to moderate growth especially when it threatened to overheat into the double digits. The main target was asset prices, and restrictions were further tightened on foreign ownership of local assets. Exposure of local banks to real estate loans were also capped at 20%.
As was widely expected, the current account deficit did narrow steadily, year to year, from 9% to 5% of GDP.
Malaysia has the largest operational stock of industrial robots in the Muslim world.
Malaysia's capital market crossed the RM2 trillion threshold for the first time at the end of 2010. The capital market had achieved an annual compounded growth rate of 11% from RM717bil in 2000 due to rapid economic expansion and strong regulatory oversight that underpinned investor confidence in the Malaysian capital market.
One of the most significant events in the history of the Malaysian economy was the Asian Financial Crisis, which caused Malaysia's GDP to shrink from US$100.8 billion in 1996 to US$72.2 billion in 1998. The Malaysian economy's GDP did not recover to 1996 levels until 2003.
The year 1997 saw drastic changes in Malaysia. There was speculative short-selling of the Malaysian currency, the ringgit. Foreign direct investment fell at an alarming rate and, as capital flowed out of the country, the value of the ringgit dropped from MYR 2.50 per USD to, at one point, MYR 4.80 per USD.The Kuala Lumpur Stock Exchange's composite index fell from approximately 1300 to nearly merely 400 points in a few short weeks. After the controversial sacking of finance minister Anwar Ibrahim, a National Economic Action Council was formed to deal with the monetary crisis. Bank Negara imposed capital controls and pegged the Malaysian ringgit at 3.80 to the US dollar. In addition, it also fully suspended the trading of CLOB (Central Limit Order Book) counters, indefinitely freezing approximately US$4.47 billion worth of shares and affecting 172,000 investors, most of them Singaporeans.
Malaysia refused economic aid packages from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank, unlike the other countries affected by the crisis. By refusing aid and thus the conditions attached thereof from the IMF, Malaysia was not affected to the same degree in the Asian Financial Crisis as Indonesia, Thailand, and the Philippines.
Regardless, the GDP suffered a sharp 7.5% contraction in 1998. It however rebounded to grow by 5.6% in 1999.
To rejuvenate the economy, massive government spending was made and Malaysia continuously recorded budget deficits in the years that followed. Economic recovery has been led by strong growth in exports, particularly of electronics and electrical products, to the United States, Malaysia's principal trade and investment partner. Inflationary pressures remained benign, and, as a result, Bank Negara Malaysia, the central bank, had been able to follow a low interest rate policy. The Malaysian economy recovered from the 1997 Asian Financial Crisis sooner than neighbouring countries, and has since recovered to the levels of the pre-crisis era with a GDP per capita of $14,800.
The fixed exchange rate was abandoned on 21 July 2005 in favour of a managed floating system within an hour of China announcing the same move. In the same week, the ringgit strengthened a percent against various major currencies and was expected to appreciate further.
In September 2005, Sir Howard J. Davies, director of the London School of Economics, at a meeting in Kuala Lumpur, cautioned Malaysian officials that if they want a flexible capital market, they will have to lift the ban on short-selling put into effect during the crisis. In March 2006, Malaysia removed the ban on short selling. It is interesting to note that some of the measures taken by the Malaysian government in response to the Asian crisis, such as the ban on short selling, were swiftly adopted by the very countries that had previously been critical of the Malaysian response.
Regardless of cause and effect claims, rejuvenation of the economy also coincided with massive government spending and budget deficits in the years that followed the crisis. Later, Malaysia enjoyed faster economic recovery compared to its neighbours. The country has recovered to the levels of the pre-crisis era – as an example, the KLCI Composite Index reached 1,896 in 2014, significantly higher than the pre-crisis record of 1,275 in 1993. While the pace of development today is not as rapid, it is seen to be more sustainable. Malaysia is the world's largest Islamic banking and financial centre.