There is a growing Belgian business community in Malaysia. What attracts these companies to set up regional offices here, and what opportunities does the Malaysian market present?
There are currently approximately 385 Belgian companies registered in Malaysia and we hope to reach the cap of 400 this year. The overall majority of the Belgian community resides in Malaysia for business reasons. Different assets of the country attract them. First, Malaysia has a unique geographical location: centrally positioned in South-East Asia, the country is an ideal hub for the ASEAN region as well as the Far East. The Strait of Malacca is a vital artery for the world's international trade. Malaysia boasts an open economy, which attracts many foreign investors, including Belgians. Moreover, the country is also an important producer of commodities, notably palm oil and crude oil and gas. These two commodities have given rise to a strong petrochemical and oleochemical sector in Malaysia, in which our Belgian companies actively participate. Last but not least, Malaysia is a country where all these business strengths are combined with a good quality of life. Malaysia prides itself in being a moderate country with good living standards, two key factors for attracting foreign talent and businesses. If the country upholds the essential values of tolerance and moderation, future foreign investments will be secured.
Negotiations are underway to establish an FTA between Malaysia and the European Union. How soon do you think such an FTA could be finalized?
The importance of the European Union for Malaysia can hardly be underestimated. Today, the EU is Malaysia's fourth largest trading partner, the second largest trading partner for ASEAN and by far the largest source of FDI into the ASEAN region. With 500 million consumers, it is the largest single market in the world economy, where imported goods can circulate freely. Malaysia could boost its trade with the EU and Belgium even more once the FTA is concluded. The European Commission and the EU Delegation to Malaysia are currently working together with Malaysia to restart the negotiations. It is difficult to predict when these negotiations will be finalized, but this timeline is not the primary concern. What is most important is that the FTA becomes an ambitious, all-encompassing agreement that tackles all existing trade barriers, so that it benefits both our populations. Belgium strongly supports the increasing role that the EU is taking in Malaysia, because its identity is very much linked to that of Europe: we are one of the founding fathers of the EU and Brussels, which is home to more than 160 nationalities, is considered the de facto capital of the Union. In that sense, we could draw a parallel with Malaysia's famous slogan and say: “Belgium, Truly Europe.”
How will increased integration between ASEAN nations further boost the importance of Malaysia as a gateway to the rest of Southeast Asia?
With a market of 600 million consumers and average annual GDP growth of 6% over the past 15 years, ASEAN has become a global economic player to reckon with. Today, ASEAN represents a $2.5 trillion economy. Once the ASEAN Economic Community is completed, by the end of 2015, the region will be the third largest single market in the world. And with these increasing powers come increasing responsibilities: as the ASEAN Chair in 2015, Malaysia will guide ASEAN during an important year in the history of the Association. Belgium supports ASEAN's efforts in establishing a full-fledged ASEAN Community, which will enhance political, economic, and socio-cultural integration amongst its members. By continuing to promote its business friendly environment at the center of South-East Asia, Malaysia will continue to serve as a gateway to ASEAN for European and Belgian companies.