When it comes to thinking about markets in Southeast Asia, Malaysia is not often the first choice. Companies tend to focus on Singapore (due to the simplicity) or Thailand (due to size), however I would argue that exporting food and beverages to Malaysia could be a better gateway to the region.

Malaysia: the country and people

Malaysia is famous for being a multicultural and multi-confessional country in the Southeast Asian region. The friendly people are highly accepting of differences, a trait which is necessary in a country with 3 major cultural population groups: Malays, Chinese & Indians. As a former British colony and member of the Commonwealth, the general level of English is high, making it easier to communicate with partners and additionally many laws are also published in English.

Malaysia map

Malaysia consists of the western mainland provinces as well as the eastern provinces of Sabah & Sarawak on the island of Borneo.

The food and beverage market in Malaysia

Food and beverage market in Malaysia

In 2019, Malaysia imported a CIF value of $204 906 million, making them heavily import dependent, and that figure has only grown during the pandemic. Whilst food processing makes up 10% of economic production, a large amount of the staple raw materials which are needed to make that possible are imported. Those include rice, meat, seafood and dairy products.

Import value of food in Malaysia in billion ringgit
Import value of Food in Malaysia 2012 – 2020 in billion Malaysian ringgit

Self Sufficiency Ratio (SSR) & Import Dependency Ratio (IDR)

The country calculates annually the SSR or how self sufficient they are in core agricultural foodstuffs. In 2020 though Malaysia was only considered self sufficient in 19 of the defined foods:

  • 8 fruits (including papaya, watermelon and starfruit)
  • 7 vegetables (including tomatoes, lettuce, aubergines & cucumber)
  • chicken & duck eggs
  • tuna
  • shrimps

Post pandemic, the import dependency ratio has increased, especially for products such as mutton, beef, mangos, coffee, dairy, tea and cooking oil.

The supply chain disruption especially at the start of the pandemic, underlined how dependent Malaysia is on imported foods. The questions of food security & food safety became increasingly important, however rising prices make it difficult for small local producers to raise their standards, even if they have sufficient knowledge.

That means that there are not only opportunities for exporting food and beverages to Malaysia, but also for companies who offer food technology, consulting and innovative manufacturing solutions.

Nasi Lemak Malaysia
Image by Ann San from Pixabay

Working with a Distributor

For most companies, partnering with a competent importer and distributor is the most cost-effective and efficient way of entering into the food and beverage market in Malaysia. In this way you can profit from their deep market knowledge as well as leveraging their network in the retail and foodservice sectors. They should have knowledge about the import formalities, however if not you can always engage the services of a freight forwarder to support with this process.

Import process steps

Does the importer need an import licence?

Assuming that you have picked an agent with relevant expertise, the key point to check here is whether the products and their ingredients are compliant.

Under the 1983 General Food Act, most foods don’t need an import permit. In this case, import approval is based on an inspection of the goods when they arrive in the country.

This combined with the Food Regulations 1985 will let you determine whether your products require additional certifications or permits.

You can also find additional information in the matrix below.

If you establish that additional certifications are required (mostly for poultry, dairy, meat, seafood, flour, peanut butter or honey) then those will need to be assessed by the Department of Veterinary Services (DVS) and potentially also the Department of Agriculture (DoA).

All processed food and beverages need to be cleared by Malaysia Quarantine and Inspection Service (MAQIS) and halal certification is strongly recommended for everything except pork & alcohol.

Do your labels meet requirements?

Realistically labelling requirements in Malaysia are fairly straightforward, especially as labels in English are also accepted. As in most markets you need to include:

  • name of the product and description
  • Ingredients in descending order
  • an additive statement if relevant
  • net weight or volume in metric units
  • name & address of the overseas manufacturer
  • contact details of the local importer
  • country of origin
  • expiry date or best before date (even for products where this isn’t mandatory, it’s recommended to include one as consumers don’t always know the rules and find it strange if it’s missing)
  • recommended serving size
  • nutritional details

If you’re not sure about whether your labels are legally compliant or not, you can apply via the food importers database (FoSIM) for them to be checked. This so called Label Advisory Service is a paid offering.

Declare your exportation and prepare for the import

Once you have obtained any necessary licence and certifications, your next step is to declare your food exportation (intended import) to the Royal Malaysian Customs Department via the Malaysia Customs Information System (SMK).

Your import partner or freight forwarder should take care of this step for you. They should also be registered on e-dagang, a portal where you can transfer documents and take care of duty payments.

It’s important that before shipping your goods from the country of origin that you apply for an e-permit on the MAQIS portal. This permit will be valid for 3 months from the date of issue.

Customs need to be notified of the impending arrival of your shipment. Your importer should do this by entering all the product details into the FoSIM system, as this synchronises with the customs.

In the meantime, you need to prepare all of the documents which will be required for customs clearance.

  • invoice
  • packing list
  • order confirmation
  • insurance certificate (if applicable)
  • Bill of Lading (or Air Waybill)
  • Letter of Credit (if applicable)
  • any product specific permits or certificates
  • information about the freight costs (customs & duty being calculated on CIF value)
  • customs form no. 1
  • any additional docs you might require for your specific product

Make sure your documents are all ready when the shipment arrives in port to avoid any expensive delays.

Inspection by the Royal Malaysian Customs Department

Officials from the Ministry of Health will carry out inspection of your goods at the port of entry. You need to consider that if samples are sent to a lab for analysis that there will be costs to be covered for the lab fees and potentially also the port warehousing. This is more likely with sensitive products such as meat than it is with a container of biscuits. In this case of meat, seafood or dairy you can also expect that DVS and/or DoA will also do an inspection as well as take random samples.

Once you receive the customs clearance, your importer is free to transport the goods into his warehouse and begin the sales and distribution process.

exporting food and beverages to Malaysia

What about meat?

The whole import process for meat is slightly more complicated. (Seafood & dairy are a similar process)

Firstly, your country of origin needs to be on the list of countries which Malaysia deems trustworthy for exporting meat. Then you need to ensure that your abattoir and processing plant are on the approved list for Malaysia. You can find more details about the process here. Generally this means having confirmation from your own veterinary authorities that your plant works according to international hygiene standards, filling out the application form and then undergoing an audit visit from both DVS and JAKIM (Department for the Islamic Development of Malaysia, who are responsible for halal certification).

Once your production facilities have generally been approved by the Malaysian authorities, you need to provide a health certificate (veterinary certificate) from your local veterinary authorities for each e-permit application you make to MAQIS.

Is is possible to import pork?

Yes! Although around 60% of Malaysians are Muslim, pork is especially popular amongst the culturally Chinese part of the population. Indeed, pork is one of the EU’s major exports to Malaysia. (It’s also possible to export alcohol to Malaysia but the taxes are REALLY high). On pork you pay 25% import duty + 10% SST (sales and service tax, like VAT).

To export pork it obviously isn’t possible to have a halal certification, but it’s necessary that DVS has estimated the general country risk of disease to be low. You then need an audit of your processing facility (& abattoir) and you additionally require an import permit for each shipment.

The EU has published a handbook about importing foods to Malaysia which also covers this topic (& many others which are relevant) in detail.

What is the point of halal certification for products other than meat?

If you are exporting food and beverages to Malaysia then you want your products to be accepted by the population as a whole, and having a halal certification can help to achieve that. It’s a sign of reliability, confirming the levels of hygiene and safety in your factory.

Also, a Malaysian halal certification is highly respected in the neighbouring countries so if you are thinking of expanding to Singapore and Indonesia then this can be an advantage in terms of guaranteeing your quality.

What are your channels for sales?

Obviously this is going to vary a bit depending on your strategy and products. If you have the right importer and distributor this can include:

  • small outlets (hawker centres, convenience stores (eg 7-11), petrol stations)
  • larger outlets (super- or hypermarkets (eg Aeon Group, Lotus, Jaya Grocer, Giant, Cold Storage, Lulus), department stores (eg Isetan, Sogo), shopping malls)
  • online marketplaces such as Lazada or Shopee or you can check out these online grocery stores
  • foodservice outlets such as hotels and restaurants

The Malaysian food and beverage market is very developed and sophisticated and is supplied by both local and imported products.  Urban consumers are relatively brand conscious and prefer to shop in stores, which offer convenience and good product selections.  Hypermarkets/large format stores are the dominant format in urban/metropolitan areas in Malaysia with about 50% to 60% of urban household shoppers using them as the main outlet for the majority of their packaged groceries. Traditional markets are losing ground, but are still important outlets for fresh fruits and vegetables.



Modern retailers in Malaysia are the 2nd most promotion seeking in APAC, showing that consumers are driven to a large extent by price.

However, that doesn’t show the full picture. As standards of living increase making imports more affordable, Malaysians have become interested in brands and brand stories. Consequently a brand with an interesting history and story to their products can have great success.

With increased purchasing power has also come an increase in “civilisation diseases” and this combined with the impact of the pandemic, mean that there is a definite increase of interest in healthy lifestyle products.

Also there is a perception that for example European brands represent high quality.

So, retail are keen to strike a balance between price and brand value and benefits.


Malaysia has extremely high internet penetration and is one of the most intensive users of online social media. Instagram, YouTube and Food bloggers/influencers are therefore all popular and effective channels for marketing food and beverages.

Traditional media outlets still enjoy higher trust (& are often also represented online) so don’t completely discount them.

Pulau Perhentian Besar
Pulau Perhentian Besar, Malaysia

Which products have potential in the market?

Across many parts of the world the pandemic has brought the realisation that health can’t be taken for granted, driving the demand for healthy food choices and supplements. For Malaysia that means that you could consider the following for example:

  • Organic foods
  • Functional foods such as nutrition bars, functional cereals, functional drinks
  • healthier snacks (Malaysia has a coffee culture and enjoys consuming treats such as cookies or pastries at the same time)
  • Health supplements
  • Vegan and plant based foods
  • Healthier non-alcoholic drinks
  • premium quality chocolate and confectionary
  • infant food
  • artisanal and premium coffee or tea

As I mentioned above, brand equity should be balanced with a perceived reasonable price, and as in any market, it’s necessary that the brand has a story to differentiate itself from the competition.

As Malaysia also has its own food production industry, then there are certainly also opportunities for companies offering manufacturing technology or know how, as this is an area that needs to be strengthened. The government is keen to improve safety standards, but smaller companies may lack the knowledge or investment cash to be able to do this without external assistance.

Free Trade Agreements

Malaysia is a signatory to a number of Free Trade Agreements, including most significantly ASEAN and RCEP. Under the ASEAN umbrella, Malaysia also has FTAs with Japan, Korea, China and India amongst others. At present there is no FTA between Malaysia and the EU although discussions were begun in the past and then put on hold.

Trade Fairs

There are a number of important trade fairs held in Malaysia each year. You can find some of the most important at this link here, but also don’t forget that Singapore is also an important trade fair location (although in 2022 things are still slow due to the more conservative border opening policy). Some of the most important fairs held in Malaysia are:

Malaysian International Food and Beverage Trade Fair
Malaysia Pack n Food Pro/Malaysia Bakery
Malaysia Retail and Franchise
Malaysia Food and Hotel
Malaysia International Halal Showcase

Brief cultural dos & don’ts

In a country as multicultural as Malaysia, there are many norms which vary according to the ethnicity of whoever you are dealing with so it’s essential to be careful and err on the cautious side when meeting for the first time. Smiling and being extremely polite will go a long way whoever you are meeting with.

As in many Asian cultures, it is better not to enter into direct conflict as this will make your partner uncomfortable. Conversely you need to be sensitive in discussions to the fact that a Malaysian business partner may communicate concerns or problems in a rather indirect way which you may not pick up on if you’re not looking out for it.

Remember that as a majority Muslim country, people may be unwilling to meet with you on a Friday. For Muslim partners it may also not be appropriate for men and women to shake hands, and you should avoid only using your left hand to hold things. These are general points to be aware of in any Muslim country, but of course do not apply to the whole population as Malaysia is so diverse.

Showing respect for elders and generally being slightly conservative in both manners and dress are usually good guidelines for doing business in Malaysia (at least in the food industry – fintech might look different).

In a business context, Malaysians generally appreciate punctuality.

Image by Melvin Chia from Pixabay

Exporting Food and Beverages to Malaysia can be a great entry into Southeast Asia

Whilst the process for importing detailed above may seem complex, Malaysia is actually one of the world’s most open markets meaning that it can be a great entry point for the food and beverage market in Southeast Asia. Singapore is certainly even easier (from the perspective of bureaucracy) to get your goods IN, but is a completely red ocean when it comes to sales and marketing. Whilst many companies export into Singapore and then expand into Malaysia, the cost of doing business in Singapore is prohibitive.

With it’s 33 million inhabitants Malaysia may not be the largest market in the region, but it is substantial enough for any company to get a feel for doing business in Southeast Asia. The multicultural structure of society and openness make Malaysia also a practical entry point for goods from Europe or the US, not to mention the fact that there is less competition than would be the case in Singapore.

Thailand is another popular gateway market, but the red tape involved in registering products for import can put companies off, even though the market is lucrative with high potential once you are in. For that reason, I would carefully weigh up whether Malaysia might not be a better first entry point for most food and beverage exporters.

In short, Malaysia is an open market with reasonable purchasing power and consumers who are ready to buy imported goods. Of course, you need to take care with selecting the right strategy and partners for the market, however Malaysia can be your first stepping stone to successful food and beverage sales in Southeast Asia.

Thinking that working with a consultant would accelerate your international expansion?

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